Wednesday, June 6, 2018

LGBTQ youth respond to O+E

Seattle Opera's O+E offers an important moment of queer and women representation. The performance features two women in a same-sex marriage, and was created by an all-women creative team and cast of principal singers. 
Representation in art matters. When you’re a young person, being able to see a performer onstage with your same skin color or gender identity for example, can be the difference between feeling like part of society, and feeling unwanted by it. In honor of Seattle Opera’s O+E, which tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with two women in a same-sex marriage, Seattle Opera invited two LGBTQ youthboth singers in our Teen Vocal Studioto share what it’s like to see themselves represented in opera for the first time.

Naomi O’Neil, 17 
Skyline High School / Bellevue College 
A choir singer since fourth grade, Naomi participated in a camp with Seattle Opera’s Programs and Partnerships Department, before joining the Teen Vocal Studio program. The mezzo-soprano has enjoyed various aspects of her time training with Seattle Opera's youth programs; she performed in Robin Hood this past winter, and has recently taken several various masterclasses through the Teen Vocal Studio.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, how often have you felt represented in opera or classic stories? 
I’m a lesbian, and I pretty much never see myself represented. At least, not in opera. Most operas I’ve seen do not have much diversity. It’s a little disheartening, but things are getting better. I have seen more representation in TV, but I feel like gay characters often end up getting killed off. I used to love Supernatural, there was a lesbian character who I really liked, but I stopped watching when she was killed off. Sometimes it seems like Hollywood just adds gay people to their shows, just to have them (and get the viewership). However, these characters rarely get any significant or meaty story of their own.    

Naomi O'Neil 
What would you like to see more of in art and entertainment? 
I want to see more stories written by and created by gay people. If you’re going to tell a story about us, you need to have a gay person working on it so you don’t do something accidentally offensive.

What was the most powerful thing about O+E?
Honestly, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was powerful to see a story about gay people where the narrative wasn’t simply about them being gay or coming out.

Of course, the role of Orpheus is often sung by a woman in a pants role. You get used to seeing a girl playing a guy in opera. It was so refreshing to see a female character just being herself as a woman.

I also thought it was very beautiful—I loved the lighting and costumes (even though I kept hearing the Italian version in my head!).

Do you feel supported in living your truth?
Yes. Of course there are always going to be homophobic people, but I do feel free to be me. I don’t spend too much time at my high school because I do running start. Bellevue College has a wonderful LGBTQ Center, which is so nice because I can’t make it to my school’s GSA. I think also, the power of the Internet has helped LGBTQ youth; it’s given us a community even when we can’t physically be together.

Why is LGBTQ representation important onstage?
Because we grow up seeing straight characters in everything, and that’s what we think of as “normal.” We need to show gay youth that they are also normal.

Natalie Ositis, 16
Shorewood High School
A longtime lover of musical theater and all-things theatrical, Natalie has been involved with Seattle Opera for the past four years through various youth camps and performances, most recently, Teen Vocal Studio. Today, she shares this passion with both her father, a former music major in college, and her mom Kim, who works on Seattle Opera’s Development Team. A talented visual artist as well, Natalie looks forward to continuing to carve out her own niche in this world and combining her love of visual and performing arts as she grows up. 

As a member of the LGBTQ community, how often have you felt represented in opera or classic stories? 
I identify as pansexual—I don’t have a preference based on sex or how someone identifies gender-wise. For me, it’s more about how I connect with that person. Also, I’m pretty butch. Opera often lacks representation—you’re definitely not going to find many LGBT characters in older works, at least.

Natalie Ositis flanked by two cast members from Seattle Opera's Hansel and Gretel: Marcy Stonikas and Mark Walters.  

What was the most powerful thing about O+E in your view? 
The fact that O and E are in love, but this is portrayed as if being a gay couple is the most normal thing in the world—is powerful, and unfortunately, not something you see everyday. A lot of the time, when you see a gay couple in a story, their gayness is the whole point. In O+E, the focus is on a functioning, loving couple. That was very encouraging. Other moments that stuck out—it was so powerful when Eurydice comes out in a veil—you think it’s going to be a wedding dress, but she’s actually wearing pants. She was so beautiful and confident.

When Seattle Opera presented As One, some of our gay and trans community partners said that people your age are living their identities with a freedom they admire and wish that they’d had.

What do you think about that? Do you see young people getting to be themselves today?  
It really depends on where you are. For me—I’ve been immensely lucky. I live in an accepting community with really awesome parents and great, like-minded friends. Some of my friends live in more conservative environments—they have to find other ways to express themselves. In general, we are definitely living in a much more accepting time, though. We would not be here as an LGBTQ community without the passion and hard work of those who came before us. Their steps have formed the basis of why people like me can have a good life, and that’s something I’m really grateful for.

How was this opera different than other operas you’ve seen?
Seeing a performance in the round was cool, because there’s usually a degree of separation between the performers and the audience. Performed in the round, you get to be a lot more intimate with the performers. One thing I noticed with the Orpheus—the movement of her hands, the way she portrayed emotion waiting hunched over the chair. She turned her wedding ring over in her hand in anticipation—it made it feel more real.

