Monday, July 25, 2016

Creating costumes for Count Ory

This August, Seattle Opera presents The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory—a brand-new production that packs the punch of a Broadway musical with a nod to the humor and visual style of Monty Python. Australian Stage Director Lindy Hume and Production Designer Dan Potra have let their imaginations run wild in creating a mashup of medieval France and psychedelic, ‘70s flower power. You can see this zany combination in Potra's costume designs currently in progress below.

Photos by Genevieve Hathaway 
Costume Assistant Sophy Wong puts one of Dan Potra's designs on a mannequin. 
Two of Count Ory's looks -- the first as a nobleman with inspiration from 70s glam rock; the second , which  takes inspiration from new religious movements of the same time period, is his disguise as a love guru.  
Countess Adèle Act 1 and Act 2; Ragonde and Alice costumes.
Hume and Potra meditated on the similarities between medieval peasants and hippies. Thus, the show combines various cultural phenomenons of the 70s  (think Yellow Submarine, hippies, rock n' roll) with the French medieval setting envisioned by Rossini.
Two of Ory's minions: Isolier, the androgynous page (a trouser role played by a woman); and Raimbaud, Ory's crony. 
The knights and Tutor. 
Costumes for The Tutor, Isolier, and two looks for Raimbaud.
Waist details. 
Raimbaud details. 
Studs, leather, ruffles. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016


In this downloadable podcast, General Director Aidan Lang discusses The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory—coming to Seattle for the first time this summer, in a brand-new Seattle Opera production—with stage director and Rossini specialist Lindy Hume. Listen to Aidan, who’s British, and Lindy, who’s Australian, share their enthusiasm for this delightful and outrageous comedy—or read this transcription of what they had to say.

Hello, everyone, it’s Aidan Lang here. Normally I do these podcasts on my own, but it’s the first day of rehearsal, there’s a music call going on, so I took Lindy Hume, our wonderful director, out of rehearsal to join me here. Lindy, welcome to Seattle!

Thanks, Aidan! It’s great to be here.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Opera Auditions, Seen from Both Sides

Ksenia Popova, soprano, is a former Seattle Opera employee who co-founded our local Opera on Tap chapter and is now an Associate Artist at Opera San José. Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera's Director of Artistic Administration, selects the singers who appear at McCaw Hall. 

How do you nail an opera audition? Today, we hear from two people who know a thing or two about how to do this. For them, auditions are simply a part of life — but they approach them from opposite directions. 

As a singer, Ksenia Popova is used to being in the "hot seat" or, more accurately, the "hot stand" as she performs with an accompanist on piano before an audience of adjudicators. (Though, as founder of Seattle's Opera on Tap, she's also been on the other side of the table). That's the side where Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera's Director of Artistic Administration, usually sits. Aren listens to countless auditions in order to select the singers who star in our productions at McCaw Hall. 

As both soprano and arts administrator will tell you,  there's far more to auditioning than simply entering into a room to be judged. In fact, both singer and adjudicator may have more similar goals in that room than you'd think.    

What’s the first thing you look for in a singer?
Aren: I can't stress enough the importance of originality. Is this singer able to take us to our most basic, sensitive, emotional state — yet at the same time, deliver the highest form of artistic and vocal technique? It's not about perfection; it's about how they deliver their unique package of good and bad, strength and weakness, and how it all comes together. Does the singer know and love what they're doing? Do they have the confidence to make the character their own?

What are the first things you think about in order to pull off a successful audition?
Ksenia: Beyond preparing arias that I know completely forwards and backwards, the rest tends to be mental. It’s so easy to put too much pressure on yourself. Singers very rarely get to perform on the days where everything is 100 percent, so walking into an audition and giving the best representation of yourself is key. A good friend of mine taught me to think of it like dropping a business card: You go in, sing, now they know you. You might hear from them in a day, in a month, a few years down the road, or never and you just let it go.

How long does it usually take you to decide on a singer? 
Aren: Ninety-nine percent of the time, it takes 10-15 seconds for me to figure out if a singer interests me. I have learned to quickly grab on to what a singer can do with the limited time they're allowed to audition and/or perform. 

Typical audition room setup
How do you prepare for an audition?
Ksenia: You start thinking about it a week out. I’m notorious for not staying hydrated enough, so I start upping my water intake (I do the same for performancse). You avoid situations that might compromise your health: no loud bars, no staying out too late. A few days before I make sure whatever I plan on wearing is good to go  washed/steamed, and though I like to think I do this early, usually the night before I make sure my binder is arranged. Your audition binder contains all pieces that you’re ready to offer that day — and nothing more! I’ve been known to sometimes make an emergency copy store run to photocopy a new head shot or clean copy of an aria, but I try to avoid that.

