Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Having been enchanted by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's production The Fairy Queen/ A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first installment of its Summer of Shakespeare, I knew I must see their production of Macbeth, Mr. Verdi's setting of The Scottish Play. I was privileged to see the opening night performance on August 20. I've always been a great supporter of opera on this professional level, where young professionals gain experience and audiences can see what really creative minds are able do with a modest budget. Dell'Arte can do a lot!

Jackie Hayes, Elizabeth Bouk,
Monica Niemi as Witches
Photo: Brian Long
This was a semi-staged performance, which can mean anything more than a concert version but less than a full production with sets and costumes. Dell'Arte's production was very close to a fully staged production. True, costumes were mostly simple modern dress with add-on pieces suggesting the roles, and sets were almost non-existent, and a few of the props were mimed, but in all other ways this was a fully staged performance, and a very good one. All roles were very well prepared (no opening-night-as-final-dress-rehearsal insecurity), and all scenes were staged and acted with commitment and conviction. Music Director Christopher Fecteau and Stage Director Myra Cordell deserve congratulations for the vocal and dramatic commitment and highly musical performances of this capable young cast.

Mary Ann Stewart
as Lady Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
The star of the show was Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth. Ms. Stewart has a long list of mezzo roles to her credit, and a growing list of soprano roles, including Madame Lidoine, Ariadne, and Donna Elvira. Her sound is full and rich, with secure high notes and booming low notes. She has a commanding stage presence, and acted the demanding role of Lady Macbeth with conviction and unwavering commitment. I expect to hear more of her in the future.

Another favorite was the Banco of Hans Tashjian. His rich and deep sound, although young, shows great promise. And I liked the three energetic Witches of Monica Niemi, Elizabeth Bouk, and Jackie Hayes.

I wonder about casting Jason Plourde as Macbeth. The role requires a powerful, stentorian voice, a true Verdi baritone. I believe Mr. Plourde's voice is lighter than that. His acting, however, leaves nothing to be desired. We saw Macbeth's conflicting emotions, his terror, his pride--all were there.

Jason Plourde
as Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
Again I must praise Christopher Fecteau for leading the reduced orchestra in the tiny but resonant East Thirteenth Street Theater. Throughout, the pickup orchestra played like a true ensemble, following Mr. Fecteau's admirable musical instincts beautifully. Again I must praise Director Myra Cordell for her inventive staging in this unusual space, and for bringing committed performances from every one of the singers. The lighting design of Scott Schneider and costumes of Nina Bova also deserve praise, as does the fight choreography of David Laws.

Macbeth runs through August 24, so you'd better hurry if you want to see it!



Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fairies really are timeless, aren't they?

I had the opportunity to see Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's presentation of Mr. Purcell's The Fairy Queen on Saturday, August 8. It was a delight. Dell'Arte is another one of New York's opera companies built around young talent--a professional level I think underrepresented and under-heralded in the mass media and the blogosphere. Under the leadership of Christopher Fecteau, Dell'Arte's Artistic Director, the company has presented quite a large range of standard repertoire in both workshop and staged performances since its founding in 2000.

Jason Duverneau as Oberon
Imani Jade Powers as Titania
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The Fairy Queen is really a masque, not an opera, meaning it was presented as musical interlude between acts of another entertainment. This was written specifically for A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Click the link for a plot summary.) It was presented as an accompaniment, commentary, and potentially integral part of the play. Dell'Arte and the excellent small instrumental ensemble The Sebastians presented an abridged version of Mr. Shakespeare's work, featuring Mr. Purcell's masque. Titania's fairies were the vocal ensemble. Director/Choreographer Christopher Caines was also dramaturg, updating where necessary. Puck told the audience in iambic pentameter where the bar and fire exits were, and asked them to turn off cell phones. I was enchanted by the insertion of bits from The Importance of Being Ernest into the players' rehearsal scene, when they are charmed by Puck into being real actors. (I won't tell you who winds up as Lady Bracknell.)

Drew Paramore as Puck
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The action of the four lovers, the players, and Theseus/ Hyppolita was updated to the current day, but fairies really are timeless, aren't they? In this case their playground was Central Park. Most of the action was around the fairies, so that the updated parts and location, which didn't work for me, also didn't bother me much.

