Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Speight's last opera: "The Tales of Hoffmann" Coming May 3-17

Scenes from Seattle Opera's 2005 production. Rozarii Lynch photo
We conclude our 50th Anniversary season, as well as the 31-year tenure of General Director Speight Jenkins with The Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d’Hoffmann). An all-star cast sings Jacques Offenbach’s tuneful score, chronicling famous writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s misadventures in love. The wild stories of Hoffmann’s failed romances come alive with fantastical elements: a beautiful robot, an evil optician, a stolen shadow, death by music, and a mysterious boy/girl muse. The Tales of Hoffmann was first produced jointly by Dallas, Cincinnati, Minnesota, and Arizona operas in 2005. This timeless, stylish, and imaginative production returns to Seattle Opera on Saturday, May 3, and runs through Saturday, May 17.

“It is a thrill to bring back our production of The Tales of Hoffmann,” Speight says. “It was funny, moving, and magical in 2005, and I expect this revival to be even better.”

American tenor William Burden stars in the title role. In 2011, The Seattle Times applauded Burden for his “dashing and impassioned” performance as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, writing that he made his character’s passion and despair “compellingly real.” Seattle audiences have enjoyed Burden’s sensitive work in French operas including Orphée et Eurydice (Orphée), Les pêcheurs de perles (Nadir), and Iphigénie en Tauride (Pylade).

Celebrated mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who has triumphed as The Muse/Nicklausse at The Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera, returns to Seattle as Hoffmann’s companion. Lindsey won Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year award for her debut performance creating the title role in the 2010 world premiere of Amelia; The New York Times described her performance as “subtly charismatic,” “vocally warm,” and “lovely."

Rozarii Lynch photo

Two celebrated French artists return to McCaw Hall for the multiple leading roles in The Tales of Hoffmann. Norah Amsellem brings her riveting and dynamic presence to the stage in the roles of Hoffmann’s four beloveds. Reviewing her performance as Elvira in I puritani, The Seattle Times wrote: “Amsellem found her way forward, mustering a lovely voice of considerable agility with a lot of security and accuracy above the staff.… The mad scene would tax any soprano, but Amsellem dealt well with both the vocal and dramatic challenges.” Bass baritone Nicolas Cavallier, who critics praised following performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Massenet’s Don Quichotte, returns as Hoffmann’s shape-shifting nemeses. The Seattle Times praised Cavallier’s voice for its “glorious richness,” writing that his “cleanly focused baritone cast its spell.”

The alternate cast stars Russell Thomas (Foresto in 2012’s Attila) as Hoffmann and Alfred Walker (Orest in 2008’s Elektra) as Hoffmann’s enemies. Leah Partridge makes her Seattle Opera debut as the beloveds. All performances of The Tales of Hoffmann feature Lindsey as The Muse/Nicklausse, Keith Jameson as The Henchmen, Steven Cole as Spalanzani, Arthur Woodley as Crespel, and Tichina Vaughn as Antonia’s Mother.

Rozarii Lynch photo

Yves Abel is at the podium for this French masterpiece. When he conducted La fille du régiment last fall, The Seattle Times noted Abel’s ability to give his singers and responsive orchestra “plenty of lyrical scope and freedom, while never losing the forward momentum of the score.” Stage director Chris Alexander returns with this celebrated and much-traveled production, which earned him one of his three Artist of the Year awards from Seattle Opera.

Costumes by Marie-Therese Cramer bring this colorful and whimsical tale to life with sets by Robert Dahlstrom and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

For tickets and more information go to

The Tales of Hoffmann Production Sponsors: Seattle Opera Foundation, Nesholm Family Foundation, ArtsFund and Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture.
The final performance of The Tales of Hoffmann is sponsored by Robert and Loretta Comfort.

William Burden’s performances are sponsored by Steven and Judith Clifford.
Kate Lindsey’s performances are sponsored by Richard and Mary Beth Gemperle.
Norah Amsellem’s performances are sponsored by James and Sherry Raisbeck.
Leah Partridge’s performances are sponsored by Janice C. Condit.
Norman Archibald Charitable Foundation sponsors the costumes in this production.

2013/14 Season Sponsor: The late Gladys Rubinstein, in memory of Sam Rubinstein.

Rozarii Lynch photo

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Friday, March 7, 2014

Meet Our Artists: CARLO MONTANARO, Conductor

Maestro Carlo Montanaro made his Seattle Opera debut three years ago, making a very strong case for an opera not many people knew: Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Since then, he has returned to conduct Verdi’s fierce Attila and Puccini’s lyrical La bohème, and we’re excited that he’ll be conducting a very special concert in Seattle this August. These last few weeks, leading our first-ever production of The Consul, he has given us a real treat: according to The Huffington Post, “Carlo Montanaro conducted a performance that assumed Menotti's opera is a masterpiece and did everything humanly possible to make everyone in the house believe it as well.” During intermission the other night, he very kindly spared me a moment to share his thoughts about this remarkable piece.

Act Three Interlude

Have you conducted this opera before?
No, first time!

Have you conducted a lot of operas in English?
No, as a matter of fact, this is my first opera in English. I’ve studied some of them—Britten’s operas, for instance, but now I work on one for the first time.

Carlo Montanaro in rehearsal
Bill Mohn, photo

What is special about this music?
It’s really a music drama—recitar cantando, you know, like a Baroque piece. The composer loves the text; and why not, the libretto is amazing, the music is gorgeous.

Act Two Interlude

Is The Consul a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk?
No. You can find the perfume [sniffs] of many composers in this; Puccini, Strauss. But it is Menotti.

Yes, but this all-important balance of words and music, which so obsessed Wagner?
The problem is that Menotti wrote everything, libretto and music. He was also the director. He had the entire show in mind. I think it may be his masterpiece. He once wrote, “The only way you can really create a character is to live their life. You have to find yourself onstage with them in a certain way.” And it’s true.

Carlo Montanaro rehearsing in the orchestra pit (with Susan Gulkas, viola)
Elise Bakketun, photo

With an opera like The Consul, that’s such a fusion of words and music, does your job change?
No. My responsibility is still to bring out all the details of the music. There are so many details in the instrumentation, for instance, which describe the action and the story and the text. The association of English horn with the Mother, or the clarinet with the Police Agent. The trombones are used for destiny. Piano is so important, harp is so important. He uses the orchestra fantastically to color his special interests—Menotti was fascinated by the occult, by magic, by anything supernatural—the nightmare scene, for example.

Is Menotti well-respected in Italy?
Yes, particularly at Spoleto, where he founded this wonderful festival.