Also, eating! Make sure you're not singing on an empty stomach.

Do singers get nervous when auditioning?
Aren: If singers don’t get nervous auditioning, it would be strange. It's not really what they are trained to do. And of course I'd prefer to see every potential new hire in performance at another opera company, but that simply isn't possible. Having said that, there are some singers who are much more comfortable auditioning than others. I've seen nervous singers who have great auditions, as well as bad auditions. As a former singer myself, I know that their job is indeed difficult  they may have working on their artistry for 10-15 years, but they only have 10-15 seconds to get my attention! Only 10-15 seconds to fight the stigma of their voice type, or a color they've been told is not pretty or not good enough. They have to get over all these thoughts in a strange room with bad acoustics and strangers sitting in front of them (who might be very hungry and tired after being in auditions all day). 

Do you get nervous when you audition?
More nervous than performances, but it's usually not too bad. Getting nerves before an audition usually depends on two things for me: 1.) how close my relationship is to who I’m singing for and 2.) how well I’ve mentally prepared myself. Surprisingly, I find it more nerve-wracking to sing for people I know well, as opposed to strangers.

How does an opera audition work?
Ksenia: There are many different forms but in the simplest terms: You are scheduled an audition (you’ve received the audition either through an artist manager, or you contacted the company or they contacted you). When you walk into your audition, you typically present a list of arias you’ve brought that day. Often 4-5 pieces, and you generally pick your first piece and the panel (often made up of the main casting personal — artistic director, general director, maybe a conductor) might ask for a second, maybe a third. Having been on the other side of the table and auditioned singers, I often know if I’m interested within seconds of the first piece. A second piece is usually to confirm my feelings about them, though it might be because I am looking for something I didn’t see in the first piece. As a singer, you can end up playing the guessing game of “what will they want to hear?” and try to analyze their decisions. I go back to only offer things that you 150 percent can rock. That way, you won’t be nervous about “that one piece” (because it doesn’t exist.)

Ksenia Popova says an audition can be like a guessing game of "what do they want to hear?"
How do you get an audition for Seattle Opera and what is it like?
Aren: Auditions are by invitation only, and often, we work with a singer's agent. We're friendly folks. It's pretty standard. The singer comes in and we all say hello. Usually, there's not much time for socializing, especially when you're auditioning over 30 singers that day. If they're auditioning for a specific role, they may sing that entire role. Usually, we like to hear something we're considering them for, as well as something we're not. That way, we can take note of their potential and level.

Opera companies plan their season several years in advance. Thus, if you are auditioning someone for a role they will perform in 2-3 years, what are the risks involved? 
Aren: So many things. Their emotional balance could change, as could their availability, vocal balance, and health (including allergies, food poisoning, other illnesses). Then of course, once they get here, they might not have good vocal chemistry with the rest of the cast or understand the concept of the stage director or conductor, which can lead to challenges. However, hopefully we have done a good job in casting, and most of the time, the final ensemble of singers and creative team mesh well, and a great production is created with wonderful performances. Condition of an artist's voice and performances are directly related to the condition of that singer's emotions and mind.

Name a time where you learned something that affects how you audition today. 

Ksenia: The biggest thing that I’ve learned with auditions is to walk in, give the best representation of you (throw down or “flip a table” as some of my colleagues and I say), then smile, say thank you, and forget about it. There have been times where I walked away thinking, “What even came out of my mouth right now?” and felt down about it, then realized that the auditions where I have felt unsure have been the auditions where I’ve gotten a job. The ones where I walked out feeling amazing, I don’t think I’ve ever heard back from. It’s best to get out of your head, do your job, and then move on.

How big a role does a person's physical appearance play in casting at Seattle Opera? There's been concern recently that our art form is beginning to cast more according to Broadway or Hollywood standards. 
Aren: There is some truth to this, simply because today, we have so many accomplished singers to choose from. Additionally, while we are indeed first a musical art form, theater is also part of who we are. If we have two different outstanding artists, we may select the one who is easiest to imagine as the character. Of course, your ability to embody a character has nothing to do with body shape or size, and really, interpretive ability is crucial. At the end of the day, you have to find a balance between many factors. Once again, it comes back to artists having that well balanced full package.

