Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Aidan Lang is beginning his first full season as solo General Director of Seattle Opera—and he’s out of the gate with an exciting experiment, a bold new production of an opera Seattle has never before heard: Verdi’s early monumental epic Nabucco. The production, currently in rehearsal, will be something of a cross between a Shakespeare play and a rock concert, aimed at presenting this overwhelmingly powerful Bible story to its best advantage. Lang told us a bit about the opera and the rationale behind the production, which he hopes will create the sizzling connection between stage and audience so vital in Verdi’s theater.

Nabucco is new to Seattle Opera. What’s it about?
It’s a Biblical story, a setting of the story of Nebuchadnezzar. The opera tells of an invading king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who sacks Jerusalem and then has a conversion to the Hebrew faith, and the opera ends with a positive outcome.

Unusually for a Verdi opera, Nabucco has a happy ending (from a Judeo-Christian perspective). What’s the moral of the story here?
Nabucco is saved from his madness by a realization of the price he’s paying—that his daughter will be executed along with the Hebrew people. He returns from his madness and converts to the Hebrew God. Is that the point of the opera? I think it’s really about hubris. The key moment is at the end of the second act, when he declares: “I am not king, I am God!” and then gets struck by a thunderbolt for his pains. The point is that man has his place. If he overrides that, there’s a price to pay: the life of his beloved daughter.

But more interestingly Nabucco introduces themes which prevail throughout Verdi’s work, particularly the relationships between fathers and daughters. He always writes father-daughter relationships, and he didn’t have a daughter himself. And there’s huge tenderness, the fathers to their daughters. I have a daughter myself, so I guess I relate to that! Rigoletto is the best example. If you compare, say, the relationship of Rigoletto to Gilda to that of Germont and Alfredo in Traviata, it’s clear that Germont is thinking about his daughter, not about his son. There’s something really strange going on here, and I think it may be that the intensity of the feeling is precisely because it’s a feeling Verdi didn’t have himself and wanted.

Tell us about Nabucco and his two daughters.
In the case of Fenena, what’s quite interesting is that she’s an independent spirit. She converts to the Hebrew faith ahead of Nabucco’s conversion at the end. So she goes her own way; she allows her feelings to lead her, even if it means effectively being led to her death, dying for her faith, which is part of the spur for Nabucco’s conversion himself.

The other side is Abigaille, and here we see a direct parallel with King Lear: lust for the throne and children who defy their father, much like Goneril, Regan, and Edmund in King Lear. And Nabucco’s madness, which is the result, is obviously a match for Lear as well.

Let’s talk about Nabucco and Italian politics.
Verdi was intensely interested in politics and an apostle for the cause of Italian unification, which wasn’t going to occur until the early 1870s, so thirty years after this piece. “Va, pensiero” became a sort of unofficial national anthem for the Risorgimento, the move for Italian independence away from the rule of the Austrian empire. And after this opera Verdi’s name itself became an acronym for the cause; V-E-R-D-I meant “Victor Emmanuel, Re d’Italia,” Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy. So this piece has always been inextricably linked with the Risorgimento.

"Va, pensiero" at Seattle Opera's 2013 "Viva Verdi!" concert

And it’s often asked, was this piece meant as a spur, as an encouragement for that cause? Did Verdi intend it? I’m not sure he did. I think actually it was a happy chance that echoes were found with the suffering Hebrew people, that Verdi’s audiences found a direct parallel to their situation. Verdi became a slightly unwitting apostle for the Risorgimento. But that’s not to say Verdi didn’t have very strong political convictions. He certainly understood politics as a dramatic force, as the basis for a lot of his work. The idea of an invading army, the sacking of a city, the movement of great political forces, was an attraction within the subject matter for Verdi, undoubtedly.

What does Nabucco tell us about violence and power politics in the mideast, then and now?
Has anything changed in the Middle East between the Biblical times and now? It’s part of the world which has always been in conflict. It’s desert...boundaries shift with the sands. Conflict has certainly been part of that region for many many many generations. Again, was that Verdi’s intention? No. There have been many contemporary productions which draw parallels between the story and current events in the mideast. Personally I’ve always found that’s interesting for about ten minutes, and then you get into big problems. You know, people who brandish Kalashnikovs move in a realistic time frame, and yet the weight and grandeur of this music plays against a scenic plan which requires very detailed, naturalistic acting. For me, that has always been a big problem with contemporary productions of this piece—the visual image is at odds with the musical pulse.

"Va, pensiero" at London's Royal Opera House in 2013, production by Daniele Abbado

What’s the connection between this opera and Shakespeare?
Verdi is sometimes called “Opera’s Shakespeare.” He wrote three operas based on Shakespeare: Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, which is a setting of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The opera he always intended to write and never got around to was King Lear; in many ways this work is the nearest he gets to King Lear. What appealed to Verdi in Shakespeare? The directness of the dramas, the pace, and also the variety. What defines Shakespearean theater from European theater is the mixed genre. With Shakespeare, even in tragedy there is black comedy, lighter moments. Whereas a French tragedy is absolutely unrelieved seriousness.

Verdi may have been a bit envious of the English having Shakespeare as their national playwright and wanted to claim a bit of that feeling for himself. Maybe the fact that Verdi was of humble birth helped him identify with a writer who was not an aristocrat, who wrote popular theater, for the people, because Italian opera was popular theater and Shakespeare was certainly writing for a popular audience.