The vocal ensemble was composed of eleven accomplished and very flexible young singers. Both as an ensemble and as individuals, these young people showed vocal finesse and great humor and commitment. Their choreography was at times quite frenetic, at times graceful, but never did anyone seem breathless or even awkward. Music Director Jeff Grossman brought out the pathos in the vocal ensemble numbers that required it, while also showing great spirit in the dance-like numbers. I can't describe each singer, for they were all good, but I'll mention a few standouts: baritone John Callison, bass Andy Berry, countertenor Brennan Hall, and soprano Tamra Paselk.

Dancers Aynsley Inglis & Luke Tucker
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The non-singing principals were all spot-on for their roles. In particular I must praise the Bottom of Andrew Gelles and the Puck of Drew Paramore. Bottom was both oafish and endearing, and Puck was spritely, mischievous and energetic. Great praise must also be given to the non-singing fairy dancers, Aynsley Inglis and Luke Tucker, and to their choreographer, once again Christopher Gaines. And the very, very young Gabriel Griselj was quite the focused young man as Ariel, the boy over whom Oberon and Titania are fighting.

The production team also deserves kudos. I've mentioned Director/Choreographer Christopher Caines, and Music Director Jeffrey Grossman already. Kate Powers, faculty Shakespeare teacher, and Caroline Copeland, faculty Baroque dance teacher, deserve much of the credit for this fine performance. I must praise Lighting Designer Scott Schneider for some lovely effects. At one point, while Titania and Bottom are watching the entertainments, Bottom's donkey head piece (which also deserves praise for Costume Designer Nina Bova) seemed to glow, to pick up different colors from the set.

All in all a perfectly charming performance. It did run a little long, but quite a lovely experience. The Fairy Queen runs through August 23 as part of Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Summer of Shakespeare.

The ensemble
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Thursday, July 31, 2014

My last Glimmerglass post of the season. Maybe.

On Friday, July 25, before leaving Glimmerglass for the summer (Boo! Hiss!), I was privileged to be in the audience while opera director Jonathan Miller held a masterclass--really an open rehearsal--with several fortunate members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Mr. Miller has quite an impressive list of accomplishments, including quite a long list of of opera productions, as well as stage and television.


Jonathan Miller works with members of
The Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
The Young Artists were presenting the last act of La Traviata, in which, as we all know, poor Violetta dies. Quite dramatically. Mr. Miller is a former medical doctor, and has witnessed many real deaths, and one of his primary goals was to make Violetta's death very realistic. Not a bit histrionic. Over and over again, he coached the young singers in real reactions, not stage reactions.

Jacqueline Echols, who so charmed us in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg program, and also as the ingenue Giuletta in last season's King for a Day, sang Violetta. Mr. Miller frequently coached her to give less, less, ever less movement. A dying person has no energy, even for a wracking cough. And in truth, the more still Miss Echols was, the more effective she was. And when she was directed to actually stir about, that was more effective by contrast. As usual, Miss Echols sang with beautiful tone and musical expression.

Marco D. Cammarota, who had also impressed in the Ginsburg program, sang Alfredo. Mr. Miller also took great pains to coach Mr. Cammarota. Nobody knows what to do or say at a loved one's death bed, especially if it's the first time one has experienced such a loss. Under Mr. Miller's guidance, Mr. Cammarota gave us an Alfredo who was clueless but not weak.

Photo: Karli Cadel/ The Glimmerglass Festival
It was an education to watch this and to gain an insight into this opera. Mr. Miller concluded with some thoughts about what one audience member termed the artificiality of opera as compared to the naturalistic way he was directing the Young Artists to act. I'd love to have a transcript of his reply to that question, and indeed, the entire afternoon, because it was brilliant. In a nutshell, he stated that man is the only animal that has this level of pretending, this state where we know it's not real but we are caught up in the emotion nonetheless. Most every culture has some form of storytelling or literature or theater where we as audience willingly suspend disbelief in order to become part of the story.

