Friday, January 30, 2009

My Opera Has a First Name, It's T-O-S-C-A

We announced the 09-10 season last night! Drumroll, we have a drumroll? No drumroll? We're an opera company, for goodness sakes...all right, fine. Check it out:

The Tales of Hoffmann
November 7 - 15, 2009

The Barber of Seville
February 6 - 14, 2010

April 24 - May 2, 2010

3 tales of obsession and 3 fantastic operas. Highlights? Hoffmann is that uber-cool one with the MC Escher-esque sets and costumes recently seen on the cover of Opera News. The Barber will be a traditional one from director David Gately. And the villainous Scarpia in Tosca will be played by returning Greer Grimsley, currently burning up the stage in San Diego Opera's own production of Puccini's opera. If you want a sneak peek, get on over to Aria Serious?, SDO's blog and read all about it. After that, you can read all about our season in the news release here. Extra bonus: we announced that in 2011, we'll be producing our first Czech opera - Rusalka, starring Kelly Kaduce. It's like Christmas came early!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'd Like to Buy the World An Opera

I heart bass-baritones. (I don't think I'm alone in this.) How can you not love a voice that you can feel as well as hear? They get some of the dishiest parts, too - bass-baritones typically play priests, kings, grandfathers, villains, even the devil. So when I got the opportunity to interview David Cushing (bass-baritone who plays Nourabad in The Pearl Fishers), I certainly didn't object.

I began last Friday at the Costume Shop. I simply cannot express what a dream come true that place is. Racks and racks of costumes for principals, supers, chorus, dancers as well as shoes, masks, jewelry, leis, turbans and more – I wanted to take everything home!

So David arrives and goes into the fitting room for the draping and pinning. The goal of the fitting seemed to be to get the costume approximately the way it should look and then make alterations as needed. With rental productions like this one, there's typically only one costume sent over and it's usually pretty big so it can be taken in to fit multiple artists at multiple companies. Here's David in the full priest costumeand here's another pic as he contemplates the nuances of his character.

After the fitting, I drove David to Pete's Kitchen on Colfax for a quick snack and chat. (He had chili, I had chocolate bundt cake. Both were great.) In addition to being incredibly easy to talk to, David knows his stuff. He started singing in high school and, on a whim, auditioned for the voice department of the University of New Hampshire. He recalls the audition as a bit of a debacle, having picked songs more or less randomly. But the accompanist asked him to sing lower and lower still and, impressed with his range, the judges accepted him into the program. After his then-girlfriend turned him on to classical music, David began taking opera more seriously and went on to grad school and has since performed with Opera Colorado as well as Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Boston, Florentine Opera, Opera Columbus and more.

I asked David what he did to prepare for a role. "First I break out my score and do my own translation," he said. If it's a larger role, he'll read extra material like the play or novel the opera might be based on. "I think it's important to be flexible when you're preparing," David noted. "Every director is different. Some are really hands-on and have a firm idea of how they want the role to go. Others are a bit more loose and ask the artists to be a big part of how it's sung and staged. So you can't necessarily go in with all these ideas of how you think it should be, but you also can't be completely unprepared."

David admits that Nourabad is not the biggest role in the opera. "But they say there are no small roles, only small actors," he said with a smile. "Nourabad isn't unimportant. The characters in an opera are created for a reason – or they would be supers." After all, it's Nourabad who sets the whole ending in motion. David went on to mention that smaller roles can actually be harder to perform. The artist needs to pay close attention to where they fit in and balance their performance against the leads. Interestingly, there tends to be a lot of roles for bass-baritones, especially smaller roles, and there are even operas with several bass-baritone parts.

So, why does David think this is a great opera? It's all about the music. "It's beautiful music. There's not just soft, pretty parts, but quite a few stirring and dramatic pieces as well. My favorite scene is the duet with Zurga and Leila. The music begins softly – there's a lot of sublimation – and the intensity builds perfectly with the action." David also added that with only three main characters and a simple storyline, the opera itself is easy to follow – important if you're new to opera!

After David finishes his stint as Nourabad, he'll go on to play Sarastro in The Magic Flute with Florentine Opera of Milwaukee and then Banco in Macbeth in Granite State Opera in New Hampshire. He plans to continue singing for quite a few more years and then may go into teaching or directing.

Well, readers, I enjoyed talking with David, but I wondered if there were questions you would have asked had you been there. So if you have questions, post a comment and I'll see what I can do about getting them answered!

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's How Opera Is Done

"Repeat after me: French is not hard." So began the first chorus rehearsal for The Pearl Fishers. I felt like I was back in college, in a class requiring about fifty more prerequisites than I had. The rehearsal even began much like a college class: going over administrative stuff, introducing the 'teacher' (Chorus Master John Baril) and moving everyone around so they sat according to voice type. Then it was time to get down to business.

I'm not going to lie – I can't sing. Oh, sure, I'm a rock star in my car. But these guys can really sing…and they make it look as effortless as tossing off a commercial jingle. (I am jealous.) The rehearsal was part language class, part music class, and part history class. Nobody had sung this opera before, so John had them start by singing "la" instead of the words. After a bit, the chorus practiced making some of the French sounds and repeat some of the recurring phrases. All the while, John directed the singing, occasionally throwing out comments or advice.

The chorus rehearsals are accompanied by former Ensemble Artist coach/pianist Steven Aguiló-Arbues. Steven knows a ton about opera and I learned that the whole score for any given opera is rarely performed. Directors and conductors make musical cuts Рsome are traditional and some are based on popularity. The Pearl Fishers is interesting because there were about a trillion different endings circulated Рsometimes Zurga died on the funeral pyre, sometimes Zurga was stabbed in the back, sometimes the lovers appeared on a rock singing a love duet.

Before rehearsal, I chatted with chorus liaison Park William Showalter, who's been with the chorus since the company began. He said the chorus really felt like a family, which is good because they'll be spending a lot of time together for the next month. In addition to the 36+ hours of rehearsal, they've got to memorize and practice the pieces on their own time.

Wow! Who signs up for that kind of commitment? Choristers Chris Larsen and his wife Andrea, for one. They moved to Denver two years ago and wanted a way to spend time together and be involved in music. They began in La traviata; Pearl Fishers will be their fifth opera. Shane Delavan, who's been a chorister for fourteen years, says he enjoys the chance to stretch his musical ability and expand his experience as a musician. Each production is a new and different experience – even if it's an opera he's sung two or three times. Shane noted that you get to work with a lot of great conductors and directors, but it's his fellow chorus members that keep him coming back.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Better Ingredients, Better Opera

Have you ever noticed that there are often a lot of people on the stage in opera? In addition to the principals and the chorus, the cast is filled out with supers, or supernumeraries, who are the non-singing extras. Our own Ben Davis (seen here hard at work) - in addition to selling tickets, coordinating volunteers, and a million more responsibilities – will be playing a super in The Pearl Fishers. Read on for a special joint blog entry between Ben and AriaGirl!

