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

Friday, August 28, 2015

GORDON HAWKINS Shares Seattle Memories

For Gordon Hawkins, Nabucco was only the latest in a series of great Verdi baritone roles he has sung at Seattle Opera. Gordon took the time to sit down with me last week and look at a series of production photos from the many shows—Verdi and beyond—which he has done for us. His memories of the singers, directors, and productions are required reading for the die-hard opera fans of Seattle.
Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco
Philip Newton, photo

1992 AIDA
Photos: Gary Smith and Matthew McVay
This was the very first thing I did here. I remember singing for Speight [Jenkins, then General Director of Seattle Opera] in New York, and talking to him afterwards, it was clear that he was going to bring me out. So I sprinted back to my agent: “He said he was going to hire me—don’t screw it up!”

Thursday, August 27, 2015


You probably know more opera music than you think you do. If you like to watch TV or go to the movies, you’ve undoubtedly heard music from operas used in ways the original composers could never have even imagined. We’ve raided the Seattle Opera archives to put together a playlist featuring some of opera’s greatest hits—tunes you may already know because you’ve heard them in the cinema.

From Apocalypse Now: Ride of the Valkyries (Die Walküre)
Francis Ford Coppola used the “Ride of the Valkyries,” famous music from the second opera of the Ring cycle, not for Wagner’s Norse goddesses of death but for American helicopters dealing out death from above in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. It made for a brilliant, chilling moment—opera music used not just for emotional effect but as part of a film’s story.

Sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jessica Klein, Suzanne Hendrix, Luretta Bybee, Tamara Mancini, Sarah Heltzel, Renée Tatum, and Cecelia Hall, with the Seattle Opera Orchestra conducted by Asher Fisch  

From A Night at the Opera: Anvil Chorus (Il trovatore)
One of the Marx Brothers’ greatest comedies

Monday, August 17, 2015

Praise for Nabucco

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille in Seattle Opera's Nabucco. Philip Newton photo
"Mary Elizabeth Williams emerged as the star of the evening, delivering a theatrically vivid and thrillingly sung performance of the power-hungry, jilted Abigaille. With her untiring and excitingly huge voice, Williams showed remarkably even strength in the registral extremes on which the part notoriously relies. Her dynamic control was similarly admirable. Phrasing with imagination throughout, in her solo in Part Two she hinted at a dimension of inner turmoil, mitigating Abigaille's imperious demeanour with moments that suggested self-doubt." - Bachtrack 

Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco. Philip Newton photo
"But few people attend opera for the plot; it’s the music and the musicians that make the difference. Here is where Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco” shines, with Carlos Montanaro presiding over an orchestra and cast that are almost uniformly excellent...Since 'Nabucco' apparently comes around only slightly more often than Halley’s comet, Seattle-area opera lovers should seize this chance to check out some early Verdi — and some remarkable voices." The Seattle Times 

"Hawkins gave a marvelous performance as Nabucco, a boisterous man initially all puffed up with his victories until he addled by a force beyond his comprehension. To heighten the sense of someone brought to his knees, Hawkins lowered his voice to a shudder and convincingly found the emotion of a man who was on the brink of destruction." Northwest Reverb 

".... (Hawkins) gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear." 

Christian Van Horn as Zaccaria with the Seattle Opera Chorus. Philip Newton photo
"As the Jews’ High Priest, Christian Van Horn lived up to his reputation as a noteworthy young bass. He had a reassuringly imposing resonance, edged with warmth that made us want to follow his Zaccaria anywhere." 

"The (Nabucco) plot fits together like a blooper reel. Over the course of the four head-spinningly fast 'parts' (such weirdly shaped chunks of drama they’re not even referred to as “acts”) the following events occur:
• Jerusalem is sacked.
• The Temple of Solomon is trashed
• The throne is usurped
• A pair of princesses fall for the same guy (who happens to be the enemy).
• One princess finds out she’s actually a slave.
• Two people are killed—but not really because it’s just a rumor so they come back to life.
• Somebody offs herself with poison.
• An idol crumbles literally.
• The terrarium-like Hanging Gardens of Babylondescend to earth.
• Guys march around with antler-headed Gandalf staffs and debate whose god is better than whose and somebody badmouths god and—BOOM!—he’s struck by lightning, which doesn’t kill him but turns him for a while into a madman." 

Weston Hurt, Nabucco and Jamie Barton, Fenena. Elise Bakketun photo
"I enthusiastically recommend this production of “Nabucco” for its brilliant staging and musicality. Seattle Opera succeeds in giving this early and rarely performed Verdi piece the stylistic edge it needs to draw a wide audience and infuse a sense of freshness into this classic Italian opera, while maintaining its political grit and the religious, metaphysical themes present throughout." -  The UW Daily

"Conductor Carlo Montanaro paced the orchestra expertly and brought out textures that worked well with the singers. Superb playing by principal cellist Eric Han and principal flutist Alexander Lipay added marvelously to the production, and the offstage banda (chamber ensemble) also contributed splendidly." - Northwest Reverb 

Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille. Elise Bakketun photo
"Abigaille­ is a hugely demanding role vocally and emotionally, and Raffaella Angeletti sang a gorgeous Abigaille on Sunday, fire and rage in her soaring high notes, determination and fury in her chesty, low passages. Weston Hurt delivered an authoritative, thundering Nabucco, and the chorus sounded phenomenal, luscious and full of longing, on "Va' pensiero" (The chorus of the Hebrew slaves), the opera's most famous melody." - City Arts 

Nabucco plays now through Saturday, August 22 at McCaw Hall. For tickets and information, go to and join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with #SONabucco. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Verdi’s Career: A Musical Tour

Giuseppe Verdi is to opera what Shakespeare is to drama. It’s hard to imagine the art form of opera without the work of this fantastic composer. In this playlist, we’ll give you a quick overview of Verdi’s career, which began in 1842 when he took Italy by storm with Nabucco, and concluded, fifty years later, with his phenomenal Falstaff. During those years, Verdi was the undisputed king of Italian opera, and it was his relentless theatrical genius which transformed the genre from the singer-focused bel canto shows of the early nineteenth century into the almost cinematic kind of opera popular at the turn of the century.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Opera’s Tower of Babel: NAMES in NABUCCO

What’s in a name? We’re gearing up for the Seattle premiere of Nabucco this weekend, and since the libretto of this great Verdi opera refers to all sorts of peoples and places in the ancient Near East, here’s a quick “A to Z” orientation to help you find your way around the world of Nabucco.

Assyria. Nabucco’s kingdom; the Assyrian invaders destroy Jerusalem and enslave its inhabitants in the opera’s first scene. The historical King Nebuchadnezzar (602-562 BCE) ruled what modern historians call the “Neo-Babylonian Empire.” (Please don’t confuse that with the original Babylonian empire, which dominated what is now Syria and Iraq several centuries earlier.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Listen by clicking 'Play' above, download this podcast HERE, or read a transcript, below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Va, pensiero" at Seattle Opera's 2015 premiere of Nabucco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of a Nabucco production at Castello di Vigoleno, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costume design for Abigaille © Ginette Grenier

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Seattle Opera at Wing Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by John Vicory   

Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director at Wing Luke

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

More information at:

Follow #SOAmericanDream on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ABIGAILLE and Her Sisters

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

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

Costume design for Abigaille © Ginette Grenier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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