Ksenia Popova with fellow Opera on Tap Managing Divas: Kim Giordano and Melissa Plagemann.
Do you have any audition tips? 
Ksenia: Always sing/perform pieces that you are 150 percent comfortable with! There should never be a worry of “Will I have enough breath to get through this phrase?” or “Will I hit the high or low note?” Sometimes singers feel like they have to show off all the tricks or push themselves past what they really should be singing at this moment, and none of that is necessary. Also, be respectful to everyone along the way, from the first contact you have to the audition, to when you leave. The people in the building are the people you’re hoping to be working with someday, so be kind and professional. Finally, reward yourself afterwards, even if it’s a tiny treat (I personally like a martini, but whatever makes you smile). Auditions are hard, so be kind to yourself.

Other do's and don'ts?
Aren: Don’t sing something you don’t know well. Don’t be crazy! Sometimes singers come in and they have this crazy, nervous energy. Just calm down and find comfort upon entry point, whether it's an item in the room or a person, find something that will help you relax. Also, don't wear something that will upstage you. If you're going to wear a ballgown with diamonds, that's fine, but you're going to have to be more fabulous than that ballgown!

Ksenia Popova takes a bow with Christopher Bengochea in Tacoma Opera's Roméo et Juliette.
Ksenia: Do keep your binder, materials (head shot/resume/rep list), and yourself neat and tidy! No crazy fonts, spell check everything, and have a friend proofread for an extra set of eyes. Be kind to other singers in the Green Room, and generally keeping to yourself is always acceptable. There are audition spots in NYC like Nola that are notorious for the “smell of 50 years of depression and self-loathing” (I kid you not!). Everyone is stressed and packed into a small space. Don’t be the person chatting up everyone else or flashing around your resume. Just focus on yourself.

How do you decide what to sing – are you always auditioning for a specific role? 
Ksenia: If auditioning for a specific role, I often try to offer the main aria of that character. That said, sing what you sing best. There’s this idea in school that one must sing five arias in a variety of languages and styles, and once you’re out in the world, none of that matters. Some are Mozart singers and will have a list full of Mozart, others are made for Puccini. Find what makes you special and sell that.

What’s the strangest audition you’ve ever been a part of?
Ksenia: I once had an audition where instead of the casting director sitting mid-way in the room, he walked around me in a circle as I sang; definitely odd! I also once had a callback for Jerry Springer: The Opera, not a weird situation but most certainly very different callback music.

Aren: We were in New York and there was something going on with a pipe in the wall. We heard this loud sound that kept pounding to the rhythm of the aria that the singer was singing! I thought, "Well, that’s appropriate." Usually though, nothing funky really occurs. The worst is when you see a singer realizing that they are not having a good audition, and yet, they still have to go on. This happens to the best of them; even to people who've sung that aria 100 times. And of course, no one feels comfortable when the singer isn't feeling comfortable or performing well. I think singers forget that we want them to succeed. Singers can dwell on the fact that we are judging them, which we are but we're also in fact, cheering them on.

Aren Der Hacopian with singers from Seattle Opera's 2016 Flying Dutchman. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Seattle Opera celebrates the life and artistry of the great Italian maestro Edoardo Mueller, who passed away last week in Milan.

Edoardo Mueller in Seattle, about to get things started
Bill Mohn, photo

A beloved, familiar figure in Seattle, Mueller made his local debut conducting Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 1991. He returned frequently for the next two decades, conducting popular Italian favorites such as Rigoletto and Turandot as well as many of the bel canto operas performed here: The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, L’italiana in Algeri, and I puritani. Seattle Opera couldn’t get enough of his leadership, and not just because he understood every note, every nuance of these wonderful operas. He had an uncanny ability to motivate and prepare everyone involved to give their absolute best.

Edoardo Mueller in rehearsal
Bill Mohn, photo

Born in Trieste, Mueller began his career assisting such legendary Italian maestros as Tullio Serafin and Vittorio Gui. His breakthrough came in 1973, when he conducted Rossini’s Mosè at the inauguration of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence (substituting for Georges Prêtre). Also a well-known recitalist, he conducted and performed all over the world, but he made a special home in San Diego, where he conducted 45 opera productions between 1980 to 2011. He was always welcome at opera companies in New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Detroit.

Here in Seattle, he became a legend following a stressful rehearsal of Norma in January 1994. Not only had the soprano originally cast in this most demanding of title roles withdrawn from the production, her late-arriving replacement, the young and then-unknown-in-Seattle Jane Eaglen, had caught a cold en route to Seattle. So Mueller not only conducted the opera, he sang the role of Norma at the final rehearsal so she could rest up for opening night! His work as conductor and accompanist built on an extraordinarily comprehensive understanding of vocal technique and Italian style, so it was no wonder that he was a wonderful singer himself.