To add my own opinions to Mr. Miller's statement, our culture seems to forget that theater is about the willing suspension of disbelief. Today's audiences seem to demand blatant realism in some ways while at the same time tolerating, even celebrating, "concept" productions that bear no semblance to reality at all. (To be clear, there are updated or modified productions of operas that I have liked very much.) This seems to me to be a contradiction. I won't go on and on about post-apocalyptic Parsifals under freeway overpasses and Roberto Devereuxs in boardrooms, because I've made my opinions on such matters clear before. One hopes that in all these productions, the truth, the true feeling and meaning the composer and librettist intended, are evident, as one hopes the director who created such a concept is as skillful as Jonathan Miller was with these Young Artists.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Singer Profile: Ryan McKinny, Bass-Baritone

Longtime readers might recall I wrote a profile of bass-baritone Ryan McKinny last year, after seeing his amazing Dutchman in Der Fliegende Hollander. Of his Dutchman I wrote:
Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman
 Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Of course one must begin by discussing the Dutchman himself, sung by Barihunk Ryan McKinny. Not only were his singing and characterization beautiful and nuanced, but his stage presence was electric. His duet with Senta was spellbinding, and one could feel the pain when he believes Senta has betrayed him. And what a bit of bad-boy eye candy he is in costume!
Last year's profile was based on questions I submitted by email, because schedules prevented a real meeting. Last week, however, I was able to get a half hour of Ryan's time for an interview in person. I had quite recently seen his excellent Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

How have you been since last year? 
Really good! It was a big season for me. My first Rigoletto, which was cool—very exciting. A Streetcar Named Desire in LA, working with Renee Fleming. It's been really nice.

The reviews for Streetcar were great.
We got some nice press. Audience response was really good. The play is so good. The opera is good too—I think it's underrated. The story and the characters carry the whole thing. And Renee is wonderful in everything she does.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Los Angeles Opera
Photo: Robert Millard
Stanley Kowalski is not Rigoletto. He's a lot like Billy Bigelow (in Carousel), in a sort of talky way. It's mostly about bringing the character out. I worked really hard on characterization in the opera. Blanche gets these beautiful arias and Stanley gets this kind of aggressive music, so the trick is to make him still be real. Brad Dalton (director) and I worked hard on making that happen, and I think we did a good job.

When you get really aggressive or really angry music, does it affect how you approach it vocally? Do you have to be careful in how you approach it vocally?
I'm really aware if I'm getting close to something thats vocally unsafe. I try to use text a lot if I get something that's angry. I find that's more successful than a barky, angry sound. The barky sound usually reduces any interest in the text and you just hear somebody who is yelling.

With somebody like Stanley, there are things happening to him that make him aggressive, but each moment is specific. You can't just be mad for the whole scene. There are different moments of frustration, annoyance, you know. And there are ways to express that that aren't just yelling. So that when those moments do come, like when you scream “Stella!” Yes, it's very intense, and there are a lot of ways you can play it. We made it a cry of desperation more than anger. So there are a lot of choices you can make, not just for vocal reasons, but for storytelling purposes, so you can create a character with nuance that you want to follow, and you're not like, “Oh, I get it—that's the bad guy.” Which can happen with something like Streetcar. It can happen with Billy, too. If you're not careful, you can create someone who is not really sympathetic, and the audience doesn't want to follow along if they hate the guy.

Photo: Simon Pauly Photography
The scream, “Stella!”-- that's really yelling?
That's real screaming. I still do it in a way that is very calculated, so that I'm not in vocal danger. It still comes out of how I'm feeling as the character and what I'm doing. I didn't want the “Stella!” scream to have any kind of operatic posturing. It needed to feel sort of raw.

I had done some stage screaming before. I had done a new opera in Basel, Switzerland, a couple of years ago, that had that sort of thing in it. I took the time to figure out how to do that. How to work around it to make it effective and also something I could repeat without losing my voice.

You compared Stanley to Billy and said that they're both sort of speaky. Billy is very different from Dutchman!
Oh yeah! Miles away! Billy might sound higher because of the color that I'm using for that character. Billy's voice is bright to me. He's from Brooklyn, come up from Coney Island. He's really kind of brassy, and the music is written for him to be brassy. In terms of actual tessitura there are some high moments, but there are also some things in Dutchman that sit very high. To me the color of the Dutchman's voice needs to have that kind of richer, darker quality. I feel lucky that I can do the color changes that are necessary for those two roles. They're not that far apart in terms of actual notes, but the sound that is expected is quite different.

