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. While former General Director Speight Jenkins  

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 Aldred 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:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Genius of French Opera

La Marseillaise (Jean Béraud, 1880)

In honor of Seattle Opera's upcoming premiere of Beatrice and Benedict, today we celebrate French opera! (We're singing B&B in English, since our production kicks off Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare; but it's a very French opera.)

Ever since opera first came to France from Italy in the seventeenth century, the French have had their own wonderful way of blending the arts to create the hybrid which is opera. French opera has always been a balancing act: balancing poetry with music, musical delights with visual spectacle, dance with stasis, public with private, sorrow with high spirits, and above all balancing—and sometimes encouraging the tug-of-war between—passion and reason.

The following survey of French opera history features moments from some of our favorite French operas as performed at Seattle Opera. CLICK HERE to listen to a full playlist without interruption.


Orphée Leads Eurydice from the Underworld (Corot, 1861)

Opera is fundamentally a fusion of music and drama, words and notes.

Monday, February 5, 2018


Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. To kick off Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare, we're proud to offer our first-ever opera by Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict, an operatic amplification of Much Ado About Nothing. Conducted by Seattle Symphony's Ludovic Morlot and directed by ACT Theatre's John Langs, this one-of-a-kind, all-new and all-Seattle production plays for only seven performances, February 24-March 10.

Hello, everyone, it's Aidan Lang here, and this time I'm here to talk about Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict.


We do like to give our audiences in every season one opera they've never seen before. This is the first time not only that Seattle Opera will be performing Beatrice, but also an opera by Berlioz.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What is Beatrice and Benedict?

Philip Newton Photo
Dozens of opera composers have drawn inspiration from Shakespeare over the years. Here at Seattle Opera we’ve often presented Verdi’s great operas based on Shakespeare, but never before have our audiences heard Beatrice and Benedict, French composer Hector Berlioz’s ravishingly beautiful operatic riff on Much Ado About Nothing. This production marks the first time Berlioz will be performed at Seattle Opera. His most stageworthy opera, Beatrice and Benedict builds upon the solid dramatic foundation laid by England’s greatest playwright. Berlioz’s music adds fascinating new emotional and lyrical dimensions to Shakespeare’s brilliant play of wit and intrigue.

For this unique production, ACT Theatre’s Artistic Director, John Langs, will make his Seattle Opera debut directing Beatrice and Benedict, while Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, conducts for his first time at Seattle Opera. The ensemble includes singers beloved by Seattle Opera audiences as well as non-singing actors cast by John Langs, including several actors from ACT Theatre’s 2018 Core Company. Returning singers from our just closed Cosi fan tutte include Hanna Hipp, Craig Verm, Laura Tatulescu and Kevin Burdette. The Seattle-based design team– including Robert Dahlstrom, Deborah Trout, Matthew Smucker, and Connie Yun–conjures a sunny Sicilian setting sure to brighten up your winter.

Philip Newton Photo
Berlioz translated the original Shakespeare text into French when he made Much Ado About Nothing into an opéra comique, a popular French form of light opera with lots of dialogue. Berlioz included much of the original play text in the spoken dialogue, translating it into the language of his audience (originally, French, but later German as well). Seattle Opera is presenting Beatrice and Benedict in English, so our audiences can enjoy the genius of one of our own language’s greatest writers directly, from lips to ear. We figured you’d prefer this approach to reading a Shakespeare play on the supertitle screen while it’s being spoken in French! We’re using the English singing translation developed by the opera librettist Amanda Holden for English National Opera. Amplified dialogue plus supertitles for the sung text will guarantee you don’t miss a word.

Berlioz’s fantastic love music in Beatrice and Benedict focuses on the playful bickering and irresistible attraction of the title characters. But Seattle Opera is also restoring the intense drama of Shakespeare’s dark subplot, in which Don John tries to ruin Claudio’s faith in the innocent Hero (greatly abridged in Berlioz’s opera). In Seattle Opera’s Beatrice and Benedict, music taken from other Berlioz works will contribute beauty, passion, and color to the villainy of Don John and the jealousy and remorse of Claudio. Turns out, Shakespeare knew what he was doing! The subplot not only adds depth and contrast; it forces Beatrice and Benedict to grow up and embrace their full humanity.

