Friday, November 13, 2015

Philip Glass on Voting Rights; Cherubino, Almaviva, Holocaust Survivors, and the Devil

What's up in the opera world? This week, the world is paying attention to an exciting opening:

Philip Glass Revises Appomatox to Consider Voting Rights
Washington National Opera will present its first Philip Glass opera beginning tomorrow: a revised version of Appomatox, first heard in San Francisco in 2007. As Glass explained to Michael Cooper in a recent New York Times article, the original version focused more on Lee’s surrender, which ended the Civil War at Appomatox in 1865. The revised opera opens with Frederick Douglass telling Lincoln he would like to see “voting rights for all free men of color,” and continues by dramatizing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 visit to the White House to press President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Voting Rights Act. WNO’s production stars Seattle favorite Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach; rising star Solomon Howard plays both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr; and the great Donald Eastman designed the set.

And here’s the latest on some singers who will be coming to Seattle soon:

Karin Mushegain Doing Back-To-Back Cherubinos
When Seattle Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro in January, American mezzo Karin Mushegain will return as everyone’s favorite oversexed teenage androgyne. But first, this gorgeous young singer sings Cherubino down at Opera San José; tomorrow night is the first of her six performances. Ms. Mushegain made a strong Seattle Opera debut as Rossini’s Cenerentola in 2013. Karin Mushegain as Cinderella implores the prince to let kindness prevail in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, with Brett Polegato (Dandini), Dana Pundt (Clorinda), Sarah Larsen (Tisbe), René Barbera (Ramiro), and Valerian Ruminski (Don Magnifico) and the orchestra of Seattle Opera conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti.

Andrew Owens Opens Barber of Seville in Miami
When Seattle Opera presents our first Mary Stuart starting in February, our audiences will have their first chance to hear the exciting young American lyric tenor Andrew Owens in the role of the conflicted Leicester, beloved by Queen Elizabeth but in love with Mary Stuart. Owens is currently in Miami, singing Count Almaviva in the Florida Grand Opera production of The Barber of Seville, which opens tomorrow night.

Andrew Owens in rehearsal for The Barber of Seville at Florida Grand Opera

David Danholt Stars in The Passenger in Detroit
Seattle Wagner-lovers remember David Danholt’s thrilling triumph in our 2014 International Wagner Competition. David Danholt sings the conclusion to "Parsifal," with the orchestra of Seattle Opera conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

The Danish tenor returns to Seattle to sing Erik in our Flying Dutchman in May. But starting tomorrow, he’s starring in Michigan Opera Theater’s production of The Passenger, a 1959 opera by Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg that wasn’t performed until 2010, but since then has been presented all over the world. Danholt plays a West German diplomat who had no idea that his wife once served as an SS officer in Auschwitz; a chance encounter on a trans-Atlantic crossing opens a world of guilt, denial, fear, courage, and love, in a searingly powerful drama. A video is available of The Passenger’s world premiere, in Bregenz.

Seattle Opera Staff Wowed by Munich Mefistofele
Meanwhile, Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera’s Artistic Administrator, is off running around Europe hearing and auditioning singers. He wrote me from Munich, where the Bayerische Staatsoper’s strong performance of Rigoletto and Boito’s Mefistofele (starring Rene Pape and Joseph Calleja) made a big impression:

“How may I explain how truly jaw-dropping this performance of Mefistofele was? Simply awesome! At the end, I turned around to see an older gentleman just hypnotized, his slightly teary eyes in disbelief. He looked at me and said, ‘Wonderful, just wonderful!!!’”

René Pape (Mefistofele), Joseph Calleja (Faust), Bayerischen Staatsoper Chorus and Ballet

“The videos, such as a live-feed camera went under the stage to reveal all hundreds of suffering angels that Mefistofele has devastated, were fantastic. And imagine the finale of Act 2 - the stage filled with what seemed like 200 choristers, soloists, dancers, and actors moving, singing and performing their hearts out to phenomenal music of Mefistofele’s wild orgy as the entire stage divided into three separate sections and moved up and down, as if the stage itself was hopping up and down and dancing amidst huge fiery bursts.”