Anything else about those characters you'd want to mention?
I think Billy is really interesting. We have a hard time in our modern society forgiving anyone for anything. We don't like that in our stories. We don't like to have to forgive someone for something bad. We do that in our real lives all the time. People do terrible things to each other and still love each other. I like about this piece that it takes a really heavy subject—the domestic abuse thing.  This man hits his wife, and that really does happen, and she really does forgive him. He really learns about himself--what is wrong and how he could have done it differently. But it asks a lot of the audience to be able to go along with that. I think people are afraid of that. I think it's cool that the piece deals with it. Poverty is another thing. Billy might kill this rich guy and take his money, and we understand why. We follow along and know why he makes these poor decisions, and that gives the piece some interest.

Both of your kids are on stage this summer, and they're pretty good little actors, too!
I had no idea what to expect with that. Neither of my children are stage kids. Emma had been in a children's chorus piece a few months ago, but Louis hadn't been in anything. When Francesca asked me if Louis would want to play Trouble in Butterfly, I wasn't sure. He's four. He might just get all the way to the performance and decide he didn't want to do it after all. But he's having a good time and has an incredible amount of focus, which I don't always see in the rest of his life.

They are both really wonderful kids. They interact with grownups a lot, so they enjoy talking to grownups. They're having a good time this summer. That was a big factor in my coming back this year—we had such a good time here last summer.

You travel with your wife and kids all the time. That must be wonderful.
Very challenging but very rewarding. We home school them. We're always setting them up with activities and groups and sports teams and things everywhere we go. They get lots of time with other kids. Even here--Emma is at Girl Scout camp here this week. They've both been going to a day camp in the afternoons. They're always doing something. They're not starved for social interaction.

Do you envision doing that as they get older?
We did some handwringing over this, thinking about what the plan should be. Now the plan is to keep doing it as long as it works, and to be flexible. There's no way of knowing what kind of kids they're going to be when they're teenagers. I know another home-schooling family of opera singers who just put their kids back in school because the oldest one was feeling like he was missing something, not being in school. It is really important to me that we spend a lot of time together. I know a lot of singers who aren't near their families very much, who are unhappy a lot of the time. That's really tough. People don't always have the luxury that I do—I'm very lucky that my wife is willing to do this crazy thing and my kids have really taken to it. For now it works really well.

What do you have coming up?
I'll be singing the Speaker in The Magic Flute at the Met. It's a short role, but it's really cool. I'm doing my first Count in Nozze. I do both Figaro and the Count. I'm covering Figaro at the Met, and I've done Figaro a lot. It's one of those right in-between roles.I hover between baritone and bass-baritone. Billy isn't really a bass-baritone role. I think both the Count and Figaro are interesting to me and I can do them both. I also do both Don Giovanni and Leporello. They're not that different in where they sit in the voice. The only difference is the F-sharp at the end of the Count's aria.

You did your first Rigoletto in Houston. Was that a big challenge—Rigoletto's postural issues?
I had to come up with my own take on it, and not mimic anyone else's Rigoletto. We had a big discussion—he has not just the hump, but he has an assortment of physical problems.  On one side of his body the nerves aren't working right, and his walk would be affected, and he would be in constant pain. So it's no surprise he lashes out from a place of pain. Instead of playing what I thought it would look like, I tried to play what a person would feel under those circumstances, and I think that was ultimately more successful than if I'd tried to go for the “expected look” for a hunchback. Verdi, like all really good composers, is writing about the emotional story anyway. It's not about realism.

That's yet another fach—the Verdi dramatic baritone roles.
I think dramatic baritone is the most accurate description, but writing dramatic baritone on a bio doesn't make sense, and baritone doesn't tell the whole story, so we still say bass-baritone. I honestly don't think about that too much—whether a role fits the name that I have for my voice. I never say yes to a project without singing through it. I try to learn a role before saying yes. For example, Rigoletto was way out of line with what I'd been doing. Patrick Summers (of Houston Grand Opera) asked me about it, and I said, "Give me a week." I knew the opera pretty well, so learning it took no time. I sang through the whole show several times that week. I was able to get a feel for it.

What is your process for learning a new role?
I'm lucky that I'm a pretty quick study. I had good training in college. The first thing I do is look at the score. I'll see how long the role is, where it sits. I'll read the libretto and think about the character. I'll listen to the recordings. I'll sit down at the piano and start singing it. I tend to find the most nuanced moments by actually singing it, as opposed thinking about it.

I do a lot of character discussion. My wife is a former actress and is a really good acting coach. She's been my acting coach for ten years. We are always talking about shows and character and choices. She's always there to bounce ideas off of, or to tell me if an idea isn't reading clearly.

When I consider a new role, I don't only ask if this is something I can do, but also is it something I'd have something to say about as an artist, and would it be worth people's time to hear it? That's more the decision-making process—not so much how does this work for my career, or does this fit in my little box. Obviously my little box is not clear anyway, and that did cause confusion early on, but nowadays people just shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh, Ryan's doing that thing again where he does whatever he wants!"


Although I could have chatted with Ryan all day, we both had places to be, so we shook hands and parted.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Singer Profile: Christine Goerke, Soprano

You'll recalled I raved about the Glimmerglass production of Ariadne in Naxos. Once again the kind PR Diva at Glimmerglass has arranged for me to talk with a star of that production, Christine Goerke. Here is some of what we talked about.

Photo: Arielle Doneson
I loved Ariadne in Naxos. I loved the way you poked fun at the the Prima Donna character.
When do we get the opportunity to do that? Particularly in my rep! If I'm not killing my mother, I'm sleeping in a ring of fire. That's not as much fun as it seems.

I also saw Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met. I was amazed at your sound there.
For a long time I tried really hard to just hold it all back. I had this idea in my head that there's an age when you're supposed to start singing my rep (dramatic soprano roles), and I was not yet that age. I was working so hard to reign everything in, and sing the repertoire that I thought was “safe”, but that is the most unsafe thing to do--to sing the wrong repertoire. It was a great relief to me to learn it's OK to have a big sound. I don't have to pretend to be something else.

Is is difficult going from a house the size of the Met to one the size of Glimmerglass?
I was terrified! I thought I would blow the doors off this place! I wouldn't be able to balance my cast! I'm very sensitive to what's going on around me, and that desire to balance what I hearing around me is sometime a help and sometimes a hindrance.

Christine Goerke as Ariadne
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
It's been great here because we have some big-voiced Young Artists. So it's been a really good experience to find my way of singing with my voice in this house. I had an opportunity to try out some really new things, and I learned to sing as quietly as I could without coming off of my sound, because of the size of the theater, because of my colleagues. I'm really happy with the opportunity to be in a house this size. It's not 4000 seats. I don't have to put out sound all the time. That was a bit of a gift for me.

How is it working with the Young Artists?
When I was a Young Artist here, I remember really wanting to suck every drop of information and insight out of everyone here, and that's how these Young Artists are. It's cool to be a part of that again. The first day I had a little breakfast meeting with all of them, and I said, “Ask me anything, and I will be completely honest about anything in the business. You might not like the answers, but I will tell you.” I thought that would be the most useful thing I could possibly do for them.

I was so impressed with American Tragedy (which was cast almost entirely with Young Artists)
I know! And that's not an easy score! The vocal writing is difficult, the tessitura is difficult! The part of Roberta is so high! C#s? Really? And Vanessa (Isiguen, who sang the role) does it like it's a piece of cake.

Not only are these kids fabulous vocally, but they're also all great on stage! I don't know that I had that kind of stage savvy at that age. That's a remarkable thing that I'm seeing this summer.

You say there are some big-voiced girls here?
Christine Goerke as Ariadne and Corey Bix as Bacchus 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We've got some big-voiced girls here and some big-voiced guys here. It's cool. This is the age where people are trying to find their way. Chances are at 25 or 26 it's not quite time to transition to dramatic rep yet. It's really great to have the conversations and to figure out what they do well right now. For all voices, they need to really trust the ears of their teachers and coaches--and they to learn which ones to trust, because they might hear conflicting opinions. It's been really very cool to be a part of that, if even for two months.

