Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What’s on the Program:
INTERNATIONAL WAGNER COMPETITION

Next week Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Competition, aka “Wagner Idol,” pits eight up-and-coming Wagner singers against each other for significant prizes. This year, in addition to the prizes awarded by our five expert judges, we’ll be giving cash prizes to the orchestra‘s and the audience’s favorites, too. We hope to see you there! If past International Wagner Competitions are anything to go by, it’s going to be an amazing evening. For those who can’t attend, there will be a broadcast of the competition on Classic KING FM 98.1 (and www.king.org) on Saturday, August 16 at 8 pm.

To be eligible for the competition, singers must not yet be 40—and they can’t yet have sung major Wagner roles. (Several of this year’s contestants have sung small parts in Wagner operas.) Because the contestants will be in evening dress, singing on our beautiful Ariadne auf Naxos set designed by Robert Dahlstrom, you’ll have to use your imagination a bit to complete the illusion of character and location for each great moment from a Wagner opera. (We will project supertitles, so you’ll understand every word they sing—so crucial when you’re listening to Wagner.) Here, to stoke the fire of your imagination, are photos from historical Seattle Opera productions, with descriptions of the pieces you’ll hear on August 7.

PROGRAM FOR THE 2014 INTERNATIONAL WAGNER COMPETITION
FIRST HALF

“Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (Marcy Stonikas)
Marcy Stonikas, whose Magda Sorel brought down the house in our recent production of The Consul, will open the evening with the beautiful greeting to the hall of song from Wagner’s second opera—full name, Tannhäuser or the Battle of the Singers at Wartburg Castle. It’s the perfect way to open our International Wagner Competition, since this aria sets up the Battle of the Singers from Act Two of Wagner’s great opera.

When Seattle Opera presented Tannhäuser in 1985, Karen Bureau as Elisabeth greeted the old Seattle Opera House with this music.
Chris Bennion, photo

“Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond” from Die Walküre (Kevin Ray)
Newcomer Kevin Ray then sings Siegmund’s “Spring Song” from the first act of Die Walküre, one of the loveliest passages in Wagner’s Ring. Siegmund gently woos the beautiful Sieglinde, trapped in a loveless marriage, as he sings about Brother Spring rescuing Sister Love from the icy grip of cruel Winter.

In 1987, Barry Busse sang this music to one of Seattle Opera’s greatest Sieglindes, the one and only Leonie Rysanek.
Ron Scherl, photo

Isolde’s Narrative and Curse from Tristan und Isolde (Tamara Mancini)
Next up is Tamara Mancini, who made her Seattle Opera debut in last summer’s Ring as Ortlinde, one of Brünnhilde’s noisy sister Valkyries. She’ll sing the mighty narrative and curse from Act One of Tristan und Isolde—the scene in which Isolde fills her servant Brangäne in on what has gone before: how Tristan killed her fiancé, tricked her into healing his wound, fell in love with her, and despite himself is now handing her over in marriage to his old uncle. Consumed with passion for Tristan and furious that he isn’t marrying her himself, Isolde concludes with a chilling curse dooming both her and her beloved Tristan to death.

When Seattle Opera last presented this amazing masterpiece, Annalena Persson as Isolde raged in a vivid red dress.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

“Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater” from Die Walküre (Ric Furman)
Ric Furman first appeared on the Seattle Opera mainstage in 2012, singing the Sunday matinee performance of Fidelio. His great success in that difficult role earned him an appearance last summer as Froh in the Ring. The American tenor competes this summer first with Siegmund’s heroic aria of frustration and passion, in which the doomed wanderer remembers how his father promised him a sword in his moment of dire need. That moment now has come—and where is Wälse’s sword? Listen in this aria for the famous ‘wolf howl,’ when Siegmund twice calls the name, “Wälse,” and Wagner’s score encourages the tenor to hold the note as long as he can.

Seattle Opera’s first Siegmund, back in 1973, was the great Jess Thomas.
Des Gates, photo

“Der Männer Sippe” from Die Walküre (Helena Dix)
Next, we welcome Australian soprano Helena Dix to Seattle. Best-known for her recent Wexford Festival triumph in the rediscovery of Cristina, Queen of Sweden by Foroni, Helena will sing Sieglinde’s “Der Männer Sippe,” also from Act One of Die Walküre. (Lots of great arias in that act!) In this piece the miserable Sieglinde, forced into marriage against her will, tells the story of how a one-eyed stranger interrupted her wedding—only to thrust a sword into a tree and leave it there. The strongest of men have tugged at the hilt, but no one has been able to move the sword. Sieglinde hopes that the wounded, weaponless, handsome stranger who has sought rest and comfort at her hearth may be the one to free the sword—and will free her along with it.

In 1991, Ellen Shade sang Sieglinde’s aria to the Siegmund of Warren Ellsworth.
Gary Smith, photo

“Geliebeter, komm” from Tannhäuser (Suzanne Hendrix)
Next, Suzanne Hendrix, who made her Seattle Opera debut as Waltraute in last summer’s Die Walküre, will sing one of Wagner’s most sultry sirens—Venus, the goddess of love, from Tannhäuser. (If you know the famous Bugs & Elmer cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc,” you’ll recognize Venus’s seductive music, which you also hear in the glorious overture to Tannhäuser.) As the opera begins, the human minstrel Tannhäuser is getting sick of living just for sensual pleasure in the underground grottoes of the Venusberg, populated by an orgiastic ballet full of fauns and nymphs and other cavorting deities. He wants to leave gracefully—but Venus doesn’t make it easy for him.

The great Marvellee Cariaga sang Venus, to Edward Sooter’s Tannhäuser, when Seattle Opera presented this opera in 1985.
Chris Bennion, photo

“Amfortas! Die Wunde” from Parsifal (Issachah Savage)
American tenor Issachah Savage, who will be at the Met next season, comes next, with the crucial scene at the center of Parsifal’s journey in Wagner’s final opera. Kissed by the seductive eternal temptress Kundry, Parsifal experiences not erotic arousal, but compassion—for the first time he feels the unspeakable pain of Amfortas, the wounded Grail King, whose suffering Parsifal completely failed to understand, earlier in the opera. In this pivotal scene, an innocent fool is made wise through compassion.

Chris Ventris sang Parsifal's spiritual awakening (to Linda Watson’s Kundry) when Seattle Opera presented Parsifal in 2003.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

“Abendlich strahlt” from Das Rheingold (Roman Ialcic)
Concluding the first half of the program, German bass-baritone Roman Ialcic will sing Wotan’s lovely “Abendlich strahlt,” from the finale to Das Rheingold. As the rays of the setting sun illumine the gods’ beautiful new home, the king of the gods reflects on the terrible cost of that castle—and takes comfort in a new idea when he names the place ‘Valhalla.’

In the 1970s, Seattle Opera’s first Ring relied heavily on the use of projections for scenic effects, such as the rainbow bridge leading to Valhalla. Rudolf Holtenau sang Wotan in 1978.
Chris Bennion, photo

SECOND HALF

“Gerechter Gott! So ist’s entschieden schon” from Rienzi (Tamara Mancini)
And now for something totally new! We begin the second half with an aria from a Wagner opera we’ve never produced in Seattle: Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, the early work which Wagner considered the final step of his education. Rienzi is an interesting opera, but we’re unlikely to produce it anytime soon because of its vast scope and scale. (If we’re going to spend that much money producing an opera, we’d rather present a great masterpiece, not an apprentice work.) Tamara Mancini will sing the grand bel canto scena for Adriano, a young man from a noble family of medieval Rome, torn between his allegiance to his patrician father and his enthusiasm for the plebian demogogue Rienzi, who wants to break the stranglehold the wealthy families have on Rome and return the city to the 99%. (Complicating matters even further, Adriano’s sister Irene is Rienzi’s beloved.) The aria follows the standard bel canto pattern of slow cavatina followed by lively cabaletta, as Adriano works his way from despair to one last wild hope.

Since Seattle Opera has never produced Rienzi, here’s a photo from a recent Bayreuth production starring German mezzo Daniela Sindram as Adriano. Sindram sang Cherubino in Seattle’s 2009 Le nozze di Figaro and returned as Dulcinée in Don Quichotte in 2011. To really sell a mezzo soprano in a “trousers role” (as a young man), your Hair and Make-up department need to give her some sexy stubble!

Bayreuth Festival, photo

“In fernem Land” from Lohengrin (Ric Furman)
Ric Furman then returns to sing the revelation of Lohengrin’s identity, from the final scene of that opera. All opera long this mysterious knight in shining armor has been refusing to tell his rescued-damsel-in-distress who he is. But since she doesn’t trust him, ultimately he has to explain himself, which he does in this glorious, heart-rending scene.

Ten years ago, when Seattle Opera last presented Lohengrin, Albert Bonnema as the Swan Knight told Marie Plette as Elsa who he was.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Senta’s Ballad from Der fliegende Holländer (Marcy Stonikas)
We’ll hear next from Marcy Stonikas, who returns with the Ballad of the Flying Dutchman. “Yo-ho-hey! Behold, the ship that races past; blood-red her sails and black her mast!” Ever since childhood, Senta—a dreamy, romantic-minded girl growing up in a small fishing village—has been obsessed with the old legend of this doomed ancient mariner, and with the portrait hanging above her fireplace. As she tells the Dutchman’s tale, you can hear her willing herself to become a character in the story.

At Seattle Opera’s last Der fliegende Holländer, in 2007, Jane Eaglen sang this music beneath a portrait of Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

“Mein lieber Schwan” from Lohengrin (Issachah Savage) 
Issachah Savage returns with the final farewell of Lohengrin, now revealed to be one of the knights of the holy grail. In this passage he addresses the swan who brought him to Elsa’s land—finally revealed to be Elsa’s brother, the young Duke Gottfried, whom Elsa was suspected of having murdered. Lohengrin gives the boy a sword, a ring, and a horn, promises he will help if need arises in the future, and sadly returns to the lofty realm from whence he came.

Albert Bonnema shared the stage with an amazing animatronic swan at Seattle Opera’s 2004 Lohengrin.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

“Weiche, Wotan” from Das Rheingold (Suzanne Hendrix)
Next, we’ll hear Suzanne Hendrix sing Erda’s famous warning, the deus ex machina scene that climaxes the prelude to the Ring, when the mysterious, all-knowing earth goddess rises from the ground, terrifies Wotan with the news that the gods are doomed, and warns him that the end will come at once unless he shuns the cursed ring.

Many great Erdas have sung this thrillingly potent music at Seattle Opera over the years. One of the most memorable, in 2005, was Polish mezzo Ewa Podleś, whose voice The Seattle Times described as a natural phenomenon akin to Mt. Rainier. Her Wotan was Greer Grimsley, then making his role debut as the Father God.
Bill Mohn, photo

Hagen’s Watch from Götterdämmerung (Roman Ialcic) 
Roman Ialcic, who covered bass Daniel Sumegi as Hagen at Seattle Opera last summer, then returns to sing Hagen’s brooding Watch Song from the first act of Götterdämmerung. Trusted by the gullible King Gunther to guard his throne, this deceitful, envious counselor lets on that he really hates Gunther, and Siegfried, and anyone who would stand between him and what he considers his rightful inheritance—the Nibelung’s ring.

In 1977, one year before he first appeared at Bayreuth, the great American bass-baritone Simon Estes sang Hagen in Seattle.
Chris Bennion, photo

“Siegmund heiß’ ich” from Die Walküre (Kevin Ray) 
Now we hear the conclusion of the beloved first act of Die WalküreKevin Ray performs the scene in which Siegmund names himself, wrests the sword free of the tree where his father left it for him, and claims his sister as his bride: “Let our Wälsung blood flourish!”

In 2005, the heroism of Richard Berkeley-Steele as Siegmund excited Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde.
Chris Bennion, photo

Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (Helena Dix) 
Our 2014 International Wagner Competition will conclude with Helena Dix performing the final scene from Wagner’s great song of love and death, the “Liebestod” or transfiguration of Isolde, who joins her beloved Tristan in a better place on the other side of death. She sings of a mysterious river of music flowing from him, sweeping her away, and Wagner’s music illustrates her experience in no uncertain terms.

In 1998, Jane Eaglen won Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year Award for her mesmerizing performance as Isolde, paired with the Tristan of Ben Heppner.
Gary Smith, photo

Program subject to change. The International Wagner Competition will be conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing in his Seattle Opera debut.

Many thanks to the lead sponsor of the International Wagner Competition, Nesholm Family Foundation; to our honorary co-chairs and first prize sponsor, Charles and Lisa Simonyi; and to the sponsors of the Orchestra Choice Prize, Betty and Jack Schafer, and the Audience Choice Prize, Wagner and More. Listen carefully for our beautiful new Wagner tubas, made in Vienna for Seattle Opera by Andreas Jungwirth, sponsored by Jeff and Martha Sherman, and dedicated—like our 2014/15 season—to Speight Jenkins.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Our 2013 Ring, Now on CD!

Wagner-lovers of the world, rejoice!

We’re giddy with excitement to announce Seattle Opera’s first-ever live audio recording: our fantastic Der Ring des Nibelungen from last summer.

Everyone seems to agree that our 2013 Ring was one for the history books.

General Director Speight Jenkins (who steps down this August after three decades at his post) felt the production was some of the company's best work. “By every measure: voices, orchestra, drama, audience excitement, I truly feel that the 2013 production was the best Ring I produced in my 31 years with the company," he said.

The press agreed.

Opera News said the 2013 production was “better than ever,” and according to Seattle Weekly it was “the company’s strongest performance yet of the epic." The Seattle Times wrote: “Powerful singing, compelling drama, and a surging, urgent orchestra lifted this Ring into the realm of legend: This is a production people will be talking about for a long time to come.”

Speight is thrilled that the recording will, in a way, preserve this memorable show. He explained that the state-of-the-art technology used in recording the 2013 production does justice to what audiences heard in McCaw Hall.

“Traditional microphones can compress or distort the huge voices required in Wagner operas," he said. "We were blessed to use a remarkable, specially-calibrated custom microphone made available by Meyer Sound, one that captures dramatic voices as the theater audience hears them.”

The 14-CD box set of this live recording includes a 54-page booklet featuring full-color production photos, essays, and artist biographies, as well as four separate libretti of the four operas in the original German with Stewart Spencer’s English translation.

The entire package is available for pre-sale exclusively at seattleopera.org/RingCD starting June 25, and retails for $150. If you want to support Seattle Opera, please pre-order! Your Ring CD set will be shipped in August. The commercial release, including for iTunes, is set for September 9. The iTunes release will be mastered for iTunes and offered as an interactive LP with bonus visuals and content.

Conducted by the great Asher Fisch, the recording stars Greer Grimsley, Alwyn Mellor, Stefan Vinke, Stephanie Blythe, Stuart Skelton, Margaret Jane Wray, Richard Paul Fink, Daniel Sumegi, Andrea Silvestrelli, Dennis Petersen, and many others, and features the Seattle Symphony and the Seattle Opera Chorus.

Backstage at last summer's Ring: Rick Fisher, Asher Fisch, Speight Jenkins, Matthew Sutton, and Evans Mirageas
Alan Alabastro, photo

Evans Mirageas, Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera, produced the recording. Mirageas said that being asked to assist Speight Jenkins, the technical team, and all the artists associated with Seattle Opera in this project was a dream come true.

"From my fervid teenage Wagnerian obsessive days of listening to the (then still new) Solti Ring on London/Decca, I have loved this Mount Everest of opera," said Mirageas. "While I never met the legendary Decca producer John Culshaw whose masterwork was the Solti recording, I was his successor at Decca as the head of artists and repertoire but one. I inherited from his protégé Ray Minshull the small brass dragon that was Culshaw’s talisman throughout the Ring recording years. I kept it nearby in this past year or recording and post-production. It has been a privilege and a joy to be a happy Nibelung in this enterprise.”

Evans Mirageas and Fafnerino
Evans Mirageas, photo

This Ring recording was made possible with the cooperation of Seattle Opera’s collective bargaining unions: American Guild of Musical Artists AFL-CIO; IATSE Local 15, 488 and 887; and the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization, a chapter of the International Guild of Symphony, Opera, and Ballet Musicians. Seattle Opera would like to thank executive producers David J. and Linda A. Cornfield for their belief in this project. Recorded live at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, August 2013, by Matthew Sutton & Rick Fisher; edited, mixed and mastered at RFI Mastering by Matthew Sutton and Rick Fisher. The 2013 Ring was made possible by the Valhalla Sponsor, Nesholm Family Foundation / John F. and Laurel Nesholm; the Festival Sponsor, Lufthansa; with additional support by the Carol Franc Buck Foundation.


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

50 Years of Seattle Opera – Now Available Online!

This year, Seattle Opera turned 50. While you might think that makes us over-the-hill, we’re still just a kid among the world’s great opera companies.

Our half-a-century has certainly been a wild ride. We started--back in the days of the Seattle World’s Fair and the creation of Seattle Center--as a gleam in the eye of the ambitious Seattleites who saw that their city could become a major world metropolis. Our first General Director, Glynn Ross, used crazy PR stunts and outrageous marketing tactics (including, but not limited to, skywriting, grocery store billboards, and bumper stickers with slogans such as “Get A-head with Salome”) to grab people's attention and get them in the door; he then majorly delivered the goods, with world superstars such as Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, and Beverly Sills singing here regularly when Seattle Opera was only a few years old. The ambitious Ross then began presenting new American operas, vigorous education and outreach programs, and genre-bending works such as the world premiere of The Who’s Tommy (in 1971, at the Moore Theatre) or Mantra, a combination of kinetic sculpture, dance, classical music, and a psychedelic light show, which toured the state in 1969 thanks to Washington’s Cultural Enrichment Program.

Glynn Ross

Nowadays, for many people worldwide, Seattle Opera means Wagner’s Ring. (For instance, when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, the New York Times included a mention of our Ring in its profile of the city.) Of course, we present all kinds of works on the McCaw Hall stage; but at the heart of what we do is this epic masterpiece, which we first presented in 1975 thanks to Glynn Ross’s ambition and infectious optimism. At the time, it was a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story: a small opera company, barely ten years old and geographically about as far from the opera centers of the world as you can get, took on the biggest challenge in all of opera—and did it justice?! Ross believed that if he built it, they would come; and so they did. They came from all over the world. For every summer. For a decade.

Glynn Ross publicizing Seattle Opera's first Ring
Dale Wittner, photo

Glynn Ross and Seattle Opera parted ways in 1983, and the new General Director, Speight Jenkins, was asked by the board to refresh both the company and its Ring. Jenkins made a number of changes. Instead of offering operas sung in English, as Ross had done (in addition to the original languages), Jenkins was an early adopter of supertitles. A firm believer in opera as theater, Jenkins brought exciting new directors and the latest European trends in staging to Seattle--for example, he discarded Ross’s old “storybook” Ring for a new, visually stunning Brechtian production, set in a world of nineteenth-century theatrical imagination. Instead of doing the Ring every summer, he moved to presenting it every fourth summer, opening up room for other vast productions (such as 1989’s Meistersinger or 1990’s War and Peace). His innovations re-invigorated the company, and, thanks to his high artistic standards, opera lovers around the world began associating Seattle Opera with the utmost in quality.

Speight Jenkins

All this history and much more--premieres of operas such as Of Mice and Men, Black Widow, and Amelia; our productions of all Wagner’s major operas; our fantastic Young Artists Program, launched in 1998 by Education Director Perry Lorenzo; and the people who made it all happen--is extensively chronicled at our special 50th Anniversary mini-site, www.seattleopera50.com. This site is our historical archive. It hosts thousands of photos, audio and video clips, fun stories from behind the scenes, and every program (cover and cast page) since day 1. It’s a resource, not just for remembering and learning about Seattle Opera, but for the art form in general. We hope you, our beloved audience, will comment and share your own memories on these digital pages. Without an audience, we would cease to exist: YOU ARE Seattle Opera.

In addition to this ever-expanding site, you’ll soon have another way to view our company’s history through photos, text and programs. A beautiful coffee-table book, 50 Years of Seattle Opera, written by Melinda Bargreen is in the works. Stay tuned! And thank you for being a part of Seattle Opera’s story.


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Friday, May 16, 2014

Meet our singers: ALFRED WALKER—The Villians

With a magnificent, agile bass-baritone, plus a commanding stage presence, Alfred Walker is totally unforgettable as the four nemeses in The Tales of Hoffmann. According to The Seattle Times, his performance includes singing of "showstopping quality." Dressed in blue with slick shades, he initially draws audience members in as the haughty Councilor Lindorf before taking them on a ride through the insane world of the unhinged Coppélius. As Dr. Miracle, he oozes malevolent mystery, and as the smooth-talking Dapertutto, he enslaves Giulietta with seductive prowess. We spoke with this New Orleans native, (who now calls the woods of New York’s Hudson Valley home) about his return to Seattle six years following his debut here as Orest in Elektra (2008).

What’s the challenge about playing the bad guys in The Tales of Hoffmann?
They all have to be bad, interesting, and connected by a common thread—the challenge is to find that.

Can you describe that process?
It’s both mental and physical. The villains are all crazy and off-kilter, but in different ways. You have to find how to make each character come to life physically—each character needs to walk differently and sound different, too.

Do you have a favorite among them?
Dr. Miracle. His part is the closest to what my voice does naturally in terms of range and style. But I love all of them.

Alfred Walker (Dr. Miracle), Arthur Woodley (Crespel) and Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) in The Tales of Hoffmann. 
Elise Bakketun photo
Was this part originally written for four different people to sing?
That’s a really good point. Traditionally, it was four different people; the parts are so different vocally, with a huge range and different quality required from part to part. I think the most difficult one, oddly, is also the shortest one: Dapertutto—you need a lyric baritone (I’m a bass baritone). There’s some very high singing there. For Coppélius, you have to be sure not to sing in too serious of a tone (he’s a very weird character). Lindorf is very elegant, but very arrogant. I like to think of myself as a nice guy, but you have to get used to the idea that people will see you onstage playing this character and think, “Oh my gosh, what an awful man!”

With your voice-type, do you often get cast as the villain?It depends. Villains are often lower voices, but you have to have a quality in your voice that makes you intimidating, and not every deep voice type can do that. Some lower voices are beautiful; others have more range and a variety of colors. Usually, I either play the villain or someone really strange.

Keith Jameson (Andres), Alfred Walker (Lindorf) and Leah Partridge (Stella) in The Tales of Hoffmann. 
Elise Bakketun photo

Have you come to terms with that?
Yeah, that’s how it goes.

What’s different about this production?

For one thing, the costumes are fantastic. The first day I got fitted I said, ‘Wow!’ I also love Chris Alexander’s direction, as well as all the stage magic and tricks.

Do you have to do any of those tricks?

They’re all kind of done for me. I just wave my hand, and they happen, which makes me look pretty powerful.

Alfred Walker, (Coppelius) in The Tales of Hoffmann. Elise Bakketun photo
Do you have to be over-the-top or, is there more subtlety in your approach?
Both! While these characters are over-the-top what makes them interesting is that they can change unexpectedly. You don’t know what to expect. One minute they’re calm, the next minute, they’re angry and shouting.

How do you juggle the demands of your career with family and relationships?
It’s so hard. We have pets and a lot of friends; I also have a big family in New Orleans. In the morning, I usually dedicate my time to phone calls, checking in with family and friends. Being on the West Coast, it’s easy. When I’m in Europe, it’s harder. Skype is also extremely helpful. I need to maintain these relationships; they’re part of the reason I’m doing this.

What’s your performance regime?
I think it’s important not to do anything to tip off your body that something big is coming up. I know some people who don’t eat a certain item on performance day, or they don’t talk at all. That just makes me too nervous! I need my regular routine.


What do you enjoy most about coming to Seattle?
The coffee! Also, I love the people in Seattle. You guys are different…you’re West Coast people, but different from California (and that’s a good thing!). I love how you embrace your weather here and find beauty in it. When I see people walking around without umbrellas, I put mine away, too. I want to fit in. I have my raincoat and that’s enough. I love that.

So, what’s The Tales of Hoffmann about? Everyone seems to have a slightly different answer.
I think it’s about the villains! They are Hoffmann’s demons, his shadow side. In each story, he intends to do something, but I destroy it. All of us have a shadow side, and we fight to keep it at bay, that’s part of what makes us human. Also, that’s what drives this particular opera.

Alfred Walker (Dr. Miracle) and Leah Partridge (Antonia) in The Tales of Hoffmann. 
Elise Bakketun photo
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
When the prologue starts and the chorus comes out and starts singing before Hoffmann comes in. I love that music so much. It makes me happy.

How did you start singing?
Our college had a chorus, and a good friend of mine was interested in auditioning. You see, there were quite a few cute girls in the chorus (every time I tell this story, I’m kind of embarrassed!). I auditioned for the choirmaster, and I think I only got in because they needed lower voices. The choirmaster asked, “What voice type are you?” and I said, “A tenor!” (laughs) That’s how little I knew about music. He said, “You don’t sound like a tenor.” We started vocalizing and I started screaming. I think I sang a low C, and he said, “You’re definitely not a tenor, you belong in the bass section.” From then on, I started voice lessons with Phil Frohnmayer, a Professor of Voice at Loyola University. He said, “You don’t know how to sing at all, but I think you have a world-class voice.” When I finished with my psychology degree, I decided that I was going to pursue opera. My family thought I was nuts. Phil actually took me through years of studying. I did the Young Artists Program at The Met, but he’s been my only teacher and a real father to me.

Alfred Walker (Lindorf) in The Tales of Hoffmann..
Elise Bakketun photo 





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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Meet Our Singers: RUSSELL THOMAS, Hoffmann

Following his first Tales of Hoffmann performance on Sunday, Russell Thomas received a huge ovation for what the Seattle Times described as his ‘mighty tenor.’ The opera lovers of Seattle have been following Thomas since he was a Young Artist here, in 2002/03, and enjoyed his mainstage debut as Foresto in Verdi’s Attila in 2012. He spoke to us recently about the challenges of singing Hoffmann, about his passion for new American music, and about the life of an opera singer.

Russell Thomas sings Hoffmann’s Tale of Kleinzach

Have you sung this role before?
Once, in Toronto in the spring of 2012.

What was it like to learn Hoffmann for first time?
The role itself is not that difficult to learn; for me, the challenge is French diction. This was my third French role, after Gounod’s and Berlioz’s Faust, and I learned it in Canada, where French is pronounced differently from what I was taught in college. With French diction, you get a lot of different opinions. Italian and German are pretty straightforward in comparison. Long ago I learned that whoever is coaching you that day—they’re right!

What makes Hoffmann different from other roles you sing?
It’s long—probably the longest role I ever will sing. I think it’s one of the longest roles in the tenor repertory. So stamina is a great challenge—pacing it so you make sure you can get through the night without feeling tired.

Russell Thomas as Hoffmann and Leah Partridge as Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

What do you think this opera is about?
I think this opera is a man telling the story of his relationship with a person who has multiple sides to her personality. Sometimes she can be emotionless and cold like a doll, sometimes she can be fragile, and sometimes she can be sexy and whorish. Hoffmann is just like any of us that has ever had a relationship. Everyone has multiple sides to their personalities. I know I do. I’m not the same all the time and especially in relationships we can all be a little crazy. That’s why it’s such a relatable story. Sure, the libretto is complicated, but it’s the story of every man or woman who has experienced a tumultuous relationship.

And the other characters?
The Muse is Hoffmann’s conscience, and it depends on the production, but you could have it that nobody sees the Muse and Nicklausse but Hoffmann. And then you have the Devil. It’s a bit like the kind of cartoon where you have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

Russell Thomas as Foresto in Attila at Seattle Opera, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

Last time you were in Seattle, we heard you sing early Verdi: Attila. And you’ve done some French Verdi: Don Carlos in Berlin. Are you more a French or an Italian tenor?
I like singing in Italian and I love the music of Verdi. I relate more to that style of music, but I’m going to be singing a lot of French repertory, especially in Canada.

What’s the difference between the French and Italian styles?
French Grand Opera requires clean lines. Think about it in terms of fashion: it’s straight lines, and you can see where the beginnings and the ends are. In Italian, the lines are a bit more blurred; you have more flexibility to adjust for your own vocal strengths.

I saw that you’ve worked with John Adams. How did that come about?
I worked with Peter Sellers on a Mozart project for about a year, touring all over the world, and Peter was doing a new opera by John Adams for a festival in Vienna and introduced me to John. John liked me and wrote a character in his opera A Flowering Tree for me. It was a huge success, and we did that opera everywhere. Then John wrote another role for me in another opera, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. I’m a big fan of new music, American music, and I think it’s incumbent on me as an American singer to promote that repertory.

Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) enters Luther’s Bar in the Prologue of The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

It can be difficult to get American audiences to embrace new works the way they do the classics.
I think it’s a question of education. In this country, we grow up with this mentality that anything from Europe is better. I think we need to spend more time, energy and money educating our audiences and letting them know that there’s great American music. It’s not going to sound like Mozart. Art grows and changes over the years, in classical exactly the same as in pop, and someone needs to teach people that.

Tell us a little about the life of an opera singer.
It can be rewarding and exciting, but also a very lonely life, living out of a suitcase and in different places all the time. I know it seems very glamorous to be onstage, and even backstage, but really it’s a very boring life! Often you can’t go out for fear of getting sick, and there’s always so much to learn. I’m working on a role in Rusalka, it’s my first time ever singing Czech, and I’m trying to stay sane by breaking up my day with House of Cards and stuff like that. Your average singer may have 15 or 16 different jobs in a season, and if you’re lucky some of them will be music you’ve sung before, which is easier.

Top to bottom: Alfred Walker (Dapertutto), Leah Partridge (Giulietta), Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) and Keith Jameson (Pitichinaccio) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

How did you become an opera singer?
I was a very odd kid. I’ve been in love with opera since I was 8. I heard it on the radio and I was absolutely fascinated by it, and I remember thinking, “I want to do that.” Luckily I was blessed with the ability to sing. When I was 8 I’d sing in church, and at school, and for family functions, and then I got into children’s chorus and got more involved in classical music and there it is.

Tell us a little about your family.
I’m orignally from Miami, but I currently live in Atlanta. I don’t get to see my family in Miami as often as I would like. I’m planning on adopting this year, which is a big deal. My schedule is booked well into 2018, but luckily the right situation came about: I have some free time when the baby is due. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time, and I think you have to just jump in and take the risk.


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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meet our singers: TICHINA VAUGHN, Antonia’s Mother

Not just any singer could steal the show in less than 10 minutes. But with a personality as big and a voice as astonishing as Tichina Vaughn’s, anything is possible. Normally, you’d find this American mezzo with a beautiful, dramatic sound, in Germany, where she’s created a home-base for her opera career. However, being able to travel to Seattle to do The Tales of Hoffmann is particularly meaningful to the artist, who got her first job in Seattle straight out of The Met Young Artist Development program in her 20s. As she tells it, Speight Jenkins was the first General Director to believe in her. She’s overjoyed to be here for his last performance with the company. 



You play a portrait of Antonia’s mother. That seems like an unusual role!
Initially, I didn't know what (Director Chris Alexander) was going to do with my character. In some productions, Antonia’s mother doesn't actually appear. She’s just a disembodied voice, and actually, that’s sort of how I approached the role (in the score, it just says “la voix,” or, “the voice”). I’m just an incarnation of Antonia’s mother that Dr. Miracle uses to seduce Antonia to her demise.

I hear you often play someone’s mother.
It’s funny because my daughter’s school is doing a play, and she’s playing the mother. I told her, “You’re following in my footsteps!”

How are you so awesome in this show in such a short amount of time?
All I can say is that God made me a ham. Also, I absolutely adore my job. I adore being onstage. I’ve done it my entire life, and I’ve never lost that sense of wonder. Every chance I get, I’m all in.

In this production, you’re supposed to exude “opera diva”…it doesn't seem like too far of a stretch for you, am I wrong?
(Laughs). When they told me that’s what they were going for, I said “I got it! I can definitely do that.”

I know you play a disembodied voice, but what do you know about Antonia’s mother?
The story is that Antonia’s mother was a famous opera singer, but she got sick (I suppose a heart illness or respiratory failure) and died from this illness. Unfortunately, she passes on both the gift of singing, as well as the illness, to her child.

From left: Norah Amsellem (Antonia), Tichina Vaughn (Antonia's Mother) and Nicolas Cavallier (Dr. Miracle).
Elise Bakketun photo
How does the Antonia scene relate to the larger The Tales of Hoffmann story?
It’s just like the other “tales” really: Guy meets girl. Guy loves girl. There’s an assumption of a happy ending. But it doesn't work out. Hoffmann’s first love, Olympia, is sort of a fashion trend. Antonia shows a different aspect of femininity: she’s delicate and vulnerable. Basically, Hoffmann can’t handle any type of lady. Antonia is seduced toward her own destruction, and Hoffmann has to witness all of that. There’s nothing he can do to save her.

Your roots here at Seattle Opera go way back. What do you remember about the 1992 Aida or the 1993 Don Carlos?
Both of those opportunities included roles (Amneris and Eboli, respectively) that I’ve now turned career roles. I’m just so grateful to Speight Jenkins because he was the first person who really believed in me, who took a chance on a young mezzo. This was my first real, substantial role. Auditioning for Speight was intimidating, (I knew he had that eye and that ear for great singers). At one of the Don Carlos rehearsals where i had been constantly marking a difficult aria, Speight came up to me and said, “Now look here, I know you’re nervous, but your voice is made for this, you can do it!”

Tichina Vaughnn as Amneris in the 1992 Aida. Matthew McVay photo. 

What’s it like being an American living in Germany?
I really love it. It’s not really being “An American living in Germany,” because in Europe, everything is so international. Practically every performance I’m in has people of different ethnicities. Honestly, the best part about living in Germany is that it’s in Europe. It’s where this art form originated. It’s like singing on holy ground.

What’s it been like for your daughter and son to grow up in Germany?
I coined a term to describe my kids: “Amereuopean.” They are completely culturally European, though. My son’s heart language is German. If he ever needs to say anything important to me, he always speaks in German. I’m originally from North Carolina, and recently, I took my kids to see where I grew up. We were on the highway, and they my son was like, “Mom, why are you going so slow?” The concept of a speed limit was shocking to my kids. In Germany, of course, on the Autobahn, we don’t have any limit.

What’s it like being a part of Speight’s last production?
It’s something that I’m going to reassure as a truly awesome moment in my life.

Tichina Vaughn (Antonia's Mother) in The Tales of Hoffmann. Elise Bakketun photo




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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Meet Our Artists: ROB D’ARC, Marionette Master

From dancing beer bottles to poofs of smoke, stretchable windows to a melting pistol, there’s a new bit of stage magic every few minutes in Seattle Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Among the show’s most talked-about elements are the beautiful marionettes of Hoffmann and Giulietta, created by Rob D’Arc with Seattle Opera’s costume and prop departments. (Since our production stars both a white and a black tenor, Rob created two different Hoffmann puppets, one for William Burden’s performances and one for those of Russell Thomas; and since Giulietta has a quick offstage costume change, he made two Giulietta puppets, and the costume shop created miniature versions of her two costumes.) I spoke with Rob the other day at his stall in Pike Place Market, where you can purchase "Pop-Up" puppets from his company “Planet of the Puppets.”

Rob D’Arc at “Planet of the Puppets”

How long have you been making puppets?
34 years. I loved puppets when I was a kid, and apprenticed starting in 1980 with a French company, Le Marmoset, a husband-and-wife team. I was kind of like their adopted son. I learned more in those few years than I possibly could have in any other situation.

Did you learn about marionettes with them?
They worked mostly with hand-puppets. One of my jobs was to adapt their scripts, because they performed with thick French accents and we could turn that to our advantage. For instance, one time we were doing an undersea show, about penguins, and he would say, “ze Souse Pole.” So for the set, I painted a sign with that spelling: “Souse Pole”—and when the curtain went up for that scene, we would get a laugh.

Nicolas Cavallier (Dapertutto), puppets Hoffmann and Giulietta, and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) in Seattle Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

Have you been involved with operas other than The Tales of Hoffmann?
No, although I’ve worked with ballet—created masks for The Nutcracker (another Hoffmann story!). Ten years ago, when this Tales of Hoffmann was first created, Seattle Opera was calling around to various local puppeters, and Dimitri Carter of Carter Family Marionettes recommended me. I think what really sealed the deal was that when Chris Alexander, the director of Hoffmann, was talking about all the things he wanted the puppets to do—drop her fan, dab at her eyes with a handkerchief, gesture with a mirror, paddle a miniature gondola—I was brutally honest and told him, “Let’s be realistic, you’re asking an opera singer, who is not trained as a puppeteer, to operate two marionettes, one in either hand; you may need to scale back our expectation of what’s possible.” I think he appreciated my honesty!

Nicolas Cavallier and Rob D’Arc backstage at The Tales of Hoffmann
Alan Alabastro, photo

How hard is it to teach a non-puppeter to operate a marionette?
When I designed the puppets for Hoffmann I wanted to keep them very simple, so that the only thing the singer has to worry about is balance. If you’re not careful about their posture, they slant a bit to the side; as Nicolas Cavallier said, “It looks like he’s skiing.”

The miniature stars of The Tales of Hoffmann
Alan Alabastro, photo

So most marionettes don’t have the little thumb-operated controls for the legs?
That’s a “Pepito Control,” to operate the legs with just a rocking movement of the thumb; that was designed by Jim Rose, probably 25 or 30 years ago. (His mother and father designed Howdy Doody, for you puppet fans!) Our puppets also have extender-bars, to make the arms go further, because they are tall puppets with short strings. And at the back, instead of a string it’s got a piano-wire rod, inspired by Czech marionette design. Czech puppets have these rods that go through the head, to keep things from getting tangled. I combined lots of design-ideas in the hopes of making something very simple to operate, as we didn’t have a lot of time. Geoff Alm, Seattle Opera’s fight choreographer, had about an hour to stage the big sword fight in Act Three, and I had an hour with each of the two singers, Nicolas and Alfred Walker, and then a stray minute or two here or there in rehearsal. I didn’t have any time to work with them in terms of getting into the gondola. That’s tricky; it has to look like the puppet is stepping into the gondola. The puppets can’t suddenly levitate and float into the gondolas...that destroys the illusion!

Nicolas Cavallier, Rob D’Arc, and friends
Alan Alabastro, photo

I’d like to go back to what you were saying about Czech puppet design.
It’s an amazing industry. If you’re on the streets of Prague, or any big city, there are street vendors who sell thousands of these amazing marionettes, made in big factories. With a looped piece of wire, a little wooden dowel, a cross-T, and a couple of strings you get amazing control on a small marionette.

Vodnìk Marionette

I have a little Czech puppet of Vodnìk, a popular character from Czech folklore and the beautiful Dvořák opera Rusalka...part of that central European opera/puppet connection.
Opera and puppetry go very well together; both forms are so over-the-top! Neither one is limited by the needs of realism. And there are so many cultural connections; every culture has its own style of puppetry. It’s an international form with specific national schools, just like opera. In Sicily, for instance, they use these large marionettes, 4 or 5 feet tall, with metal armor, weighing 80 pounds, and perform a cycle of stories based on Orlando Furioso.

An epic poem which also inspired huge numbers of operas.
Yes, at Northwest Puppet Center, where they do an opera every year, they tell me there are a number of operas that were composed specifically for marionettes.

Where else can we see your work?
You can find me most weekends down at Pike Place Market, here at “Planet of the Puppets” (or like our Facebook page). And I take a lot of private commissions. It’s lots of fun to come up with something that’s never been done before. And I’m always willing to be honest about what’s possible!

Rob D’Arc and Pike Place Market shoppers

Down here at the Market, I see you’re selling these fun little “Pop-Up Puppets,” made from tongue depressors and paint swizel sticks...
Yes, and we also sell kits, to make a dozen Pop-Up Puppets at home, at a party, or perhaps a business retreat. With these, we’ve done most of the work already, and all that’s left is the creativity. In fact that’s the part most adults are a bit nervous about! But people have had a lot of fun, doing self-portraits, or glueing little print-outs of photos of themselves and their friends to the tops of these puppets. It’s a lot of fun!

This may be a dumb question...but what’s your favorite part of The Tales of Hoffmann?
You’d think it would be the puppets in the Giulietta scene. But surprisingly, I love the Olympia scene! I love automata, I know a bit about their history, and the fact that she’s singing this incredibly complicated piece, and acting it out physically, and malfunctioning—I love that. And the fact that he falls in love with something that isn’t real. That’s my business—making people fall in love with things that aren’t real!


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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Meet Our Singers: NICOLAS CAVALLIER, The Villains

French bass Nicolas Cavallier made a strong Seattle Opera debut as Mozart’s Figaro in 2009. Seattle audiences then enjoyed this versatile artist’s moving portrayal of Massenet’s Don Quichotte in 2011. Now he returns as in a very different role: the shape-shifting nemesis of Hoffmann, who foils his romances at every turn. Cavallier told us about how basses have all the fun—and what American opera audiences have in common with Chinese!

Nicolas Cavallier sings Lindorf’s couplets from The Tales of Hoffmann

Your roles for Hoffmann are such a change from your last role here of Don Quichotte! Which is more fun to play: a saintlike, virtuous character or a villain?
Basses get to have it both ways. I love the wonderful humor of Don Quichotte, but it’s also a blast to be the nasty guy...or in this case, a variety of nasty guys. I play all kinds of devils, in this opera, in Faust, in operas such as The Rake’s Progress. The devil has to be appealing. In the French tradition he is always ambiguous.

Nicolas Cavallier (Lindorf) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

In The Tales of Hoffmann your four devil-characters are quite different.
Yes, Councilor Lindorf, my character in the Prologue, is not too nasty; let’s call him “playful.” Coppélius is lots of fun, Dr. Miracle is much darker, and Dapertutto, though he has less to sing, he is a nasty piece of work...the darkest one in this opera.

Nicolas Cavallier (Dapertutto) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

Have you sung The Tales of Hoffmann often?
Yes, I’ve been singing these roles for 15 years, since the first one I ever did in Lièges. I’ve done it in Geneva, Avignon, Marseille, and farther afield: Albania, Hong Kong. and it was interesting how the people reacted in China—they were more like an American audience, audibly enjoying themselves.

Nicolas Cavallier (Coppélius) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

What is The Tales of Hoffmann about?
A man who thinks he is in love with three different women, but it’s all in his imagination. It is possible to blind yourself with love; here, for instance, he falls in love with a doll, with a woman who is near death, and with a whore. And at the end he loses his soul. He loses everything.

What’s the vocal challenge for the bass? Are these four roles even written for the same voice?
Not exactly. In fact on many old recordings they have four different singers. To do them all you need a very big bass-baritone range. Coppélius is a basso buffo, really; Dr. Miracle, in the middle act, sings in a low register but it must be very strong as he has to hold his own in two very dramatic trios. And Dapertutto’s aria, “Scintille, diamant” is actually quite high.

Which character is your favorite?
Dr. Miracle.

Nicolas Cavallier (Dr. Miracle) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

And what’s your favorite moment in the opera?
Nicklausse’s “Violin Aria.” It’s so beautiful.

What advice would you give an opera-goer who is attending Tales of Hoffmann for the first time?
Listen for the Frenchness of the music. Although it comes from German stories, it is very French; in fact it’s the most popular French opera after Carmen. French opera must be effervescent—it requires a huge amount of energy from everyone involved. The most famous moments in the opera are the “Barcarolle” in the Venice scene, sung by Nicklausse and Giulietta, and the Trio that concludes the Antonia act.

Keep in mind, Offenbach himself never heard this opera. He died before completing it, before it was ever performed. You have to finish it each time you put it on, because people keep on finding new pieces of music and trying them out. I’ve been in 15 productions now, and every time there was a slight change: a new aria there, a different version of a recitative there.

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Quichotte) in Don Quichotte, 2011
Rozarii Lynch, photo

You are French, but much of your training happened in the UK.
Yes, they have a more laid-back approach to music in the UK. Sometimes in France we take ourselves too seriously! I’m coming to Seattle from Strasbourg, in eastern France, where I was singing Merlin in Chausson’s Le roi Arthus, a King Arthur opera, staged by Keith Warner. That was really great, it was a wonderful experience.

Where is home?
Paris. I have been very lucky. I have friends in this business who go without seeing their families for months. This is unacceptable. When my two children were young I stayed nearby so they could see me from time to time. I tried to do both things well—career and family.

Nicolas Cavallier (Figaro) in The Marriage of Figaro, 2009
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Where is your favorite place in the world to sing?
I like singing in Strasbourg, and I’ve been impressed with the public in the UK. Vienna is wonderful. And in Seattle, I was so moved by the way the audiences enjoyed Don Quichotte.

Do you have any particular pre-performance rituals?
I like to go onstage when the public is not there. I get the feeling of the room, and walk through what I have to do. I greet the technicians, as we all prepare to do the show together. I need the feeling of the room. You have to feel at home.

Speight Jenkins is bidding us all farewell with this production. What has Speight meant to your career?
I’m very grateful for the jobs he has given me in Seattle; if he believes in you, he is faithful. He is a visionary. There are very few general directors who have the knowledge and vision of what opera can be. I respect the sheer passion that he has for opera. He’s very attuned to his singers; he loves them.


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