AriaGirl: So last Friday, I went to our Costume Shop with Ben for his costume fitting.
Ben: Mostly to tease me.
AG: And to play with the Costume Director's dog, Henry.
Ben: But mostly to tease me.
AG: Hey, I'll give you credit – it takes a lot of guts to show up on stage in that first costume.
Ben: Tell me about it. When they handed it to me, I wanted to ask where the rest of the costume was. Here's a picture (NOT me) of the costume – it's basically this blue pair of shorts that looks sort of like a loincloth. I've got a pair of boxer briefs on underneath, and that's all there is.
AG: So you're wearing the same thing as that guy to the left of Zurga. That doesn't leave much to the imagination…
Ben: It's not bad, really. It was a little weird standing there as these three women – the SDO Costume Supervisor, our Costume Director and her assistant – are all talking about where things need to be let out or taken in. I was kind of afraid to move, since I didn't want to get stuck with any pins.
AG: I can't imagine that costume needing much alteration.
Ben: It really didn't. It was mostly the other costumes that they kind of fussed over.
AG: I can't believe you get THREE costume changes.
Ben: It's because I'm awesome. The weird part is I get more and more dressed as the show goes on. I've got this tiny little first costume on at the beginning of the show with the big dancing scene. But then I become a litter-bearer for the priestess. Here's a picture of the second costume.
AG: I can't decide if I like the pink turban or the gold belt better.
Ben: Hey! I think I looked pretty great.
AG: Up close – in the dressing room – well, let's just say you'll look a lot different with the body make-up and on the stage itself. I just wish I hadn't left my camera back at the office.
Ben: I would've stolen the camera, anyway. So my third costume, the last one, is my favorite. I feel like a pirate in it because I'm wearing these dark clothes and have a black bandana. Here's another picture. It's the end of the opera and I'm one of the guys guarding Leila and Nadir. I'm dressed like the guy by the cage, the really fierce-looking one.
AG: You're hitting the gym tonight, right? So, I'm sorry I have to spoil the ending, but Ben has one of the most important parts in the opera.
Ben: It's true. I'm the trigger man. I grab a rifle and shoot Zurga after he lets the lovers get away.
AG: Is that the only reason you agreed to do this?
Ben: No way. I'm really stoked about seeing it from start to finish and watching all the elements come together. I'm just going to be dead tired at the end of it.
AG: That's right. You have evening rehearsals – and that's on top of working at the office for a full day.
Ben: I think I might take a month of vacation after the opera closes.
AG: I wouldn't blame you. Hey, I'll come and see you so I can watch a staging rehearsal. I think you should stay in costume during the rehearsals so you can really get into character.
Ben: I'll get back to you on that.
AG: You do that. Well, readers, I hope you enjoyed hearing about the secret life of a super, and we'll keep you posted as Ben's rehearsals continue. I'll be back on Friday with the secret life of a chorister after I attend the first chorus rehearsal. That is, if all that snow out there doesn't stop me. See you on Friday!

Pictures courtesy San Diego Opera (Ken Howard) and Michigan Opera Theatre (John Grigaitis).

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Day Without Opera is like a Day Without Sunshine

We had our subscriber preview event last night. It was a huge success, but the planning meant blogging took a back burner. I'll be back next week with exciting Pearl Fishers updates!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Better Living Through Opera

I felt so bad about not posting for two weeks (the holidays really play havoc with your schedule!) that I'm posting a special Monday Edition of the blog!

Meet Andrew. Andrew grew up going to the theater, ballet and opera in Australia. He sang in his school's choir and a passion for opera emerged – he even saved his money to buy scores (and learned the soprano parts). After realizing that his stage fright would prevent him from making it as an actor, this young man found his way to becoming Andrew Sinclair, the acclaimed stage director and creator of our new production of The Pearl Fishers.

Andrew and I got to chat a bit about the production. Being somewhat clueless about the process, I asked him how he actually stages an opera. Unsurprisingly, it starts with the music. His first step is to sit down and listen to a recording - preferably one with Maria Callas (that late, great diva extraordinaire). Then he begins to plot how he wants to play the opera and how he sees the characters. As audience members, we see an opera on stage and think the composer wrote where they should stand, how they should interact – but that's just not the case. The stage director has to coordinate with the set designer and choreographer to figure out the best way to tell the story.

Andrew told me that his favorite scene is at the start of Act III where Leila begs Zurga for the life of Nadir. In this scene, Zurga is alternately in love and furious with Leila. He feels betrayed but is still very much attracted to the priestess. Part of the staging is deciding whether Leila should fall to her knees at a dramatic moment – or maybe she should run to Zurga and clutch at his clothes. Even with subtitles, action is so important to moving the story along.

Sinclair says the conflict between the players is fascinating. The characters and relationships must hold our attention – why see an opera where everyone gets along? The challenge is to highlight the conflict and bring out the different aspects of each character. Sinclair told me that he's worked with seven different Leilas, five Nadirs, and eight Zurgas. With each staging, the artists bring different aspects to their roles and he's looking forward to watching the story unfold with our cast. Having talked with our cast, I know they've given a lot of thought to the dimensions of each role and how best to portray them. I'll be attending a staging rehearsal in a few weeks and I'm excited to see what it's like (don't worry, I'll take plenty of notes!).

Stay tuned for Friday's entry!