Tell me about being Heldenmommy (Christine's Twitter handle--translated literally, heroic mommy).
I wouldn't trade it for anything. Those two girls (5 and 7) are what I'm most proud of in this life, and I'm honored to be their mom. I get things wrong like every parent does, but I love 'em and they enhance my life more than they could possibly know.

I am really blessed and really busy. My kids have been with me all summer. We've been having a great time because it's stunningly beautiful here! They're having so much fun, and they want me to be a part of it. You know, they don't want us to be a part of things for very long. They're 5 and 7 and they still want me. Pretty soon they'll be teenagers and I won't know anything, so I'm trying to grab every moment.

How much time do you have to spend away from them on the road?
My husband and I talk about every single offer, and my manager is amazing, and understands how important it is to be with my kids. We try to keep my big travel during the school year. It's not any easier to be away from them, but the kids have a set schedule, and they're doing stuff during the week, and Dad's home all day on the weekends. Summers, I try to do things where I am away for a shorter period of time, or I can bring them with me. I try to keep my Europe gigs together, so it's one big stint but then I'm home.

It's tough. It's what every working parent goes through. But we talk about everything and we somehow manage to do it. The girls understand that when I go away, I'm coming home. It takes work, but it's worth it. It's so worth it!

How often do you add a new role?
That is trickier now that I have kids. And adding a Strauss or Wagner role is not like adding a Mozart role. All of the stuff I do now is through-composed—no repetition of text. I have to be able to dedicate three months--not necessarily immediately beforehand, but I still need that time to be able to do the work. I work on the language first, then I have to work on the music, then there's memorization time.

Text always comes first. I can't do anything until I know exactly what I'm saying. Then I go to the music and figure out how the composer wanted to say it. Then I come to a compromise between what he wanted to say and what I want to say. Then I write all of the text down. There's something about putting pen to paper and writing text out that helps me. Then I might look at DVDs or listen to audio recordings of the work, and see how people get from point A to point B—that cements everything for me.

I feel like I have to walk in on the first day of rehearsals and be ready to do a performance. I know that's not necessarily the idea—they are rehearsals—but I feel uncomfortable if I don't start there. I'll start out with my own ideas and work with director and conductor and other cast members, and my ideas will change. But I start in a place where I have the ability to change things on a dime, and that doesn't waste time.

Talk more about the vocal transition you've experienced.
When I was singing the Mozart and Handel roles, my focus, my resonance was very high, very light. That is great—it allows singers to sing very high and very fast. But as my voice was growing in size, it became more difficult to sing that way. I started having problems because I was doing unhealthy things to preserve a voice that was no longer my own. I finally realized that what had worked so well for fifteen years wasn't wrong at all, but I was only using part of my voice. The minute I relaxed and breathed and allowed my voice to be itself, the vocal color changed, the voice size changed. It was as easy as discovering where the rest of my voice was. It sounds simplistic, but it really was that.

When you made that change, did you have engagements for the former rep that you still had to fulfill?
A few, but then I had about 18 months without much. I was able to really work through the transition.

I'm often asked if it was hard to go out and start auditioning again. I was terrifed! I thought I had to prove to everybody that I wasn't broken. Of course that's not what they were thinking. They only wanted me to succeed. It took me a good six months before I felt like I was able to do good auditions. But I was singing the rep really well, and once word got around, things started to happen.

The Met was amazing. They'd seen this coming when I was 25. They let me cover Elsa, Ariadne, Sieglinde, a lot of roles. I got to be part of the rehearsals and hear the orchestra and hear the singers who were doing this repertoire, and see how it all worked. For me that was a big gift. I was at home, I was with my teacher, I was with all the coaches who knew me and knew my voice, and I was able to get myself going that way. I wish that for everybody who has to make a transition. It was a real gift.

Who is your teacher?
Diana Soviero. [raised eyebrows] Oh yeah! Everybody has that reaction. People are confused because she never did any of my rep. I have coaches for my rep! This woman knows bel canto technique, and that's how you're supposed to sing all music. Diana still sings and still sounds amazing! That's the best validation for my choice.