Do you think of him as an American or an Italian composer?
Oh, he’s an Italian composer. Yes, he traveled a lot, and spent most of his life outside Italy. But he has this Italy in his heart, in his blood.

Carlo Montanaro at a music rehearsal with Colin Ramsey (Mr. Kofner), Margaret Gawrysiak (Vera Boronel), Dana Pundt (Anna Gomez), Mark Haim (choreographer), and John Keene (piano)
Alan Alabastro, photo

What’s it like working with this young cast?
Very nice! Everyone is so full of energy, so positive. They all want to do their very best, which makes it such a pleasure to come to work.

Quintet Finale to Act One

In your profession, have you ever found yourself waiting in the Consul’s office hoping to get a visa so you can go and conduct somewhere?
It’s funny, when I came to the U.S. two months ago to begin rehearsals of The Consul, I was sleepy when I got off the plane and the first word I heard was the customs officer: “Next!” And I thought: “Oh, no! The opera can’t be starting already, I’ve barely arrived!” I’ve spoken with so many people who find this opera so familiar, so real.

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Meet our artists: JOSEPH LATTANZI, Assan

Baritone Joseph Lattanzi has one of the most important parts in The Consul. When freedom-fighter John Sorel must leave his wife and family, he tells his wife, Magda to wait for someone to break the family’s window, then to call Assan, the glass-cutter. “He’ll give you news of me,” John says. Lattanzi returns to the Seattle Opera stage after performing in Madama Butterfly (2012) and Carmen (2011) for this opera which he says is important and holds truths which are hauntingly relevant today.

On the first day of rehearsals, director Peter Kazaras encouraged The Consul cast and Seattle Opera staff to share their own stories of escaping persecution. Did any personal stories come to mind? Or what was your reaction to others’ experiences?

My father's family immigrated here, coming through Ellis Island, in 1914. They, like so many others were in search of a better life. I appreciated how Peter started the rehearsal process off. It really put things into a personal context for all of us. I think he changed a lot of minds about the relevance of the piece in that moment.

What’s your opinion of these more modern, 20th century operas?
I'm a fan! I like doing works that have some relevance to what’s going on in society. I actually just finished a workshop of a brand-new opera by Gregory Spears called Fellow Travelers. It’s a gay love story that takes place in the McCarthy era and explores the discrimination and complexity of life LGBTQ people experienced during that time.

Joseph Latanzi as Assan in The Consul. 
Elise Bakketun photo
Tell us about your character in The Consul, Assan.
Assan is one of John’s freedom-fighter friends; he’s the go-between communicator between Magda and John. He’s been charged with making sure the bureaucracy doesn’t get the better of everyone, but of course, it does. He gets to this point where he becomes complicit in Magda’s lies to protect John which increases his involvement in the outcome. I think he tries not to lose his cool during this difficult time, but in the end, he is at the end of his rope and comes pleading to Magda for help.

What was it like working with Marcy Stonikas, Magda, in The Consul?
She is wonderful. I love how Marcy makes everything - voice and language - so immediate. To hear her sing the “Papers, Papers” aria is just incredible. It’s also just an incredible piece of music. Many people discount Menotti, but I think in this piece particularly, his music is very atmospheric and powerful.

Joseph Lattanzi as Dr. Malatesta and Lindsay Russell as Norina in Seattle Opera's 2012 YAP production of Don Pasquale. Elise Bakketun photo 
How was it being in a cast with other graduates of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program?
Encouraging! It’s great to see what everyone has accomplished since coming through the program. Everyone is so committed to great vocalism, great acting and great musicianship. I'm proud to be part of this group!

What are your goals with opera in general?
I'd love to have an interesting, varied international career. I love traveling and working on a wide range of projects. I want to be as versatile an artist as possible. I don’t necessarily want to be nailed down as a certain kind of character or singer. I’m also eager to be a part of the growing movement to keep the classical music and operatic traditions vital.

Why should people come see The Consul?
I think Seattle should be proud of this production for several reasons: the exciting younger artists; the tale that’s cautionary, yet powerful. The story of The Consul is still happening today. It’s an important production for our own social conscience and consciousness.

There's still ONE more opportunities to see The Consul!
Menotti's masterpiece plays at McCaw Hall at 7:30 p.m. on March 5 and 7. For tickets and more information, click here.

From left: Joseph Lattanzi (Assan), Michael Todd Simpson (John Sorel), General Director Speight Jenkins, Colim Ramsey (Mr. Kofner) and Stephen LaBrie (Secret Police Agent) following a performance of The Consul. The photo was taken for the Barihunks blog.
Elise Bakketun photo 

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meet our singers: MARGARET GAWRYSIAK, Vera Boronel

“In endless waiting rooms, the hour stands still …” — When Maggie Gawrysiak sings for the first time in The Consul, it’s hard not to pay attention to her lush and resonant mezzo. This theatrical artist, known for both her unique voice and acting chops, makes a powerful impression as the intriguing Vera Boronel in her mainstage debut.

You first came to Seattle Opera for the Young Artists Program but this is your first time performing on the mainstage. How does it feel?
It's lovely to be back in Seattle. I lived here for two years during my time in the Young Artists Program and have many friends in the community.

How has your voice changed since we last heard you singing in Midsummer Night’s Dream?
I'm not sure how my voice has changed since my time as a Young Artist but I know that working with a wonderful voice teacher has helped me greatly.

What are some of your favorite YAP memories?
Some of my favorite YAP memories include performances of Theft of the Gold in local schools and singing Zita in Peter Kazaras' hilarious Gianni Schicchi.

Margaret Gawyrsiak as Vera Boronel in The Consul. 
Elise Bakketun photo

You’ve reunited recently with Peter, who directs The Consul.
Working with Peter was very important in my development as a young artist. I was thrilled to have another opportunity to work with him in The Consul.

On the first day of rehearsal for this show, Peter asked the cast and staff to share their own real-life stories of fleeing to escape persecution.
The conversation on our first day of rehearsal gave such great insight as to why this piece is timely and relevant today.

Tell us about your character in this opera.
The most interesting thing about Vera Boronel is that she is the only character in The Consul to receive her papers and blessings to leave the country. She wears expensive furs and beautiful jewelry in our production which might suggest that wealth has helped her with bureaucracy.

Colin Ramsey, Margaret Gawrysiak and Dana Pundt rehearse The Consul with maestro Carlo Montanaro.
Alan Alabastro photo
Is Vera, a privileged character, sympathetic to the plight of people like Magda?
Vera is definitely sympathetic to Magda's struggles. The characters sitting in the waiting room hear each other's stories and understand what they are going through.