Why do you think other young folks would like O+E?
Because it feels genuine. You can connect with the performers on an emotional, and even spiritual level. I think the modern setting makes it easier for young people to identify. The story line was an emotional roller coaster: brief comedic moments. Joy. Sadness. You can't help but get invested. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Magda Gartner (O) and Tess Altiveros (E) in Seattle Opera's O+E. Philip Newton photo
Seattle Opera's O+E runs through June 10. 
Tickets & info:

Friday, May 11, 2018

Praise for Aida

Alexandra LoBianco as Aida. Philip Newton photo
"A visual knock-out." - Oregon Arts Watch 

"Few productions have been as eye-catching and unforgettable as Zambello and RETNA’s." - Bachtrack 

"... with lots of action and bold design elements that constantly shift and move." - The Seattle Times

"What a gigantic, dramatic, sweeping show with powerhouse voices (of course)." - M.J. McDermott, Q13 Fox News

Milijana Nikolic (Amneris). Philip Newton photo
"Milijana Nikolic brings Amneris, the Egyptian princess also in love with Radamès, a regal mien (complete with tiara), casting sidelong glances like poison darts, swanning about, emoting grandly—and she’s magnificent." - Seattle Weekly 

"There’s a lot to see in Michael Yeargan’s ingenious, inventive set, and in the vibrant, red-and-gold hieroglyph/graffiti-influenced designs of the artist RETNA. They’re strikingly effective: these designs might be seen on today’s urban street scene, yet onstage they evoke ancient hieroglyphics." - The Seattle Times

"The secure vocal beauty of soprano Marcy Stonikas in the much smaller role of the High Priestess (was) gratifying."- Bachtrack 

Seattle Opera presents Verdi's Aida. Philip Newton photo
"In the role of Radamès, the ill-fated commander who loves Aida, Brian Jagde displayed superb power and focus, but also was able to dial down that Wagner-sized tenor a bit in his more tender scenes with Aida." - The Seattle Times

"From (Leah Crocetto's) first soaring phrase, the uncommon radiance and beauty of her highs won the audience over. Her acting, too, was deeply convincing. 'Ritorna vincitor! ... received the longest applause of the evening. Low notes had telling power, highs glowed, and every phrase was rounded with finesse." - Bachtrack 

Leah Crocetto makes her Seattle Opera debut as the title role in Aida. Philip Newton photo
"The chorus, prepared by John Keene and absolutely essential to the success of Aida sang with strength and accuracy." - The Seattle Times

"The discovery of the night was the Radamès, Brian Jagde, his voice bold, bright, and resonant, effortlessly hall-filling. A heroic Italian-style tenor to the marrow, he makes an ardent, boyish Radamès—and if he can deepen and darken his stage presence, he could be the Otello I’ve been waiting 24 seasons for Seattle Opera to find." - Seattle Weekly 

Members of the Seattle Opera Chorus in Aida. Philip Newton photo
"Despite the famous grandiosity of the opera, this show never feels static, largely because of Jessica Lang’s imaginative choreography." - The Seattle Times

"At times, the stops are fully pulled out when the stage holds nine dancers, a half-dozen well-choreographed young boys, the entire chorus, and handful of main characters ... No detail — or cost — seemed spared." - Oregon Arts Watch 

Dancers perform choreography by Jessica Lang in Aida. Philip Newton photo
"SO has double casts for main roles (which) are no longer segregated into 'gold' and 'silver'; both sets of singers are equally skilled with different kinds of complementariness. Main roles require big sings, and the opera’s 11-performance run is a marathon, so a dual cast is essential." - Oregon Arts Watch 

"Even the smaller roles shone: Eric Neuville’s lyrical Messenger, and the powerful Marcy Stonikas as the High Priestess." - The Seattle Times

"Superb lighting from Mark McCullough and Peter W. Mitchell ensured that every decorative element of Yeargan’s scenery would make its mark." - Bachtrack 

"Verdi’s music is superb, and was excellently played by the orchestra under John Fiore." - The SunBreak 

"... an imaginative balance between the show’s big-moment pageantry and the intimate smaller-scale scenes ... this production is never static, always evolving." - The Seattle Times

"The opening-night cast on Saturday presented American soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role. Her voice is beautiful, large and vibrant, and she is a passionate actress." - The Seattle Times

"John Keene’s chorus was superb, and E. Loren Meeker’s stage direction surprisingly effective." - Bachtrack 

"(Francesca Zambello and E. Loren Meeker) did not let the spectacle steamroll Aida’s human story ...  they got the balance of the opera’s grand moments and its intimate ones just right, so we care about the characters and their troubles." - Queen Anne News

"Bass-baritone Alfred Walker can always be counted upon for a stellar performance, and he nearly stole the show as Aida's father Amonasro." - Seattle Gay News 

"On Sunday, an alternate cast took over the principal roles. Alexandra LoBianco gave a subtle but impassioned performance in the title role; her Radamès, David Pomeroy, proved an excellent singing actor, and Alfred Walker made a compelling Amonasro." - The Seattle Times

"Verdi undoubtedly would have appreciated that I felt both uncomfortable with the opera’s aggressive, overwhelming nationalism and pain for Aida, Radamés and Amneris’ predicaments. And kudos to the cast, musicians and production team for taking me there — and, of course, for the magnificent music." - Queen Anne News

"I left the auditorium feeling very moved by the sorrowful, touching end of the faithful lovers, and the broken hearted princess whose love brought death on the very man she had hoped to marry... (The production) tells a great story, both on a personal and a political level, and it uses all the considerable resources of our wonderful Seattle Opera Company to its fullest." - Seattle Gay News 