And it wasn’t just Verdi. Shakespeare underwent a huge revival in the nineteenth century. There was an element of Shakespeare that appealed to the Romantic movement; they were eager to adopt him. And I think it was the freedom, the free will of the characters, that appealed to the nineteenth century—certainly to the Romantic ideal.

Where does Nabucco fit, among all the Verdi operas we know and love?
Nabucco is Verdi’s third opera, and as we might expect from a composer who’s finding his way still, stylistically the piece still belongs to the opera-writing of the late 1830s, 1840s. It’s written in quite a monumental style—it has big address, big arias, big ensembles, which might hold the action up by comparison with the style which Verdi evolved later in his life. But that’s not to deny in any way its magnificence.

It is opera written for singers. Some of these roles are extremely challenging. Abigaille is probably the best example of an almost unsingable role. And Nabucco himself has huge vocal challenges. It’s written with a nod to the bel canto tradition, where the skill of the performer, the technical complexity of the writing, is part of the excitement of the entertainment, or the thrill of big chorus writing; that’s why the audience has come. That’s not to say that the later Verdi writing doesn’t require huge vocal ability. But Verdi moved towards what we call the ‘through-composed’ style, which we see in Puccini, beginning with Rigoletto and Traviata, which are eight, nine, ten years later than Nabucco. So don’t expect the fluidity of Rigoletto, because he hadn’t got there yet. But do expect writing of huge vocal impact and monumental emotional charge.

In many ways Nabucco is not dissimilar in its feel to Aida, which likewise has big grand scenes, quite apart from being set in that part of the world. Although written much later, Aida has a similar feel. But part of the fun of Aida is the orientalism of the setting, which doesn’t play such an important part in Nabucco. Yes, Nabucco is set in Biblical times, but it doesn’t seem to be about that so much. Whereas Aida, written for Cairo, it’s about Egypt. I don’t think this piece is about Babylon and Jerusalem: it’s actually about the way man relates to his God and his faith.

What are the pitfalls in terms of staging Nabucco?
If you’ll excuse a wee bit of theater history, one of the things which fascinates me is the way the theatrical conditions of any work have a huge impact on its style. Now we mentioned Shakespeare earlier. Look at the later Shakespeare plays, when we know he went to an indoor theater away from the Globe. The style becomes much more intimate (or, to put it another way, much less bombastic and grandiloquent). Shakespeare understood that if he was writing for an open-air stage in London, his writing needed to carry that environment. If you go indoors, you don’t.

Now, the theater in Verdi’s time, in the 1840s, was very different to what we have today. The relationship between the audience and the stage was completely different by dint of the fact that there was not yet the technology to create an illuminated stage and therefore a darkened auditorium. The theater would have been illuminated with candlelight, and they would have made attempts to heighten the stage picture with footlights, with candles with a metal or glass reflector behind it. The singers would have been right down at the front. Scenery was two-dimensional perspective painting, and there wasn’t a whole lot of space. Therefore, the audience was witness to a very different form of theater. There would have been much greater contact between the stage and audience than you get in a darkened auditorium, because in the dark, the singers are in what we call ‘inner thought’ rather than outer declamation.

Photo of a Nabucco production at Castello di Vigoleno, Italy

It seems to me this has always been the big problem with Nabucco. I’ve seen it many times, and leaving aside the awful monolithic Biblical scenery which you usually get—that may be just my taste!—I believe the grandeur and weight of the music are better matched by a really intense and direct contact with the audience. When the audience are not included, what you actually see is a lot of people strutting around onstage, being very big, for seemingly no good reason. So what we’ve decided to do with this production here at Seattle Opera is to make a very daring experiment: to say, “If this contact between audience and performer is germane to our thrilling experience of this piece, let’s give it the best possible opportunity. Like a Shakespearean theater, let’s bring the performers right to the front.”

So we’ve built a stage, not dissimilar to a Shakespearean thrust stage, extending up to the first row of the audience. We had to put the orchestra somewhere else, so we’ve relocated them behind the acting space. You’ll see them, dimly, but the idea is that you ignore their presence the way you would ignore an orchestra in the pit, and focus your attention firmly on the performers. We’re hoping we can find an acting style which is much more direct and much less rhetorical, one that respects the weight and grandeur of the music. And at the same give the audience even more of a thrill at the exciting singing by this close proximity than if they were thirty feet farther away, the width of an orchestra pit. So we’re trying to get that Shakespearean feel which is in the piece, and to capture in a modern way the intimacy that Verdi’s audience would have felt with the performers and vice versa, better than we would be able to do if we just were in a conventional proscenium arch setup. So it’s an experiment, to try and get that thrill of the piece, to help it make as strong an impact, and therefore case for the piece, as we can.

We invited François Racine to direct; he has done a number of productions in this manner, playing around with space and the relationship of audience and performer. François came to Seattle and we brought in Duane Schuler, the lighting designer, and Bob Bonniol, the video designer, for a big think-tank. Gradually, collectively, we evolved our scenic plan. I can’t remember whose idea it was to bring the stage over the orchestra pit; we thought, why end at the front of the stage if we can come even further? It was one of those examples where many minds make a much more creative solution than simply one. And we were able to discuss practicalities of lighting and projection surfaces.

Tell us a little about the use of projected imagery in this production.
If we didn’t want to have heavy, stolid Biblical scenery, we nevertheless have to suggest location. This opera requires us to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Jerusalem and its destruction... these Wonders of the Ancient World, which we don’t really know what they looked like! So we invited Bob Bonniol and his team to evolve a series of projected images, some of which are animated, some of which will stay still, which enable us to move very clearly from scene to scene. When necessary they comment or add intensity, or be it a sense of location or a reflection of abstract feeling and emotion. And on this vast projection screen we can get a sense of awe, of scale, apt to the epic nature of this piece.