He was also a gifted teacher, and Seattle Opera’s Young Artists regularly benefited from his wisdom. “Edoardo Mueller was so very important to me, especially in the beginning of my career," says tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who stars as Count Ory at Seattle Opera this summer. "As a member of Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program, I sang for him in a masterclass in the fall of 2000. He was there conducting a mainstage opera at the time, but so graciously agreed to work with us. At the conclusion of the masterclass, he walked directly to Speight Jenkins' office and said to him, 'Do you realize that you have a star in the Young Artist Program?' I don't consider myself a star, but I so appreciate the enthusiasm both he and Speight had for me. Maestro Mueller encouraged me, supported me, and taught me so much about the style of bel canto singing. He and I performed together on a few occasions and he was a true champion of my talent, but more than anything, an incredible human being. I will never forget the positive impact he had on me and my career.”

Lawrence Brownlee and Edoardo Mueller in rehearsal
Bill Mohn, photo

Through Seattle Opera's Education programs I fondly remember taking Maestro Mueller (and his lovely wife, Giovanna) to visit a class at Mountlake Terrace High School. I was expecting the students, who were studying Italian, to learn a little about opera and Italian culture from meeting him. Instead, he taught them about leadership and teamwork. “My job as a conductor means above all I have to be good at psychology,” he said. “I must do whatever is necessary to get them—the singers—relaxed and confident, each of them ready to bring their souls into their throats and send them out into the public. If I am capable of doing that, well, that’s why they call me maestro.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Spotted at Seattle Opera: Top 4 Fashion Styles

Although many people enjoy dressing up when they go to operas, there’s no dress code at Seattle Opera. Here you’ll see people wearing everything from ball gowns and tuxes to shorts and Birkenstocks. Here are just a few of our favorite outfits spotted in the audience:

#1: Classic silhouette, bold patterns

© Philip Newton

Monday, June 6, 2016

Seattle Opera's very own music librarian

Emily Cabaniss. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway
Seattle Opera's Music Librarian Emily Cabaniss ensures that everyone who's part of creating an opera is well stocked with information. That way, we can all spend more time creating art, and less time trying to look up some obscure Russian libretto, for example!

What do you love most about your job?
I really enjoy the work that I do with our video archive. I’ve started an initiative to digitize our analog video that goes back to the founding of the company. Preserving that video and making it usable has been rewarding. Plus, it digitizes in real-time, which means at my desk I just have videos of old operas running during the day.

How does your work directly translate to what we see on the stage?
I provide scores and libretti to our production team before we get started. The lighting cues, entrances, etc. are all noted in the scores, and we do some planning based on our collection of audio CDs that I manage. Everyone has what they need to make this happen as far as three years in advance because of me.

What challenges do arts organizations face today, and how are you helping in your line of work? 
I think arts organizations are very prolific and numerous now, which is good because of this huge variety! But in other ways, the breadth of art available to us makes it harder to dig into our own artistic foundations. By preserving our work here and helping our staff access it, I like to think that I’m helping to keep us from reinventing the wheel, artistically. I am part of the equity team here at the Seattle Opera, too. Librarians are gatekeepers, in a way, but their job is to keep the gate open, so I see myself in that role as well.

Why does opera matter?
Opera is a great artistic home for the weird. Assassins and robot girlfriends and scheming manservants show up in opera and, because it’s so loud and grand, you’re just like, 'OK.' Opera teaches us how to say yes to what we’re seeing and be less cynical about the media we consume.

Why are you passionate about being a librarian? 
It’s my earnest belief that the cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy is an educated population. The library is a place where whatever your age, background, or current education, you can always learn. I think the most interesting thing about humans is that we never stop being curious. The library is free! The library will help you satisfy whatever curiosity you may have! And the public library is a place where no matter who you are, when you go there, you’re treated the same as everyone else, which matters a lot to me.

How did you get into this line of work?
I was born with a little gray bun and glasses on a chain and the nurse said to my mother, I’m so sorry, she’s a librarian.

Just kidding! Actually I started out shelving books at my local public library as a teenager, and when I went to college got my undergraduate degree with the intention of becoming a librarian. Right after my Bachelor’s degree, which was in art history, I went to the University of Washington and got my Master’s in Information and Library Science. This is my first job out of library school. I was working in the box office when I got hired!

What’s the most fun thing about going to the opera?
The music! I’ve loved seeing beautiful, well-known excerpts in their original context. When I was a teenager I would come to Seattle Opera all dressed up, with opera glasses, and use them to watch the orchestra.

Are people surprised to learn that the opera has a librarian?
Yes, both librarians and other opera companies are surprised at what I do here. I definitely have what’s known in the library field as a 'cool librarian' job.

What’s been the most memorable experience of your time here?
I actually can’t think of anything really interesting. Because so much of our archive is digital, I spend a lot of time banging my head against the wall messing around with video codecs. Sometimes I’ll spend days on a strange tech issue, then suddenly I figure it out. Those moments really make my week.

Anything else that’s neat that you have to say?
The first opera I saw as a kid was I Pagliacci and I pronounced it PAAG-li-akee and nobody said anything for days, probably because they didn’t want to embarrass me, but then I started working here and felt intense retroactive embarrassment so they did not succeed.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Top 10 most recognizable opera pieces used in film

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.

#1: 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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Top 4 most memorable costumes

Opera transports the audience to worlds far away from the everyday, and costumes play a big role in creating that on-stage magic. Here are just a few of our favorite outfits from recent productions:

#1: Tosca’s performance gown from Tosca

© Elise Bakketun

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Praise for The Flying Dutchman

Rebecca Nash (Senta). Philip Newton photo
"(Stage Director) [Christopher] Alden returns to Seattle after a long hiatus. He was last invited here for a Don Giovanni in 1991 that reportedly generated a heated audience backlash. Kudos to general director Aidan Lang for inviting him back: Dutchman, which closes Lang's second season at the helm, signals a serious commitment to opera and is the finest production the company has staged to date under his watch."- Bachtrack 

"['The Flying Dutchman'] clocks in at under two and a half hours (without intermission)... the impassioned singers, the clever staging and the imaginative sets are so consistently engaging that Seattle Opera’s performance just speeds by." - The Seattle Times

Members of the Seattle Opera Chorus in The Flying Dutchman. Philip Newton photo
"On Saturday night in Seattle, in a revival of this Canadian Opera Company 1996 production, what happened on stage can only be described as stunning ... I was left gobsmacked unable to write-so moved I was by this show. It has taken me 24 hours to recover." - National Opera Journal

"Director Christopher Alden makes full use of the ingenious Allen Moyer set, with elements that quickly switch locales from shipboard to shore without any major breaks in the action. Anne Militello’s inventive lighting designs underscore and clarify the story line with jaw-dropping effects." - The Seattle Times

Seattle Opera presents The Flying Dutchman. Philip Newton photo 
"Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman opens with one of the most arresting curtain-raisings I’ve seen from the company: the cast filling Allen Moyer’s set, a cavernous box-within-a-box that is tilted 10 degrees or so off level. It’s an immediate cue that this isn’t going to be a traditionalist staging..." - Seattle Weekly 

"The Seattle Opera Chorus sang with gripping vitality, even while executing some [vigorous choreography]." - The Queen Anne News

"Wagner intended the opera to be presented without breaks between acts and the Seattle Opera in this production honors his 'through-composed' vision to great effect. (And for those who were a little scared of being subjected to 2.5 hours of uninterrupted opera the program likened it to the length of time we all have sat through a movie)." - The Seattle Times

Nikolai Schukoff (Erik). Philip Newton photo
"This cast boasts two excellent tenors with fresh, flexible, lovely voices: David Danholt as Erik, Senta’s betrothed, rightly peeved when she decides to wed the Dutchman, and Colin Ainsworth as the ship’s Steersman. Danholt was a winner of the Seattle Opera’s 2014 Wagner Competition, Ainsworth is making his company debut; I hope they both return soon and often." - Seattle Weekly

"In Saturday’s opening-night cast, the great strength and experience of the principal singers brought an unmistakable authority to their performances." - The Seattle Times

"The Dutchman was played on this night by Greer Grimsley. Grimsley has a swarthy dark voice that while powerful, is also versatile. It is easy for these Wagnerian singers to belt their way (at their peril) through these roles, but Grimsley always finds the color and the essence of the character." - National Opera Journal

Greer Grimsley as The Dutchman. Philip Newton photo
"In his Seattle Opera debut, Nikolai Schukoff as Erik, the huntsman in love with Senta, was as much the star of the evening as Grimsley and Nash. With his warmly expressive tenor, Schukoff was heart-rending in Act 3 reminding Senta in vain about her previous vow to him of love and fidelity." - The Queen Anne News