I'm glad to hear you say that about bel canto technique! People think it's different for German music. 
It's not different! It's a necessity! Everything has to have line, everything has to have support, everything has to have the right attack, everything has to have spin! It's singing!

Do you do the big Italian roles?
We're having conversations about this right now. I do Turandot--I have a bunch of those coming up. We're talking about Fanciulla. We are talking about Forza, but Verdi is tricky for me. A lot of the Verdi soprano roles sit at the top of the staff and go up from there. My voice loves to live in the middle, and sing my high notes, and come back. That's why Eboli (in Don Carlo) is perfect for me. I did Eboli in Houston and in Toulouse.

In brief if there's one thing you'd like to communicate in this profile, what would it be?
Put yourself into your art. Don't try to be perfect! Perfect does not art make! Art is passion, is thrilling, is risk taking, is dangerous, is miraculous! And if you don't take chances, none of that will happen. I have said so many times, “That was so beautiful, but I don't care. Do it again, and it doesn't matter if you crack or say the wrong word—just be an artist!” I would rather hear a performer throw her heart into something and crack five times than to have her sing something perfectly with no passion. To me that's boring. I have to remind the Young Artists always that they have permission to be themselves. Everybody brings something really cool to the table. Why not really shine with what you have?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Francesca Zambello, part II

In part 1 of my interview with Francesca Zambello, we talked about running an opera company. In this part, we talk about specific productions and other topics.

Photo: Clair McAdams
There was a profile associated with your Covent Garden Carmen where you discussed how important it is to be period specific and give a good sense of the time. Yet that was the same year you did an updated Aida at Glimmerglass (2012).
I think with Carmen it's important to make clear that she is not only outside of society, but she's also an outsider within her own community. She's not just a Gypsy--she's even farther out. But she still has this magnetism. Not just sexually. Everyone is fascinated.

Aida is about racial conflict--not black and white, but about two nations against each other and within themselves.It's about civil conflict and warring nations. The King and Amonasro are heads of warring tribes.

I think we made people realize that Aida is really a story that is going on right now. Insurgence in Syria. Afghanistan. It's the same story, right? Somebody proclaims himself king and is king for a day, and then somebody else is king. It's not like there are free elections in any of these places.

Carmen is an enigmatic character. Enigmatic characters are the most difficult to portray, but the ones everyone is most interested in. Many times audiences find Micaela and Liu more sympathetic, but Turandot and Carmen are the enigmatic women. Difficult to penetrate.

And you wouldn't have an opera about Liu.
Everything has to come from character. Narrative has to come from character--character can't come from narrative. What's Liu's conflict? Liu just wants the guy. That's all she wants for the whole show. Turandot changes. Liu doesn't change.

What goes into the decision about updating or keeping the opera in the time?
Each production is different. You work with your designers and you determine what is the best world or environment to tell the story. I don't arbitrarily think, “Let's set that in the 20s!” I think that's silly. If it leads you in your discussion with the set and costume designer and choreographer to a place where you think that will serve the piece, that's your decision. 

It's no secret we're doing an updated Ariadne here. I was very inspired by the conflict of Ariande, which is basically high art vs. pop culture. That's a pretty contemporary question. And I also have always loved the fact that central New York has all these cities with names like Syracuse, Utica, Ithaca, so I thought why isn't Naxos here? The estate of "the richest man in Vienna” could be like any estate up here. It's not like I thought, oh, let's make it contemporary. I thought, it's so important today that people realize there are the patrons, and there are the other people, and how do we all mix together?

But I'm just as interested in a period piece. Butterfly is really very period. It's set partially in the American consulate, but still in Nagasaki at the turn of the century. I'm working on Candide for next year, and I'm setting it right in the middle of the Enlightenment. I don't think, "Let's update this piece." I think, "How can I best tell this story? What are the visual cues that will help the audience? How will the characters relate? Who is that character going to be?" For me it's all got to start with the people. Once you get the people right, you'll get the world right around them.