"A major selling point, rightly, has been the artistic design by the street artist RETNA, whose graphics evoke both graffiti and, in a nod to the opera’s setting, hieroglyphics. It gives this repertory favorite a fresh, contemporary look ... Anita Yavich’s costumes for the women’s chorus are a heady riot of color, and the two together combust like fireworks." - Seattle Weekly 

"But this grandly, this opulently, this eloquently? Unless Verdi is on your hate list, you won’t be disappointed by this three-hour Aida, no matter how often you’ve heard it before." - Oregon Arts Watch 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Youth invited to collaborate with graffiti artist 179

Free event for young people age 11-18

179 is a Latina activist and artist. 
Teens and pre-teens—come create art in McCaw Hall with Seattle graffiti artist Angelina Villalobos on Saturday morning, May 19. No artistic experience is necessary to participate in this art-making experience, and participants will also have the opportunity to get a backstage tour on the Aida set, which includes artwork by the street and studio artist RETNA.

Seattle Opera is thrilled to be providing this free event in partnership with Villalobos a celebrated Northwest artist, as well as Urban Artworks, a Seattle nonprofit which empowers at-risk youth. 

At the May 19 event, Villalobos will guide participants in the creation of 7-by-8-foot art pieces. Youth who identify as People of Color or LGBTQIA+, as well as young people living with disabilities, are encouraged to sign up for the limited number of spots.

To sign up:
Contact Courtney Clark ( with the following information:
- Participant name
- Email address
- Desired time slot (see more below).

Session I: 
9:00am –11:00am (Collaborate with Villalobos)
11:15am -11:45pm (Backstage Tour of Aida set)

Session II:
10:00 am – 11:45 am (Collaborate with Villalobos)
11:45 am – 12:30 pm (Backstage Tour of Aida set)

Session III: 11:00am -11:45am (Backstage Tour of Aida set)
12:00pm - 2:00 pm (Collaborate with Villalobos)         
- You must also include a permission form/release signed by a parent/guardian.

The signed permission form/release can be returned via email (, fax (206-389-7651) or at the time of the event. Only students who provide a signed release/permission form can participate in the event.

Mural by Angelina Villalobos, 179. 
Seattleites may recognize Villalobos' colorful murals, located throughout the city (including the elephant mural next door to Seattle Opera's offices in South Lake Union!).

"I’m a Seattle-born art activist who's passionate about connecting art with action," Villalobos says. "My work strives to engage viewers to partake in their environment through observation and participation. I believe community engagement is vital to successful art-planning, and that art should be accessible to all."

Villalobos, who goes by the pseudonym 179, grew up within Americanized Mexican Catholic culture. Today, she often mixes the iconography of Catholicism with pop culture to folklore. This union, influenced by being raised in the Pacific Northwest in the the 90’s, is an intimate exemplification of her personal pursuit of understanding the world around her. Angelina creates a fairy-tale land filtered through the eyes of an anime and comic book lover.



Wednesday, April 25, 2018

RETNA youth event canceled

Updated May 3, 2018:

Seattle Opera deeply apologizes to the young people who had signed up for our May 1st event to work with RETNA (Marquis Duriel Lewis), an internationally-celebrated artist whose work is featured in our upcoming Aida. It was especially disappointing that RETNA chose to cancel the free event, because this would have been an important opportunity for young people, including People of Color, in Seattle to work with an accomplished graffiti artist (whose practice now includes street art and painting on canvas), and who identifies as Black, Salvadorian, and Native American. We had hoped that this event would have been a step forward in serving intersectional youth, and individuals who do not always feel implicitly welcome in our opera community. RETNA’s cancellation was a setback, but we promise that we will continue to create programming geared toward equity. We continue to plan easily-accessible events for the diverse people of our region.

- Seattle Opera

Born Marquis Duriel Lewis, the street and studio artist RETNA makes his Seattle Opera debut as Artistic Designer of Aida. In our upcoming production, RETNA uses the same illuminated script that's earned him commissions from Justin Bieber and Usher. 

Free event for young people age 11-18

Seattle Opera has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Seattle-area youth ages 11-18 to collaborate and create with American street artist RETNA on Tuesday, May 1 at McCaw Hall. This event is Free! RETNA’s art will be featured in Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Aida May 5-19. 

No artistic experience necessary. Youth who identify as People of Color or LGBTQIA+, as well as young people living with disabilities, are encouraged to sign up for the limited number of spots.

RETNA will guide students in the creation of 7-by-8-foot art pieces that will be on display at McCaw Hall. Known for his long and geometric script, RETNA will be creating outlines, and then the teen artists will fill in the negative space with their own creativity.

To sign up: 

Contact Courtney Clark ( by 5 p.m., Monday, April 30 with the following information:
- Participant name
- Email address
- Desired time slot (see more below).
  • Session One: 4:00 pm-6:00 pm - Space available  
  • Session Two: 5:00pm-7:00pm - Space available 
  • Session Three: 6:00pm-8:00pm - Session FULL 
  • Wrap-up Session: 8:00pm-8:30pm (All Participants/Everyone) 
- A permission form/release signed by a parent/guardian.

The signed permission form/release can be returned via email (, fax (206-389-7651) or at the time of the event. Only students who provide a signed release/permission form can participate in the event.