"In Saturday’s opening-night cast, the great strength and experience of the principal singers brought an unmistakable authority to their performances. The Dutchman, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, is a familiar figure here (most impressively as Wotan in Seattle Opera’s “Ring”); he probes every nuance of the title role as a captain doomed to sail the seas in a ghost ship until he is redeemed by true love. With Grimsley’s commanding stage presence and resonant voice, this is a role that suits him admirably, and one he has frequently sung. The experience shows." - The Seattle Times

"Allen Moyer's unit set was an austere rectangular box dominated on one side by a massive steering wheel and a metal spiral staircase on which the Dutchman's 'ascension' played out in the denouement. The exaggerated tilt of the box recalled the Expressionist atmosphere of films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In the opening scene this served handily as a 'realistic' representation of Daland's storm-tossed vessel." - Bachtrack

Members of the Seattle Opera Chorus in The Flying Dutchman. Philip Newton photo

"His Senta, Australian soprano Rebecca Nash, is making her Seattle debut — and what an interesting debut it is. Nash is a passionate singing actor with a voice of considerable heft and power." - The Seattle Times

"The Steersman, Colin Ainsworth, [was] the most lyric voice on the stage. Vocal beauty is still important in Wagner, and Ainsworth brought loads of it." - National Opera Journal

"Nikolai Schukoff, as her unsuccessful and hapless suitor Erik, is an ardent singer who becomes a tragicomic figure in this staging, with exaggerated attitudes of suffering that draw some audience laughter. (Alden has him attempting suicide in several positions with a rifle whose barrel is too long for the task.) You’d think that chuckles might be inappropriate in this ultraserious opera, but they humanize the characters and give more poignant depth to the denouement." - The Seattle Times 

Wendy Bryn Harmer (Senta) and Alfred Walker (The Dutchman). Philip Newton photo
"... Wagner was well aware of the dangerous potential art possesses when the goal is no longer escapist entertainment. So is director Christopher Alden, whose production (originally created for Canadian Opera Company two decades ago) mirrors the young composer's sense of thrilling new horizons beyond routine and convention. With a cast of powerhouse singers, this Dutchman sustains an arc of high-voltage tension, refusing to loosen its grip until the final blackout." - 

"As Senta’s father, the sea captain Daland, Daniel Sumegi creates a memorable portrayal with his mighty voice and his deft acting. Colin Ainsworth is a lyrical Steersman and a highly effective actor; Luretta Bybee does fine work in the shorter role of Mary." - The Seattle Times

Colin Ainswroth (Steersman). Philip Newton photo
"Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who made his Seattle debut with the company’s 2014 International Wagner Competition, coaxed vivid and exciting performances from an orchestra that knows this composer inside and out." - The Seattle Times

"Sunday’s alternate cast created a remarkably different show. In the title role, Alfred Walker was a strong actor with a warm tone that didn’t quite have the heroic presence that Wagner requires. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a standout Senta with a big, radiant voice; David Danholt (one of the winners of Seattle Opera’s 2014 International Wagner Competition) sang with artful clarity as the ill-fated Erik." - The Seattle Times

Rebecca Nash (Senta), Daniel Sumegi (Daland), Luretta Bybee (Mary). Philip Newton photo
Remaining performances of Seattle Opera's The Flying Dutchman: May 11, 14, 18, 20, & 21. Tickets & info: #SODutchman 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Meet Our Singers: DAVID DANHOLT, Erik

We’re excited to welcome Danish tenor David Danholt to Seattle Opera. Danholt officially makes his debut today, in the role of Erik, Senta’s jealous ex-boyfriend. But Seattle’s hardcore Wagnerites will remember Danholt from his prize-winning appearance at our 2014 International Wagner Competition, a great festival of song intended to identify and encourage the Wagner singers of the future. This affable young man discussed singing Mozart and Wagner with me, as well as his remarkable experiences starring in The Passenger, a Soviet-era opera dealing with the Holocaust which is impressing opera audiences all around the world.

David Danholt's prize-winning performance at Seattle Opera's 2014 International Wagner Competition, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing

Welcome (officially!) to Seattle Opera! And best wishes for a debut as successful as your earlier Seattle Opera experience.
Yes, the 2014 International Wagner Competition was really wild. I came here as the alternate; I was not supposed to be in the competition, the idea was they’d call me in if one of the others had to cancel. But a half hour after my rehearsal with Maestro Lang-Lessing and Speight, I got a phone call: they’d changed the plan, there wouldn’t be eight competitors, there would be nine.

Were you conscious of making a strong impression in that rehearsal?
No! I remember Speight saying to Sebastian, “Maestro, I want to talk to you. Goodbye, David!” But I didn’t expect to compete, let alone win. There’s a photo and you can see, I look like someone who just fell down from the moon.

Helena Dix and David Danholt at Seattle Opera's 2014 International Wagner Competition
Alan Alabastro, photo

To be frank, I’m not a competitive person at all. I don’t really like competing this way about music; the competition is always with ourselves—self-discipline, striving to do your best. But I’ve gotten so much good out of this experience. For me it was a confirmation that I’m going down the right path; that I’m a singing actor, a story-teller, instead of a bravura singer who’s great at throwing out high notes!

But young tenors are typically asked to do lighter, more lyric roles: Mozart and Rossini before Wagner.
Yes, and I love singing Mozart, I’ve done Tamino, Don Ottavio, Idomeneo, and I want to keep doing them. But Rossini? I actually turned down a job offer to sing Count Almaviva, in The Barber of Seville. It didn’t really fit my temperment or technique. Honestly, I tend to get bored when I listen to Rossini. But not Wagner or Strauss or Mozart!

What about modern music? In the last two years you’ve been starring in this fascinating work, The Passenger, which has been given now in Poland, England, Germany, Austria, and at several theaters around the US.
Yes, The Passenger was written in the Soviet Union in the mid ‘60s by Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg. He was Jewish, he fled Poland during World War II; but he fled the other way, to Russia, where he became a protégé of Shostakovich. This opera is based on a play written by a Catholic Polish woman, Zofia Posmysz, who was in Auschwitz. Because as you know the Nazis put not only Jews in the concentration camps, but also Catholics, gay people, Communists, gypsies, all sorts of people whom der Führer didn’t like. It’s a very, very profound and important piece. I think it needs to be shown again and again.

I’ve been on this journey with The Passenger all the way, from its first staged performance, in 2010 in Bregenz, where I sang one of the minor roles, and covered Walter, one of the main roles. And then I sang Walter in Detroit and Miami.

Did European audiences respond differently than American audiences?
One thing every performance had in common at the end: silence. Normally you get applause after an opera. This didn’t happen with The Passenger. The performances of course attracted big Jewish audiences; at every performance there were people who had been in concentration camps, or their children and grandchildren. And everything was very realistic. The costumes, for instance, were copies of what was actually worn. The uniforms of the SS officers, the clothing for the prisoners. We had talkbacks after the Miami performances, and I remember a fragile old lady taking the microphone and saying, “I was in Auschwitz from the age of 16 to 19. I came out of it. Everything you’ve seen tonight, it really happened. It was just like that.” Well.

Video from Lyric Opera of Chicago Promoting The Passenger

Is that opera difficult to sing?
Weinberg is not typical 1960s; it’s very melodic, it’s quite easy to learn. The tessitura, the range, of my role, Walter, is close to the lyric roles of Wagner. The difficult part is what you have to say. My character is this West German diplomat with a shady past. The idea is, I was caught up in the madness of the Third Reich but got away; the opera happens many years later, as I’m going to Brazil. But I say these horrifying things: my character believes in the ‘master’ race, all that stuff.

David Danholt as Walter and Davida Karanas as Marta in The Passenger at Florida Grand Opera

Who is your favorite composer?
At the moment I have a thing for Beethoven and Brahms. I’m about to sing Florestan in Fidelio, in the original version, where the tessitura is a bit lower, a bit more human. But I wouldn’t mind doing the final version. It’s one of my favorite operas. And Beethoven’s musical language really speaks to me. I love doing Missa Solemnis, the 9th symphony, his songs. Beethoven is not known to be merciful to his singers, but I like singing his music.

Do you find a connnection between the way Beethoven writes for the voice and early Wagner?
Yes, very much. I’ve actually sung a lot of early Wagner. In Leipzig and Bayreuth I sang the tenor roles in Die Feen (Arindal) and Das Liebesverbot (Claudio), two operas Wagner wrote before The Flying Dutchman. There’s a reason Wagner later abandoned those early works. They’re not great. They go on forever, and you have to cut a lot. In Das Liebesverbot, he was attempting to write a pastiche of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, but he was very young and didn’t quite know what he was doing.

Now, let’s talk about Erik. This is not the first time you’ve sung The Flying Dutchman.
I did it in Milwaukee, at Florentine Opera. I really like singing Erik. He’s a beast. It sits a bit higher in the voice than a lot of other Wagner tenor roles. It’s not too long; it’s about the same size as Parsifal, who only sings for about a half hour.

It seems to me that Erik’s music has a connection to the lied, to Romantic German art song.
Exactly. His cavatina could have been written by Bellini or Schubert; it resembles Beethoven, and early Schumann, and bel canto Italian opera. That’s good for a singer like me. My voice isn’t a great big shining-steel heldentenor sound. Erik has to sound youthful. He’s what the Germans call jugendlicher heldentenor—young hero-tenor, not a dramatic tenor, but rather a full lyric tenor.

Now, there’s some latitude in interpreting the character of Erik. The last time we did The Flying Dutchman in Seattle, we had a very literal by-the-book production, and he was just a regular guy, with his huntsman’s plaid flannel—looked like your typical Seattle ‘lumbersexual.’ But this production really pushes him to the extreme.
It’s very clear in Wagner’s score: Erik has a strong personality. He’s this guy from the woods, a guy who could tear down the building if he wants to. He’s not a sweet little Don Ottavio. I’ve seen several productions where he’s that guy, and I don’t buy it.

You mean, an interpretation of The Flying Dutchman where Senta dumps Erik because the Dutchman is dark, brooding, and mysterious, whereas Erik is easy and boring. You’re right, that’s inconsistent with the libretto, where Erik is constantly threatening suicide or murder—“Senta, you’re killing me!”
He’s outspoken, highly charged, all the time. In this production, [stage director] Chris [Alden] pushes Erik’s sanity, or insanity, to the extreme.

David Danholt as Erik at Seattle Opera
Philip Newton, photo

I know one of the big influences on Chris Alden, with this Dutchman, has been early 20th century German expressionism. You must have studied The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu and silent films like that, to get the acting style so spot-on.
No, I can’t take credit for that. I hadn’t actually seen those films until last week! But I have been rehearsing with Chris Alden, and he really does take us down that path. It’s almost like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Erik really should be drugged, put in an asylum. And here he is, running around with a gun! I like such characters, people who are pushed to the limit.

Now here in Seattle we’ve recently done a lot of by-the-book Wagner; productions where, if it says, “A bunch of mermaids swim in,” then in our production the mermaids swim on in. But this production demands a bit more imagination. How would this Dutchman production go over in Europe?
This wouldn’t shock the Germans at all; I think they’d find it quite ordinary. I don’t think this production is out of bounds. It’s very faithful to the story, and Chris is a wonderfully musical director. I have worked with stage directors who are extremely unmusical, and it ends up being a struggle, because they don’t understand where to go with the story. I don’t like it when stage directors put themselves above the composer or librettist.

I was struck by how Chris knows the music and text of this opera by heart. Every time I peeked into rehearsal, he was singing along.
Yes, and his brother, David, is just the same. We did Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in Copenhagen, and he knew the score better than the conductor. He even understood how to embellish, Monteverdi-style! This is not a conventional Flying Dutchman; but if you can look beyond that, you’ll like it. It’s dark, and a bit traumatizing.

On a different topic, many great Danish Wagnerians have sung here in Seattle. Your countryman Stephen Milling won our Artist of the Year award, some years ago, and has sung here many times. Is it easy to become an opera singer in Denmark these days?
Scandinavia has always sourced great Wagnerians: Kirsten Flagstad, Ingrid Bjoner, Birgit Nilsson, Nina Stemme. Melchior, who’s an idol of mine, was Danish. But you don’t see a lot of Italianate singers coming from our region. And I fear that in the future, you won’t see the same level of quality Wagnerians coming from my part of the world. We don’t have the teachers. The skills needed for Wagner are very different from those for Italian music. You need stamina. You have to be able to sing, in the middle range, for a very long time. We have to recognize that Wagner is not only loud. His scores are very precise about dynamics. Yes, he has a big orchestra; but sometimes he makes them play very softly. All the great old Wagner singers sang it with nuance, sang the dynamics. We have to get back to that.

What new roles will you be learning in the next season?
In the fall I’m going to Arizona for my first Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka. Another youthful heldentenor role.

Yes, that’s a role Ben Heppner sang here in Seattle, early on in his career. But Czech is such a tricky language to sing!
There’s a Czech woman who works at our opera theater in Copenhagen. She lives just two blocks away from me, and I have the sense that I’ll be moving in with her for language lessons. When I do operas I like to be as flawless as possible with my language. I don’t want anyone to tell me “it sounds like you’re a foreigner.” And sometimes it’s difficult not to sound like a foreigner!

I gave up trying to learn even how to pronounce your mother tongue, Danish. That language is hard!
Yes, Danish is actually considered a throat condition, not a language!