And what really pleases me is that the team understood: projected imagery must never get in the way or become a means to its own end. We need something which is arresting, and creates a sense of presence and mood, but that never deflects attention from the acting. And I think the extraordinary images they’ve evolved meet that brief really very well. I’ve seen many productions with video projections where, after five or ten minutes, you go, “Oh, for God’s sakes! Stop! Stop a moment.” It’s very easy for it to upstage the acting.

François Racine has been with Seattle Opera before; in fact he won the Artist of the Year Award for his staging of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung back in 2009. He was delighted to come back. And he brought with him one of his colleagues from Montréal, Ginette Grenier, our costume designer, who’s come up with a marvelous array of costumes which respect the Biblical side to the story AND at the same time make very clear who are the Hebrews, who are the Babylonians. She has chosen fabrics which allow movement, rather than stiff, heavy fabrics which restrict the performers’ movements, so the costumes will enable a modern, dynamic style of acting, while paying absolute respect to the Biblical antecedants of the work.

Costume design for Abigaille © Ginette Grenier

What are the vocal challenges of Nabucco?
Nabucco really is a singer’s opera, and it’s essential to cast singers who can ride its intense vocal demands. Our two Nabuccos are both artists returning to Seattle Opera, and Gordon Hawkins and Weston Hurt are intensely experienced in this genre and are right on top of the character. Abigaille is an extraordinary role. Mary Elizabeth Williams has sung it before, to huge acclaim, and we had her as Tosca quite recently and we’re thrilled to have her back. And the alternate cast has a wonderful Italian singer, Raffaella Angeletti, who also has done this role before. She’ll be making her Seattle Opera debut, as will both our Zaccarias, American singer Christian Van Horn and Andreas Bauer, who has come to us from Germany. So in those three exceedingly difficult roles we have some really top singers. We’re also thrilled to welcome back Russell Thomas, as Ismaele, and making her Seattle Opera debut as Fenena, Jamie Barton, who just won the Richard Tucker prize in New York, making her debut. So we’re really over the moon about the quality of the cast.

And what about our conductor?
Maestro Carlo Montanaro has conducted this piece many times. In the early rehearsals the singers have already been delighted by his attention to detail. He’s not allowing a sort of lazy, rhetorical singing; he was immediately finding fine details in the music, and all the singers responded to that. They realize that it’s necessary; what’s happening musically must echo the intensity and intimacy of the acting style made possible (indeed, demanded) by our scenic plan. We don’t want loud, meaningless, abstract singing. So it’s a very happy coming-together of Carlo’s approach to this piece and what we’ve evolved scenically.

This discussion has also been released as a SoundCloud podcast. Listen below, or download it HERE.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Seattle Opera at Wing Luke

From left: Jessica Murphy Moo, An American Dream librettist; Mako Nakagawa, Japanese American Citizens Leauge; and Nick Malinowski, Seattle Opera's Community Programs Manager. Jonathan Vicory photo  
Seattle Opera's An American Dream is a new opera born out of a simple question: If you had to leave your home today and could only take one thing with you, what would you take? Seattle Opera asked this question to hundreds of people, and two answers led to the creation of an opera set in the Puget Sound during WWII. This new work centers in part around a Japanese American family and their forcible relocation and incarceration.

On June 30, Jessica Murphy Moo, An American Dream’s librettist, and Nick Malinowski, Seattle Opera’s Community Programs Manager, were at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience to talk about the opera, and discuss the themes that run through this powerful and important new piece. 

"It was an honor to be invited to participate in this discussion at Wing Luke—and humbling to learn more about this regional history from individuals who lived it," Moo said.  

They were joined by guest speaker Mako Nakagawa of the Japanese American Citizens League, and a former incarceree during World War II. 

This free and open-to-the-public event was a chance for members of the community to experience this production's powerful music and deeply human story. More important, however, was the opportunity to hold a public conversation around the power of words as it relates to the Japanese American experience during WWII.

One of the strategies employed by the federal government to sell the forced removal and confinement of Japanese American from the West Coast during World War II was the use of euphemistic terms that masked the true nature of what was being done. Japanese American were "evacuated" — as if from a natural disaster or for their own protection — from their homes and sent to "assembly centers" and "relocation centers."
- Densho 

In addition to Nakagawa two other incarcerees in attendance, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald and Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, shared stories from their lives, and answered questions from other attendees.

Photos by Jonathan Vicory   

Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director at Wing Luke

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, one of the two women whose story largely inspired An American Dream. 
An American Dream Community Partners:Holocaust Center for Humanity, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, Densho, Japanese American Citizens League–Seattle, Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Wing Luke Museum of the Asia Pacific Experience and Japanese American National Museum.

More information at:

Follow #SOAmericanDream on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ABIGAILLE and Her Sisters

Who’s the most kickass warrior woman in all opera? While the “Ride of the Valkyries” and Wagner’s other tunes for Brünnhilde and her sisters are some of opera’s most popular music, don't think that the ladies of Italian opera are all wimps and pushovers. Earlier this season at Seattle Opera, Puccini’s Tosca gave Scarpia a memorable kiss with a very sharp dinner knife; and last season we celebrated Donizetti’s extremely unladylike Daughter of the Regiment. But for really hardcore warrior women in Italian operas, you need to listen to early Verdi.

We’re about to present Verdi’s first unbelievably great opera, Nabucco. The diva plays Abigaille, who’s really a piece of work. She makes an impressive entrance in the opera’s first scene disguised as an Assyrian soldier, leading a commando team in to sack the Temple of Jerusalem. Later, she goes mad with jealousy when the tenor rejects her and falls for her sister; beserk with rage when she discovers that she’s illegitimate and that her ‘father’ intends to disown her; then gets completely drunk on power and ambition, before self-destructing. Rare among Verdi’s operas, Nabucco has a happy ending—everyone is relieved, at the end, when Abigaille dies!

Costume design for Abigaille © Ginette Grenier

The vocal demands of this fearsome role are so extreme, the soprano who sang it at the first performances retired from singing shortly thereafter. (She also moved in with Giuseppe Verdi and eventually married him!) In our 50+ years, Seattle Opera has never before presented Nabucco; Speight Jenkins decided to program it, several years ago, because he was so impressed with the Abigaille of Mary Elizabeth Williams, a graduate of our Young Artists Program and one of our favorite singers.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca with Philip Horst as Scarpia
Elise Bakketun, photo

Verdi never again wrote such a voice-shredding role as Abigaille, although he did create a couple of other fantastically killer soprano roles. Four years after the premiere of Nabucco, Verdi wrote Attila, which Seattle Opera presented in 2012. Ana Lucrecia Garcia sang Odabella, the fire-breathing warrior woman who defends Italy from the invading armies of Attila the Hun:

Odabella concludes that opera by chopping off Attila’s head with the sword of her slain father, making Attila another of those rare Verdi happy endings. Verdi immediately followed Attila with Macbeth, another opera about a brutal tyrant and a very scary woman, only this time they’re in cahoots. When Seattle Opera last presented Macbeth, Andrea Gruber sang Lady Macbeth. Here she is, in her entrance aria, crying out Verdi-style “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood.”

It doesn’t end well for Lady Macbeth, of course (another happy ending?!). Verdi went on to create many other wonderful female characters, including the warlike Joan of Arc, the vengeful Azucena, and the gleefully sadistic Merry Wives of Windsor. But in terms of blazingly difficult coloratura, women who want to burn you to ashes with their laser-voices, there aren’t any roles quite like his Lady Macbeth, Odabella, and Abigaille.

Mary Elizabeth Williams sings Abigaille’s aria, posted by her agency

If you're really big on warrior women, there will be a free screening of the movie Hero in Volunteer Park this Friday, 7/17, at 9 pm. Don't miss the gorgeous battle between Ziyi Zhang and Maggie Cheung!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Staff Chat with Hair and Makeup Designer JOYCE DEGENFELDER

Joyce Degenfelder, Seattle Opera’s Hair and Makeup Designer, has created wigs for nearly every Seattle theater company under the sun—from PNB to Seattle Children’s Theater, Intiman, ACT, and Seattle Repertory Theater, where she is on staff. At Seattle Opera, she has created signature coifs for a wide range of characters. Consider the crazed villains in The Tales of Hoffmann, the foreboding up-do of The Consul’s Secretary, Turandot’s long red-ribboned tresses, and the near-bald pate of Elektra’s mother Klytämnestra (which still gives me nightmares).

Joyce has worked for Seattle Opera since Parsifal in 2003, and while she is most comfortable backstage, she has recently been front and center of Seattle’s arts scene, as recipient of the Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award, given by Theatre Puget Sound. It is a recognition much deserved.

I met Joyce at her studio at the Seattle Rep. On three shelves were more than a dozen wigs on wig blocks (think mannequin heads), each tagged with a character’s name, in various states of creation. (The wig for Judge Smith in the Rep’s All the Way was still in curlers, which would eventually be combed, styled, and sprayed into his signature wave.) She invited me to sit in her swivel chair in front of her mirror, while she pulled a head off the shelf to demonstrate the process of "hand-tying" a wig. She poked a hook through the netting under the wig, pulled a single piece of hair through and knotted it. Then repeated.

Yes, folks. When Joyce hand-ties a wig, she makes it one hair at a time.

Sometimes it’s human hair. Sometimes synthetic. And sometimes—though more rarely these days because of the cost—yak hair, prized for wigs because it’s thick, white, and easily dyed. The choristers in Don Giovanni’s party scene had a yak with a buzzcut to thank for their blue and pink Restoration period hair. In Ariadne the only yak wig is the one the Tenor refuses to wear in the Prologue.

She estimates that it takes about 40 hours to hand-tie a wig. Multiply that by the number of new wigs for a production—adding principals and chorus and supernumeraries—and you have a wigmaster who is hooking hair around the clock, in her studio, backstage, at home, on the ferry during her commute to and from Vashon Island. (And in her off hours she hooks wool rugs.)

Many of the wigs in Ariadne are in her inventory, but she’ll hand-tie a new wig for the Composer, and the Prima Donna will have a head of wild curls. The “looks” will range from neoclassical Grecian braids to bold, exaggerated commedia dell’arte. The period pieces—her bread and butter—are what got her interested in wig making in the first place. She enjoys the research, finding the right silhouette. “It’s fun to create that world,” she says.

And if you’re wondering whether it’s ever the singer’s real hair up there, the answer is almost always no. “Usually the moment they start singing and get warm, a curl is going to start drooping out and the hair just goes limp,” Joyce says. And the wig saves the crew time. It takes eight minutes to pin up and wig a singer, an additional half hour if a singer’s hair needs to be styled on the spot.

Joyce also loves the collaborative process between the director, costume designer, wig and makeup designer, and the singers. Most singers want the hair away from their ears. And inhaling a wisp could be disastrous. With new productions, she gets to bring the costume designer’s vision to reality. With Semele, for instance, the gods wore costumes with long and flowing lines, and the humans wore angles and geometric shapes. The wigs were a perfect extension of this design. Plus Joyce got to create Pasithea’s fabulous blue beehive.

She likes that wig making is still a hand-crafted product, though the bar keeps getting raised. “The pressures of media and movies has made us go to finer materials and more natural looking styling onstage.” All those close-up marketing shots? Simulcasts? The singers need to look natural under an HD camera’s scrutiny.

Her main goal is to make the singer feel good. “I try to put the project together in a way that makes people happy onstage. They’re the one out there singing, not me,” she says.

-Jessica Murphy
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Ariadne auf Naxos in May 2015.

Staff Chat with General Director’s Executive Assistant MARY BRAZEAU

Officially the general director’s executive assistant since May of 2000, Mary Brazeau had unofficially been a part of Seattle Opera—as a volunteer—since the first Ring in 1975. Now, she can field most questions that come her way about the general director—from his whereabouts to his favorite type of chocolate. But don’t come asking during Seattle’s International Film Festival because she’ll be in a dark theater, probably watching something in Danish, attempting to beat her record 99 films.

How has the transition been going to Aidan’s leadership? You have the inside scoop!
The transition has been going very smoothly. It really has. It’s been great to have Aidan here since March. In August I took him to his first baseball game! He’s been doing a wonderful job, really getting a sense of how we put it all together, so he’ll know how he wants to work. He’s been very easy to work with, and he’s got very exciting ideas. It’s a very different take, a different approach, and I think it’s going to be great.

Is there anything you’ve learned about Aidan that people don’t know?
He has a pretty broad knowledge of pop culture. Last December when we were in New York for auditions and we were at the Met, Aidan came running up to me and he said, “I can’t wait to tell my wife and daughter a star from Project Runway is here tonight!” That kind of thing wasn’t on Speight’s radar. So it’s really kind of fun!

Have you been in touch with Speight since his retirement?
Several e-mails a day! He’s having a wonderful time. He’s finally studying German seriously. He had learned German from studying Wagner, which can get you in real trouble—it’s archaic and you sound pretty goofy, talking like that.

How did you first become involved with Seattle Opera?
During the crazy wonderful madness that was Glynn-Ross-putting-on-the-Ring, the company needed any living body to help. So I sold T-shirts in the lobby. And there was no looking back. When Speight first started having cast parties in his home, my mother and I would cook the food. Any kind of odd job.

You were well-prepared for the job you ended up walking into!
Yes, Speight knew me very well, and I knew Speight very well, so there was an immediate comfort level. A funny story: When Speight hired me, he was talking to a friend of mine who plays in the orchestra and Speight told him, “I don’t want to teach somebody how to spell Rigoletto. That’s something I’m looking for.” On my first day here I gave him some kind of budget sheet, and I misspelled Rigoletto. That very word on my very first day. I know how to spell Rigoletto! It was just a typo. I said, “I can’t believe it!”

What else does your position involve?
Because we have very capable staff in each department, I focus mainly on the general director and his needs. I do scheduling, I do travel planning—recently Aidan has been traveling more in the United States because he needs to meet and get to know the people in other opera houses here—and I issue contracts. But you never know what’s going to come up, so it’s all about identifying needs and filling them.

Do you have to become a mind reader?
It’s a good idea! Learning to anticipate is a real key.

You have a long history with the opera Don Giovanni, correct?
Yes, my father was a super in the production with Sherrill Milnes in 1979. I love this opera. It’s my favorite Mozart.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a Scorpio and I’m intrigued by the whole anti-hero thing. And I love the music. If you’ve got a good Don, it’s so much fun. I will never forget the Don Giovanni with Dale Duesing that was so controversial. I loved that production. One of my absolute favorite moments in that production was when Sheri Greenawald, who was fabulous, sang Donna Anna’s big second act aria. The set had all these knocked over chairs everywhere, and as she was singing about pulling herself together, she walked over and just set a chair upright, and at that moment, I remember gasping because that one little act encapsulated her need to put her life back in order. Even now I’m getting chills thinking of that moment. It was so perfect.

-Jessica Murphy
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Don Giovanni in October 2015.

Staff Chat with Lead Cutter MARY ELLEN WALTER

Lead Cutter Mary Ellen Walter has been making costumes for Seattle Opera for almost 30 years. Her expertise spans centuries of fashion trends, and she knows how to get our singers looking good and ready to perform with confidence.

What does a “Cutter” do in a costume shop?
We work in teams, with each team responsible for a certain number of costumes for an entire opera. As cutter, I develop the patterns, either by draping fabric on a dress form or simply working out measurements. The first hand on my team “chops them out,” as we say; and we have one to three stitchers on the team who put it all together.

How did you learn your craft?
By doing it. I got sucked into theater as I was working on a Bachelor’s degree in English, and since I was a girl, they made me work in the costume shop. When I moved to Seattle, working in multiple shops exposed me to lots of different cutters, different styles, different projects...that was my post-grad!

And how did you work your way up?
It’s not exactly seniority; it’s more skill-based. I was on salary at the Rep once when we had a slow season, so I made it a project to learn how to draft menswear.

What do you love about opera?
I need the whole, scenery, acting, great direction. Stephen Wadsworth’s Orphée, in 1988, really opened my eyes to what opera can be.