It doesn't have to be totally representational. We're doing Dialogues of the Carmelites this year in Washington, and of course I've set it totally period. The setting is abstract. It doesn't look like France at the end of the 18th century--it's just some spaces. But the clothing is very period.

Sometimes I teach classes, and young directors say to me, "I'm going to set it in ...." That might be an interesting idea, but first let's start where the composer wanted to set it. Let's understand that world, socially, politically, visually. And when you know those things, then you can find parallels in other worlds. For example, I was teaching a class in The Marriage of Figaro, and I asked them how many people really know about the French Revolution? How many people really understand what was going on? What is the droit du seigneur?  What was happening in art when Mozart wrote this piece? What was happening in Vienna? What was happening in Prague? Why was he traveling between those two places? If they can't answer these questions, I don't want to hear about their plan to set it on a tennis court. That's not informing the work. It's putting a frame around it, instead of getting the canvas out.

You're doing a Vivaldi opera next season. You presented a Lully opera in 2012. How do you balance the need to sell tickets with your responsibility to serve the art?
It's a difficult question. When you do an lesser-known opera you really have to streamline it. Get it out there, let people hear it, but you can't do huge productions of those works.  Producing a rarity like Bianca e Falliero today (she directed the US premiere of Rossini's redicovered opera in 1987—we'd discussed it earlier because I was in the chorus of that production) would be extremely difficult to justify economically, whereas something like Madama Butterfly will not only sell tickets but also be rented to other companies as a production. Opera companies can't do those shows unless they have a huge repertory, unless they're doing ten shows. 

You have a long list of honors and accolades. One of DC's most powerful women! One of the ten most powerful women in music! I hope you'll use your powers for good!

I feel a responsibility now to do that. One of the great things about running a company is that it's not just about me. It's about all of us. It's hard, but it's satisfying, because I'm passionate about it. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't passionate about it. I feel fortunate to be someone doing something I deeply love.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Madama Butterfly at Glimmerglass

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and
Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
On Monday, July 21, I saw the second performance of Madama Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival. Another triumph, another visually stunning show, more great performances. I'm running out of accolades to use when describing what I see at Glimmerglass. With Michael Yeargen's sets, Robert Wierzel's lighting, and Anita Yavitch's costumes, all the visual elements combined effectively to create a strikingly beautiful and fluid effect.

Director Francesca Zambello has set some scenes in the American consulate in Nagasaki instead of Cio-Cio-San's house, the original setting. The intent was to place additional focus on Cio-Cio San's outsider status both in her own community and in the community of Americans in Nagasaki. Yes, that intention was met, with the additional bonus of showing how common it was for Japanese women to have half-American babies and seek aid from the consulate, but I can't say it added much to the opera for me. In fact, I wound up wondering why all these American women were working in an American office in Nagasaki. Wouldn't any American woman in Nagasaki at that time be there because of her husband, and not be working outside the home? And wouldn't any single American woman be unlikely to find herself in Nagasaki?

Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless (center) 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
No matter. Back to the superlatives. A shining cast of young guest artists and Glimmerglass Young Artists brought the opera to life. Yunah Lee and Dinyar Vania have sung Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton before many times, and proved they have the vocal goods, particularly as the afternoon warmed up and so did their voices. They were at their best vocally and dramatically in the last act, which we all know is devastating. Kristen Choi was a very effective Suzuki, and Aleksey Bogdanov was also a good Sharpless. Both are thankless roles that require excellent singing and acting. Sharpless in particular does a lot of listening, and must react to what he's told.

As usual, smaller roles were fulfilled by members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Ian McEuen in particular deserves praise for his Goro.

Madama Butterfly runs through August 23 at Glimmerglass. Once again, I recommend this show.

P.S. I saw the next performance of Madama Butterfly on Thursday, July 24. Much, much better performances vocally and dramatically from all. I didn't mention it before, but I think the fact Monday's show was a matinee had an effect on the singing.

One single concept still irks me--using the US consulate instead of Cio-Cio-San's house for some scenes. So some of the chorus music is sung by people in 1904 American garb, instead of people from Cio-Cio-Sa's own community. The text makes more sense to my feeble mind if it comes from her community--mocking her naive pride, berating her for abandoning her own traditions to adopt American ways, etc.