Friday, November 6, 2015

Seattle's Opera-World Gazette: 11/6/15

Introducing a new series of blog posts in which we check in on what our Seattle Opera artists are up to elsewhere. Please let us know what you think in the ‘Comments’ area!

We’ve closed The Pearl Fishers in Seattle, but all over the world our artists are keeping busy as the fall opera season continues. Here’s the latest on some folks who will be coming to Seattle soon:

Talise Trevigne’s first Madama Butterfly.

American soprano Trevigne, left, who will make her Seattle Opera debut in January as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, just sang her first Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly for North Carolina Opera in Raleigh. Reviewer Roy C. Dicks, in The News & Observer, says she’s “poised to become the next great Butterfly”, and said “her characterization was less shy and vulnerable and more worldly and self-assured than usually seems inevitable that she’ll soon be widely known for this role.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams sings her first Lady Macbeth.
Meanwhile, in Switzerland, our amazing Abigaille from this summer’s Nabucco added another scary early Verdi killer to her repertoire: Mary Elizabeth Williams debuted as Lady Macbeth at the Theater St. Gallen. Watch footage of her hand-washing mad scene in this video trailer starting at 3:22:

Macbeth from theatersg on Vimeo.

Mary Elizabeth Williams returns to Seattle in February as Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart.

Joyce El-Khoury and Christopher Alden in Toronto.
Joyce El-Khoury makes her Seattle debut in February as Mary Stuart. The Lebanese soprano sings her final performance as Violetta in Canadian Opera Company’s La traviata in Toronto tonight. Tomorrow, COC closes its run of a fascinating double-bill: a new opera by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman on Pyramus and Thisbe paired with two small pieces by Claudio Monteverdi, Renaissance Italy’s opera pioneer. Director Christopher Alden, whose COC Flying Dutchman comes to Seattle next May, staged this double-bill; here are some of the photos: Pyramus and Thisbe

Duane Schuler lights Houston’s Tosca, starring Weston Hurt.
If you’re in Houston, don’t miss the chance to enjoy the work of Seattleite and famed lighting designer Duane Schuler, who comes home to light our upcoming Marriage of Figaro in January. Singing Scarpia at Houston's Saturday, November 14 performance is Weston Hurt, who terrorized the Israelites as Nabucco in Seattle this summer, and who returns to administer extreme unction to Mary Stuart this February—he sings the role of Talbot in our upcoming production of Donizetti’s political thriller.

Morgan Smith sings Starbuck in LA Opera’s Moby-Dick.
The original production of Jake Heggie’s popular whale-tale comes to LA Opera starting tomorrow, November 7, with Seattleite Morgan Smith reprising his role as the tormented first mate Starbuck. Smith, who just created the role of Jim Crowley in Seattle Opera’s world premiere of An American Dream, returns as Count Almaviva in our upcoming Marriage of Figaro. (When he was a Seattle Opera Young Artist, back in ’99, Smith sang Figaro!)

Morgan Smith as Starbuck and Joshua Guerrero as Greenhorn in LA Opera’s production of Moby-Dick (Photo: Craig T. Matthew/LA Opera)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Staff Chat with Costume Shop Manager Susan Davis

Costume Shop Manager Susan Davis grew up abroad—Japan, Ethiopia, Egypt, among other places—and inherited her mother’s love of beautiful textiles. By her college years, she had taught herself to sew, got her first job in a costume shop, and a career was born. She first came to seattle in 1989 to work in Seattle Opera’s costume shop as a cutter. Several years later she co-founded her own company, Period Corsets, which sold handmade undergarments designed for use in theaters, and it was through this work that she learned the nuts and bolts of running a sustainable costume business. Since 2002, she has run Seattle Opera’s costume shop with the same eye for detail and an amazing capacity for coordinating her extraordinary team to make a bolt of fabric into the exquisite symbol of a character.

When did you first meet with Ginette Grenier, the Costume Designer of Nabucco?
I met Ginette in New York in April. We spent the week walking the garment district, looking for samples and selecting the fabrics. It’s a great way to get to know the designer because we’re together 15 hours a day, three meals a day, coffee break if we’re lucky.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Praise for The Pearl Fishers

Seattle Opera in The Pearl Fishers. Philip Newton photo
"Like magical poetry set to music." - Huffington Post 

"There wasn’t a static moment to be found: This was an opera constantly on the move, with one vividly presented scene after another." - The Seattle Times

"I wish I could choose my earworms, and if I could, one of my first would be a few bars from "Au fond du temple saint" in The Pearl Fishers. The simple melody, which repeats throughout the opera, does what Western music is meant to do. It quiets you, then it swells, and then it makes you want to stand up like something's lifting you, arising you. It makes you yearn for something beautiful, unsayable, and sad." - The Stranger

Anthony Kalil (Nadir) and Keith Phares (Zurga) in Seattle Opera's The Pearl Fishers. Philip Newton photo
"The shrewdest casting was Maureen McKay as Léïla, her soprano rich in timbre, with something worldly and knowing about it..." - Seattle Weekly

"The indisputable star of the evening was Brett Polegato, who dominated the stage whenever he appeared...More importantly, Polegato successfully conveyed the complex torment of the role – from powerful leader to unfulfilled lover to desperate friend, it was a pleasure to see a performance that transcended the stock love triangle cliché." - Bachtrack

"On Sunday, Keith Phares and Anthony Kalil took over as Zurga and Nadir, with Elizabeth Zharoff as Léila. This trio was completely different from the opening-night cast, yet they also found their own balance: Zharoff was a more powerful and focused Léila, Kalil a lighter and more lyrical Nadir, and Phares a strong, conflicted Zurga." - The Seattle Times

Dancers perform choreography by John Malashock in Seattle Opera's The Pearl Fishers. Philip Newton photo
"Much of the acting was illuminated by the choreography of John Malashock, whose dance sequences ran the gamut from ethereal beauty to threatening, murderous mob scenes. The dancers, pliant and primitive and highly athletic, used long sticks and bright airborne ribbons to marvelously expressive effect. The entire troupe was excellent, but the three principals — Kyle Bernbach, Roxanne Foster and Kyle Johnson — deserve an extra round of applause." - The Seattle Times

"John Tessier’s high, almost haute-contre tenor is ideal for Nadir’s Act 1 romance – combining an easy legato with a finely modulated voix mixte, this was by far the best performance I’ve heard of this killer aria. Tessier shows a strong command of the style, and his crystalline French was the finest in the cast." - Bachtrack

"The Pearl Fishers is a pleasure to both the eyes and to the ears. It's sexy, fun, and wonderfully whimsical – a riveting opera that will draw you in to this (tragic) love triangle with grace, ease, and storybook allure." - Heed the Hedonist

Elizabeth Zharoff (Léïla) and Keith Phares (Zurga) in Seattle Opera's The Pearl Fishers. Philip Newton photo
"But the real star of this production is set and costume designer Zandra Rhodes, whose zany, colorful fabrics created a magical atmosphere of sensuality and playfulness. The lighting designed by Ron Vodicka completed the visual beauty of the production and enhanced the dance sequences (splendidly choreographed by John Malashock). Two scenes in Act I were particularly stunning visually: the processional entrance of the veiled priestess Léïla, borne on a litter; and the preparation of her bed chamber - flower petals and pillows everywhere - by her attendants. Both of these scenes featured sets and costumes of brilliant orange and pink; the effect was pure enchantment." - Seattle Gay News 

"Then, of course, there is the glorious music. Conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak and the orchestra gave full rein to Bizet’s musical vision of this luminously exotic world, from the finest spun emotion to the most primally savage dance. The Seattle Opera Chorus was, as usual, spectacular, particularly singing in anger and terror during a violent storm." - Queen Anne News

Brett Polgato in Seattle Opera's The Pearl Fishers. Philip Newton photo

Monday, October 26, 2015

Staff Chat with Associate Director of Marketing KRISTINA MURTI

Associate Director of Marketing Kristina Murti has been luring Seattleites—both the converted and unconverted alike—to opera for the past 15 years. Trained as a classical pianist and mom of two young daughters, she brings her love of music and live entertainment to her family life and to her work. And boy does she work—tirelessly—to find new ways to communicate the thrilling experience of live opera to the masses and to make it accessible to all.

I’ve heard you talk about how Seattle Opera offers a quality product. Could you expand on that idea of opera as product?
People come to Seattle Opera for an evening of quality entertainment, and to share the experience with family or friends. We’ve been very successful at that. When people leave the theater after an opera, our goal is for them not only to feel like they’ve seen a thrilling performance, but also to realize that seeing it live was an important part of why it was so amazing. Live performance is a big part of what we’re selling and it’s the hardest thing to communicate to our potential customers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Monte Jacobson photo
Ieva Ohaks, Seattle Opera’s Costume Stock and Rental Coordinator, loves Halloween. This year, she's holding a “Medieval Fairy Tale” Halloween party, the theme of which was selected largely because everyone in her household got costumes from the old Lohengrin production at a Seattle Opera costume sale. ("We are so excited to show them off!"). Last year, it was a murder mystery/detective theme, and Ieva was Mrs. Peacock. Her dog was Colonel Mustard. 

The keeper of Seattle Opera's costume stock kingdom hopes to help you make the most out of Halloween. So this week, she's sharing some ideas for costumes inspired by iconic opera characters. These costumes will be easily recognized by opera fans, (but everyone will be able to appreciate them!). Cook up these do-it-yourself looks with thrift-store finds or items from your home. They can be created without sewing skills.

Opera Inspiration: Tosca 
The traditional Tosca is set in 1802, so the fashions are “Napoleonic” or “Empire.” The diva's most iconic look is for the second act, when she confronts the sadistic Baron Scarpia after singing for the dignitaries of Rome. She is wearing a spectacular gown, and it is usually—but not alwaysred. 

Ieva Ohaks drawing; Elise Bakketun photo 
  • Updo with tiara. 
  • Tiara, earrings and necklace: you might find something suitably sparkly at a teen accessory shop if you can't find a thrift-store source. 
  • Look for a long, straight gown with a high empire waist (or add a ribbon or metallic belt to a gown with no waistline) Short puffy sleeves are best. 
  • Long and rectangular; opulent. 
  • (Thrift store tip: look in the Housewares area for luxurious throw blankets or curtains—it's a good way to get a large enough piece of fabric). 
  • Above the elbow. 
Tosca's Iconic prop:

Elise Bakketun photo
  • The dagger, of course! Costume shops have all kinds of fake daggers. If you want to be scary, you can use one with fake blood, and even paint fake blood onto your gloves (ahead of time, so it has time to dry!) 
Mario Cavaradossi—Tosca's beloved, a painter
Ieva Ohaks drawing; Elise Bakketun photo
  • Tousled and styled forward. 
  • A little sideburn looks period. 
Oversized smock:
  • Dress shirt (gray, drab blue or beige work well) with a not-too-pointy standard collar. Turn the collar up. 
  • Add paint splotches. 
  • A long, supple, narrow scarf tide outside the collar to hold the collar up. Tie in a soft loose bow or a simple knot. 
  • Trim-fitting light tan trousers work well for the period. 
  • Option 1) Boots, ideally a slim riding-style boot, trousers tucked in. 
  • Option 2) Unobtrusive slip-on dress shoes; smooth toecap is best. 
Elise Bakketun photo
(Baron Scarpia is a thrilling sinister character, too; anyone who can get hold of a 1802 frockcoat suit doesn't need advice from me!)

DIY Halloween — Opera Style!

Ieva Ohaks is Seattle Opera’s Costume Stock and Rental Coordinator, managing approximately 15 tons of costume stock and providing costume rental services to professional opera and theater companies. She has worked for Seattle Opera since 1996, starting out as a costume crafts artisan and costume shop assistant, and working in her current position since 1999. Although she works with amazing costumes all day, it’s still not enough! As you can imagine, Ieva is pretty excited for Halloween. Over the next week, she'll share some ideas for costumes inspired by iconic opera characters. These costumes will be easily recognized by opera fans, (but everyone will be able to appreciate them!). Cook up these do-it-yourself looks with thrift-store finds or items from your home. They can be created without sewing skills.

Opera Inspiration: Papageno and Papagena from The Magic Flute: 

Photo by Rozarii lynch
Beaky hat:
  • Baseball hat 
  • Color posterboard or cardstock (try yellow or orange) 
    • Cut in a big triangle with one curved side to attach to the hat's visor 
    • Attach with hot glue, heavy-duty staples, or punch holes in both and attach with yarn or metal brad fasteners 
Base layer:
  • Close fitting long-sleeve crew neck or turtleneck in a fun color 
  • Matching leggings, close-fitting sweatpants, or tights 
Feathery jerkin/vest:
  • Start with an oversize thrifted knit sweatshirt in a different bright color
    • Cut an opening down the center front if it's a pullover
    • Cut the sleeves off shortish, then cut into the sleeve in irregular feathery shapes
    • Make similar cuts around the hem and around the neckline
  • Start with oversize sweatpants, cut off a little longer than your desired finished length, then cut irregular feathery shapes
  • Use the cut-off cuffs of both sweatshirt and sweatpants to make feathery bands at wrist and ankle: Keep the elastic or ribbing intact; cut the material above the ribbing into the same kind of feathery shapes
Feathers: extra plumes or pieces of feather boa (available at craft stores or costume stores) for tail, as a crest on the hat, around the waist or neck, wherever you need an extra bit of color

Papageno's Iconic Props: a set of reed pipes, which Papageno uses to lure the birds he catches; a bird cage to keep his captives

Papagena: Use any of the above ideas! Also consider a skirt, cut off in the same way as the pantaloons or vest, or even several skirts cut in different-length layers

Drawings by Ieva Ohaks  
Alan Alabastro photo

Monday, October 12, 2015

Western Fantasies of the East:
Orientalism at the Opera

The Pearl Fishers at Seattle Opera in 1994
Photo by Greg Eastman

Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, our fall opera, belongs to a popular sub-genre of the great European operatic tradition known as orientalism: western works which use images derived from eastern cultures.

Orientalism is a useful term of art, even though in English, we stopped using the words “Orient” and “Oriental” decades ago. Those antiquated words bear negative connotations and can perpetuate stereotypes. Westerners today have much more information about and access to the cultures and peoples of the east than earlier generations, so we now use language which is respectful, accurate, and specific when referring to the diverse cultures of Asia.

Historically and artistically, orientalist operas occupy a curious position. These works were created during a period of enormous western imperial expansion, when European powers were racing each other to establish colonies all over the world. The folks back home had plenty of curiosity about the non-western world, but their access to real information was extremely limited. That didn’t stop them from writing all these operas; and since they were writing mostly from their imaginations, to appreciate these works today we must approach them as fantasies.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Listen, read, or download our latest podcast, in which Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera's General Director, introduces Bizet's youthful romantic fantasy, The Pearl Fishers. The show opens on October 17, 2015. Lang tells us about the exciting production coming to Seattle and shares his enthusiasm for this work, which has come back into fashion after a century of neglect.

To make great opera, a producer must assign work appropriate to the skills, talents, and interests of the artists. Tell us a little about the team you’ve assembled for this production of The Pearl Fishers.
We had decided to present The Pearl Fishers, and it was a question of choosing which production to bring to Seattle. For me, there was really little debate. There’s a production which dated from 2005, from San Diego, directed by Andrew Sinclair and designed by Zandra Rhodes. What they have brilliantly done between them is find, for want of a better word, a modern take on the ‘exotic’ impact which this piece would have had on its audiences in Paris in 1863. Zandra’s a textile designer. She has translated that not only to wonderful prints and costumes, which give them life and movement, but also taken the same idea of using motifs for the scenery. She’s not the person to go to if you want straightforward realistic scenery. It’s stylized to a certain extent. We’re clearly in Ceylon, and we have trees and everything, but by taking a two-dimensional and very colorful approach, she’s reflecting the sort of scenery which would have been there on Bizet’s stage.

The Pearl Fishers at San Diego Opera
Ken Howard, photo

Color is the key to this production. Loosely speaking, it’s coded; there are blues and green-blues for the pearl-fishing folk, while the priestesses and priests of Brahma are in reds, oranges, yellows. So it’s easy to identify who belongs to what camp. Rhodes’ vibrant use of color creates a visual impact akin to the spectacle which would be a part of The Pearl Fishers for Bizet’s audience.

Zandra Rhodes in Seattle with her Magic Flute costumes
Alan Alabastro, photo

Zandra Rhodes is a figure who absolutely has been at the center of fashion in London for as long as I can remember. In fact, a little story: I had to do a costume element to my university drama degree. I was inept at sewing, and I failed lamentably to create a female costume for a Jacobean tragedy. So I was moved sideways to a student play called PUNK: Would You Let Your Daughter Marry One?” And of course Zandra Rhodes was dubbed “the Princess of Punk” in those late ‘70s, her use of safety pins, so in evolving these costumes for a student play, I was of course echoing Zandra’s work in a bizarre way! In terms of opera, The Magic Flute, which was in San Diego and then here, was her first opera, Pearl Fishers was her second. She likes an opera with an element of fantasy in it. She’s not going to design a piece set in a slum somewhere. She wants something vibrant, that plays to the vibrancy of her designs.

Andrew Sinclair at rehearsal for The Pearl Fishers
Elise Bakketun, photo

Andrew Sinclair and I go back a very long way, because my very earliest job was working on the Ring cycle at Covent Garden in the beginning of the ‘80s, and Andrew was one of my colleagues there. I remember talking with him at great length about Wagner. Andrew is actually Australian, although he’s been at the Garden for many, many, many years, and lives in London. And of course Andrew got to Seattle before I did; he did Marriage of Figaro back in 1989. And of course I’m doing the next Figaro, in a few months’ time, so there’s a nice bridge there as well.

Assistant Choreographer Michael Mizerany rehearses dancers Kyle Bernbach and Eric Esteb, who play stilt fishermen in The Pearl Fishers
Elise Bakketun, photo

Dance is obviously a feature of nineteenth-century French opera. It was essentially mandatory to have a dance element, certainly at the Paris Opéra. And what Andrew has done is encourage dance, maybe more than we’re used to, to suggest the slightly primitive, tribal nature of this community, to add an element of excitement, an extra layer to some of the scenes which might otherwise appear somewhat static. So as I say this one was really the obvious production to bring. It’s been hugely successful, it’s played twelve times throughout the States since it was new. A couple of houses have done it twice, it’s been so popular. I think it really captures the essence of the piece, makes it appropriate to us today, and at the same time completely respects the background to the work and pays homage to its genesis in France in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Emmanuel Joel-Hornak coaching soprano Elizabeth Zharoff at a Pearl Fishers rehearsal
Elise Bakketun, photo

Our conductor, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, again I’ve known a very, very long time. I gave him what I believe was his debut outside France when he was young—a production at Opera Zuid in Holland of Chabrier’s L’Étoile (a fantastic piece). It was directed by Christopher Alden, who’s coming to Seattle for The Flying Dutchman at the end of the season, and Emmanuel conducted. He’s really an expert in the score of The Pearl Fishers, he’s done it many times. And has an innate understanding of French music. Yes, he’s French, so you feel that should be the case; but it’s not always. Emmanuel really works beautifully with singers, he works beautifully with the orchestra, and this music is in his blood. I know everyone already in rehearsal has loved working with him. So we’ve got a very happy team, putting this show together!

The Pearl Fishers may be set in Ceylon; but this opera is as French as can be. Can you explain what’s so French about it?
Yes, this is a quintessentially French opera. There’s a wonderful saying by Noël Coward about Carmen; he said, “The Carmen of Bizet Is about as Spanish as the Champs-Élysée.” [Say it with a British accent and it rhymes!] And what he meant by that was that Carmen is essentially a French work, not a Spanish work, and the same applies to this, albeit not about Spain. This is not about Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, as we call it today.

French society in the middle of the nineteenth-century was quite straitlaced. But of course we all know, from Traviata, that men had mistresses on the side, courtesans, etc. There was this duality between proper married family status and, expressed in art, repressed emotions and desires and longings and sensuality. So in the second half of the nineteenth century there arose a school which we saw in art, in music, called orientalism. It’s allied with travellers going east, especially to Asia, to Japan and China, but also coupled with what I would term a patronizing attitude to the east. In other words it was deemed fascinating to put the east onstage, or in art; but there was an underlying assumption that western culture, western society, was inherently more ordered and moral. Now, in the mix of the hypocrisy I mentioned, this school of thought provided license, to a very proper society, to put sensuality onstage: it was okay because it wasn’t here, in Paris. It was somewhere else. Sensuality, inherent in the work and the music, is given license by its setting.

Maureen McKay (Leïla) and John Tessier (Nadir) rehearse a scene from The Pearl Fishers
Elise Bakketun, photo
Now, The Pearl Fishers I think doesn’t fit into that school of orientalism, because this piece is not about Ceylon. Bizet wasn’t writing a piece about the conflict between east and west, which you see in Lakmé, for example, set in imperial India. Probably the best parallel to today would be the way we put sci-fi onstage, or modern fantasy. To get that sense of something different, something otherworldly. And what our production does is capture that element of the fantastic by not putting realistic scenery or costumes onstage, but instead giving us a stylized version.

An example of how French it is, for me, comes with the hymn to Brahma at the end of Acts 1 and 2, where in fact, Bizet rehashed music from a Te Deum. For Seattle Opera's 2009 The Pearl Fishers, Gerard Schwarz conducted the chorus and orchestra of Seattle Opera.
It’s is about as Eastern as the music you’d hear in Nôtre Dame cathedral. There’s no pretense at making Ceylonese music in any way, shape, or form. This is French music, expressing that quintessentially French fusion of religion with desire: a chaste priestess, being longed after by two men. I don’t think we take it seriously. It would be more shocking if she were a nun in a Catholic church. Bizet didn’t want to go there; that would be dangerous. This way, it’s safe, and yet provides a frisson of this little battle between desire and propriety.

Bizet never had much success while he was alive, and because of his early death we have no idea what else he might have accomplished. How would you describe his legacy?
The Pearl Fishers is an early piece which actually was very successful with its audiences but not with its critics, with the glorious exception of Berlioz, who saw its virtues, especially orchestrally. And Carmen of course wasn’t a success, because it was daring and original and it was put in the wrong theater. And then Bizet died. In a way he was ahead of his time. For a young man, he writes music not only of incredible beauty but also fluidity and harmonic daring. When I listen to The Pearl Fishers I find little harmonic twists which flick me to moments in Carmen. Sometimes critics are unforgiving of young people when they write a clearly impressive piece. Bizet was only 24 when he wrote this. He wasn’t around long enough to create a huge volume of works. His originality may have held him back. And of course he was criticized for being under the influence of Wagner, which I think was unfair. He was misunderstood. And yet he was his own voice, and one of the great composers of opera, albeit with a small output. I think his early death is a tragedy for the art form, because he would have gone on to great things.

Melody is a really, really important part of The Pearl Fishers. ‘Beauty’ is the key word for this score; there’s a lyricism, an unending use of melody, which makes the evening just fly past, in musical terms. There’s a gorgeous tenor aria for Nadir; “Comme autrefois,” the beautiful aria for Leïla; even Zurga’s monologue in Act Three has great tenderness.

It puzzles me, how the piece got written off as being rather second-rate for many years. Yes, its plot is slightly formulaic. But the characterization is very interesting. It doesn’t have a big cast list—essentially it’s about three people, who must sustain the entire drama. And yet there’s real nuance to the idea of friendship and the betrayal of friendship; the longing, bordering on obsession, for this unattainable vision of beauty these guys have shared and have then rejected, resolved not to compromise their friendship. Psychologically, it’s actually a very sophisticated setup. Andrew Sinclair was telling me in rehearsals he’s been really delighted the singers are bringing nuance and complexity to their characters. Think about that whole situation: it’s more than black and white, it exists in a shade of grey. It’s a much more subtle piece than it was given credit for. And of course we have two casts, and Andrew was saying already there are differences between those two casts.

The Pearl Fishers’ ‘Friendship’ duet is only one of many such duets in French opera. Why is this piece so popular?
With the famous duet—known around the world as “The Pearl Fishers duet”—we have one of the great hit tunes of the entire repertoire. William Burden and Brett Polegato sang The Pearl Fishers' Duet at Seattle Opera in 2014, with Carlo Montanaro conducting the chorus and orchestra of Seattle Opera.
But what interests me about its use in the opera is how the melody comes back as what the French call an idée fixe, an obsession. So when the thought of the friendship or the pact emerges, you’ll hear that tune, or just a small part of it, in the orchestra, often just in the flute. It’s a Wagnerian technique, which may have been a source of its criticism. It’s a subtle technique which reminds us of the dramatic idea without requiring the singers to sing the melody again, as might have been done in lesser hands: you know, “Here’s the big tune, let’s milk it for all it’s worth!” Bizet’s is a more delicate approach. The tune is so strong, I’m sure Bizet’s audiences went wild when they heard it.

The opera hinges on this male friendship, rather than hinging on a relationship between a man and a woman, normally the tenor and the soprano. Of course the soprano is in the mix there, but it’s an interesting re-alignment; male friendship is valued as highly, if not given a more elevated status, than the conventional male-female love relationship. That’s certainly not the model of standard Italian opera, and it gives this opera its particular tone. Pearl fishing is actually a very dangerous act: people die. That’s why they need continual votive prayers going on for their safety. So underpinning this piece, which as I said is very delicate, there’s this macho element: the men are out there getting the pearls, doing their job to provide for their community. And Nadir is a hunter, you know, going out to bring the food back to the village. Italian operas aren’t built on this kind of male bonding; they are built on hetereosexual attraction. Again, maybe this is why The Pearl Fishers lost popularity for a while. It is unconventional in that respect.

Tell us a little about the two casts you’ve assembled for this production.
We have a number of debutants in this production. Maureen McKay, who’s singing Leïla, and Elizabeth Zharoff, who’s our alternate cast Leïla, are both making Seattle Opera debuts, although both have local connections: Maureen was a Young Artist here, from 2004 through 2006, and Elizabeth was born in Wenatchee, so two nice little homecomings in our two Leïlas. Our two Nadirs are John Tessier, last with us in the Zandra Rhodes Magic Flute and in Fidelio; and Anthony Kalil, making his debut. We have two baritones singing Zurga: Brett Polegato is no stranger to our stage, and Keith Phares was one of the Marcellos in Bohème a few years ago. And our two Nourabads, Jonathan Lemalu and Joo Won Kang, are both making debuts. Jonathan of course I know, not only from New Zealand, but actually I’ve known him for many years indeed when he was just starting out, when he did a wonderful recital for me when I ran the Buxton Festival in 2000. He’s an artist I’ve really enjoyed seeing develop over the years, so it’s very nice to feature him in this production. So it’s a small cast, but we’ve really got two super groups of singers lined up for you, regardless of which night you choose to attend.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Jewish Perspective on Nabucco and An American Dream

Both the operas Seattle Opera has recently presented concern Jewish characters who undergo displacement based on events pivotal to the history of the Jewish people: in the case of Nabucco, the Babylonian captivity; and in the case of An American Dream, the Holocaust. We are indebted to James Mirel (photo below), Rabbi Emeritus at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, who attended both shows last weekend and who shared his reactions with me the other day. (Rabbi Mirel is no stranger to Seattle Opera. His wife, mezzo soprano Julie Mirel, sang many roles with Seattle Opera in the 1980s. Explore her Seattle Opera career HERE.)

That was quite a weekend! I felt that both librettists, Temistocle Solera, who wrote Nabucco for Verdi, and Jessica Murphy Moo, who wrote An American Dream, did a good job portraying sympathetic Jewish characters. From my perspective as a rabbi and a Jew in Seattle, it’s good to have positive representations of Jews onstage. Because sometimes it’s negative: The Merchant of Venice, for instance. Yes, I know, Shakespeare is a very sophisticated dramatist; but Shylock isn’t so appealing a character.

I give Solera a lot of credit. Smart guy! Sometimes the words of an opera libretto are not really all that important, but in this case they are. Nabucco is based on the Bible, and the words of the most famous passage, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero,” come from Psalm 137. “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept; on the willows there we hung up our lyres.” When the opera was first performed, that piece was understood as being about Italy. But today, when we listen to it, it’s Zionist. They want to return to Zion.

"Va, pensiero" from Seattle Opera's Nabucco