Given Maestro Morlot’s expertise with Berlioz, and director Langs’ rich experience with Shakespeare and Much Ado About Nothing, all the pieces are in place and the stage is set for a once-in-a-lifetime game of words vs. music, women vs. men, and love vs. hate. Light as a soufflé yet rich and deep as a fine wine, Beatrice and Benedict is sure to charm your ears and enchant your heart.

Beatrice and Benedict plays February 24-March 10 at McCaw Hall, and is part of the Seattle Shakespeare Festival. Tickets and more information at

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Men and Women, Music and Words

From left: Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella), Craig Verm (Guglielmo), Laura Tatulescu (Despina), Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi), and Tuomas Katajala (Ferrando), Seattle Opera, Cosi fan tutte 2018 © Philip Newton
By Lucy Caplan
Women cannot be trusted, Don Alfonso tells his impressionable young companions, and your lovers are no exception. Just watch me prove it, he huffsand so the story of Così fan tutte begins. At this moment, settled comfortably in my seat as an audience member, I begin to feel conflicted. I have already been delighted by Mozart’s effervescent music, which has captivated me from the first notes of the overture. But now I am also exasperated by Alfonso’s broadbrush dismissal of all women as inherently untrustworthy, and by Guglielmo and Ferrando’s willingness to deceive the women they love. 

It doesn’t feel right simply to ignore Alfonso’s brazenly sexist sentiments. It also doesn’t feel right to let that frustration negate my enjoyment of the opera’s beauty and charm. So, as the story and the music continue to pull me in different directions, I can’t help but wonder: Is this a misogynistic work of art? If it is, and I love it regardless, what does that say about me? 

I am not the first operagoer to have qualms about Cosi’s portrayals of women, though the reasons behind the criticisms have changed over time. After a moderately successful premiere in Vienna in 1790, the opera only lingered on the margins of the standard repertoire for more than a century. One reason for its infrequent performance was that it scandalized nineteenth-century audiences with its frank depiction of women’s sexuality, particularly Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s infidelity. In response to this criticism, some productions tweaked Cosi’s plot to make it more socially acceptable—transforming Don Alfonso into a sorcerer and Despina into a sprite, for instance, so as to transport the opera into the realm of fantasy. One version abandoned Da Ponte’s libretto entirely, replacing it with a French translation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. These revisions strived for a neat separation between story and sound, which would minimize the women’s “immoral” behavior while preserving the musical beauty. 

In the twentieth century, Cosi finally entered the canon—including in the United States, where it received a longoverdue premiere in 1922. Ironically, the women’s rights movement may have helped make its success possible: the opera’s rise in popularity corresponded with the ascent of first-wave feminism and newly progressive social mores regarding women’s behavior on and off the stage. Today, it is among the world’s most popular operas. 

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella) and Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi), Seattle Opera, Così fan tutte 2018, © Philip Newton
As a twenty-first-century listener, I don’t find the opera’s content especially risqué. What disturbs me is how Cosi seems to make light of the male characters’ attitudes toward the women. Guglielmo and Ferrando’s scheme to test their lovers’ fidelity is as cynical as it is absurd. They take pleasure in setting the women up for failure, deceiving the people they claim to love. The women succumb to temptation, seeming to confirm the sexist claim that “all women are like that”; that is, devious and fickle. But nobody onstage ever asks if “all men are like that,” or whether the guys are acting in a devious manner themselves. 

As this all unfolds, a striking mismatch emerges between the libretto and the score, which is heartfelt and tender throughout. Opera is always artificial to some extent—we don’t generally communicate through song or punctuate our daily lives with arias—but Cosi is exceptional in this regard, combining a darkly implausible plot with deeply sincere music. 

As I listen, I wonder if I should let music and plot remain comfortably separate. The loveliness of Mozart’s music makes complacency tempting; it would be easy not to think too much about the piece’s implications in the world outside the opera house. Oriented only by beauty, my moral compass wavers. Maybe yours does, too. Listening to one delightful melody after another puts me at ease; the artistry conceals the ugliness of sexism. But is there something amiss when we admire the opera’s beauty, regardless of what it cloaks? Can we meaningfully separate our listening selves from our broader ideals and beliefs? 