"Of our youth” Chato in Culver City collaboration by EL MAC and RETNA
About the Artist 
Born Marquis Duriel Lewis, RETNA picked his moniker from the lyrics of a Wu Tang song that resonated with him in his youth. While he got his start with graffiti and tagging, RETNA’s practice now includes street art and painting on canvas. RETNA, who identified as Black, Salvadorean, and Native American, developed his long, geometric script while looking toward Egyptian and Native American traditional symbols. Egyptian hieroglyphics are one of the marked influences on his unique alphabet. 

Street Art and Opera
The work of street artist RETNA comes together with the music of Giuseppe Verdi for Seattle Opera’s Aida. Verdi and RETNA are not as far apart as one may assume. Graffiti and opera can both be controversial. Both can promote social change or protest on behalf of those seeking freedom from the oppression of society, religion, and the state. Like RETNA and other contemporary street artists, Verdi was not afraid to take risks or fight entrenched power structures.

"Interestingly, RETNA has as much of an authentic connection to Egypt as Giuseppe Verdi did, if not a greater one: Egyptian hieroglyphics are one of the marked influences on his unique alphabet." [ Read more HERE ]. 

Seattle Opera's upcoming Aida. Photo by Cory Weaver 


Friday, March 30, 2018


Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang introducing Seattle Opera's upcoming production of Aida. Lang debunks some of the myths attached to Verdi’s masterpiece, explores the complicated genesis and nationality of the opera, and explains how Verdi’s musical representation of patriotism evolved over the course of his lifelong experience of Italian unification. Aida plays at Seattle Opera for nine performances, May 5-19.

Hello, everyone, it’s Aidan Lang here, this time of course I’m talking about our next production, which is Verdi’s Aida.

It is an immensely popular piece. Why is that? I think the scale is number one. The fact that it is a grand opera, in many ways the grandest of grand operas, is very attractive. It’s not often we get to see operas of that scale. That’s a key to the popularity.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Black inclusion at Seattle Opera

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

This spring, Seattle Opera is excited to be working with Social Impact Consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner as we continue our racial equity work. ChrisTiana will help Seattle Opera forge a dialogue with members of Seattle’s Black and PoC communities leading up to our Aida and Porgy and Bess productions. 

Ultimately, they (ChrisTiana uses they/theirs pronouns) will help Seattle Opera envision a future for opera that truly includes and honors people of color—a process that made meaningful strides this past summer with members of the Asian Pacific Islander community during Madame Butterfly.

ChrisTiana has a BS in Psychology, a Master in Nonprofit Leadership, and is currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration at Seattle University. Their area of expertise and research is the relationship between marginalized and oppressed intersectionalities and access to basic human needs and rights in American society. ChrisTiana is the General Co-Chair and Housing Committee Chair of the Seattle Commission of People with disAbilities. They are also the founding Executive Director of the Eleanor Elizabeth Institute for Black Empowerment. 

You have been coming to Seattle Opera for several years now. What was your introduction to the art form?

My introduction to the art form was watching a blue alien sing opera in The Fifth Element. I was 8 years old, and I felt like I could see myself in this character. Her hair reminded me of dreadlocks, and as a Caribbean Black and AfroLatinx, I identified with that. I identified with her blue skin even because it wasn’t white. I saw that you don’t have to be White to be a diva and sing this amazing aria.

A still from the movie, The Fifth Element. 

Envision a beautiful future for opera in Seattle. What do you see?

I would love for McCaw Hall to become a space where an 8-year-old girl of color can think, “I can be up there. That’s something I can do.” Operas like Porgy and Bess and Aida are important opportunities for representation that Seattle Opera should take advantage of.

I would like to see Seattle Opera make a more explicit invitation to PoC communities, and more implicitly make the opera a place where everyone feels welcome. Sometimes when people don’t see themselves in a space, they worry: “Am I going to be the only Black person there?” “Will people stare at me?” “Am I going to feel comfortable?” Or, for my friends who have disabilities—“Will there be a space for my wheelchair?” “Will I be able to make it back from intermission in time?” “Will there be strobe lights that will affect my epilepsy?” What I’ve been brought in to do—and , and what I’m honored to do—is to help identify and break down some of these barriers, both real and perceived.
Among other artists of color, Black tenor Vinson Cole (pictured with Sheri Greenawald) is celebrated as one of Seattle Opera's legendary performers. In its 55-year-history, Seattle Opera has made conscious efforts to hire Black singers through colorblind casting under the direction of Glynn Ross and Speight Jenkins. At the time, these were audacious and important stepping-stones for racial equity. Now in 2018, the conversation on racial equity has moved forward. In 2018, we see that classical European art forms such as opera and ballet are still overwhelmingly white, from the decision-makers at these organizations, to the artists and audience members. While colorblind casting was helpful in some ways for minority representation, it is no longer the way forward. In order for opera to speak to the people of Puget Sound, Seattle Opera will make conscious efforts to hire storytellers and artists who represent our region's diversity moving forward. As part of our racial-equity work, we have learned that we cannot be "blind" to color; we must recognize and acknowledge the lived histories of  marginalized people. This includes making amends with those we have hurt through practices such as blackface (also yellowface and brownface) and  cultural appropriation. Photo by Ron Scherl 
ChrisTiana attends Seattle Opera with friend, John. Philip Newton photo
What made you want to work with Seattle Opera?
I love opera. Opera, like all art, is a way to get a temperature, a pulse at the time—how people thought and understood other folks in terms of race, ability or gender. There is a beauty in being able to see where we came from, like “Oh wow, this is how they thought about women back then?” But it’s important to remember we’re in a new place now. Looking at opera with a twenty-first-century consciousness, we have a lot of updating to do. That updating could include owning some of opera’s problematic history, discussing it with a critical lens. It could include moving toward more color-conscious casting. It could include increasing diversity both onstage and behind the scenes. Maybe a director takes an opera like La bohème and places it in Harlem, for example. What we can’t do, however, is to move forward with this historic art form without any discussion or consideration for the world we live in today.