You have some impressive equipment here at the shop.
Most of this is industrial equipment, such as the sergers that finish raw edges, and our button-holer. We have a foot-powered grommet-setter for laced-up bodices. Our crafts department is responsible for “distressing” costumes, making them look old and worn and ragged-out. For Parsifal, our team used cheese graters and rasps to destroy things, but it was so hard on their arms and muscles, Susan [Davis, Costume Shop Manager] bought a bench grinder.

When you create period costumes, are they historically accurate?
We consult historic pattern books...but eighteenth-century patterns are made for eighteenth-century bodies. People are much bigger today. Everybody goes to the gym, and opera singers are what they call in the tailoring book “chesty”—they have prominent chests. So you take the style lines, but not the exact patterns.

Do you have a favorite set of costumes you’ve created?
Mariusz Kwiecien sang Don Giovanni a few years back, and he’s a dream to work with—he loves clothes and always looks great. Marie-Therese Cramer designed a really fun set of costumes—based on historical shapes, but she twisted them. She and I got on a wavelength where she could say, “You know, a crazy cravat,” and twist her hands in front of her neck, and I knew exactly what she was talking about.

What about singers who aren’t as easy to costume as Mariusz?
We’ve certainly changed plans drastically if a costume just wasn’t working for a certain singer. Our job is always to make them look good.

Do you have strong feelings about updated productions, such as this one?
If it works for the story and characters, I’m all for it. I think it makes sense to set Rigoletto in the 1930s. It adds a bit more understanding for a modern viewer. We really know who that Duke is.

Can you take us through the process of creating costumes for the Duke?
We have Francesco Demuro’s measurements from last spring’s Bohème. It will probably take a week or so to draft his four costumes. We’ll do mock-ups, make some changes on the form, and then cut and stitch the real fabrics to the “fitting point”—sort of a rough draft of the costumes. Then, when he arrives, he’ll have a fitting, and we’ll make any necessary adjustments.

What are singers like during their fittings?
Some of them just want to get through it as fast as possible. Others are driven to entertain. And some of them, the “self-fitting performers,” may offer advice about how best to costume them—but the thing is, usually they’re right!

How do you make Rigoletto’s hump?
It’s mounted on a T-shirt, and goes on underneath his clothes.

I understand you were involved in selecting Aidan Lang, who will succeed Speight Jenkins as General Director later this year.
I was on a committee with the other collective bargaining units, and we met each of the candidates. The process was very transparent. I was flattered that our input meant so much to the Seattle Opera Board. And I think we got the right guy!

This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Rigoletto in January 2014.
Photo by Alan Alabastro

Staff Chat with Director of Artistic Operations and Season Planning MELANIE ROSS

Melanie Ross, Seattle Opera’s Director of Artistic Operations and Season Planning, has worked for Seattle Opera since 1975. As the daughter of the founding general director, Glynn Ross, she has spent virtually her entire life immersed in the art form.

When did you start working for Seattle Opera?
I started as a receptionist back in 1975. Lloyd Yunker, the Finance and Development Director, hired me. He asked permission of my dad, who was OK with it as long as Lloyd was responsible for my salary and job performance. My dad didn’t want any allegations of nepotism. Later I started doing a lot of clerical support, and then I worked assisting in PR. Eventually, I found my way into production. I knew opera by exposure; sort of an ad hoc education. I grew up with it.

What was that like?
When we were living in California, Dad was a gypsy stage director. He would come home for three to four weeks at a time and be fully available to us, and that, of course, was also his time to learn the next show. So whether it was the Ring or Lucia, we would learn the shows with him. We also hung with Dad at LA Conservatory (staying out of the way of course); conductors came for dinner and sat at the piano; we sat under the sewing machine backstage while Mom stitched; we were drafted for children’s roles in various operas...just a variety of experiences.

Were you ever a Nibelung in the Ring?
No, I was Trouble in Madama Butterfly a lot when I was a kid, and I was in Tosca as well, though Scarpia always scared the hell out of me.

And when did you realize you wanted to be a part of making opera happen?
I don’t think I did. I think it just evolved. I was always happiest here. I found that when a production worked out well and I felt I had a part in that success, it felt good.

Do any productions stick out in your memory?
My first complete Ring cycle in 1975 was the most memorable experience for me, as was our 1998 Tristan und Isolde. The 1970 Of Mice and Men, heartbreaking; Joan Sutherland as the four heroines in Hoffmann, delightful and wondrous; War and Peace, amazing; Sheri Greenawald in Florencia en el Amazonas was beautifully painful. There are just too many memorable productions and/or moments to consider.

At the end of the first Ring cycle this year, Speight publicly recognized your mother for her contribution to the company. She ran the Costume Shop, correct?
The costume shop was a very small operation back then. She was either the assistant designer (although there was no position until the later years) or the design coordinator. The costume designers would come in, and she would maintain the design aesthetic, doing what she could on a shoestring budget to present a show that was well clothed, tasteful, and appropriate to the period.

Have the audience’s expectations of opera performance changed in the years that you’ve been with the company?
Yes, the expectation for a complete dramatic experience is higher than it used to be, though no matter what you cannot sacrifice the music or vocals for a concept. Particularly with Seattle audiences, no matter the quality of the directing or the physical production, if the singer doesn’t sing well and with persuasion or the conducting is lacking, it’s not going to work.

Your title is Director of Artistic Operations and Season Planning. What is involved in this role?
I work with Speight and Kelly Tweeddale [Executive Director] on future planning in terms of programming, calendar, cost estimating, and assist—as we all do—on balancing the artistic vision with fiscal capacity. Right now I’m researching productions and rough-cutting possibilities for the future. I also arrange the contracts for directors, designers, choreographers, assistant directors— the creative team.