Hanna Hipp (Dorabella) and Marjukka Tepponen (Fiordiligi), Seattle Opera, Così fan tutte 2018, © Philip Newton
These questions are not unique to Cosi. Related issues arise across the standard opera repertoire, from Madame Butterfly’s Orientalism to Otello’s racism to Don Giovanni’s sexual violence. Each work prompts the question of what to do when the world an opera depicts is out of sync with contemporary values. But the music and story intermingle in complicated ways. With Cosi, the contrast between a superficial storyline and musical depth actually heightens the potential for complexity. Mozart’s music invites me to come closer, to listen more intently. When I do that, I find that I grapple with this opera’s sexism—beyond simply noting its presence—and I see new nuances in the characters and new relationships between the opera and our own time. 

Take the relationship between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, for instance. When Fiordiligi sings the majestic aria “Come scoglio,” her expansive vocal range conveys the depth of her convictions; no one could mistake this music as insincere. Another way to say this might be that while the male characters are having fun at the expense of the women, the music is not. Later, she reluctantly capitulates to Ferrando’s advances (“Yield, my dearest!”…“Cruel man, you’ve won! Do with me what you will”). The moment feels eerily resonant with the stories that have dominated the news lately—accounts of powerful men, from actors to politicians, who take advantage of vulnerable women. Against this contemporary backdrop, my response isn’t to tsk-tsk Fiordiligi for her unfaithfulness. I’m infuriated by Ferrando’s cruelty and Fiordiligi’s inability to escape it. Listening in this way makes me wonder if the claim “Così fan tutte” is anything more than a cynical provocation. When Alfonso, Ferrando, and Guglielmo sing it near the opera’s end, enclosed in boldly stated chords, they certainly try to make it sound definitive, but I don’t have to accept it as such. 
Modern stagings and interpretations, like this one, bring all sorts of creative possibilities to the fore. They allow the opera itself to try on disguises, as it were, to experiment with different facets of its identity. This production, set in contemporary Seattle, embraces Cosi’s obsession with creativity and costumes; comical touches show us how even the men who think they’re all-powerful end up looking a bit ridiculous. 

Ultimately, one of Cosi’s signature revelations is that what seem like fundamental splits—between men and women, music and words, art and audience, the world outside the opera house and the world within it—are never as absolute as they appear. Art and artifice may distance us temporarily from outside realities, but they don’t make those realities disappear. So I want to resist both the temptation to excuse Cosi’s sexism in the name of art and the temptation to let that sexism ruin an opera that I otherwise love. Instead, I’ll embrace the opera’s ability to do what all great works of art do: to bridge the divide between its world and our own, revealing something profound in the process. 

Lucy Caplan is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on African American opera in the early twentieth century. She is the recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. 

Così fan tutte plays at McCaw Hall through January 27. Tickets and information at

Friday, January 19, 2018

Praise for Così fan tutte

From left: Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella), Craig Verm (Guglielmo), Laura Tatulescu (Despina), Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi), and Tuomas Katajala (Ferrando). Philip Newton photo.
"Local and current references make Miller’s boisterous rendition funnier and more relatable to contemporary viewers. Cell phones are everywhere, with characters texting and snapping selfies throughout. Television cameras film Guglielmo and Ferrando heading off to war. Characters mic drop, hair flip and play air guitar. The Dothraki language from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is among the clever present-day references in the supertitles by Seattle Opera’s Jonathan Dean."-Queen Anne News

"Cosi is an ensemble opera in which all six principals have delightful stage business and beautiful music to sing; the finest productions, like this one, feature a well-rounded cast with the acting and singing chops to make us laugh and cry along with them."-Seattle P.I.

Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso) and Laura Tatulescu (Despina). Philip Newton photo.
"As Despina, Laura Tatulescu was both versatile and clever. Kevin Burdette gave a detailed and suave portrayal of the wily Don Alfonso, who sets the plot into motion by proposing that the boyfriends test their girls’ fidelity by wooing each other’s girl in disguise."-Seattle Times

"Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso at all shows) was a suave, supercilious conspirator while Laura Tatulescu’s Despina (again, at all shows) was the perfect bored foil for the flighty sisters."-Seattle P.I.

"Kevin Burdette was a natural as the instigator of the opera’s action, the suavely manipulative Alfonso. He could command a scene with a mere gesture or his richly polished bass. As Despina, the sisters’ personal assistant who first appears bringing lattes to her employers, Laura Tatulescu was delightful in her insubordination and her impersonations of a lawyer and a doctor — plus she rocked her high notes."-Queen Anne News

Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiorgiligi) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella). Philip Newton photo.
“One reason Saturday’s opening-night cast was such a success was the “sister act” of two real-life sisters — Marina Costa-Jackson as Fiordiligi and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Dorabella. Both have rich, beautifully produced voices of considerable agility (Marina’s “Come scoglio” was a showstopping standout).”-Seattle Times

"Amusing and affecting as the embattled Fiordiligi rigorously defending her honor, soprano Marina Costa-Jackson displayed a thrilling vocalism that blazed through the prodigious leaps in her arias, generating the longest applause for an individual singer. Ginger Costa-Jackson was a wonder as Dorabella, Fiordiligi’s flirtatious sister, with a dark-hued, vibrant mezzo."-Queen Anne News

From left: Laura Tatulescu (Despina), Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), and Marjukka Tepponen (Fiordiligi). Tuffer photo.
"There’s a bit more steel and a lot of great technique in Marjukka Tepponen’s Fiordiligi (she has a glorious laugh), and much to admire in Hanna Hipp’s more yielding, lyrical Dorabella."-Seattle Times

“Conductor Paul Daniel kept the musical pace humming along … [and] also supported the singers admirably with his continuo playing (on a particularly fine fortepiano), with cellist Meeka Quan DiLorenzo.”-Seattle Times

"Fiordiligi is the most challenging role in this opera, because it demands the ability to jump to the extremes of a huge vocal range. Most sopranos who attempt this role end up sounding harsh and unpleasant, but Tepponen maintained her lustrous tone in every part of her range. She delivered the goods, both vocally and emotionally."-Seattle Gay News

Tuomas Katajala (Ferrando) and Craig Verm (Guglielmo). Tuffer photo.
"Katajala’s lyricism and Verm’s warm baritone were a pleasure to hear. Harry Fehr, who staged the revival, had them dashing about the stage, doing push-ups, posturing and in more or less constant motion."-Seattle Times

"Although Tuomas Katajala has a warm caramel tenor that was especially lovely in his paean to his love, Un’ aura amorosa, his voice also showed a steely backbone when his Ferrando was enraged. Craig Verm’s honeyed baritone coupled with his Guglielmo’s confident sexuality when disguised left no doubt he could seduce one of the sisters."-Queen Anne News 

From left: Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso), Ben Bliss (Ferrando), and Michael Adams (Guglielmo). Tuffer photo.
"Ben Bliss brought a bright, beautifully produced tone to Ferrando, and Michael Adams was a smoothly sonorous Guglielmo."-Seattle Times

"All of the cast members looked great in Cynthia Savage’s contemporary costumes, from the high-style glamour of the sisters’ outfits to the hilarious “biker dudes” get-up assumed by their boyfriends in disguise. Since Miller, the original production director, believes that we become different people when we wear disguises, the costumes really count in this show."-Seattle Times

"Kevin Burdette and Laura Tatulescu (who sing these roles in all performances) nearly stole the show. Tatulescu was perfect as the spunky, resentful servant who also turns up disguised as a doctor and a notary. Burdette was a marvel: suave, graceful, and charming, he almost made the audience like the deplorable Don Alfonso, thereby adding another layer of discomfort and complexity. I look forward to Tatulescu's and Burdette's performances in Beatrice and Benedict, the next Seattle Opera offering."-Seattle Gay News

Seattle Opera's Così fan tutte plays through January 27, 2018 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets & info: