Monday, April 13, 2015

The Mythic Background to ARIADNE

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

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

Image: Wikipedia

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

Image: theseus.yolasite.com

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

Image: Troy

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

Image: wikipedia

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

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

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

Image: mynameshallsurvive.blogspot.com

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

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

Image: goodsky.homestead.com

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

Image: David Vance

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

Painting by Frederic Leighton

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

Painting by Evelyn De Morgan

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

Image: wikipedia

NAIAD
A water nymph.

Painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

DRYAD
The nymph of a tree.

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

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

Painting by John Waterhouse

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

Painting by Simeon Solomon

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

Image: Katerina Art

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

Photo of Seattle Opera's February production by Elise Bakketun

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

Painting by Titian

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Seattle Opera Salutes ANDREW PORTER

Andrew Porter (1928-2015), the fantastically erudite critic, translator, and director, passed away on Friday. Read the wonderful celebrations of his life and work at NPR, The New York Times, and of course at the New Yorker, where his 20 years as staff music critic taught many Americans how to listen.

Porter also taught the city of Seattle what Wagner’s Ring was all about in the early years. Each summer between 1975 and 1983, Seattle Opera presented the Ring both in the original German and in Porter’s famous and brilliant English singing translation. Thanks to KUOW, which broadcast many of those English-language performances, excerpts survive testifying to Porter’s genius as translator, musician, and man of the theater.

Speight Jenkins, who was a music critic in New York before he became Seattle Opera’s General Director in 1984, was a friend and admirer of Andrew Porter’s. Says Jenkins, “Andrew Porter represented the best in music criticism. He was thoughtful, interested in opera everywhere, and in all kinds of opera. His discoveries about Don Carlos have added much to the Verdi lexicon. His contributions in general to music criticism are too many to be enumerated. I had the pleasure of working with him when he directed La forza del destino at Seattle Opera. He worked with intensity and strove very hard to create a Forza exactly as Verdi did it in its first performances at La Scala.”

Explore photos of Seattle Opera’s 1984 La forza del destino HERE.


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Aidan Lang on Ariadne auf Naxos

General Director Aidan Lang has strong feelings about and plenty of experience with Ariadne auf Naxos, the final opera of our 14/15 season. He calls the work ‘subtle’ and ‘beautiful,’ and points out that you don’t present Ariadne unless you can hire a cast with a lot of star power.

There’s a lot going on in Ariadne auf Naxos—a mash-up of comedy and tragedy and a show-within-a-show. Is this opera safe for those who are new to the art form?
There is a lot going on here—two mini-operas set in a framework which provides a context for the whole thing. Is this an opera for a first-timer? Yes, I think it is, precisely because nothing hangs around too long and you do get three glimpses of our art form in digestible chunks.

To start with we have the Prologue, which is a delightfully sly send-up of the process of getting an opera up, especially those frantic last few minutes on opening night. And in it one sees that Hofmannsthal and Strauss had been there, done that, complete with the tempermental wigmaker! There are artists at every stage of the process, and each have their own very real needs and concerns, to make the overall show perfect.

The Tenor (John Horton Murray) rejected the Wigmaker (Byron Ellis)'s masterpiece in Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Then we move to the opera itself—the Ariadne story is a serious story out of Greek mythology, made into this tragic opera seria. And that’s counterbalanced by the comedians’ opera. They give their own little shtick, their piece which they’ve been asked to do, and they also improvise a section. And in between there’s an extraordinary virtuoso aria for Zerbinetta. So there’s something for everybody. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s interesting to get this behind-the-scenes look, and I think it’s a fantastic piece for a first-timer because you see a cross-section of everything we do.

Zerbinetta (Jane Giering-DeHaan played the field in Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What’s Fickle Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers about?
The Zerbinetta troupe have been brought along to perform a little piece of commedia dell’arte theater. Their characters come from that tradition of comic Italian theater. So they perform a little tale of inconstancy, of playing the field.

Philip Cutlip sings Harlekin's song at Seattle Opera in 2004

In addition, they have a scene prior to their little performance, which they interject into Ariadne’s story, and the idea is, that scene is improvised. They’ve had a few minutes to work out what to do—they’ve been commanded to play their opera simultaneously—and such performers were skilled improvisers. There was an element of novelty to any commedia dell’arte performance. And in between those two performances is Zerbinetta’s aria, where she says to her guys, “Okay, enough, this is girl-to-girl talk, I’ll put her to rights.” And her philosophy is: there are plenty of men out there, you shouldn’t stay constant to one. Their play then demonstrates that philosophy: we see Zerbinetta playing the field. And Zerbinetta’s final little twist comes just as the opera is near resolution; there’s a marvelous line where she just echoes the end of her aria, as if to say, “Told you so!” Because a new god has come along who has transformed Ariadne’s very rigid viewpoint. But it’s a told-you-so spoken with great tenderness, borne, probably, of the five minutes Zerbinetta spent with the Composer. I think her encounter with the Composer has affected her. At that moment it isn’t really the character of Zerbinetta speaking, it’s the human who plays Zerbinetta.

Ariadne, as painted by Evelyn Pickering

What’s this serious tragedy of Ariadne about?
Like all Greek myths, there are many variants of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Minos, who guarded the Labyrinth; she helped Theseus slay the Minotaur, and when Theseus took her to the island of Naxos he abandoned her. In another version of the story, Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he’s called in the opera) transforms her into a constellation, making her divine. But what the Composer says very clearly, in one of his outbursts in the Prologue, is that for him, Ariadne is the embodiment of man’s isolation, his loneliness. That’s a very early twentieth-century view of man: our essential isolation, lack of connection. And that is of course the Composer, this young man who is so devoted to his art he cannot in any way connect with other people. And towards the end of the Prologue, in this beautiful duet, Zerbinetta reveals to him that actually she is not the character she plays onstage—she, too, is deeply searching for the right person, and there’s this marvelous frisson where you think: “Are they going to get together?” So the actress Zerbinetta has the same effect on the Composer as Bacchus has on Ariadne. A very fixed viewpoint is changed. So our view of this Ariadne opera is conditioned by our view of its creator, which is this character of the Composer.

The Composer (Carrie Kahl) tries to understand Zerbinetta (Julianne Gearhart) in Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Which one are we supposed to believe? Who wins?
I think the point is no one wins. Strong idealism meets compromise, and in the light of that, something better emerges. Just as the Composer thinks there is only one truth in art, so Ariadne thinks she must be true to Theseus until death, and she welcomes death so she can go on to a higher plane rather than betray her beloved husband. And in both stories, by making a change, by making a compromise, a new and higher reality is awakened. Ariadne’s devotion to Theseus is overturned, and new feelings are awakened by the arrival of Bacchus, which help her rise to the status of demigod, transformed into a constellation. For the Composer there’s the hint that his walls may begin to come down now that he understands the person behind the façade of Zerbinetta. So it’s about not who wins! It’s about this fusion of pragmatism and compromise. We’re not opposed to idealism. But if you merge a strong idea with practicality, you end up with a better outcome. And of course that’s exactly what we do when we make an opera! We go in with a strong conceptualized approach to a piece, and but then reality intrudes: “Actually, you can’t fly that wall right there, because...” or “We’ve run out of money for paint...” or whatever. Reality forces you to think again, to deepen your initial idea, and invariably you come out with a better product in the end.

The Dancing-Master (Doug Jones) and the Music Teacher (Richard Stilwell) look for potential cuts in Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Tell us a little about Strauss, Hofmannsthal, and their partnership.
This relationship with Strauss and Hofmannsthal was of course one of the great composer-librettist partnerships. And yet they were very different people. Hofmannsthal was an intensely intellectual man, a man of words. A truly elegant librettist. And Strauss had an element of practicality to him. They really sparked off one another. Writing a piece about the act of writing an opera was right up both their streets. It’s a glorious confection—there’s so much in it! There’s almost too much in it, but I think you wouldn’t want to lose anything. This business about the nature of music, the high art, the holy art, the Composer calls it—her aria at the end of the Prologue is very much Strauss’s credo. Allied to the high idealism of the Composer, that aria reflects the intellectualism of Hofmannsthal as well. Both these men lived in the realm of high art. But at the same time both were aware of other art forms as well, and were happy to incorporate them, with great skill, into this opera.

Kim Barber sings the Composer's Aria at Seattle Opera in 2004

How is opera-going, in contemporary Seattle, different from what Strauss might have experienced?
Remember that when this piece was written, going to the opera, especially in major cities in Europe, was a very normal, everyday activity. You were going to see a show. You know, I always think it’s odd when people say, “I’m going to a show on Broadway,” but they don’t really make a distinction as to whether they’re seeing a play or a musical. They may say, “I’m going to see a play,” but they’re going to Les Miz. But neither one is opera; we have compartmentalized opera away from theater. One of the delightful challenges we have, dealing with opera today, is trying to bring people towards that day-to-day acceptance of the art form. So I think although yes, Ariadne is a piece of high art, audiences in Strauss’s day had less trouble in their minds deciding to go see Ariadne as opposed to whatever play was going on at Stuttgart’s Hoftheater. There’s been a big shift in the way opera is perceived, which I would love to reverse. My mission is to make opera-going a very normal part of the lives of the people in Seattle.

For Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos, Jane Eaglen parodied herself as Seattle's favorite Prima Donna
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Our production sets Ariadne in contemporary Seattle instead of Rosenkavalier-Vienna. What is gained? Is anything lost?
Generally, productions of the piece I’ve seen over the years have stayed away from setting it in the original time. It makes no difference when the piece is set; the idea of a commissioned entertainment, of whatever length, happens today.

I’ll give you a personal anecdote to show you that this kind of thing actually happens. While I was actually directing Ariadne—my wife Linda was playing Zerbinetta, we were in London—she got a job with another well-known opera singer and a fabulous pianist—to give fifteen minutes of post-dinner entertainment at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London, at the Mansion House, at which Prince Charles was the guest of honor. I went along to turn the pages. There was a good fee for all of them and a lovely dinner—they weren’t invited to sit with the guests, but had their own table out back. And there was a man—probably ex-army, maybe ex-military police, who was the Major-Domo, and he kept coming out to check that we were all okay, but his real message was: “Fifteen minutes and no more!” And it was the most brilliant thing because we were doing Ariadne and here we were, living Ariadne! So it goes on.

This unseen wealthy patron is the framework to Strauss’ Ariadne. And there’s another theme: the freedom, or otherwise, of the artist. Is he free to do what he likes? No. There are set parameters to this performance, as dictated by the guy who’s paying for them. And I love the character of the Butler or Major-Domo, he’s so condescending! And just like the guy at Mansion House, what’s most important to him is that they stick to the clock—we’ve got this fantastic display of fireworks! That’s what the Butler really wants to see. The constraints placed on art by this wealthy man are similar to what we impose as a company—we don’t want the opera to go into overtime, for example. We put budgetary constrains on our creative teams. That’s pragmatism. So the opera’s framework, as well as being witty and showing us details of life backstage, is itself a statement of the rigor which any artistic enterprise needs. Time and money.

Tell us a bit about the fireworks that conclude the production!
Originally (in 2004) they used live fireworks, but now we’re going to do it digitally. Why are the fireworks there? As Ariadne becomes a constellation, we send people’s eyes upwards and you have the sense of sparkling stars for a moment.

Fireworks music at the end of Ariadne auf Naxos

Now, there’s a difference between live fireworks and what we will do digitally. For me, when you bring into a theater things which don’t normally live in the theater—animals are a prime example of this—your framework shifts. The incongruity of live flame in this place—which could set the building on fire—for a moment takes you out of the contract you, as an audience member, have made with the theater. That is, you’ve agreed to enter a world of imagination. I think a very lavish digital display of fireworks will keep you within the framework of the theatrical experience.

What’s the trick to directing and designing a good production of Ariadne?
I have a very strong view of how you go about designing Ariadne. The big pitfall is that sometimes the framework of the Prologue, i.e. the idea that we are putting on a performance in a space, can radically compromise the Ariadne part of the opera itself. What you need to do is to start from the point of view of whoever was directing the Ariadne opera. How would we want to do that? And then work backwards. Of course you have to acknowledge the framework, but you mustn’t let it constrict the imagination needed to fulfill a truthful and creative rendition of the Ariadne story. The Zerbinetta bit’s easy. But, rather than always being reminded of the framework of the rich man’s house, like a TV camera we should be able to zoom in and enter Ariadne’s world.

Seattle Opera has put together a very starry cast for this show. Does Ariadne depend on star power?
Yes, Ariadne needs some fabulous singers to bring it off. It’s very demanding, and you need different sorts of singers. Not only Ariadne (Christiane Libor and Marcy Stonikas), Zerbinetta (Sarah Coburn and Haeran Hong), Bacchus (Issachah Savage and Jeffrey Hartman), and the Composer (Kate Lindsey and Sarah Larsen), roles like the Music Master—that’s a tricky, tricky number, and you need someone who has experience and presence to bring it off. (We have Patrick Carfizzi.) Part of the tongue-of-cheek humor of the piece is about star singers—we see them, warts and all, in the Prologue, as divas. That’s part of the fun. So it requires casting at a very high level, not only for its demands, but part of the fun of the piece is seeing very, very talented people performing.

And the reality is, if you can’t sing Zerbinetta, you won’t. We hire someone capable of sustaining an absolutely virtuosic twelve-minute aria.

Jane Giering-DeHaan sings Zerbinetta's aria at Seattle Opera in 2004

And you need an Ariadne who is capable of sustaining two very taxing monologues, one after the other, plus the big scene with Bacchus in the end.

Jane Eaglen sings Ariadne's "Es gibt ein Reich" at Seattle Opera in 2004

And as for Bacchus—the old saying goes that Strauss hated tenors so he wrote an unsingable part.

The late Greg Carroll sang Bacchus when Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program presented Ariadne auf Naxos in 2010

Actually, you need a Bacchus who is capable of singing with great delicacy, with great sensitivity. A lot of his music is marked piano. It tends to get oversung. He enters in a strange frame of mind—he’s just had this bizarre encounter with Circe, and the more delicately you can get that opening encounter between Ariadne and Bacchus, the more interesting a scene you will have.

Bacchus (John Horton Murray) enters warily in Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

It shouldn’t be about two monsters just singing at each other, because that’s not how it’s written. It is very important that that scene is directed properly. It can so easily feel grafted-on. Whereas actually it’s really a very well-crafted, well-written scene. But you need people for those roles who are sensitive actors, just as for the commedia troupe you need people who are physically adept and can give the impression of being old hands at this style of comic acting.

"Cheer up, sad island lady!" A scene from Seattle Opera's 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What’s the conductor’s job with this opera? Tell us a little about Maestro Rennes, who conducted Elektra in Seattle in ’08.
Strauss wrote Ariadne for an orchestra of 39 or so players. There are the odd moments where it sounds a bit like Elektra—but that’s a red herring. It’s a large chamber orchestra, not an orchestra of 85, 90. Delicacy for me is one of the key words with this piece musically. It’s a very beautiful score, a very subtle score, where you hear individual string players rather than a full string body. It’s not easy to bring off. You need really good people, and the conductor must unite them so the work retains its integrity.

Lawrence Renes is a Dutch conductor, he’s recently been appointed Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera. His repertoire is quite varied; he’s done a lot of John Adams, but at the same time he’s done Mozart and the orchestral repertoire. We heard when he conducted Elektra here that Strauss is in his blood, and the challenge for this piece is to give it its own unique quality. As an opera man through and through, I know Lawrence will do a fantastic job for us.

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


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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Music from Ariadne auf Naxos

We're about to roll up our sleeves and start working on the final opera of the season here in Seattle, Richard Strauss's masterpiece Ariadne auf Naxos. Here's some of the wonderfully varied, lush music from Ariadne, recorded in 2004 at our last mainstage production and in 2010 (when our Young Artists presented this opera), to whet your appetite!


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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Meet Our Singers: MARY FEMINEAR, Semele

Soprano Mary Feminear sings Semele at Friday night’s performance, opposite Theo Lebow’s Jupiter and Deborah Nansteel’s Juno and Ino. This young American soprano is just as comfortable with the rich mid-range of Ariadne’s Composer as with Lucia di Lammermoor’s high-wire act, and you’ll hear her remarkable range and powerful voice displayed by Handel’s music. We’ll get another chance to hear Feminear soon, when she takes on the role of Pamina in Pacific Musicworks’ The Magic Flute in May at the University of Washington.

Mary Feminear sings a passage from Semele (click play to listen)

Tell us about the character of Semele. Do you find it easy to connect with her?
Semele is full of flaws, which are at times painfully difficult to see past. She's a social climber and a narcissist. But there is also beauty there. Handel keeps us aware of this by giving her some gorgeous moments, full of light and humanity. To me, those moments are what make Juno's wicked plans so tragic. Semele, though self-obsessed, does have so much potential.

Mary Feminear getting ready backstage, with Principal Hair and Makeup Artist Calli Dey
Philip Newton, photo

Later this spring, Seattle audiences will also get a chance to hear your Pamina. How is singing Mozart different from singing Handel?
To me, singing Mozart is not all that different from singing Baroque. Mozart developed a great love of Handel over his lifetime. And one has to assume that at the time, styles hadn't changed so much. I still think of phrases in Mozart as a series of gestures, like with Handel.

The place where they differ is in the matter of ornamentation. Handel gives you the liberty of elaborating on some of his ideas in da capo arias and even in some other cases. If Mozart repeats material, he writes out exactly what he wants, note-for-note.

Mary Feminear as Semele
Elise Bakketun, photo

There are lots of roles for your voice type, but there are also lots of singers competing for those roles. How does a young soprano make a name for herself today?
It's true, there are a lot of singers and the repertoire is vast. But getting overwhelmed doesn't help. So far, I'm just sticking with the repertoire I'm drawn to and I don't question it. Following my instincts has always been the best plan of action.

Mary Feminear as Semele
Philip Newton, photo

You received great press for the roles of Aréthuze and Proserpine in Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, which you sang recently with Gotham Chamber Opera. Many New Yorkers are looking to this small company for imaginative productions of interesting repertory. How was your experience with them?
Neal Goren is as talented at choosing spaces as he is at choosing rare and wonderful music. He is also incredibly supportive and encouraging with his singers. We need that, in order to feel like we can take risks ourselves. This performance stands out in my memory.

Mary Feminear as Semele and Theo Lebow as Jupiter
Elise Bakketun, photo

Speaking of interesing new productions, Seattle Opera’s Semele has inspired lots of superlatives!
It's been deserving of all of it. If you're looking to have a stunning visual and musical experience, one that will stay with you, come see Semele! Everyone has put an incredible amount of energy into this new production. The result is a heavenly world that is inspiring for the audience to live and dream in.


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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Meet Our Artists: ERHARD ROM, Scenic Designer

Erhard Rom’s set design for Semele prominently features splendid projections which help tell the story of the opera. A native son of Seattle, Rom made his design debut at Seattle Opera with our 2013 La bohème, also distinguished by the skillful use of projections. He was kind enough to give us some behind-the-scenes insights into his Semele set design.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Opera News loved this image, which we see at the end of Act 1, when Semele sings “Endless pleasure.” How did you decide on this idea? Jupiter’s blue attendants give Semele a new costume element, a rosy dressing-gown, at this moment in the show; did you and costume designer Vita Tzykun develop the idea for set and costume collaboratively?
We wanted the chorus to be able to observe Semele while keeping them separated from her new-found world with Jupiter. I remember I came up with the huge rose while I was working with my rough model and it just felt right. [Director] Tomer [Zvulun] and Vita loved it and they then made sure the costume matched the projection.
Philip Newton, photo

David Hult, Seattle Opera’s Assistant Electrician, works on lighting cues during a rehearsal. What role does the lighting designer—in the case of Semele, Robert Wierzel—play in the development of the projections?
Robert Wierzel is a brilliant lighting designer and extremely skilled at working with projections. He is able to see where the projection is going and works the lighting into the vision so that it feels like one coherent idea. I am specifically referring to color and composition. The projections really have to lead. Some lighting designers fight projections, but Robert embraces them.
Philip Newton, photo

Zooming in a bit closer on the end of Act 2. Audiences have been flabbergasted by the spinning cosmos and the revolving earth here, paired with that breathtaking duet and overwhelming chorus. Can you explain a bit about how the projections work? When a projection involves animation, as these do, is that much more complicated?
This sequence was a true delight as it was really a matter of listening to the music and responding with visual ideas. You have to let your imagination go wild. I am very interested in something I call cinematic live theater. With new technologies at hand, it is now possible to bring things into live theater that in the past had been reserved to film. The 3D rendering of the earth, which Chris Reay, Seattle Opera’s Assistant Technical Director, created from flat images of the earth I provided, is one of the many tools we now have that can create magic on stage that one could only dream of in the past. It does take time to create this sort of content.
Elise Bakketun, photo

For Semele’s final scene you’re projecting an image of Bacchus, whose birth is celebrated at the end. Where did you find that particular Bacchus image?
I wanted to an instantly recognizable, iconic image of Bacchus, so I looked through many sources. Hundreds of well-known (and lesser-known!) artists have rendered the face of Bacchus and I settled on this one because it is simple and clear. We wanted the audience to understand immediately, and I think the grapes make his identity abundantly obvious.

Also, tell us about the lovely warm glow you and Robert have given us here: are there lights very close to those big translucent panels on the sloping wall?
Robert put lighting instruments into the side wall to get that amber glow. The final scene is almost entirely done with stage light and very little projection. The only projected image is Bacchus, up on the small screen. We wanted the warm glow for the final scene because it symbolizes the glow of the fire and it is also something which is never seen up until that point.
Elise Bakketun, photo


"Behold: auspicious flashes rise!” as John Del Carlo sings in the opera’s first line. Cool flames--but how do you focus them on that small little panel? (And what if somebody bumps the projector?)
Originally we were talking about real flames, but early on in the process the brilliant Seattle Opera technical department suggested we use a projection. So Chris [Reay] and I decided to dedicate one projector exclusively to that fire pit. It’s closer, so the brightness is maximized. If someone were to bump it, we’d be in trouble! But I don’t expect that will happen since it is secured.
Elise Bakketun, photo


Nice view here from Semele’s hidden love-bower! For this scene, what’s the advantage of using projection instead of a painted drop?
Yes, you see Mount Olympus, in Greece, from the bedroom. The clouds move, and later on the moon comes through the clouds for Jupiter’s’ beautiful aria, “Where’er you walk”. And then the projection dissolves into stars for the duet. None of that would be possible if it were simply a painted drop.
Philip Newton, photo


“How engaging, how endearing is a lover’s pain and care!” How are you able to project roses on one surface and a mountain on another?
What we are seeing here is both front projection and rear projection at the same time. The roses and the mountains in the back are coming from a bank of projectors which fill the rear projection surface. The front-of-house projector is shining on all of the drapery. Masks are put into the front projector to keep the content from spilling onto surfaces we don’t want to hit.
Alan Alabastro, photo


In the case of Semele, the projections are considered part of the scenic design. You also designed the built pieces, such as the big wall that’s being rolled on in this photo. What’s the advantage to having one artist design both architectural and digital imagery? Are there advantages to bringing in multiple artists?
It all depends on the project. In this case, I imagined the architectural space and the projected imagery simultaneously. The projected imagery was as important as the architecture; each contribute about 50% in terms of the environment in this production. I did both, because there would have been no reason to ask someone else to try to guess what I already had in my head. But I think it is important to have a separate projection designer when the projections are simply too much to handle in conjunction with the set design; if the projections become more like 85%, a separate person would be desirable. However, I prefer a more balanced version of sets and projections because I believe in live theater that is cinematic. When projections take over completely, I wonder why I am not in the movie theater.
Philip Newton, photo


The giant gaze of Jupiter (Alek Shrader) is keeping an eye on Semele (Brenda Rae)—she better not marry that dorky prince! How do the singers rehearse their interactions with projections, which they might not see until late in the rehearsal process?
It’s tricky! They can look at model photos which actually do indicate many of the ideas. But that huge eye on the wall was something I thought of after the model was completed, so there was no real reference. At least they saw it in the final rehearsal.
Elise Bakketun, photo


Here’s another projection involving our easy-on-the-eyes tenor, Alek Shrader, as Jupiter. In this scene he’s interrupting Semele’s wedding with thunder and lightning. How do you organize projected images of cast members?
Photographing the actual singers was a huge project. We all gathered in Seattle for photo sessions organized by Seattle Opera, who hired professional models to pose for hundreds of photos which I then went through and selected. Once we knew which poses we needed, the actual singers (both casts!) were then asked to imitate those pose, new photos were taken, and I then manipulated those into the images you see onstage.
Alan Alabastro, photo


Iris (Amanda Forsythe) is describing the fierce dragons who guard Semele’s abode, and tickling their projected image with the lasers shooting from her fingertips. How did you develop these dragons? And how did the finger-laser idea evolve?
The finger-laser idea was something I believe Vita developed with Tomer a bit later on in the process. The shadows are actually the same model in two short video clips we shot in November with a model who posed as a bouncer.
Philip Newton, photo


At the top of Act 2, a snowy mountainside turns into the gaze of Stephanie Blythe, whom we’ll see in a moment as Juno. Which mountain is that, and how did this sequence develop?
Mount Olympus once again. I came up with this idea while listening to the opening music of Act II, which is very agitated. The music here could either be a description of Iris rushing back to Juno, or (I thought) descriptive of Juno’s raging jealousy.
Philip Newton, photo


Your team also came up with a creative solution for Somnus’ “Cave of Sleep” location. How did this idea evolve?
This was one of the earliest ideas we had, when Tomer, Vita, and I first sat around discussing ideas for the piece. Once we were all looking at a “modern mythic” landscape, we decided that Somnus, with his magic drugs and slumbering entourage, would transport perfectly to a modern night club.
Philip Newton, photo


For the long Act 3 aria “Myself I shall adore,” Brenda Rae has many selves she can adore. At one point, I seem to remember, there was a plan to morph these images in grotesque ways, in order to horrify her. Did you try out and then discard that idea?
Actually I did create a distorted version of her face which I was planning to use. When I watched the final rehearsal, I saw Brenda Rae trying to look shocked and horrified at seeing an image which had suddenly turned grotesque halfway through the aria. My problem was, the music didn’t reflect that feeling. The music is bubbling with cheerful hysteria throughout. So Tomer and I decided that not to use that idea, as it was unsupported by the music.
Philip Newton, photo


One of my favorite moments comes when Semele rips down the curtain in the palace Jupiter has created for her, during the wild aria, “No, no, I’ll take no less!” Between the turbulent clouds on the screen and the billowing descent of that big sheet, it’s a masterful coup de théâtre. Had you ever made an effect like this before?
I’m glad you like that moment! It is one of my favorite parts as well. I did, in fact, use a similar idea before many years ago in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where at one point Romeo ripped down a large piece of fabric similar to this one.
Elise Bakketun, photo


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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meet Our Singers: AMANDA FORSYTHE, Iris

One of the hottest young stars of today’s early music scene, soprano Amanda Forsythe makes her Seattle Opera debut in our production of Semele playing Iris, the high-tech henchman who helps the jealous Juno wreak her revenge on Jupiter and Semele. Forsythe lives in Boston, America’s early music capital. (In fact, you can hear her as Euridice on Boston Early Music Festival’s new recording of Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, which won a Grammy last week!) But she has been singing more and more in the Pacific Northwest. She is having a great time working on Seattle Opera’s Semele, which she calls “Handel on a big scale”—and is especially excited about the nifty costume she wears as Iris.
Amanda Forsythe sings Iris's aria from Semele

Welcome to Seattle Opera! We’re glad we have a seasoned early music expert on the team as we do what’s only our third-ever Handel opera.
Handel can be really difficult to stage. I think a lot of stage directors get stuck with the da capo format of so many Handel arias. They get overwhelmed. Recently I did a not-very-successful production in which we ended up doing absolutely nothing, just standing around during our long arias. The director had so many ideas about what he DIDN’T want to happen, he didn’t give us anything to do. Here, Tomer [Zvulun, who is directing Semele] is doing a great job. He came in with all sorts of ideas about how to tell the story. But Handel’s operas are nothing like verismo. They doesn’t stage themselves.

Zvulun and his design team, Erhard Rom (sets) and Vita Tzykun (costumes) took a creative approach to the recitative in which Iris (Amanda Forsythe) describes the fierce dragons who guard Semele's love nest.
Alan Alabastro, photo

How did you first connect with Handel’s operas?
There’s a lot of work in Boston, and early music became my specialty. In America, really, it’s all I get hired to do. In Europe I sometimes sing roles such as Nannetta in Falstaff or Marzelline in Fidelio, works by Rossini, things like that. But I’m not complaining—I love Handel! I like being a composer and writing my own ornaments. And in early music you build great relationships, working with the same musicians and instrumentalists all the time.

How is this Semele different from what you normally do?
This is Handel on the big scale, with mainstream opera singers who can sing Handel well. It’s a bit unusual.

What has been your favorite experience so far singing Handel?
Oh, so many! One Handel work I adore, which we did here in Seattle with Pacific Musicworks, and then in Vancouver, is an oratorio: Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. To me it has some of his most spectacular writing. There’s this beautiful aria, “Lascia la spina,” which originated as a dance melody in his opera Almira - he reused the melody later on for “Lascia ch’io piango” in Rinaldo.

Handel recycled music like that, from opera to opera?
Yes, for instance, I’m working on Agrippina right now, and one of the arias I sing there as Poppea I also sang in Il trionfo del tempo, with different words. And another aria in that he recycled from Almira, which I sang a few years ago in Boston.

Almira...that’s a very early Handel opera, right?
Yes, his very first opera, written while he was still in Hamburg, before he moved to Italy. The recits are in German and the arias in Italian.

How strange. I never heard Almira...although I think there’s a recording of it down at the Seattle Public Library.
And I believe there will be a new recording available in a couple of years. The Boston Early Music Festival has a wonderful relationship with the CPO label in Germany, and we manage to record most of our productions.

That’s right, congratulations on your Grammy!
Right, our Grammy-winning recording of Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, conducted by Stephen Stubbs of Seattle’s Pacific Musicworks and Paul O’Dette.

Now, all the Handel works we’re discussing are in Italian.
Yes, Handel wrote Semele in English, but it’s written more like an opera, in terms of the florid writing. I’m working on Athalia right now, an English-language oratorio of his, and the vocal writing is so simple—pretty tunes, but none of the vocal fireworks you get in Semele. Alexander’s Feast is the same way, as are Solomon and Saul.

Early Music Vancouver just brought their production of his oratorio on Theodora down here last week.
I know, I was so sad I had to miss it—we were rehearsing Semele that night! That’s a great piece, it has a bit more virtuosity.

Amanda Forsythe as Iris
Elise Bakketun, photo

Let’s talk about Iris, your role in Semele. She’s a goddess, which in this production is a bit like being a superhero...what’s her special power?
Speed. She has winged heels and she can fly around the world three times in an orchestral passage lasting about a minute. She’s a fun little character, a spitfire.

Why does she work for Juno?
Status. Juno’s the queen of the gods. I’m a lesser god, so if I can attach myself to the queen, you know, be her Number 1 Henchman, her right-hand woman...that’s pretty good.

Is she a satisfying person to work for? A good boss?
No! She’s hard on me! But that’s the great thing about this libretto—there are all these great jokes in there. I love Juno’s line—here I am, I’ve run around the world three times before the sun has even risen, and she’s just sitting around, complaining about my ‘slow return.’

Amanda Forsythe as Iris and Deborah Nansteel as Juno
Elise Bakketun, photo

When we first heard you with the orchestra in McCaw Hall, I was struck by your fantastic diction. It’s so clear. How do you do that? Often when a soprano goes up above the staff, it’s really hard to understand the words. But your text is so clear. Any pointers, for sopranos, on how that works?
I think about singing through the consonants, rather than seeing them as a stopping point. I do focus on putting legato sound into the consonants. I’m glad we have supertitles here with Semele...it just makes everyone feel a bit more comfortable that they aren’t going to miss out on the text. And it’s such a great text!

Tell us a bit about your costume as Iris.
Oh, I have a fantastic costume. I have cameras on my shoulders, a camera on my back, a headlamp which I shine in Somnus’s eyes, to make him sing “Leave me, loathsome light,” finger lasers, and winged heels. Those also light up.

She’s so high-tech! Can you injure people with your finger lasers?
Yes, I have to be careful not to shine them in people’s eyes! They’re extremely bright.

Amanda Forsythe as Iris works her laser fingers in Semele
Elise Bakketun, photo

Semele is your Seattle Opera debut, but you’ve sung many times in the Pacific Northwest.
Yes, with Pacific Musicworks, Vancouver Early Music Festival, Portland Baroque, and Seattle Symphony. We recorded Handel’s Orlando with Vancouver Early Music, it got a Juno nomination.

And you’ll be back here this spring...
Yes, I’m singing with the Seattle Symphony in May. Stephen Layton is conducting Bach and Vivaldi. I never sing Bach! Bach tends to write for a light, pure soprano who never needs to breathe and doesn’t use much vibrato. Not that I’m a Wagner soprano, but...

...no, but you have more of an operatic sound. Bach never wrote operas. Would you say we have a good audience for early music here in the Pacific Northwest?
I think it’s amazing. And growing. More and more people are moving to the Pacific Northwest. Just look out the window and you’ll see how quickly Seattle is growing. In terms of early music, the connections among the organizations are growing. You might rehearse a program in Vancouver and then perform it in Seattle and Victoria. I know a fantastic bassoonist in New York who can’t wait to get a position out here. And frankly, after this winter in Boston...many of us would be happy to live somewhere else!


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