Have you carried lessons from the way your father conducted business?
He used to say, “Don’t come to me with a problem; come to me with three solutions.” What he really wanted was: think about it before it becomes a problem. So I would say I have a tendency to try to do that.

-Jessica Murphy
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Daughter of the Regiment in October 2014.

Staff Chat with Master Scenic Artist KITTY KAVANAUGH

Kitty Kavanaugh has been working as a Seattle Opera scenic artist since 1992. She thrives on the collaborative nature of her artistry, which includes her personal interest in sculpture, and she admits that her years with the company have made her an opera lover. We spoke in early January, when the artists were getting started on the Orphée et Eurydice set, transforming the image on a 9-by-11-inch sheet of paper to a massive 70-by-35-foot piece of fabric.

What are your responsibilities as Seattle Opera’s Master Scenic Artist?
I’m in charge of mak­ing sure that the scenic art, as designed by the designers, gets made—all within the budget. I hire the crew, get all the materials, and plan our approach to the projects. I also keep in touch with the designer; sometimes we need to change the design so it fits within our budget. I love getting out there and being hands on. But I love the managing part too. As long as I get a mix of the two, I’m pretty happy.

Seattle Opera’s Scenic Studios is located in Renton. What do you value about this space?
We have a great space for making scenery. Because it’s about 40 feet high, we can stand up most of our scenery and work on it from lifts and ladders, or we can lay it down on its back and walk on it because we have relatively uninterrupted floor space. And we have all the tools we could ever want.

How does the process—going from a designer’s small scale model to a large scale set—work?
Even if a designer is very, very clear and gives you a paint elevation and says, “I want you to do this exactly like this,” there is a lot of interpretation involved. Some designs would be in danger of being not very interesting if we didn’t interpret them for the opera stage. For instance, a wall that’s painted one color—as beautiful as the color may be—may be a little dead onstage. So we do a color separation technique that helps the surface vibrate and become a lot more interesting to the eye. You wouldn’t necessarily perceive that from the audience, but up close you’d see that it’s maybe three or five colors that from a distance appears to be a single color. The audience is looking at each scene for so long that you really do need to give the eye a little something to hang on to. A little bit of tooth.

Which set has been the most challenging?
The Ring. Every set was like building a whole opera all by itself. I was actually pretty terri­fied when we set out to do this project, and I really had to talk myself down from panicking. We spent two solid years building that set, one piece at a time. It was such a thrill to work on. Doing nature as close to real as we could was an interesting challenge, because we had to analyze what it is that makes nature look real. There’s a lot of chaos in nature; if you don’t get that in there, it doesn’t quite look real.

Your husband, Rick Araluce, also works in the Scenic Studios. Did you meet him here?
I did!

Are you his boss?
Yes. One of those no-nos. But it works out well.

You must not have to ask “how was your day,” at the end of the day.
You’re right, though we’re good at keeping things separate. I make sure we’re working on separate projects in a show.

Do you have projects that you do outside of Seattle Opera?
I often collaborate with Saint James Cathedral’s music director to provide scenic elements for them. For their Great Music for Great Cathedrals performances I made an 18-foot puppet of Saint James. They call him Big Jim. He was modeled after medieval statu­ary carving, and he was the kind of puppet that they probably used on the pilgrimage to the Cathedral’s sister church in Spain.

Sometimes the Scenic Studios builds scenery for other companies. What were some recent projects?
We built a Cenerentola set for Portland Opera in 2007, a Bluebeard for Seattle Symphony in 2009, and we created the recent Avatar exhibit at the Experience Music Project.

Have you become an opera fan?
Oh, heck yeah. When I started here, I wanted to like it, but it just wasn’t happening. It was a couple of years, actually, of going to rehearsals and thinking, “Hmmm, it’s interesting, but it’s not for me.” Then I saw La traviata, and I decided I would do things differently. Instead of reading all the supertitles and following everything in detail, I decided to just listen to the singing. I found myself weeping, and I realized, “Oh, my gosh, I guess I do like it!” I would say I love it now, and I never expected that.

-Jessica Murphy
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Orphée et Eurydice in February 2012.

Staff Chat with Crafts Supervisor LIA SURPRENANT

As the Costume Shop’s Crafts Supervisor, Lia Surprenant, more than per­haps anyone else at the company, knows how bloody the opera business can be. All of the countless opera singers who have been imprisoned, tor­tured, or wounded in the dramas enacted on Seattle Opera’s stage in the past nine years have worn a costume with Surprenant’s signature artistry.

You are the “crafts supervisor” in Seattle Opera’s Costume Shop. What falls under the category of “crafts”?
Crafts are everything you wouldn’t consider to be a standard cloth­ing item—jewelry, shoes, glasses, armor, hats, sometimes baldrics. Accessories, that sort of thing. And then I do all of the dyeing for the shop, unless we’re doing more than a 100-yard parcel, which we sometimes send out to dye in New York.

When we think about Lucia, we think of the iconic bloody dress. We don’t think about the person behind the scenes who has to clean that dress and make it bright white for the next performance. Are you that person? What goes into that?
Wardrobe cleans the dress each night, but I’m the person who figures out what type of blood to use and what solution we can use to remove it. Blood, honestly, is really difficult. With something like this show, where it’s a white dress that becomes bloodied and has to become white again, it’s a special challenge. You have to be careful of what kind of fabric you use. Generally speaking you can’t use silk—which is what we use for most of our costumes because it’s especially beauti­ful—because the washable bloods still stain it. Usually polyester is a good choice for fabric because almost nothing can stain polyester, but it doesn’t have that rich look that something like a silk or a wool or a cotton might have. I do a lot of testing and experimentation. Susan [Davis, Costume Shop Manager,] will usually give me several samples of fabric, and I’ll try different types of blood on different types of fabric and wash it out in different ways.

What are some “different types of blood”?
Right now our favorite kind of blood is Nick Dudman Blood, which we affectionately call “Harry Potter” blood. It’s what they used in the movie. It’s a very realistic color and it works really well. We’ve also gotten another new type of blood that we haven’t tried yet. It’s called ICU Blood.

ICU Blood?!
I should point out that most of the time when we do blood we do a permanent painted blood or a fabric patch blood. This is for somebody coming onstage already having been wounded, and it’s part of their permanent costume. That’s also challenging because directors always want that super shiny, bright fresh blood look and that’s really hard to do. It doesn’t really look like that when you get onstage under the lights, so we add things like super-fine glitter to the blood, or we’ll use silicone windshield sealant to make it shiny and wet.

Is there any carryover? Tricks of the trade that you find helpful in real life?
The best way to get blood out of a garment, if it’s a small quantity of your own blood, is to spit on it because there are enzymes in your saliva that take out your own blood.

You might be the only person I know who could dare to have a white rug and a white couch in her home.
I have too many ani­mals for that.

Aside from dyes and blood, what else do you do with costumes?
We also do a lot of distressing, which is prematurely aging a costume through physical means—sanding, using a bench grinder to grind the fabric, rasping it with rasp tools to make it look worn and shredded and then using paints to make it look dirty. There is at least one show every season where we have to age something so that it looks like the performer/character has been beaten up, tortured, or held prisoner.

Sounds like you’re seeing our singers at their worst.
We actually do see perform­ers at their most vulnerable, when they’re undressed, when they’re exposed emotion­ally as well as physically. We have to be very careful because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable. We want them to love what we’re making for them and feel that character coming out, so it’s kind of a tricky balance. I’m a shy person, and it’s difficult for me to invade someone’s personal space, but you have to do it some­times—get right up to them and do stuff on their bodies—and it can be very difficult.

Have you always worked in costume design for theater?
I’ve done a horror movie.

Of course!
It was called Night of the Beast. It was terrible; I don’t even know that it got released. All I know is that I worked on it and I never got paid.

-Jessica Murphy
Photos by Rozarii Lynch
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Lucia di Lammermoor in October 2010.

Staff Chat with Production Supervisor PAULA PODEMSKI

As Seattle Opera’s Production Supervisor, Paula Podemski deals with all the minuscule details that make the rehearsal and production process run smoothly. One of her main tasks is coordinating the non-singing talent—the supernumeraries, actors, and dancers that fill out a crowd scene onstage. Amidst the craziness of Amelia tech week, she shared with me a bit about her history with hunky body-builders, her guilty-pleasure TV shows, and the “soul-feeding” part of her job.

How do you cast the supernumeraries and actors?
After I learn what the director wants in terms of people, I have a database of 735 adults and children that I go to first. In general, the ideal “supers” (supernumeraries) are individuals of average size, who can comport themselves well onstage, will be engaged in the scene, and take stage direction well.

What was your most challenging experience?
For Tristan und Isolde in 1998, the stage director and costume designer wanted to find 20 really buff guys to appear as the engine crew, and that’s beyond the pale of my normal supernumerary pool. So I spent a good four months prior to the first day of rehearsal going to local gyms and bodybuilding competitions, and walking up to these guys and saying, “Hey, would you like to be in an opera?” But the rehearsal schedule demands a big commitment of time, and every rehearsal or every performance two to five of them were missing. I would come to work every day quite exasperated from the night before, but of course I got no sympathy from my colleagues because their perception was that I was around these gorgeous, hunky guys all night long, and what was I complaining about?

And after days like that, how do you unwind?
I love to eat at good restaurants, I go to the theater, I work out, I spend time with friends. And I like to relax at the end of the day with stupid TV: All the Law and Orders, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife... and then there’s my—gulp—daytime television addiction: Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Oprah. [laughs] I’m not much of a book-reader.

What’s your theater background?
I did theater in high school, but was always petrified of auditions. At the time I didn’t realize there were other theater careers outside of acting. But I always had theater in the back of my mind and finally, after college, started volunteering at local community theaters. I met a lot of people and learned by doing. I did internships, and then volunteered at Civic Light Opera (which is now Seattle Musical Theatre). Through those connections, I met someone who worked in the Production Department at Seattle Opera, and that’s how I got this job.

How involved are you at Seattle Musical Theatre these days?
I’ve been on the board for the past seven years and am the immediatepast-president.

What advice would you give to students who are considering theater careers?
I recently spoke at a local high school’s career day about what I do and how I got here. I wanted to clue them in to the many careers there are in theater that don’t require acting, like finance, marketing, building sets, sewing costumes. I wanted them to know they can be right next to the art and supporting the art without having to worry about being a 5’9” tap dancer who can hit a high E.

You’ve been at Seattle Opera for 17 years, what keeps you here?
I love the art form— it’s theater on a grand scale. Plus, knowing that what I do really helps people create their art is just fantastic. And I love the “supers.” They’re enthusiastic, they take their commitments seriously, and they’re thrilled to be here. Working with them is definitely the soul-feeding part of my job.

—Sara Sorden
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s Summer Magazine, 2010.