Friday, May 15, 2015

Meet Our Singers: MARCY STONIKAS, Ariadne

When Marcy Stonikas first auditioned for Seattle Opera, many years ago, the decision was made to schedule Ariadne auf Naxos for the Young Artists Program, since we’d found an amazing young Ariadne! Stonikas sang many roles all over the state of Washington, over the course of two years in the Young Artists Program, and in the years following has emerged on the mainstage as an exceptional artist—a powerhouse soprano who’s able to bring reality and flair to such wonderful characters as Turandot, Fidelio, and (last season) Magda Sorel. After a thrilling performance in last summer’s International Wagner Competition, Stonikas returns now to the role that got her started at Seattle Opera—Strauss’s wonderful Ariadne.

Marcy Stonikas sings a passage from Ariadne auf Naxos

Marcy, you saved Seattle Opera in January, when another singer got sick, by going on at the last minute as a replacement emergency Tosca! What was that like?
You know, I can’t really remember—I was so 100% going on adrenaline, just trying to get through the role and make sure I was in the right place at the right time, singing the right words. I know I was thinking about making it to Tosca’s final jump—as soon as I jump, I told myself, my brain might come back online.

And you hadn’t sung Tosca in a while. Did you find the role was there in muscle memory, ready to go?
Yes, that’s the only way it could have worked. She’s in there, somewhere. It was know, there hadn’t been an opportunity for me to rehearse with Greer [Grimsley, the Scarpia]. Finally, during the first act intermission, we rehearsed the scene where I kill him. He’s an amazing colleague; he was just like, “Wherever you are, I’ll come find you...don’t worry about me.” At one point we were very close and he was singing to me, and I remember turning my head so that I would be able to hear the next day. I thought I was going to go deaf.

Marcy Stonikas as Ariadne in the 2010 Young Artists Program production
Chris Bennion, photo

You sang Ariadne with the Young Artists Program five years ago. How is she different now?
It feels even better, if that’s possible, because it felt good then. But everything is slightly easier to sing. Plus, five years ago I was not as seasoned a performer. So the Prologue is a lot more fun for me now; last time it was a little hairy. Five years ago, I wasn’t as comfortable playing around, which you have to do in the Prologue. Now I’m less worried that I’m going to look stupid. Plus, my German is much better now; I’ve sung much more German and spent some time in Austria, so I have a better handle on the language.

Marcy Stonikas as Ariadne and Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

That’s interesting, because Ariadne has a very rich libretto.
Yes, it’s poetic, full of imagery, very philosophical. I’ve been put in a position to rethink some of the poetry, because our director this time, Chris Alexander, has a different interpretation from that of Peter Kazaras, who staged it in 2010.

Marcy Stonikas (Ariadne) offers herself to Jeffrey Hartmann (Bacchus) in the final scene of Ariadne auf Naxos
Elise Bakketun, photo

The first part of the story is reasonably straightforward—you’re alone on this desert island, dumped and abandoned by your faithless lover, and you’re very sad. But can you explain the story, from Ariadne’s point of view, starting with the arrival of Bacchus?
Right, so Bacchus shows up, and Ariadne thinks that he is the messenger of death, Hermes. The Grim Reaper. She’s been waiting for him, and she sees death as her salvation—she wants to get off this horrible island. And she is ecstatic that he’s finally come. Now, when she first looks at him, she thinks—“Oh, wait, you’re Theseus, not Hermes.” And Theseus is her ex, of course. Not who she wanted to see.

Why does she make that mistake?
I think it’s just that she hasn’t seen a man for so long. She corrects herself right away: “No, no, it’s not Theseus, it’s really Hermes.” So then she bows to him and tells him to take her away; and it’s funny, it’s dramatic, they’re attracted to each other, there’s all this beautiful music, but really what happens is they’re just having miscommunication after miscommunication. We’re drawn to one another; there’s great chemistry. Love at first sight. But completely misunderstanding each other. Bacchus thinks she’s like Circe, that she’s gonna turn him into a pig. Ariadne thinks he’s the Grim Reaper, about to take her away from this world! And eventually she figures out: Maybe this guy isn’t actually Death, but some other god. So in the end, she says: “Okay! I guess we’re doing this, then!” And she just goes with it. Anything to get off the island!

Jeffrey Hartmann as Bacchus and Marcy Stonikas as Ariadne
Elise Bakketun, photo

How do you find the sweet spot with Ariadne, in terms of serious and comedy?
The way we did it before, Ariadne never broke character; she wouldn’t deign to interact with the comics. In this production I’m more of the Prima Donna, annoyed at the comics who keep interrupting my scenes.

The four clowns annoy Marcy Stonikas as Ariadne
Elise Bakketun, photo

That’s probably a lot funnier.
I certainly have more fun with it! It’s nice not to have to stay so stoic.

Is there humor in the scene with Bacchus?
Their misunderstandings are very sweet. He goes on and on about Circe, you know, and then she says: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

It’s a bit like the Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet. She sings this long passage, and eventually he’s like: “Your voice is pretty! What were you saying? I wasn’t listening.”
I think it’s really kind of charming. They’re cute, they’re shy, like a couple of blushing teenagers.

Marcy Stonikas' Prima Donna swoons in the Ariadne Prologue
Elise Bakketun, photo

Changing the subject a bit, what’s the biggest public misconception about opera singers?
When people find out I’m an opera singer, they usually say: “Oh, wow! That is so cool!” They assume I have a lot more money than I have...and suddenly they think I’m...I guess the word is ‘classier.’ More lady-like. (laughs) As my husband likes to say, “She had two choices for career; she was either going to be a long-haul trucker or an opera singer!” Most opera singers are very regular people.

What’s the best way for someone who’s new to opera to learn more about it?
Just go. People worry that it’s going to be unapproachable, or boring or they won’t understand it. But if it’s a good production, you understand it, and you’ll really surprised by how moving it is. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to get it; you don’t have to do loads of research. You can, if you want to. But it’s not a prerequisite.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Three Keyboards in the ARIADNE Orchestra

Our orchestra for Ariadne auf Naxos features the three wise men of Seattle Opera’s music department: Head of Coach-Accompanists DAVID MCDADE at the piano, Chorusmaster JOHN KEENE on harmonium, and Assistant Conductor PHIL KELSEY on the celeste. It turns out Strauss was very intentional about his use of these three keyboard instruments, all of which are rarely found in an opera orchestra. I asked our three wise guys some questions about one of the most intriguing scores we’ve ever presented, and found out much about Strauss’s magical music.

In the Ariadne orchestra pit
Elise Bakketun, photo

David McDade, how often have you played the piano part in Ariadne auf Naxos?

David McDade: Twice before (2004 and 2010). It’s peculiar; several bars can be played with one finger, while others are virtuoso flourishes. It turns out the third time is the charm; I feel I can really play it now!

Whose side is the piano on, in this tug of war between serious and comedy?
David McDade: The clowns. I create a sort of dance-hall atmosphere for them in the Prologue, and I’m the dominant instrument in Zerbinetta’s aria. But once Bacchus arrives I join with the “serious” harps, and in the final pages I play extravagant arpeggios as the music swells and the fireworks go off. So if I begin as a comedian, I am certainly won over by the love story!

John Keene at the harmonium and David McDade at the piano
Elise Bakketun, photo

How do you sync what you’re doing, particularly in the big Zerbinetta aria, with all the craziness that’s happening onstage?
David McDade: I just follow the maestro, and the onstage craziness actually syncs with me. Our onstage pianist, actor Kyle Cable, learned the piano part so he could mime it effectively onstage. Someone told me they thought he really WAS playing the part onstage!

David McDade accompanies Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta in the recitative of her big aria

John Keene, why is the harmonium in this opera?

John Keene: At first I wondered why this unusual instrument was necessary, given the pared-down scale of the Ariadne orchestra. But the harmonium is audible because the orchestra is so small. It gives a quality of majestic grandeur to the character of Ariadne, yet it has this uniquely homey quality. A real organ might be too big, too grand, too sacred for this show-within-a-show. I think Strauss was taking advantage of the harmonium’s odd color to locate us on this mythic island—where is it, exactly?

What’s the technical challenge of playing the harmonium?
John Keene: The instrument I’m playing, which belongs to David Dahl of Tacoma, is about a hundred years old. Some later harmoniums had electric mechanisms, but this is a period instrument which you operate by foot, pumping pedals to operate its bellows. It’s not very precise, rhythmically; it doesn’t respond like a piano. That’s why Strauss wrote mostly chordal progressions, which can be more vague, rhythmically. There’s often a delay, based on how full the bellows are. The lower pitches require more air and respond slower. I’ve had to learn how to keep the bellows full of air—something you don’t have to worry about when playing the piano.

John Keene at the harmonium

John Keene accompanies Issachah Savage as Bacchus

Phil Kelsey, Seattle Opera has now done four productions of Ariadne auf Naxos. What are your fondest memories of working on this piece?

Phil Kelsey: Nadine Secunde sang Ariadne wonderfully in ’91. Jane Giering-DeHaan was our Zerbinetta in 2004, but my memory of her with that role goes back ten years earlier, to when she first auditioned for Speight Jenkins. I played piano at that audition; I remember she said, “I’m prepared to sing Zerbinetta’s aria, but you might not want to hear all of it.” But she kicked butt, and Speight didn’t stop her. She was wonderful. She made it all the way to the end, and then Speight said, “That was just about the best I ever heard!”

Another memory I have of that 2004 production: my stepson, who was then about 19 or 20, and a fan of heavy metal, came to it and he’s talked about it ever since. His favorite opera ever. Chris Alexander’s production totally sells the show to that demographic.

Phil Kelsey's hand, about to turn the page on the celeste part
Elise Bakketun, photo

As the celeste, what’s your role in this opera?
Phil Kelsey: The celeste is associated with Bacchus. That’s why, in the Opera proper, the celeste contributes one little four-note pattern in Ariadne’s opening aria and then does not play again until Bacchus comes in with “Circe! Circe!” I have a 41-minute long rest. After that I play a lot, mostly to characterize Bacchus and his magic. The celeste is a kind of magic instrument. In the Prologue, it accompanies the Composer’s final conclusion: “Musik ist eine heilge Kunst” (Music is a holy art).

Phil Kelsey accompanies Kate Lindsey as the Composer

Strauss was obsessed with the genius of Mozart’s transitions, particularly how he shifted between comedy and serious in operas such as Don Giovanni. What do you think about the twists and turns, the about-faces between serious and silly, in Ariadne auf Naxos?
David McDade: The Prologue is all about transition. The music changes with every thought, and the dramatic tension never lets up, so it’s one of the finest conversations in music I know. Often things turn on a dime – BAM! we’re in a new scene - but so organically that it works.

Phil Kelsey: Yes, the Prologue has this mosaic quality. It’s all accompanied recitative, a fantastic text, with musical snippets of stuff you’ll hear later. Musically, it’s hard to follow the Prologue unless you already know the opera; it’s as if the characters are wearing only part of their costume. But that’s also the fun of it. The text is crucial. In America, Ariadne only started taking off once we had supertitles in our opera houses.

The Opera is much easier to follow, musically. The transitions are not so abrupt; as Ariadne is finishing her big aria, suddenly a few clowns peek out around the corner, and ok, now we’re doing something else. And when the comedians leave and the nymphs return, there’s a brilliant transition—Strauss kicks us down a half step, harmonically, and suddenly we’re in a completely different key. With a million more sharps.

David McDade: And that final love duet is just one tune after another, a seamless flow of song where I’m not even aware of transitions. Ariadne asks “Is there no passage? Are we already there?” Indeed!

Phil Kelsey and John Keene in the pit
Elise Bakketun, photo

Okay, saving the hardest question for last. What is Ariadne auf Naxos about?
David McDade: This opera illustrates conflicting attitudes about “high” and “low” art and ultimately demonstrates they are aspects of the same theatrical experience and complementary to each other.

John Keene: At first you think it’s crazy and impossible, and what you find out is that there isn’t a wall between the two worlds. They morph into and out of each other - we're all more alike than we are different.

Phil Kelsey: It’s difficult to reduce Ariadne auf Naxos to something that fits in a fortune cookie. That said, it’s either: “You think your life is over because he dumped you, but it’s not true.” Or: “Another opening, another show!”

David McDade: And—perhaps on a personal level for Strauss and Hofmannsthal—it reveals the often unspoken loneliness at the heart of every artist.

Photos: David McDade (Jonathan Vanderweit), John Keene and Phil Kelsey (Alan Alabastro)

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Meet Our Singers: KATE LINDSEY, the Composer

Kate Lindsey returns to Seattle Opera to star as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. The local favorite has twice won Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year Award: for her debut, creating the title role in the world premiere of Amelia in 2010, and last season, for the Muse and Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann. She spoke to me the other day about how playing soccer as a girl trained her to play boys onstage, about the psychological complexity of this wonderful character she plays in Ariadne, and offered some advice for people who are new to opera.

Kate Lindsey sings the Composer's Aria

Last year in Seattle, you were fantastic as Hoffmann’s young male sidekick Nicholas; here you are as the young male Composer, and coming up next you’re Cherubino in San Francisco. Do you like playing all these male characters?
Sure! Think about it—how many actors regularly get to change genders when they do their jobs? I think it’s happening a bit more frequently nowadays, as people push boundaries and tell stories with more psychological intensity. But there aren’t too many art forms where you get this opportunity.

But as a mezzo soprano, it happens a lot.
A casualty of the job! But I enjoy it. I don’t even think of it as gender anymore. We’re all human. We’re much closer to each other than society would like to admit. Our culture trains us: “Oh, you’re a boy, so you need to be more like this,” or “Girls are like this.” But the beauty of theater is how it gets to the heart of any character, to their humanity, who they are inside. And we all have both feminine and masculine within us. When I’m working on a trouser role, maybe I recognize and honor more of that masculine energy within me; but it can flow and shift really beautifully. It’s sad that most people feel they can’t explore the fluidity between their feminine and masculine sides.

Is it hard for a young mezzo soprano to do a trousers role for the first time? To do something they’ve been trained NOT to do their whole life, by family and culture and religion?
For me it wasn’t that hard because I grew up playing soccer with the boys. We didn’t have a girls’ team for the longest time. So I never felt strange about acting as a boy, moving as a boy. Now, when I did my first stage kiss with another girl—that was a little strange for me! (laughs)

Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta and Kate Lindsey as the Composer sing a passage from the love scene that concludes the Ariadne Prologue

How old were you when you first sang a trousers role?
19, summer after freshman year at Indiana University. It was Cherubino, I sang it at the Bay Area Summer Opera Institute (or BASOTI). That summer was really formative for me, in terms of deciding to go into opera. I got lots of encouragement!

How old were you the first time you sang the Composer?
That was just two summers ago, at Glyndebourne. The Composer is a great character. Strauss was adamant that Hofmannsthal not model the character on Strauss. I get the sense, from reading their letters, that the Composer is modeled on their understanding of Mozart, this child prodigy. I find the Composer has a lot in common with Cherubino, another Mozart-type character. He’s got this wild energy. I love how Strauss composes screams into his vocal line (demonstrates)—sort of like a donkey braying! The musical line can become really jagged and disconnected. I love that frenetic energy, loose and slightly insane.

Kate Lindsey as the Composer
Alan Alabastro, photo

Speaking of high notes, is the Composer really a mezzo soprano role?
You know, a soprano debuted it. It’s high, and it stretches the voice. It’s a hard sing! But every time I come back to it, it feels easier. When you’ve worked on a piece and then you put it away and come back a year later, it’s like planting a bulb—it’s there, rooted in the ground, and it can blossom again each time you do it. The more grounded or rooted you are, the more weightless you can appear.

Kate Lindsey as the Composer, creating a new aria for his opera

How old is the Composer?
I think he’s 16, 17 years old. He’s a prodigy whose genius was discovered by his parents at a young age. I don't think he came from money, so they sent him off to school to develop his talent. I think he basically lives with the Music Teacher—this man who is his friend, parental figure, and psychologist.

Patrick Carfizzi as the Music Teacher and Kate Lindsey as the Composer
Elise Bakketun, photo

I think the Composer’s idealization of Ariadne comes from the fact that he didn’t have much of a relationship with his own mother. He has this really idealistic idea of what love is, of how a fully-formed adult woman loves, because he never had any real experience of women.

Kate Lindsey as the Composer and Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

So he’s never met anyone like Zerbinetta before.
No, he’s been completely sheltered. And at first he can’t understand her at all. A woman? What? Legs? What are those things? He’s lived all his life in stories and poetry, not in real life. So when he meets Zerbinetta, he doesn’t see her as a sexual object, because he doesn’t yet know that part of himself. And she can’t understand WHY he doesn’t see her as a sexual object.

Zerbinetta (Sarah Coburn) and the Composer (Kate Lindsey) connect at the conclusion of Ariadne auf Naxos
Elise Bakketun, photo

And thank goodness for that miscommunication—since they can’t understand each other at first, they spend more time trying to figure each other out, and that’s how they come to fall in love. Now we have a few less Ariadne-specific questions for you. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
As I exited the stage one time, I ran directly into a door post because my eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark. The next time I came onstage, I had a HUGE, egg shaped bump protruding from my forehead.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
I was doing a Hoffmann in which the tenor had a quick change into shorts after the Prologue. Unfortunately, the quick change happened a little early...on stage...during his “Kleinzach” aria. Those pants fell right down while he was standing on a table. I don't think anyone onstage was able to keep it together in that moment!

Kate Lindsey as little Kleinzach in Seattle Opera's 2014 The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

Describe an artistic achievement that you’re proud of.
Seattle Opera Artist of the Year!... and definitely premiering Amelia here in Seattle. It was a huge opportunity, and an incredible project.

Kate Lindsey as Amelia at Seattle Opera, 2010
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Describe an artistic challenge that made you grow.
There are so many! I definitely grew from stepping in for Rosina in The Barber of Seville at the very last minute one time. I had 24 hours to study the video and figure out the cuts before getting onstage. I didn't even have time to panic. So it became rather liberating because I improvised my way through the night!

David Adam Moore (Figaro) and Kate Lindsey (Rosina) in (a more carefully rehearsed!) Barber of Seville at Seattle Opera, 2011
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What’s the biggest public misconception about opera singers?
That they are these fancy, elite-minded people. I know so many opera singers who come from really humble backgrounds -- people who grew up on farms, sang in church -- people with really normal lives who didn't really ever even know that much about opera until someone helped them discover their gifts and the music.

What music do you listen to regularly?
A lot of folk, acoustic, coffee-house sorts of stuff. I honestly don't listen to opera to relax because I listen to it so analytically. I can feel the sensations of the singers so acutely as they move through a phrase that my sympathetic system gets stressed out! Opera is never background music for me—it requires my full attention when listening!

Take us through a normal performance day for you.
I sleep till 9 or 9:30, then get up, take my dog out for a walk. Have my coffee and my toast with peanut butter. Hit a yoga class (or do it at the apartment). Relax in the afternoon -- read or nap depending. Then, I fix a protein-rich meal to have before I go to the theater. Eggs, avocado, cheese... major staples to my routine!

Kate Lindsey as the Composer takes some refreshment in the Prologue of Ariadne auf Naxos
Elise Bakketun, photo

What do opera lovers have in common?
The time-less enjoyment of the art form. The fact that there is ALWAYS more to learn. Each opera you study takes you into so many eye-opening aspects of history. It's endless, what you can learn.

What’s the public’s biggest misconception about opera?
That it's hard to understand and that it's only for a certain economic class of people. Even outside of the words, the music tells you so much. And opera is really an art form that is meant to be enjoyed by's often not as expensive to go see as some pop concerts and sports events.

Opera can be pretty outlandish. How do you keep it real?
By trying to connect to the truth of the emotions that the character is feeling at the moment. We can always connect via empathy with some element of what this character is feeling.

What excites you the most about opera?
The combination of the orchestra, the voices, the staging, the's a total senses experience. We don't get that vibratory experience when we're listening at home, but when we're in the opera house we feel the strength of each instrument -- all working together to create incredible sounds.

What’s the best way for someone who’s new to opera to learn more about it?
Commit to a season. Get some season tickets. Go to the info sessions before and after the performance that are offered by practically every opera company. They will inform you about so much. Take advantage of all the free educational outreach that is offered (it makes the ticket price feel REALLY affordable when you take advantage of these perks!)

Discover what touches you - why certain operas grab you more than others and then pursue that. You'll probably learn something about yourself and they way music speaks through you, in the meantime. Just commit to that one season, and see where you are after.

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Monday, May 4, 2015


Listen to music from this weekend's stellar performances of Ariadne auf Naxos, now posted on SoundCloud!

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Meet Our Singers: SARAH COBURN, Zerbinetta

Zerbinetta is one of the most demanding roles ever written for high coloratura, and Sarah Coburn is taking on the challenge for the first time this season at Seattle Opera. Coburn is no stranger to Seattle audiences, who enjoyed her Daughter of the Regiment last year and her Rosina in The Barber of Seville in 2011. Seattle’s die-hard opera addicts remember Coburn as a promising Young Artist more than ten years ago. This versatile singer, who has sung in English, Italian, French, and now German at Seattle Opera, is balancing an important career as a singer with being a mother of two—and now expecting a third.

Sarah Coburn sings a passage from Zerbinetta's "Als ein Gott"

Sarah, congratulations on your first Zerbinetta! Had you sung the big aria before?
Nope, I hadn’t studied a note of it. I learned the whole role from scratch, which has been a wonderful challenge—no old bad habits! It’s one of my favorite roles now.

Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

It’s such a huge role. How long did it take you to learn it?
Quite a while—with two little kids running all over the place, it’s can be hard to find time to sit down at the piano and study new roles. I’ve had to become very efficient with my study time. For this and for Rosenkavalier, my husband speaks German very well so he helped—he would quiz me.

Take us through a normal performance day for you.
I usually try to take a little nap in the afternoon, and sometimes I can sync that with my youngest daughter’s nap. Usually I eat about 2 pm, and then bring a sandwich with me to the theater, to my dressing room. No garlic or onions! We pregnant women are extra sensitive to smells. With my colleagues I have been high maintenance in the smell department; sorry, guys!

Let’s talk about Zerbinetta. What does she learn in this opera?
I thinks it’s more a question of confirming what she already knows. For all her theatricality, she really isn’t very dramatic; she knows love comes and goes, and you just need to go with it. At the end, she may walk off with the Composer, and they’ll have a wonderful relationship for a time...but not forever.

Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta and Kate Lindsey as the Composer in a tender moment from the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos

What’s the appeal of the Composer, for Zerbinetta?
He’s different from every other man she’s met. He’s innocent, idealistic, unapprochable. She’s more jaded. She’s had lots of relationships, and I think she’s used to men treating her a certain way. “People think they know me,” she says, “because I play the coquette onstage. But there’s more to me than just that!” And she reveals some vulnerability, in her duet with the Composer, which appeals to him.

Kate Lindsey as the Composer and Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

But he’s not going to transform her into a total romantic.
No. Nor an honest woman. I think she has learned to take life as it comes. I don’t think her past was all that peaceful.

That’s right, she tells Ariadne that she (Zerbinetta) has been marooned on these desert islands herself. Can you give us the story of Ariadne auf Naxos from Zerbinetta’s point of view?
Sure, I was hired to do my thing, singing and dancing, part of this comedy team. We do this all the time—we have a fabulous little show, entertaining, light, and funny. In this case we’re supposed to follow this really serious, long, heavy opera, and I’m worried that the audience is going to be worn out by the time it’s over. But then we find out that we have to do both shows at the same time, and everyone except Zerbinetta freaks out about it. I just think, “Whatever...we’ll make it work!” I’m used to being quick on my feet, in situations that require spontaneity and flexibility. We’re not a high-budget operation and we’ve probably had to deal with worse before.

Doug Jones as the Dancing Master and Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

Does she like doing the superimposed comedy-meets-tragedy mash-up?
She likes a challenge. She likes competing with the Prima Donna; that makes it fun. As a singer I identify with that; I don’t like being onstage alone. It’s more comfortable for me if there’s a colleague to push and pull, to compete with. So we interrupt this opera, and try to superimpose comedy on top of this tragedy. And then, when the guys are not successful in cheering Ariadne up, I send them away and take up the challenge myself.

And then you sing a 15-minute long aria. How on earth do you do that?

Is there anything else like it? The mad scene in Lucia, maybe?
No, that’s different, because you don’t have to look pretty or calm. For me that’s the easiest part of the night, in Lucia, because you can just let go. Zerbinetta is absolutely different, vocally. It’s not bel canto. It needs to be placed very deliberately. Much of it is disjointed; leaps that don’t come naturally.

And Zerbinetta is the opposite of Lucia here—she’s absolutely in control.
Cute, and charming, and flirtatious, and in control, yes. With a daunting new role like this, what I have to do is convince myself that I’ve done it a million times. It needs spontaneity, freshness of thought. My wonderful teacher, Rita Shane, always said, "You don’t recreate; you always create.” You may have had a great performance the day before, but if you try to do exactly the same thing again, you will fail—you’re not the same exact person that you were the day before. It’s tricky.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
I broke my little toe at an orchestra tech for Rigoletto—I caught my toe on a table as I was running across the stage, and as I came over to my father, I looked down and saw my toe sticking out at this weird angle. I said to him: “My toe is broken, please don’t step on it!” So I covered it up with my nightgown so I wouldn’t have to look at it, and we sang the duet, and he’s telling me “Piangi, fanciulla,” which means, “Weep, child...” and I did! Real tears! Real tears that day!

Andrew Garland as Harlekin and Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta
Elise Bakketun, photo

What’s the biggest public misconception about opera singers?
A lot of people say to me: “You’re so small! How can that big sound come out of your body?” There’s a misconception that you have to be a big person to have a big voice. What you need is a big head, with space for the sound to resonate. I have a very large head for my body size. I once shared a wig with Placido Domingo! (It was Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Met, we had these long Chinese-style pony tails.) There’s a terrible trend going on right now, of changing the way opera is cast, to get people who look good onscreen. Opera is about voices, not looks. Opera-lovers are people who’ve gotten hooked at some point by the experience of a human voice that just nails you to your seat. That’s what makes you an opera-lover for life, and there’s nothing else like it. Renee Fleming singing Arabella did that to me, and Deborah Polaski and Deborah Voight in Elektra. And Lawrence Brownlee. I’ll never forget, I was 23 years old, we were in the Met finals, and Larry sang that spectacular aria from Italiana. That’s what it’s about.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Meet Our Singers: PATRICK CARFIZZI, Music Master/Truffaldino

Patrick Carfizzi takes on two roles in Seattle Opera’s comic-tragic mashup of Ariadne auf Naxos. On the serious side of things, he’s the distressed Music Teacher, who’s having a terrible time trying to produce his young protégé’s new opera on the Ariadne legend. But after intermission, Patrick will switch allegiances and become Truffaldino, the lowest voice among the four boyfriends of fickle Zerbinetta, the comic antithesis of Ariadne. An intensely intelligent man and a fantastic singer with a big fan base in Seattle, Patrick shared with me his unique perspective on this unique situation.

Patrick Carfizzi as the Music Teacher butters up the Prima Donna in the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos

What’s the story of Ariadne?
There are several wonderful stories: that of the young Composer, growing up and making discoveries about life. Or the story of my character, his mentor, the Music Teacher, helping this teenager on his journey, when he’s stubborn and easily frustrated: “Aw, I don’t wanna do it that way, mom! I wanna do it my way!” Or the story of the commedia goofballs, who are the same as the goofballs you see on any playground. There are lots of stories in Ariadne. I always hope the audience comes to an opera and thinks: I see myself in that, or I wish I could be like that, or wouldn’t it be interesting to be like that.

Patrick Carfizzi as the Music Teacher and Kate Lindsey as the Composer
Elise Bakketun, photo

Ariadne asks questions about the nature of love. What, to you, is the love-story of Ariadne?
There are so many. For my character of the Music Teacher, it’s about the love between student and teacher.

Have you done this role before?
No, but I did Ariadne first when I was an Apprentice at Santa Fe Opera—I was the Wigmaker, I still remember the line. And then I did the Lackey at the Met. It was there I heard Wolfgang Brendel sing the Music Teacher, and I said, “That’s for me—I want to do that role someday.”

Patrick Carfizzi as the Music Teacher, with Doug Jones as the Dancing-Master
Elise Bakketun, photo

What makes a great Music Teacher?
It’s great for a singing actor. You’ve got to have a bit of experience, for the story to be credible; I’m happy I wasn’t doing the Music Teacher when I was 25! This man absolutely embraces his position as teacher, mentor, and guide to this young Composer. He’s living out some of his own personal history, and is managing hormones the best he can. The Composer is inexperienced and driven by passion; the Music Master is doing his best to help the Composer channel his feelings, and not to squelch his enthusiasm, or diminish it in any way. Vocally, there are wonderful challenges. The role is both high and low, which is fantastic.

Does the Music Teacher understand what happens at the end of the Prologue, when the Composer falls for Zerbinetta?
Oh, yeah. He gets it immediately. He sees it as an advantage—maybe this distraction is a good thing!

Patrick Carfizzi as Truffaldino
Elise Bakketun, photo

Let’s talk about Truffaldino. What does your other Ariadne role require?
Truffaldino is a wonderful stock buffo character from commedia dell’arte, with a fantastic musical palette. Strauss has written him music which is trombone-esque. That, coupled with Hofmannsthal’s text for the four guys, is really brilliant. The commedia performers don’t get the opera singers, and the opera singers don’t get the commedia troupe.

Patrick Carfizzi, with Rachele Gilmore, Joshua Kohl, and Eric Neuville, sing a passage from "Fickle Zerbinetta and her Four Lovers," the scene they contribute to Ariadne auf Naxos

There’s a lot of movement required with these commedia characters.
The best way I can put it: clumsy has to be graceful. I’m not a trained dancer, by any means, but it has to look elegant. I’m actually quite used to that challenge; you get it in almost all the buffo roles I sing. Buffo it has to be real.

Patrick Carfizzi as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville
Rozarii Lynch, photo

You’ve done buffo roles in Seattle, and also serious roles.
In my roles there’s always this balance of the comic and the straight man. The Music Teacher, and all straight men in comedy, have got to be played seriously. Same with Ping in Turandot. Ping takes his job very seriously. And then roles like Dr. Bartolo, or Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola—they have to be played seriously, but their situations are different. Those guys aren’t really in control of their situations. They like to think they’re in control, but in truth they are not.

Patrick Carfizzi as Ping in Turandot
Elise Bakketun, photo

In the Prologue to Ariadne, the Music Teacher, who’s producing the tragedy, becomes strange bedfellows with the Dancing-Master, who’s producing the comedy. The two of you are the ones really trying to solve the problem.
Yes, they don’t like each other, but they’re useful to each other. Especially when the Music Master has run out of ideas in terms of how he’s going to make this work.

The one stands for pop culture and the other represents lofty high culture.
And they both believe that theirs is the only kind of culture. The Dancing-Master doesn’t really get the point of the opera.

Which is interesting, because by the end, Zerbinetta seems to have found it touching.
Yes, she is seduced by the music, I think. Were it not for that, I think these two worlds might not really connect.

What excites you the most about opera?
The storytelling. Opera is storytelling, with these beautiful, relatable stories. By the way, if I hear someone say the word ‘relevant’ one more time, I’m going to scream! There’s this idea going around these days, that opera is somehow irrelevant; that because it’s an old art form, it isn’t accessible. “We must be sure opera stays relevant" they claim. No. When did opera or any arts stop being relevant? What are we apologizing for? Opera is so very relatable. All good storytelling is relatable to so many on so many levels and, again, Opera is storytelling.

Patrick Carfizzi as the Music Teacher
Elise Bakketun, photo

Changing the topic—I see that next year you’re doing Maria Stuarda at the MET, an opera Seattle Opera will also be presenting for the first time.
Yes, I’ve done Talbot before, and this time I’m doing Cecil. I love that opera; it’s so beautiful. The entire opera is a study in duet writing, these long and musically gorgeous conversations.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
Falling flat on my face during my MET debut, embarrassing, yes, but what a way to get over stage fright.

Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta) and Patrick Carfizzi (Truffaldino) in Ariadne auf Naxos
Elise Bakketun, photo

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
Fires onstage, and it has happened twice. Thankfully no one was injured, but how truly bizarre.

Describe an artistic challenge that made you grow.
When those who have 'believed' in you for years suddenly doubt that belief. Some might call that “growing pains.”

What music do you listen to regularly?
Jazz, Musical theater, Pop

Take us through a normal performance day for you.
It’s different for each role, but generally: Lots of sleep the night before, a workout earlier in the day, good eating (watch your salt intake!) A nap about 3 hours before curtain for no more than thirty minutes, a light supper, lots of water and a cooked sweet potato cooked to eat during the show.

What do opera lovers have in common?
Passion for listening and learning.

What’s the public’s biggest misconception about opera?
That language is a barrier.

What’s the best way for someone who’s new to opera to learn more about it?
See live performances both of a comic and tragic opera in the course of a month and take different friends with you each time.

What’s your favorite place in Seattle to:
Drink? Black Bottle
Do yoga? ACME Yoga Project
Walk? Olympic sculpture park, with my friend’s dog.
Shop? Pike Place Market

What are the biggest challenges—and the greatest opportunities—facing opera today?
I’d give you the same answer for both: Education, Audiences, and Communication. 

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Mythic Background to ARIADNE

Greek mythology is a weird and wild world, full of lust-crazed deities, tormented princesses, wayward heroes, and misunderstood monsters. A perfect place for opera! Ariadne auf Naxos spins a single strand from a complex web of mythological characters, locations, and adventures. Here, just for fun, we've collected visual representations of other strands from that web. Imagine setting this entire saga to musicyou'd create a work to rival Wagner's mighty RING in scale!

In a mythic age, long before Pericles politicked at the Parthenon, or Aeschylus authored magnificent tragedies, or Socrates drank hemlock, Athens had to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete every few years to be sacrificed to Crete’s Minotaur until Prince Theseus ended this shameful tradition of tribute.

Image: Wikipedia

Aegeus, King of Athens and father of Theseus, killed himself by leaping off a cliff and into the sea that today bears his name when a ship with black sails returned from Crete, implying that his son was dead. Theseus had forgotten to switch to the white sails of victory, as his father had requested.


Prince, hero, slayer of monsters, and Ariadne's deceitful lover. After the events of this saga, Theseus goes on to wed Hippolyta the Amazon (in A Midsummer Night's Dream). Their son, Hippolytus, comes to a bad end in the myth of Phaedra (set beautifully to music by Benjamin Britten).

Image: Troy

Island kingdom in the Mediterranean. The Bronze Age Minoan civilization centered on Crete predated the golden age of Athens by a thousand years. Twentieth-century archeology has unearthed evidence that a sport known as bull-dancing or bull-leaping, pictured above on a Cretan fresco, was a popular entertainment and ritual (something of a cross between gladitorial combat and modern bull-fighting). Perhaps that's the origin of the legendary combat between Theseus and Crete's Minotaur.

Image: wikipedia

King of Crete and father of Princess Ariadne. Later one of the judges of the dead in the underworld. Crete's embarrassing curse begins when he fails to sacrifice a beautiful bull sent to the island by the gods.

Image: William Blake's illustration of Dante, who kept Minos in the Inferno.

Minos’ Queen and mother to Ariadne, the Minotaur, and Theseus' second wife Phaedra. She falls in love with the bull sent by the gods and, with the help of the clever inventor Daedalus, figures out a way she can have sex with it.


The monstrous offspring of Ariadne’s mother and the divine bull, the Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull who dwells in Crete's Labyrinth and eats people.

Those sacrificed to the Minotaur enter this inescapable maze from the castle of Minos on Crete.


Daedalus, clever inventor and slave to King Minos, invented both the bull-disguise Pasiphaë used to couple with the divine bull and the Labyrinth that imprisoned their demon-offspring. Daedalus also told Ariadne the secret of the Labyrinth“Unroll a spool of thread as you go, so you can find your way back out." She passed the information on to her beloved Theseus, who killed the Minotaur and eloped with her. Minos, furious, imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth.

Image: David Vance

Inventor and son were lost in the Labyrinth, and this time without a spool of thread. So they made wings from wax and feathers and escaped by air. But young Icarus, delighted by the ability to fly, flew too high; the heat from the sun melted his wax, his wings disintegrated, and he plunged to his death in the sea. Set to music by Daron Aric Hagen in Seattle Opera's 2010 world premiere, Amelia.

Painting by Frederic Leighton

Daughter of Minos, she takes pity on handsome Theseus—doomed to be sacrificed to her family’s Minotaur—and helps him defeat the monster and escape. But he maroons her on a desert island where, like so many opera heroines, she becomes donna abbandonata.

Painting by Evelyn De Morgan

Nowadays it’s a popular tourist destination in the Greek islands. But for poor Ariadne, it was a barren, desolate place, with only a Naiad, a Dryad, and an empty Echo for company.

Image: wikipedia

A water nymph.

Painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

The nymph of a tree.

Image: Photo, c. 1910, by John Cimon Warburg

Nymph who fell in love with Narcissus, a beautiful young man who wasted away lusting after his own reflection in a pond. Echo did her best to reflect Narcissus’s love back to him, but he never saw her and eventually she became invisible. You'll hear her echoing many of the other characters in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Painting by John Waterhouse

BACCHUS (aka Dionysus)
God of wine, born from the explosive final encounter of Jupiter and Semele. Always a popular god, since worshipping him involves drinking wine! His first adventures take him to the islands of Circe and then Ariadne.

Painting by Simeon Solomon

Seductive witch, sister to Pasiphaë. Loves to invite sailors who visit her desert island to join her at a feast, only then to transform them into pigs. Odysseus resisted her wiles, as did Bacchus.

Image: Katerina Art

Princess of Thebes and beloved of Jupiter, who inadvertently kills her when she asks for it. Our last opera, Semele, concluded with the announcement that her child by Jupiter, Bacchus, would make all people happy forever after. 

Photo of Seattle Opera's February production by Elise Bakketun

Finally, we get to the plot of Strauss's little opera! Ariadne has been marooned on Naxos by the faithless Theseusor was it because Bacchus, who had fallen for her, told Theseus to take a hike? In Titian's famous painting Ariadne, left, yearns for the departing ship of Theseus, while Bacchus (with his entourage) approaches her. A crown of stars, overhead, indicates how Bacchus and Ariadne will be transformed into constellations when love makes them both divine.

Painting by Titian

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