What’s the biggest challenge to your part in The Consul?
It is a challenge to stay in character and remain focused during Magda's thrilling Act 2 aria.

Why should people come see this opera?
People should come see it because it is a rarely-produced piece of theater cast with excellent singers and actors.

There's still two more opportunities to see The Consul!

Menotti's masterpiece plays at McCaw Hall at 7:30 p.m. on March 5 and 7. For tickets and more information, click here.

Margaret Gawrysiak (second from right) with members of the cast from The Consul. 
Elise Bakketun photo

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leon Lishner, Menotti's Original Secret Police Agent, at Seattle Opera

After opening night of The Consul last week, it was a thrill for Steven LaBrie, who plays the Secret Police Agent in our production, to meet Denise Lishner, whose father Leon worked closely with Gian Carlo Menotti and created Steven’s role when The Consul was new, in 1950. After the out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia and the record-breaking run on Broadway, Lishner went on to sing The Consul in Paris and London; you can also see his performance on the 1960 television film of The Consul, available from VAI. Said Ms. Lishner of attending Seattle Opera’s production: “I saw The Consul many, many times when I was young, so I had to stop myself from singing along! It took me back—I remembered the excitement, the lyrical beauty of the performances, and how mesmerizing it was to see my dad—whom I knew as a nice guy!—transform into this chilling, dark character." Left, Speight Jenkins and Marcy Stonikas (Magda) with Denise Lishner and Steven LaBrie (Secret Police Agent); Elise Bakketun, photo.

Leon Lishner moved to Seattle in 1964, and had an important career both as a bass at Seattle Opera and as a professor at the University of Washington. He taught voice, directed many of the UW’s operas (including the previous production of The Consul in this city) and gave many recitals at Meany Hall. He was well-known for his performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, as well as recitals of Yiddish songs. In honor of Seattle Opera's 50th Anniversary, here are some photos of Lishner’s roles for Seattle Opera:

In Seattle Opera's very first season, fifty years ago, Leon Lishner sang Sparafucile in our first Rigoletto. Here he is, backstage, with Cornell MacNeil (Rigoletto), Margery MacKay (Maddalena), General Director Glynn Ross, Patricia Brooks (Gilda), Leon Lishner (Sparafucile), Maestro Anton Guadagno, and Renato Cioni (Duke of Mantua) (Margaret Marshall, photo).

By 1967, Glynn Ross was hiring two casts to sing each opera; the Saturday night cast would sing in the original language, while the Sunday matinee cast sang in English. For Roméo et Juliette in 1967 (distinguished by the Seattle debut of Franco Corelli), Lishner shared the role of Frère Laurent with Nicola Moscona; Carol Todd sang Lishner's Juliette (Des Gates, photo).

Seattle Opera began building its first production of Wagner's Ring with Die Walküre in 1973. Lishner sang Hunding (and Fafner the Dragon) in those early Ring performances (Des Gates, photo). Of that first Die Walküre, the Seattle Times wrote: “The first act, which is sung primarily by [Jess] Thomas and Miss [Bozena] Ruk-Fočić, along with Leon Lishner as Hunding, is probably the best sung act in the Seattle Opera’s history.” (Des Gates, photo)

In addition to superstars such as Corelli, and ambitious Wagner productions, in the '60s and '70s Seattle Opera presented a handful of new works. American composer Thomas Pasatieri found a champion in Seattle Opera's Glynn Ross, who produced his Black Widow, in addition to Calvary and Signor Deluso. In the 1975/76 season, Pasatieri returned to Seattle Opera for the West Coast premiere of The Seagull, based on Chekov. The cast included Shirley Harned (Pauline), Patricia Wells (Masha), John Reardon (Boris), Lincoln Clark (Dr. Dorn and Stage Director), and Leon Lishner (Shamrayeff) (Chris Bennion, photo).

For Seattle Opera's first Magic Flute, in 1978, Lishner cast a spell with his sonorous bass voice as Sarastro (Stewart Reif, photo)

Menotti loved working with Leon Lishner; after collaborating on The Consul, he wrote the role of Balthazar in Amahl and the Night Visitors for him, followed by Don Marco, the priest in The Saint of Bleeker Street. Every Christmas from 1951 to 1962, Lishner would head downtown in New York to the NBC studios for the live broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. You can hear him on the original cast recording CD and DVD.

Publicity image for Amahl and the Night Visitors; Leon Lishner, as Balthazar, is the second king.

Besides the Seattle production of The Seagull, two of Lishner’s other remarkable experiences creating new operas included the premiere of Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, in 1954; he played Mr. Peachum to the Jenny of Lotte Lenya; and the original NBC television production of (scenes from) Britten’s Billy Budd, in 1952. Lishner sang Claggart, with Britten’s original Billy, Theodore Uppman, and the Captain Vere of Andrew McKinley.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ALEX MANSOORI, Nika Magadoff

As the world-famous magician, Nika Magadoff, Alex Mansoori performs the one genuinely funny scene in The Consul. He also performs about ten magic tricks while singing his big aria, “My charming Mademoiselle.” (Photo of Mansoori rehearsing The Consul, left, by Alan Alabastro.) The American tenor, born and bred in Seattle, has been performing with our company for most of his life—he made his debut as a boy soprano in Seattle Opera’s childrens’ chorus in 1995! As a Young Artist in 08/09 and 09/10, he excelled at comedy, adding great humor to shows such as Così fan tutte, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariadne auf Naxos, and (as an unforgettable Mime) Siegfried and the Ring of Fire. The other day he told me a little about all the magic he performs as Nika Magadoff—and about a fantastic recent theater experience he had.

Alex Mansoori as Nika Magadoff hypnotizes all the others at the consulate

Alex, it’s been a while since we’ve seen you! How have you been keeping busy?
Well, I got married! Plus, I spent most of last year touring Europe, Russia, and Morocco with Peter Brook’s Une flûte enchantée.

Oh, my. Is that in the tradition of his Tragedy of Carmen?
Yes, it was Mozart’s Magic Flute, pared down to seven characters: Monostatos, Tamino and Pamina, Papageno and Papagena, and Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. There was also a Magician, sort of an MC, who ran the whole thing. We did it with piano, singing in German and with the dialogue in French and English. (I spoke in English.) And we performed anywhere there was a theater!

Did you play the Bouffes du Nord, in Paris...Peter Brook’s home theater since 1974?
Yes, we were based there for five weeks, last summer. As it turned out, I’ve done nothing but The Magic Flute for the last year and a half. Before the Peter Brook production I’d done a more traditional production, in Ravinia, and with Chicago Opera Theater in concert, and stuff. But this time I got to work with Peter.

Peter Brook and Alex Mansoori in rehearsal

He can’t be young...he became this legendary theater wunderkind in the ‘60s.
No, he’s in his late 80s, I think. But he’s fascinating. He wanted to focus on the human side of the story, on the characters. A lot of the jokey humor was cut. The costumes were all very simple: Tamino wore black silk pajamas, and as Monostatos I wore simple American Apparel clothes.

You weren’t a monster, anything like that.
No. And that was the first time I sang the original German text, which is so racist. To Brook, it meant that Monostatos’ soul is black. Some directors may say: “Oh, that’s the bad guy, and he’s bad.” But with Peter, it’s: “I want to find the humanity in every character. That’s what will make the whole thing interesting.”

What was the most unexpected experience on the tour?
We toured five cities in Morocco in May. It was very warm, and I was ill; by the end, I was eager to leave. But after the show, a young man approached, who really wanted to know how he could do what we were doing. “I have a group of friends; we want to tell stories, we want to do what you’re doing. How do you do it?” I told him: “If you have the desire to create, just do it! Don’t think about whether you’re doing it right or wrong.There are no mistakes .”

The young Alex Mansoori sang in Seattle Opera's childrens' chorus in Turandot, 1996, with singers such as Jane Eaglen (Turandot), Byron Ellis (Mandarin), and Archie Drake (Emperor Altoum)
Jeffree Luke, photo

When we began rehearsing The Consul, cast, crew, and staff shared their stories, or their families’ stories, of escaping persecution. What did you take away from that conversation?
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had to deal with it very much. On this recent tour, when I entered Morocco—my name is Persian, and they really wanted to know if I was from Egypt. The border guard kept on asking me about my last name.

Tell us about your character in this opera, Nika Magadoff.
Don’t you think he tells you enough about himself in the aria? He’s a world-famous magician! There’s a big showman to him, and you don’t always know whether he’s full of it.You don’t know whether he really is a good magician, or if he’s someone who WAS a good magician. He’s obviously pretty good at hypnotizing people.

Alex Mansoori (Nika Magadoff) and Deborah Nansteel (the Foreign Woman) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Ok, but it may not be all that hard to hypnotize people who’ve been walled up alive in this horrible consulate with no windows for the last twelve years, like most of the characters in your scene!
There’s something driving him to leave this country. He has to get out of there. Peter [Kazaras, the stage director] hasn’t been explicit about it; I’m guessing Nika has been persecuted, but it’s not something that’s stated officially. When we first see him, at the end of Act One, he’s just trying to get out like everybody else. Of all of them, he is the artist.

Before taking on this role, did you have any experience performing magic?
Well, I somehow managed to make my wife fall in love with me!

Samuel Schaefer is our magician-consultant on this show, he’s amazing, and I started working with him in September of last year; I was practicing these tricks in Paris last year, even as we toured Russia.

So you have performed for the Prince and the Princess Yusoupoff! How do you coordinate performing all these tricks, singing this big aria, and ‘working the room’ there at the consulate?
I looked at it like: “At this point, I do this. Then, at that point, I do that.” When I started out, I couldn’t do any of it. Now, the more we work on it, the more we go: “this trick works, and it works right here!” We started out with a dozen or more tricks, and we’ve whittled it down a bit. The point is not to do trick after trick, but to tell the story.

Sarah Larsen (the Secretary) and Alex Mansoori (Nika Magadoff) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Why does your character hypnotize people?
That’s the only trick he really does well. I think he does it because he doesn’t know what else to do—he figures the more he tries to impress this Secretary, the more likely it is that she’ll give him a visa. But besides his business card, he never at any point presents a single bit of paperwork that might encourage her to let him out of the country. It’s all smoke and mirrors with him.

Alex Mansoori (Thisbe) in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 2009 Young Artists Program production

What other crazy things (aside from magic tricks) have you had to do while singing operas?
I’ve dressed as a woman, including wearing a female bathing suit; in Midsummer Night’s Dream here I sang an aria upside down, with my head drizzling into the orchestra pit; in Don Quichotte I was in a sword fight; and once, singing the Stage Manager in the opera of Our Town, I had to mime making sodas in a 1950s soda shop, because we had no props. It was hard! I remember a rehearsal where the director kept saying: “You didn’t close the lid on the ice cream.” “You put her scoop on the floor.”

Ah, yes...the illusion must be complete!

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Meet Our Singers: DEBORAH NANSTEEL, the Foreign Woman

Mezzo soprano Deborah Nansteel made an incredible first impression on the opera-goers of Seattle last spring, when she sang at the “Viva Verdi!” celebration with our Young Artists Program. She appeared on the mainstage a month later in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and returns now as the unnamed “Foreign Woman” in The Consul. I checked in with her the other day about being the only character in an English-language opera who sings in Italian...and about how this role has tested her boundaries.

Deborah Nansteel (with Colin Ramsey) singing a scene from The Consul

On the first day of rehearsal for this show, the cast and staff shared a number of real-life The Consul stories, of themselves or their families fleeing to escape persecution.
Yes, it was interesting to see how many people had had this kind of experience. There were many more stories than I was expecting.

What about your family?
My grandmother’s family came over through Ellis Island before she was born...she was first-generation Italian-American.

So basically, the character you play in The Consul was your own great-grandmother!
Yes. I don’t know exactly where they came from in Italy. I know my great grandfather moved to the main peninsula of Italy from Sicily before he married my great grandmother.

Costume Design by Melanie Taylor Burgess for the Foreign Woman

Tell us about the character you play in this opera.
She’s called “the Foreign Woman,” there is no name. I think she’s widowed, because if she had a husband he’d probably go to the Consulate for her. Her daughter is probably the only family she has. Menotti didn’t give me a backstory, so I had to make one up myself! My daughter, Giulia, left with a foreign soldier when she was young and I haven't heard from her for three years. I receive a letter from her the morning I go to the consulate telling me she is ill and has a three month old son. Her husband has abandoned them and she needs help before she dies. So the Foreign Woman tries to get a visa in order to save the lives of her daughter and grandson.

So how old is the Foreign Woman?
Well, my daughter probably ran off when she was 15, or earlier. So I’m probably not all that old...maybe early 40s, late 30s.

Just people age quickly, wherever this takes place.
Right, she’s very worn down and has been through a lot.

Does she have any money?
No, she’s broke. If she has any other family, they’ve died.

What’s an Italian woman doing in...wherever this opera takes place?
She’s already fled here from Italy; she thought she would stay here. But then her daughter ran away with a soldier from yet another country. So the Foreign Woman isn’t fleeing from anything; she just wants to get to her daughter, to take care of her.

Everybody else is singing in English, but you’re singing in Italian! Does that make your life easier or harder?
[Laughs] Well...for the type of lyric music Menotti writes, it’s easier. It’s a more singer-friendly language, because of the pure vowels, because of where the consonants are far as memorization goes, I find it a bit more difficult because it’s not my native tongue. But I’ve been learning the language, not just the pronunciation—I have lessons twice a week—and that helps!

Deborah Nansteel in rehearsal with Colin Ramsey. As Mr. Kofner, Ramsey translates for Nansteel’s Foreign Woman
Bill Mohn, photo

Is it weird to sing the only Italian character in an all-English opera?
It’s not as awkward as I thought it would be...but yes, it’s a little weird.

Your big scene is said to be a pastiche of Puccini. Do you think that’s the case, musically?
I don’t have a whole lof of experience with Puccini...

Oh, of course! Because he never wrote for mezzos!
...but from the experience I had last year with Suor Angelica, yes, I’d say it’s very Puccini-esque.

Deborah Nansteel sang the Nursing Sister in Suor Angelica last May.

Does that affect how you perform it?
I’ve started to look at it that way. That’s certainly what Carlo [Monatanaro, the conductor] and Peter [Kazaras, the stage director] are thinking. They keep bringing up Suor Angelica!

That scene is extremely emotional. Is it difficult to get into character for that scene, or is that emotion easily accessible?
It’s there; sometimes it’s hard for me to put away the singer brain and access the emotional brain. I have to stop thinking, “I wonder whether this high note is going to sound pretty,” and just go for it. You have to turn something off, in order to let go.

Sarah Larsen (Secretary) and Deborah Nansteel (Foreign Woman) in rehearsal
Bill Mohn, photo

Does the emotionality of it pose a danger to your vocal technique?
There’s a fine line...I’m figuring out where it is and how not to cross it. Because yes, in such an emotional scene, it would be easy to go overboard. Most mezzo roles are a lot more controlled. It’s good, it’s testing my boundaries. Nerve-wracking...but I like it.

Why should people come to The Consul?
It's such an amazing work. The music and the story are very interesting and different than most of the standard repertoire and it’s incredibly emotional. It’s very dark, but I like things like that! That's one thing I love about opera—it will make you laugh and cry.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Meet our singers: STEVEN LABRIE—Secret Police Agent

When people boo and hiss after baritone Steven LaBrie’s performance in The Consul, it’s not because he didn’t sing well. On the contrary, LaBrie makes his Seattle Opera debut as the Secret Police Agent: a character with menacing intentions brewing beneath a saccharine-sweet demeanor. As the agent tries to trick Magda Sorel into betraying her freedom-fighter husband, he says, “I like you very much, Mrs. Sorel. We could be very good friends …” As LaBrie describes it, you can’t just act mean or cruel for this role; the Police Agent is far more complex than that, and it’s the duality, along with unpredictable rage, that makes him all the more terrifying.

Welcome! You’re new to Seattle Opera. How did you get into singing?
I’m from Dallas, Texas and I started singing in high school; right after that, I got into The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

Are you a baritone or a bass? Does this role sit comfortably in your voice?
I’m a baritone, actually. This part is a little low for me, but I have enjoyed the challenge, as well as the acting.

Your fellow cast-member Sarah Larsen tells us that her part, The Secretary, is a human being, too. Is it possible that the Secret Police Agent also has redeeming qualities?
Yes, he too is a human being. He works for the government, and so he’s removed from the struggles of laypeople like the Sorels; he gets financially rewarded for doing what he does and I think people can relate to the fact that he too, is a “family man.” In his mind, John is the bad guy. Everyone in this story is just trying to survive.
Steven LaBrie (center) as The Secret Police Agent with Marcy Stonikas (right) as Magda Sorel and Lucille Beer (left) as The Mother in a dress rehearsal of The Consul. Elise Bakketun photo
The musical motive Menotti created for the Secret Police Agent has been described as “rat-like.” What are the most important elements of the character, as far as you’re concerned?
His music has a lot of melodic ups and downs which seems fitting; he’s sort of slithery, more like a snake, than a rat: He goes from smooth-talking to unleashing his fury without notice. He interrogates Magda and tries to come across as courteous, but of course Magda sees right through him: she knows that he intends to ultimately hurt her and her family.

What have you gained from the experience of being in The Consul?
I’ve definitely gained a greater sense of musicality and more tools to make a character nuanced, complex and dynamic.

On the first day of rehearsal for The Consul, many people from Seattle Opera’s staff and cast shared real-life stories of escaping persecution, either their own or a family member’s. Did you have a strong reaction to that discussion?
On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a deserter from the Spanish army. Additionally, being from Texas, I know a lot of immigrants.

That’s right; growing up in Texas, did you speak any Spanish?
Spanish was actually my first language until age 4 or 5 (I’m of Spanish and French descent). It’s still in my memory; I can access it. But having a one-on-one conversation is hard.

Steven LaBrie in rehearsal as The Secret Police Agent in The Consul. 
Alan Alabastro photo
Still, as a native Spanish speaker, I would imagine you have taken well to the world of opera, which is heavy on the romance languages.
It’s helped me so much! I recently did Carmen in Dallas, and the French came very easily—I was actually impressing French people (not that I could have made up an actual sentence)!

Do you like playing the bad guy or the good guy best?
At heart, I’m really the ingénue! But I’m not a tenor; I’ve been doing bad guys for a while now. Every once a while, you want to be able to be the one to tug at peoples’ heartstrings.

Why should people come see The Consul?
I think that this topic is just so important: the fact that some people have no refuge, no plausible means of escape even when they go through the proper channels, as Magda does.

Steven LaBrie as The Secret Police Agent (left) with David S. Hogan (center) and Geoffrey Alm (right) and Michael Todd Simpson (floor) as John Sorel. Elise Bakketun photo. 
There's still five more opportunities to see The Consul, which plays at McCaw Hall at 7:30 p.m. on February 26, 28; March 1, 5 and 7. For tickets and more information, click here

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Meet our singers: VIRA SLYWOTZKY, Magda Sorel

Soprano Vira Slywotzky returns to McCaw Hall to sing the central character in The Consul -- a woman who must flee a nameless and unfeeling police state in order to survive. Slywotzky, the grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants, is a celebrated artist who has performed at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and with the Mirror Visions Ensemble, in addition to performing all over Washington when she was a Young Artist with Seattle Opera. Slywotzky sings Magda Sorel on February 23 and 28. Read below to learn more about why this opera hits close to home for her.

On the first day of rehearsal for The Consul, many people from Seattle Opera’s staff and cast shared real-life stories of escaping persecution, either their own or a family member’s. Did you have a strong reaction to that discussion?
Certainly! My family is from Ukraine — a country that is struggling, even now, today, to maintain its independence and identity. All of my grandparents were displaced persons during World War II, forced to leave their homes without a new home to go to. My mother's parents, who were from the western edge of Ukraine, were displaced by the Polish Army, which invaded and occupied westernmost Ukraine, and expanded the Polish territory. Ukrainians in the region fled or were killed. My grandparents and their little son escaped and ended up in a displaced persons camp in the mountains of Austria where they lived in army barracks. Each family had a space partitioned off by curtains. My mother was born during her family's stay in the camp, during the years of stasis before they were able to settle in America. Magda describes her occupation as "waiting" — for my mother's family, "waiting" was their way of life!

Vira Slywotzky as Magda Sorel in rehearsal for The Consul. Bill Mohn photo 
As you prepare to play Magda, have you been thinking more about your family's experience?
I carry my family's past with me all the time. Awareness of where I came from is an integral part of who I am. Now that I live in New York, my father's parents are my neighbors. My grandmother and grandfather talk about their early lives all the time, growing up in Ukraine, meeting and marrying in a displaced persons camp in Germany, coming to America - to them it feels very recent, and they make me feel that it's fresh as well. 

You're a graduate of Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program. What did you gain from that experience?
For me, the Young Artist Program at Seattle Opera was a very safe place to take risks. We were members of an incredible opera company, with access to mainstage rehearsals and performances — that's huge. And within the company, we had our own little community. That time was about experimenting, about pushing and defining ourselves and opera. We worked together (and sometimes against each other) under the most nurturing leaders I can imagine. We discovered what was possible, and we put on some really great shows.

Sarah Larsen (left) as The Secretary and Vira Slywotzky as Magda Sorel in rehearsal for The Consul. Bill Mohn photo 
When we last heard you, it was singing The Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. How has your voice changed since then?
My voice has grown, I think. Magda is a good fit for me, vocally and dramatically, and I'm very happy to be doing it.

What are you most looking forward to about this role?
This story is very powerful and real. It's kitchen sink drama (literally) and also global. We get to know Magda's family at home, and also all of the individuals at the consulate, each with a unique past and a hope for the future. The action is not specific to a time or country — it's inclusive. Every member of the audience will find a character or situation to relate to, and that's a beautiful thing.

Lucille Beer (left) as The Mother and VIra Slywotzky as Magda Sorel in rehearsal for The Consul. 
Bill Mohn photo

According to your bio on the 2009 BBC World Singer Competition, you were an avid crafter. Is that still true?

Oh yes! I have several different craft projects with me right now; I like doing things with my hands. Actually, in this production, Magda knits!

The Consul at Seattle Opera
February 22, 26, 28 and March 1, 5, 7 at 7:30 p.m. February 23 at 2 p.m.
For full cast, more information and tickets, please click here.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Discussing The Consul with
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

In 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti was inspired to write The Consul by the real-life tragedy of a woman who killed herself on Ellis Island when she was refused entry to the United States. Although the opera grew out of a specific historic situation, when the large number of people seeking to emigrate from Eastern Bloc countries was larger than the West was prepared to welcome, the underlying situation hasn’t changed; for many of today’s immigrants, the stakes are just as high.

The other day, two representatives of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project came by to discuss this opera and the issues it dramatizes so powerfully. Many thanks to Michelle Muri, Development Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Robert Gibbs, Founder of NWIRP and Attorney with Gibbs Houston Pauw, for offering their perspectives on this complicated topic.

Sarah Larsen (the Secretary) and Marcy Stonikas (Magda Sorel) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Seattle Opera: Why is this Cold War-era work relevant today?

Robert: It illustrates an issue that continues to this day: people at risk, generally because of human rights abuses, struggling to find a safe place to live.

Michelle: Immigration issues are really human rights issues. Generally, people don’t come to this country because they wanted to leave their entire lives and everything they knew behind. In many cases, they’re escaping from something horrifying, or fighting for their lives.

Lucille Beer (Mother), Marcy Stonikas (Magda Sorel), and Michael Todd Simpson (John Sorel) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Seattle Opera: This opera explores the human impact of immigration-bureaucracy on a family. Do you regularly see that in your work?

Robert & Michelle: Absolutely.

Michelle: It’s hard to put a face on deportation, especially we you read a statistic such as “2 million people were deported over the last five years.” What that means is, families are being ripped apart. You’re suddenly missing your father one day, your brother, and you’ll never see him again. A mothers drops her kid off at school, but on the way out she’s pulled over and sent to a detention center ends up getting deported.

Robert: Most immigrant families are mixed families. Say a guy is here on a student visa, marries a U.S. citizen and they have two kids; well, if he overstays his visa he’ll be deported, but Mom and the kids stay here—they’re U.S. citizens. What are they supposed to do, go with Dad to some country where they don’t speak the language?

Seattle Opera: I wonder whether that’s even more complicated now, in Washington, with same-sex marriage, where a marriage might not be recognized back in the other country.

Robert: You can apply for asylum based on same-sex marriage. If you say, “I will be persecuted back in Uzbekistan, or wherever, because I am gay and have a same-sex partner,” you would have the potential of seeking asylum. But for that you’d have had to enter the U.S. legally, of course.

Seattle Opera: Can you clarify exactly what’s happening, legally, when Magda Sorel, our central character in The Consul, goes to the consulate hoping to get a visa? Is she seeking asylum from the government that’s persecuting her?

Robert: No, technically, she would be seeking refugee status. You apply for refugee status from abroad, from a consulate. For asylum, you apply from within the U.S. But it’s difficult to get refugee status because there’s a quota, and the allocations are very political. Sometimes, those who can’t get refugee status try to get a visitor visa, come here, and then seek asylum.

Seattle Opera’s production of The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Seattle Opera: In the opera, the consulate is full of filing cabinets and papers—“Papers! Papers! Papers!” the central character sings, when she is really losing it. Has immigration bureaucracy changed much for the digital age?

Robert: Yes and no. Nowadays, all sorts of governmental and private sector records are accessible. When you seek to cross the border into the U.S., the officer who’s interviewing you can see all this stuff on the screen, collected from all sorts of data streams. The same kind of information is available to the consulates, when they’re deciding who gets a visa.

And yet, if you go to Ellis Island National Monument, one of the things on display is an immigration court from a hundred years ago. As someone who goes to immigration courts today, the one on Ellis Island feels just the same: there are judges and lawyers, immigrants who have to negotiate all this bureaucracy, even a sign that reads: “Immigrants provided representation by Hebrew Immigration Services,” or “Church World Services,” or other nonprofit organizations that offered immigrants legal services.

Seattle Opera: And today...that’s Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. You guys.

Michelle: Yes. Organizations such as NWIRP exist because there’s no access to a public defender in this type of law.

Robert: Well, it’s just starting, now, in a limited way, under the Obama administration. Thanks to the work of NWIRP and partners, if you’re mentally incompetent, then the court will appoint counsel for you. But anybody else either has to pay for a lawyer, or get a foundation- or donor-funded non-profit to come and represent them.

Seattle Opera: What are the most important issues connected with immigration currently under debate?

Robert: One of the big questions is the scope of the deportations going on now. The administration has deported two million people in the last few years. That’s a very high number. Even though they’re making efforts to try to target their deportations at people who have serious criminal records, inevitably they’re sweeping up people who have spouses or kids here. And because of the gridlock in Congress, no new legislation has been created setting out a way for the millions of people who are already here to acquire legal status. The President can provide some limited, temporary protection, but we really need Congress to step up to the plate and do something about it.

Seattle Opera: Is it very difficult for a person to get here in the first place?

Robert: Post-9/11, the consulates are understandably nervous about letting somebody in who might do harm to this country and its people. They have a whole list of “grounds for inadmissibility,” and they screen applicants accordingly. But the statute provides an ambiguous statement about anybody who’s provided any “material support” to terrorism. But that could mean, if a terrorist said, “I want a sandwich,” and you give him a sandwich because he’s got a gun pointed at you—that’s material support, right there! The administration has tried to dial that back, but that’s been slow in coming and it remains to be seen how that plays out in the implementation. Consulates have a huge amount of discretion in their decision-making; they only have a couple minutes to make a decision, to evaluate your statement that you’re only entering the U.S. to go to school for a year and then you promise to go back to Ukraine.

Michelle: There are also barriers in terms of how people arrive here physically. At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project we have a powerful story about a man named Muktar, from Somalia.

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, photo

When Muktar was in his early teens, he watched while rebel groups killed his three brothers, an uncle, and his father. But he was able to escape to Kenya where he lived for a period of time but was later threatened with deportation back to Somalia. He ended up connecting with 40 other young men. From Somalia they somehow made it to South Africa. They got on a plane to Cuba; made it from Cuba to Brazil; from Brazil all the way through South America to Central America, then all the way up through Mexico. People lost their lives, they lost limbs on the trains; but Muktar made it to the border of Texas, hoping to enter the United States. And there the U.S. detained him and put him in deportation proceedings. He was flown to Tacoma, where there’s a large immigration detention center with extra beds. And there he stayed, for six months, seeking help, fighting to stay in the United States. That’s where he found our organization, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He was able to interpret for a lot of his friends, and many of them were granted asylum, but not everybody. The situations that we see today are in many ways just as dramatic as the situation in the opera.

Seattle Opera: Are there other fictional works (movies, novels, operas, etc.) you’d recommend that concern immigration?

Michelle: My favorite is Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a Haitian writer, and here she tells a story—literary nonfiction—about her uncle, a pastor from Haiti who ended up in a detention center in Florida, where he died because they would not allow him access to his medication.

Seattle Opera: I’ve often seen movies at Seattle International Film Festival, contemporary stories about people trying to immigrate—legally, like the story in the opera, or illegally.

Robert: Yes, because of the strictures of immigration laws, smugglers can make a living helping people get across. That’s a huge business today. That’s one of the untold stories. By not pursuing comprehensive reform, because of the lack of a legal mechanism for people to emigrate here, there’s big business for smugglers. On the Mexican border, it ends up being more business for drug traffickers. “Hey, we can smuggle drugs, we can smuggle people.” They have to know the right people on the border, what days they’re working, when their shift change is. We’re empowering that group of people by not having a legitimate mechanism that works.

Seattle Opera: Interesting...when I watch The Consul, I sometimes wish Magda, the central character, weren’t so careful about following the rules...I think the audience would understand if at some point she decided to take the law into her own hands!

Sarah Larsen (the Secretary) and Marcy Stonikas (Magda Sorel) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Robert: Many waves of immigration to the U.S. didn’t proceed entirely legally. There was a whole tradition, for instance, with Chinese immigrants posing as sons of people who had already entered the U.S.. They weren’t really their sons, their documents were phony; but there was an amnesty decades later: “OK, we’ll wipe the books and give everybody legal status,” because that way they aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder, or reluctant to develop a commitment to living in a new society.

Seattle Opera: Michelle, you already started to answer this question, when you said, “It’s hard to put a human face on 2 million people being deported.” This opera makes a powerful plea against human beings getting reduced to numbers. But what’s the alternative? What would you say to The Consul’s poor Secretary, whose life, it turns out, is constant torture because of all the people she feels powerless to help?

Michelle: At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, when we are interacting with the public we often hear from people who say some version of: “I totally disagree with you! Deport everybody! Except for my neighbor. My neighbors are the nicest people you’ll ever there any way you can help them?” This is the problem. We must get to know our neighbors. We must know each other. That’s the only way we can really have the empathy necessary to deal effectively with issues like immigration.

Robert: It’s useful for people to remember our entire history of immigration. Step back from the current situation and say: “Wait a minute, how did my ancestors get here? Should they have been able to come?”

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Meet Our singers: MARCY STONIKAS, Magda Sorel

When Marcy Stonikas first came to Seattle, it was to join our Young Artists Program in 2009. Since then, we’ve watched the career of this soprano—who takes on the lead in the Seattle Opera premiere of The Consul—blossom. Her voice, huge and powerful to cut across the orchestra and fill the house, yet still expressive and beautiful, raged as Turandot and bloomed as Leonore in Fidelio in 2012. This summer she’ll take part in our International Wagner Competition, and then return next season as Ariadne. But Stonikas’ path to stardom wasn’t always so clear-cut. As she describes it, when she first auditioned in Seattle, she felt like she was a risk. “With bigger voices, people are kind of afraid to touch it. You don’t know what it will become,” Stonikas says.

You worked with Peter Kazaras (former Seattle Opera YAP Director) during your time in the program. Now he’s directing The Consul. How has Peter influenced your career?
If it weren’t for Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, I have no idea where I would be. Peter was no small part of that.

On the first day of rehearsal for The Consul, many people from Seattle Opera’s staff and cast shared real-life stories of escaping persecution, either their own or a family member’s. Did you have a strong reaction to that discussion?
My grandfather (who was Lithuanian) was drafted into the Soviet Army during World War II. He ended up spending a summer living in the forest trying to avoid the draft and because he defected, the rest of his family was sent to Siberia.
Marcy Stonikas (right) as Magda Sorel and Sarah Larsen (left) as The Secretary in rehearsal for The Consul 
Bill Mohn photo
Magda Sorel, your character, has a nightmarish experience in this production. She is fighting for her and her family’s survival. She fears for her life. How do you tap into a character like that?
I try to use every life experience that I can. I happen to be married and I have a little boy, but I can’t really go there in a way. It is helpful to have those relationships, and in fact, I even lived with my mother-in-law at one point, just like Magda does.

What’s the most challenging part of this opera for you vocally and dramatically?
What’s funny to me is that the most challenging scenes are the ones where I’m trying to interact with The Secretary. It’s hard to calm down enough to sing; it gets to the point where, because of what I’m doing, I’m actually agitated and nervous. It’s way more complicated and dramatic than simply singing an aria.

Marcy Stonikas (center) as Magda Sorel, Michael Todd Simpson as John Sorel (right) and Lucille Beer as The Mother
Bill Mohn photo
You’re headed to Europe after this. What are your thoughts on being a traveling mom?
I’m slightly trepidatious, but also, I’m excited to have my son Henry come on these intercontinental adventures with me. I want him to speak other languages, which is just a good idea if you’re the son of an opera singer. I myself speak French, German and Italian.

What are you most looking forward to about singing Magda?
I’m excited to have my most dramatic role yet; it’s going to be a big sing, that’s for sure. This story is so relevant, it could be any time period—it’s happening some place right now.

The Consul at Seattle Opera
February 22, 26, 28 and March 1, 5, 7 at 7:30 p.m. February 23 at 2 p.m.
For full cast, more information and tickets, please click here.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Meet our singers: MICHAEL TODD SIMPSON, John Sorel

In our upcoming production of The Consul, baritone Michael Todd Simpson plays John Sorel, the freedom-fighter husband of the central character, Magda. One of the reasons Simpson is looking forward to portraying John is because the character is so “physically explosive.” When the audience first sees John, his clothes are in tatters; he’s just been beaten up. “You really have to be able to let yourself go on stage in order to experience this guys journey physically and emotionally,” he says. 

You’re a Seattleite. Tell me more about your connection with this city. In order to not offend, I would probably have to call myself a transplant to Seattle; however, I first fell in love with this city during my time in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program. When I got married in 2010, my wife was looking at grad schools. She decided on Bastyr University. We came out here, and that fall, got a house and planted some roots. Every time I come home after singing in New York or around the country, I’m so happy to be home.

I heard you had quite the Super Bowl party at your house.Yes! My wife’s colleagues from the nutrition world and several other Seattle friends were crowded around the TV. Then you had (The Consul director) Peter Kazaras and The Consul gang. They were in the kitchen talking about anything but football. And I was on the grill slaving away. But as The Seahawks took off, we were all in the living room screaming our heads off. Amazing game!

Michael Todd Simpson as John Sorel and Sarah Larsen as The Secretary in rehearsal for The Consul. 
Bill Mohn photo
What’s it like working with Peter Kazaras? You’ve known him for 10 years now!
He just gets me, in a way that a lot of people don’t. We have a weird, fantastic way of working together ... Peter will sometimes joke that a mad scientist tried to create an evil genius by making him and I share the same brain! I love rehearsals with Peter because he helps us shed all the layers, all the stuff keeping you from ‘just being’ while you’re onstage. He will call me out sometimes and say, ‘Todd, I see you thinking. Stop it' It’s so simple when you stop thinking.

As an opera artist, how important is the acting element?
It's the same importance as in any other genre of theater. I think more than any other time in opera's long history you are starting to see more singers with real acting chops. And a piece such as this demands it. The days of stand and sing are gone. More and more companies around the world are turning to live HD broadcast. As a performer, actor, singer, and even dancer we must be believable in every way. Audiences expect nothing less.
LEFT: Vira Slywotzky as Magda Sorel and Michael Todd Simpson as John Sorel in rehearsal for The Consul
(Bill Mohn photo).
RIGHT: One of Michael Todd Simpson's costumes as John Sorel.  
Classical operas like La bohème or more modern works like The Consul—which is your favorite to perform?
Bohème is the first opera I truly fell in love with and will probably always be my favorite. And, like every piece, I have done The Consul is really beginning to grow on me. We have the amazing opportunity as singers to live with a piece long enough that it becomes a part of us. Also I love the challenge performing in English presents; to be able to really communicate with the American audience.We as singers, as well as the audience, have to work twice as hard to communicate and to truly listen.

The Consul deals with oppression, loss of personal freedom, and the reduction of human beings to numbers. How do you approach such heavy material?

I go back to things in my personal life, dealing with the loss of family members. Most of the people I grew up with including myself have been privileged in comparison and never had to experience that kind of oppression. John Sorel fears for his life, his family and he risks literally everything to save them. I can’t imagine what that’s like. On the flip side, all of us experience tragedy at one point or another. And the loss of someone you truly love is a heartbreak we all understand.

Michael Todd Simpson as Marcello in 2013's La bohème. Elise Bakketun photo

As far as the Young Artists graduates involved in this production, what’s it like being “the old one”? Hey watch it now! (laughs). It actually feels kinda nice to be the "old guy." I spent the first 10 years of my career feeling like the kid in the room. I just feel more comfortable, more grounded in myself as a person and as a singer; and that allows you to go further, take bigger risks as a performer. I always admired how seasoned pros would take these huge risks dramatically and vocally. And I am beginning to know what that feels like, finally. But I will always be a young artists, or, a big kid at heart. Being around this amazing cast of young singers is awesome. We are having a blast! Even though we're singing about death and torture everyday. It's a hoot.

The Consul at Seattle Opera
February 22, 26, 28 and March 1, 5, 7 at 7:30 p.m. February 23 at 2 p.m.
For full cast, more information and tickets, please click here.

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