Of course, not all operas performed today are stories of the past. Seattle Opera's As One depicts a single, transgender woman protagonist, as told through two singers at Washington Hall. While singers Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams are cisgender, librettist Kimberly Reed, a trans woman, provided both words and inspiration for the story. Rozarii Lynch photo

Obviously, you cannot speak for all Black people. But what, in your own experience, is a barrier for Black folks coming to the opera?
Well, first of all, Jim Crow laws meant that Black performers and audience members would either be excluded altogether, or would often not be presented with the same opportunities. But, in terms of people today, from my experience, it’s the unspoken feeling of unwelcome. It can feel like people are saying, “Are you really supposed to be here?” There’s so much historic trauma and even contemporary trauma of feeling and being unwanted in these sorts of spaces.

For example, I don’t go to monster truck rallies because I don’t feel safe (though, I love monster trucks!). I love rock music, but I was attacked at a Fall Out Boy concert once. When I told people about it, they said, “What were you doing at a rock concert?” Opera has a lot of cultural environment work to do when people come in, meaning, the opera must show it is working on healing these wounds. There must be an explicit invitation to the community saying, “We own the fact that opera has historically not been welcoming to you, and we’re trying to change that.”

An example of Jim Crow laws in arts/entertainment. Getty Images 

Opera has an inconsistent track record with minority representation onstage or behind-the-scenes. How does this contrast with what’s happening outside this art form?
Black people are having more opportunity for representation now than ever before. When I was growing up, I couldn’t wear box braids or wear my hair kinky without being sent home. Elders in my family would say, “This is why I told you to straighten your hair.” “This is why you need to code switch; to work on your diction.” They wanted me to assimilate, because they wanted me to be able to survive. We are currently in a time when I feel like I can be unabashedly Black. You see women like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B doing some great work as proud Afro-Latinas. In movies, we are starting to rise above the trope of showing Black people as enslaved or as poor Africans. Black people are everywhere; they can be themselves, and it’s beautiful. Of course, politically this is also one of the worst social climates for Black folks...

However, what makes me excited to be alive as a Black person right now is that I can be who I am with reckless abandon; without respectability politics. I feel like we’re in a time where I can say, this is who I am. This is the hair that grows out of my head. This is how my body has chosen to proportion itself. I’m not going to change for you. If you can’t accept me, you’re not ready for my beauty, my talents and my gifts. That’s your loss.

WOMEN OF WAKANDA | "Black Panther is groundbreaking in a multitude of ways. It’s a massive step forward for black representation in film, it’s changing what a superhero movie can accomplish, and it’s smashing through box office records like T’challa smashes through gangsters in a South Korean casino. In addition to these accomplishments, however, there’s also the salient fact that Black Panther successfully gives female characters depth and range on the same level of its male heroes and villains. Black Panther as a movie and as a character cannot exist without the women of Wakanda, and the overarching message is one that is rarely seen in the superhero genre (or in many movies in general): Women Get Sh*! Done, Discount Them At Your Own Risk." - Cosmopolitan [ Read more HERE ]

When a White European composer creates an opera with Black or Brown characters, what are some of the equity challenges?
With Aida for example, there’s still this culture of color-blindness to a certain extent. Colorblind casting was very progressive initially, but it’s not anymore. “I don’t see color, I don’t see race”—that was a great thing to say in the 80s. The truth is, we do see color, and we need to be able to see ourselves onstage. When opera presents stories set in “faraway places” from a European’s perspective, there is an opportunity to bring in singers of color to do those roles. This is so important for increasing diversity in the art form in general.

Aida is a story that Verdi very intentionally wrote about Egypt and Ethiopia. Imagine bringing an East African child to this performance and they see very few non-White performers. What message is being sent to this child?

For folks who really just want to unwind and relax, and enjoy the production — I empathize with you. But I also think it’s important to consider why Verdi wrote this work in the first place. Art is meant to challenge us and to reflect the political climate of the time; art is not necessarily synonymous with entertainment.

ACTORS WHO HAVE DEPICTED EGYPTIAN ROYALTY, ANCIENT EGYPT, OR MOSES | "Hollywood is a sucker for a story about ancient Egypt. Movies like The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and even The Mummy prove it. Upcoming movies like Exodus and Gods of Egypt all but confirm it. Unfortunately though, those films have something in common aside from being about ancient Egypt — they show that Hollywood, tends to envision ancient Egyptians and ancient Egyptian royalty as white men and women (sometimes with copious amounts of bronzer splashed on)." - Vox [ Read more HERE ]

What are some of the equity challenges with our upcoming operas?
Porgy and Bess is an interesting storyline. It brings up stereotypes of toxic masculinity in Black culture, as well as the sexualization of Black femme bodies—that we are these extremely lustful creatures. There’s also issues of ableism, domestic violence, colorism...

While acknowledging the ways in which Porgy perpetuates negative stereotypes, I have to ask: With so many People of Color onstage, is there an opportunity for this opera to make a positive impact?
Definitely. Porgy is going to be very powerful. There are going to be People of Color onstage! I hope people come and see it, and I hope they embrace the production. I think we can still enjoy works like Porgy; we just need to remember that this is a work about Black culture as seen through the lens of an affluent White man in the last century. 

Porgy and Bess, The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017. © Karli Cadel.
I hear you talk about the healing work that needs to happen between European art forms like opera and PoC communities. However, I know you also love opera. In your view, why is this art form worthwhile to the Black community?
To all PoC communities, I would say this is a time of decolonization; it’s a time of undoing some of the trauma that stems from White and European colonialists, and a time for healing, for reclaiming our own stories and history. Black folks have done a great job of decolonizing other spaces, be it rock music through Afropunk, or science fiction through the Afrofuturism genre. There are programs helping Black teens get into STEAM fields and Ivy League schools. We’re decolonizing the ballet with Misty Copeland, and the opera, with artists like RETNA — the graffiti artist who created the set design for Aida. We deserve a place here, too.

Graffiti artist, RETNA, makes his Seattle Opera debut as Artistic Designer for Aida.

RETNA's graffiti makes a dramatic impact in Seattle Opera's upcoming Aida. Photo by Cory Weaver

Why should people care about racial equity?
Opera is meant to be shared, explored, and performed by everyone. By including more folks in this art form, we are not excluding others. There is always space for equity, because there is always space for everyone. Both in art, and in a broader sense, society must de-center its Eurocentric point of view. Don’t forget that there are people alive right now who can still remember a segregated America. Of course we’re going to have growing pains. And of course, we’re not going to heal from centuries of enslavement, followed by racism and segregation in a mere lifetime. That doesn't make any sense.

[Editor’s note: In addition to RETNA, Aida’s Artistic Designer, other Black artists in the production include singers Gordon Hawkins and Alfred Walker. ] 
"I MATTER"| "In its essence, Black Lives Matter is a response to the persistent and historical trauma Black people have endured at the hands of the State. This trauma and pain, unresolved and unhealed lives on in our bodies, in our relationships and in what we create together. Since the inception of BLM, organizers and healers have taken this understanding of historical and generational trauma and made it the foundation of our healing circles, of creative and liberatory space held amidst actions, of our attempts to resolve conflict and division in ways that don’t replicate harm or rely on carceral ways of being with one another. It’s not an easy road; healing individual and community trauma while organizing to make real change in Black lives, but it’s what we know has to be done." -

You will be leading an event called "Cultured Conversations: Black Inclusion in Opera" on March 30. The event seeks insights and experiences from the Black community and will be a safe space to discuss representation in casting, attending the opera (or barriers to attending), and more. What do you hope to accomplish?
I come from a grassroots activist background, and that doesn't change just because I’m working with the opera. This focus group will be an opportunity for me to collect narratives and opinions from the community as I help Seattle Opera to make progress. How often does this happen that an organization like Seattle Opera hires a Black woman to help make a European artform a place where People of Color are celebrated? The fact that many people at the opera identify as a White allies (or, non-Black allies), shows a huge amount of progress. It makes me realize that the community input from Madame Butterfly didn’t fall on deaf ears. Now, I see the opera saying, “OK, how do we make this right? How do we make this a more inclusive space?” That growth is something to praise. There is a lot of fertile ground here.

[ "Cultured Conversations: Black Inclusion in Opera" is free and open to those who identify as Black. To register, go to ]

Ballerina Misty Copeland recreates one of Degas' paintings

REPRESENTATION MATTERS | "Just as brown girls deserve to watch ballerinas with their skin tone dance, and yellow boys deserve to see movies with a handsome hero who looks like them (not just another ninja), people of color deserve to see themselves represented in this beautiful space: McCaw Hall. We need to see stories that hold up our complexity and potential on an equal arm’s length to white people and European traditions. Is opera willing to help make this happen?" - Gabrielle Nomura Gainor, Madame Butterfly program
Opera singer Mary Elizabeth Williams with supernumerary Kendall Green, the two played Elizabeth I, adult and child, in the opera Mary Stuart.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Berlioz and Beatrice Come to Seattle

By Jessica Murphy Moo

Welcome to Seattle’s world re-premiere of Beatrice and Benedict.

World re-premiere? you ask. Is that a thing?

Well, not exactly. I just made it up. But in the case of this production the usual categories don’t really fit, so allow me to explain.

To Adapt or Not to Adapt…

On the one hand Berlioz was a purist who didn’t want anyone messing with the intentions of the masters. In his Memoirs he gives a few examples of how he reacted when hearing music altered from the way his idol, Gluck, had intended it.

In the middle of a performance of Iphigénie en Tauride, for example, he shouted from the audience, “There are no cymbals there. Who has dared to correct Gluck?” and “Why aren’t the trombones playing? This is intolerable.”

Then he sat with much contentment (and one would presume, self satisfaction) through a later performance, with the same conductor, where the cymbals were quiet in the right place and the trombones sounded.

At one concert, Berlioz shouted his critique in a similar fashion and essentially started a riot. The curtain came down, people started throwing chairs, then jumped into the pit and damaged instruments.

So that’s one approach.

Berlioz also revered Shakespeare. But when he transformed Much Ado About Nothing into Beatrice and Benedict, the composer seemed OK with making cuts, changing the story, and adding some language of his own.

Some of these changes were practical, to be sure. There is no iambic pentameter in the French language, and as Aidan Lang says, only Dave Brubeck seems to work effectively with a five-beat meter. And a libretto can contain only a fraction of the word count of a play.

But Berlioz also deleted whole characters from Much Ado about Nothing. He cut Shakespeare's dark subplot, including the climactic wedding scene in which Claudio accuses Hero of betraying him.

“The nature of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict,” says John Langs, Artistic Director of ACT Theatre and stage director of this production, “is a light, frothy exploration of the resistance we feel to giving over to the feelings of love. For the people who may have been burned before, who may live ‘above’ falling in love—until step by step you find you can’t stop thinking about someone.”

The opera premiered in Germany, with Berlioz conducting. Then at its second outing, a few months later, also in Germany, Berlioz also conducting, the opera was performed in a German translation.

A German translation of a French translation of an adapted English play.

Revising and adapting a piece he was in the midst of performing appears to be something Berlioz did quite often. “Berlioz was conducting a lot,” says Seattle Symphony Music Director and this evening’s maestro Ludovic Morlot. “He had a lot in common with Mahler and Beethoven. He wouldn’t hesitate to rewrite or double something in the theater to strengthen the piece. Berlioz knew that by making these changes the opera would have a better chance of success.”

Which then raises the question: How would the opera have the best chance of success in Seattle?

All Seattle’s a Stage…

When the city announced plans for the 2018 Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare festival, nearly two dozen art organizations jumped on board. Aidan Lang, who played the role of Leonato in university, thought Berlioz’s opera would be a great addition to the 2017/18 season. Seattle Opera has never presented Berlioz before. He also saw this as a great opportunity to work with some of our sister arts organizations, particularly with John Langs, who has a lot of experience directing Shakespeare, and Ludovic Morlot, who has in many ways brought French music to Seattle and particularly Berlioz this season.

They got together and realized that the work might benefit from some of that adaptation that Berlioz did at the outset.

“Berlioz loved theater,” says Aidan Lang, “but he wasn’t sophisticated theatrically. Essentially, he needed a dramaturg.”

This assessment is more or less corroborated by Berlioz in his Memoirs. After the world premiere, he writes: “The critics who had come from Paris to hear the work praised the music enthusiastically, [Beatrice’s] aria and [the Nocturne] duet [between Hero and Ursula] in particular,” writes Berlioz. “One or two of them, however, decided that there was a good deal of scrub and dead wood in the rest of the score, and that the spoken dialogue was dull. This dialogue is taken almost word for word from Shakespeare.”

The way I read this last line is that Berlioz is thinking the critics must be wrong, because Shakespeare never could be.

Morlot admits it took him a little time to come around to the idea of adapting Beatrice and Benedict. Berlioz has earned a special place in his heart. The composer grew up only miles away from Morlot’s hometown, and they share a birthday. Morlot thinks of Berlioz as France’s Beethoven. “He is one of the composers who was writing music that mattered to him more than to the audience. He was pushing boundaries. I love the individuality of his voice,” Morlot says. The more he thought about Berlioz, the more he thought that the adaptations were in step with Berlioz’s own practices.

“Then I became interested,” Morlot says.

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On…

Dramatically, John Langs thought it made sense to add back in the crisis moment for Hero and Claudio, where Claudio believes he has seen Hero betray him and he publicly humiliates her on their wedding day. This moment raises the dramatic stakes, and pushes Benedict to choose between his friend Claudio and his love Beatrice. Benedict chooses Beatrice.

If Claudio is back in with these dramatic moments, he’d need something to sing. John Langs and Ludovic Morlot decided he needed a “vertical moment.” In Shakespeare, that might be a monologue. In opera, he gets a rage aria.

Morlot turned to Berlioz’s earlier music to see if anything might work. He chose excerpts from La damnation de Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and L'enfance du Christ. Then John Langs mined Shakespeare’s play for suitable imagery and language for those dramatic moments.

So with the Shakespeare back in, additional Berlioz musical excerpts in, and Berlioz’s French dialogue out, we have what John Langs calls both “a grand adventure,” and “a new form.”

Or…Seattle’s world re-premiere. We hope you enjoy it!

Praise for Beatrice and Benedict

Seattle Opera presents Beatrice and Benedict. Tuffer photo
"Imaginative ... Fast-paced, action-packed and nobly sung." - The Seattle Times 

" interesting and intruiging adaptation." - British Theatre Guide

"Langs and Morlot did a masterful job of making a full meal out of Berlioz’s tasty hors d’oeuvres, preserving the dash and insouciance of the original; the added pathos and drama enrich it without cluttering it." - Seattle Weekly 

Daniela Mack (Beatrice) and Alek Shrader (Benedict). Tuffer photo
"Constantly on the move, this production has the cast — attired in Deborah Trout’s spectacularly colorful costumes — leaping up and down stairs on Matthew Smucker’s versatile, multilevel set. Cheers to the versatile and active Seattle Opera Chorus (John Keene, chorusmaster) and to choreographer Helen Heaslip." - The Seattle Times 

"This kind of collaboration is just the sort of thing a city-wide festival ought to do—combining the forces of three leading cultural forces to make something new and a good alternative to the original. Purists might object but Seattle Opera's production is faithful to Shakespeare's original vision in a way that enriches both Berlioz and the Seattle Opera's audience." - British Theatre Guide

Brandon O'Neill (Don Juan). Tuffer photo
"On Saturday night, the impetuous and feisty title roles were taken by Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader — both high-energy singers and compelling actors who were completely believable as opponents and as lovers. Sunday’s show had the excellent and well-matched Hanna Hipp and Andrew Owens, respectively."  - The Seattle Times 

"When Seattle Opera decided to take it on in this season of tributes to Shakespeare’s art, it expanded the opera to give it more substance for today’s audiences, an expansion which works. How could it not, with all the words by Shakespeare and all the music by Berlioz, braided into the original score to include the more dramatic aspects of the play?" - The SunBreak 

"Shelly Traverse (Hero) charmed the audience with her voice and stage presence, both lovely and unaffected."  - The Seattle Times 

Daniela Mack (Beatrice), Marvin Grays (Leonato), and Shelly Traverse (Hero). Jacob Lucas photo
"As Somarone, Kevin Burdette demonstrated once again his comic genius, even turning to Morlot at one point and chiding him in French for his sluggish musical direction." - Seattle P.I.

"Craig Verm, as her would-be husband Claudio, sang beautifully and was a compelling actor."  - The Seattle Times 

"A Seattle Chorus member who has sung roles locally, Traverse did extremely well opening night, sounding secure in her part with a clear and pretty voice well balanced with the other voices, and a good actress (as were they all). We heard baritone Craig Verm last month in Seattle Opera’s Così fan tutte. He did equally well here, while bass Daniel Sumegi (remember him in recent Wagner operas here?) sang Don Pedro."  - The SunBreak 

Shelly Traverse (Hero) and Avery Amereau (Ursule). Tuffer photo
"Marvin Grays was an effective Leonato; Daniel Sumegi a powerful Don Pedro; and Brandon O’Neill and Avery Clark were the villains you love to hate. Kevin Burdette’s over-the-top Somarone was consistently hilarious. Christine Marie Brown, Chip Sherman and Avery Amereau all shone in smaller roles."  - The Seattle Times 

"The villain behind this deception, Don Juan, is included too as a non-singing part, and Brandon O’Neill makes him richly hissable." - Seattle Weekly 

Daniel Sumegi (Don Pedro), Andrew Owens (Benedict) and Craig Verm (Claudio). Jacob Lucas photo
"Seattle Symphony music director Morlot, a well-known exponent of Berlioz’s music, stitched up this varied musical fabric into a persuasive whole, giving the singers plenty of expressive opportunities while never allowing the pace to flag. Berlioz described his own opera as 'A caprice written with the point of a needle'; Morlot wielded that precise 'needle' as his baton." - The Seattle Times 

"This is lightened up by the gorgeous set, originally built for a Seattle opera product of I Puritani, and repurposed with great effect into sunny Italy by Matthew Smucker. It comprises a multitude of staircases going every which way, a bit reminiscent of Hogwarts (although they don’t move), and while the principals are singing and arguing in witty repartee in the foreground, dozens of chorus members are going about their daily chores up and down those stairs, providing a kaleidoscope of constantly changing color and movement." - The SunBreak 

Seattle Opera presents Beatrice and Benedict. Jacob Lucas photo
"Shrader is, refreshingly, charming throughout; in the era of #MeToo, it’s a relief to see this production avoid the misogynist trope of making the heroine inexplicably fall for a jerk." - Seattle Weekly 

"Shelly Traverse was a sweet Hero, in voice and manner, and Craig Verm full of naïvely youthful ardor as Claudio, with a resonant baritone that was particularly moving in his aria swearing vengeance on Hero. Traverse and Avery Amereau as Hero’s maid Ursula delivered an enchanting Nocturne. As Somarone the town constable, a role created by Berlioz, Kevin Burdette supplied an over-the-top humor reminiscent of Shakespeare’s fools." - Queen Anne News

Hanna Hipp (Beatrice). Tuffer photo
"But it’s Berlioz’ music which carries it all. Memorable trios and duets as well as choruses and arias give plenty of scope for singers to bring out the emotions inherent in the plot. Morlot paces it perfectly, his Seattle Symphony members in the pit responding to his every nuance. Connie Yun’s lighting and Deborah Trout’s timeless and colorful costumes add considerably to the décor." - The SunBreak 

"Matthew Smucker’s multi-level set, all bridges and spiral staircases, is as light as lacework; Deborah
Trout’s costumes splash color everywhere. Langs has a fantastic eye for simple yet powerful scenic effects; I won’t spoil the surprise of what happens at the thwarted wedding. The best sight gag comes during Hero’s luscious Act 1 aria, interrupted at the end by a regiment of soldiers jogging past, ending in a gallant gesture from Claudio." - Seattle Weekly 

Shelly Traverse (Hero), Craig Verm (Claudio) and Daniela Mack (Beatrice). Jacob Lucas photo

Beatrice and Benedict plays now through March 10, 2018.
Tickets & info: