Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meet Our Singers: AMANDA FORSYTHE, Iris

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

Amanda Forsythe sings Iris's aria from Semele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Forsythe as Iris
Elise Bakketun, photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you’ll be back here this spring...
Yes, I’m singing with the Seattle Symphony in May. Stephen Layton is conducting Bach and Vivaldi. I never sing Bach! Bach tends to write for a light, pure soprano who never needs to breathe and doesn’t use much vibrato. Not that I’m a Wagner soprano, but..., but you have more of an operatic sound. Bach never wrote operas. Would you say we have a good audience for early music here in the Pacific Northwest?
I think it’s amazing. And growing. More and more people are moving to the Pacific Northwest. Just look out the window and you’ll see how quickly Seattle is growing. In terms of early music, the connections among the organizations are growing. You might rehearse a program in Vancouver and then perform it in Seattle and Victoria. I know a fantastic bassoonist in New York who can’t wait to get a position out here. And frankly, after this winter in Boston...many of us would be happy to live somewhere else!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Music from Seattle Opera's Semele

It was a great opening weekend for the premiere of Seattle Opera's new production of Semele. Over at SoundCloud, we've just posted these audio highlights from the first two performances. Enjoy! There are five remaining performances of Semele, this week and next.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Meet Our Singers: THEO LEBOW, Jupiter & Apollo

Theo Lebow first sang on the Seattle Opera mainstage in 2012 in a small role in Fidelio. But the young American tenor made a powerful impression in Seattle a few months later, memorably singing a smattering of Verdi—La traviata, Don Carlo, and Rigoletto—at our big “Viva Verdi!” concert in 2013. The native Californian told me the other day about some of the adventures he’s been having since then, and about embodying this wonderful character of Jupiter, king of the gods (photo by Elise Bakketun), in our production of Semele.

Theo Lebow sings "Ah, take heed what you press!" from Semele

Last time you sang in Seattle, we heard your Duke of Mantua. What do he and Jupiter have in common?
They’re both suave, philandering ladies’ men with power. For the Duke it’s his social status, but Jupiter is divinely powerful; he’s the leader of the gods, the "Mighty Thunderer," the most powerful of them all.

The Duke is mortal, whereas Jupiter is divine. How do you go about playing a character who’s not a human being?
Honestly, there’s not that much still play Jupiter as a human being. In those moments that are supernatural, such as when he wields his thunder and lightning—they are merely an extension of his will. That is one of the main differences (that, and immortality) that separates Jupiter from the Duke. The emotions that Jupiter experiences, however, are very, very human: love, passion, compassion, adoration, and on the other hand, fear, pain, remorse, denial and devastation.

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

The big thing that’s missing from Semele is a scene for Jupiter and Juno. What would happen, if Congreve and Handel had written such a scene?
Honestly, I think this confrontation probably happened before the beginning of the opera, and it was similar to the Act Two confrontation between Wotan and Fricka in Die Walküre. The punches would be thrown. Juno wouldn’t hold back—she would invoke our marriage and demand that I allow Semele to marry Athamas. The outcome, however, is quite obviously different. Jupiter disobeys and snatches his love away. Juno finds out, and-- "Hence! Iris, hence away!"

This is your first Handel opera. How are Handel’s works different from others you’ve done?
I love singing Handel! There’s so much you can do—with ornamentation and with dynamics. With many other composers, their works have been steeped in tradition, making it very difficult to find an acceptable alternative, and many composers ask for very specific tempo markings and dynamics. While Handel does specify a general tempo, in most cases the dynamics are up to the performer. And since the music often repeats, the options for ornamentation are many. I'm still finding different ways to ornament. It's a very enjoyable discovery process.

That means that your Jupiter may be quite different from that sung by Alek Shrader, who sings the other performances.
Yes, but I love the way he sings the role and I'm learning a lot from him. He sounds amazing.

Theo Lebow as the First Prisoner in Fidelio, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a show with Stephanie Blythe. What’s your past history with her?
I’ve worked with her a couple of times. In 2011 I had the pleasure of being in the Richard Tucker Gala—I sang Fenton for the big fugue from Falstaff, which ended the concert. So there I was, standing there with Stephanie Blythe on my right and Bryn Terfel on my left! I remember I was afraid to say two words to her. And then last year we worked together again at Opera Theater of St. Louis, for the world premiere of this new piece by Ricky Ian Gordon, 27, libretto by Royce Vavrek, in the style of Gertrude Stein. He wrote the opera for Stephanie, who played Gertrude Stein. It took place in Gertrude Stein’s atelier on 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. The cast consisted of five people—Stephanie as Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Futral as Alice B. Toklas, and three men; myself Tobias Greenhalgh, and Daniel Brevik. Be sure to keep your ears peeled for Toby and Danny; they're both fantastic singers! Our roles changed as the timeline progressed. We started out as painters—I was Pablo Picasso, and the others were Matisse and Gertrude’s brother, Leo. Then, after World War I, we became F. Scott Fitzgerald (me), Hemingway, and Man Ray. And we also played what I liked to call ‘Gertrude and Alice’s mental matter’—we were dressed in wool, something between narrators, mental projections and judges.

All sung as a trio.
Yes. We also sang as the voices of the paintings she had collected.

Sounds like quite a trip!
It was! There’s no greater honor in creating something like that. To support Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth, to help create something that wonderful, while making my debut on the stage of Opera Theater of St. Louis, one of America's biggest summer festivals, was amazing. Just watching Stephanie and Elizabeth sing, in and of itself, was a major learning experience! As singers, we receive voice lessons, coachings, acting classes, etc., and then you have to bring that all into practice and create something honest. Stephanie and Elizabeth do it so well, it seemed as simple as brushing one's teeth. It was all quite inspiring to watch them throughout the process of putting the opera on it's feet.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

SEMELE Photo Synopsis

Semele opens tomorrow! Since this show is new to Seattle Opera and to many in our audience, here’s an overview of the plot with great photos taken by Elise Bakketun and Avi Loud at the final rehearsals of this new production. Director Tomer Zvulun, Costume Designer Vita Tzykun, Set Designer Erhard Rom, and Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel have invented a wondrous world of modern myth for Handel’s breathtakingly beautiful, sexy, tragic, funny opera.

King Cadmus (John Del Carlo) prepares to celebrate his daughter Semele’s wedding. The auspicious flames indicate that Juno, goddess of marriage, approves of the match...

But Semele (Brenda Rae) is unhappy about being forced into marriage.

Semele is secretly having an affair with Jupiter (Alek Shrader), king of the gods, Juno’s husband.

Semele’s abandoned fiancé, Athamas (Randall Scotting), finds consolation in the love of Semele’s sister Ino (Deborah Nansteel)...

...when Jupiter whisks Semele off to a splendid castle high atop a mountain.

When Iris (Amanda Forsythe) reports to Juno (Stephanie Blythe) on Jupiter’s adultery, Juno plots revenge.

Jupiter shows Semele how to live it up like one of the immortals, but Semele feels she doesn’t quite fit in.

“How engaging, how endearing is a lover’s pain and care.” Semele (Mary Feminear) senses the fragility of her relationship with Jupiter (Theo Lebow).

Jupiter has Semele’s sister Ino brought up from earth to keep Semele company.

Juno and Iris want to make a deal with Somnus (John Del Carlo), god of sleep...

Somnus helps them destroy Semele when Juno promises him the favors of the lovely Pasithea (Tory Peil).

Semele (Brenda Rae) falls in love with her own image in a magic mirror Juno has given her.

Disguised as Ino, Juno (Stephanie Blythe) suggests Semele manipulate Jupiter into making her immortal.

“No, no, I’ll take no less than all in full excess!” Semele demands that Jupiter (Alek Shrader) show himself to her in all his divine glory...

...but being mortal, Semele is unable to gaze upon Jupiter’s full godhood and survive.

"Above measure is the pleasure which my revenge supplies!" Juno (Deborah Nansteel) exults in Semele’s demise.

From Semele’s ashes Bacchus, her child by Jupiter, rises up to bless the world with the joys of wine!

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Meet Our Singers: BRENDA RAE, Semele

Seattle Opera is very excited that American soprano Brenda Rae will be making her company debut starring as the title role in Semele this weekend. This much in-demand young singer spoke with me the other day about singing Handel and about the wonderfully appealing and infuriating character she’s discovering for the first time. Brenda Rae sings "No, no, I'll take no less!" from Semele

Welcome to Seattle Opera! We’re excited for your debut. Now this is also your role debut as Semele. How is it going?
I learn more and more every day about the character. I used to use one of the arias, “Myself I shall adore,” as an audition aria. But I had never really delved deeply into the character, and I like her more and more. She has a tendency to be obsessed with herself...narcissistic tendencies. And Juno uses that against her. But Semele isn’t a bad person, really. You see that her relationship with her family, especially her sister. She does care a lot about the people around her. But if you push her a little bit...

She comes first. She doesn’t want to hurt her dad, or her sister...
Right, she’s just self-involved. Not in a malicious way.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal, with John Del Carlo as her father and Randall Scotting as her fiancé
John Vicery, photo

So have you found it easy to connect with Semele?
Not initially, no. But I think I’ve found ways to humanize her.

Is her story comic or tragic?
Oh, it’s so tragic. I mean, there’s comedy in everything. But this poor girl just can’t stop herself. We just staged the last scene, in which she burns to death. She’s like a moth attracted to the flame—she knows it’s going to hurt her. It’s like: “This is going to hurt, this is going to burn me—oh, my God, I want it!!!” [laughs]

So if you were anybody other than her, she’s infuriating. But from the inside--
Oh, yeah. If I ever had a friend like this, they’d annoy me. But I’d probably still like to be around them, up to a certain point. And then I’d be: “Ok, I’ve had enough of you for right now.” And you’d go away for a few weeks, and then think: “I miss her, she’s fun to be around!” Even though she’s so obsessed with herself.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

What are some of the other Handel roles you’ve sung?
I’ve sung Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and Polissena in Radamisto, in concert. And Armida in Rinaldo. That’s all so far.

Now, those are all in does Semele compare?
I’ve found that Semele is very different, stylistically. It reminds me more of Messiah, which he wrote around the same time. The way the arias develop is different—there’s almost less structure than in the Italian operas. Which makes it really fun to stage.

Do the arias still have Handel’s beloved ABA da capo form?
Not all of them. It’s more fluid than that. I have a couple arias that are written as da capo, but in some cases he through-composes an aria (instead of just writing a repeat sign) loosely following the ABA structure. For instance, “Endless pleasure,” which I sing at the end of Act One, is completely written out, including the ornaments he wants you to perform—although there's still freedom to add little ornaments!

And you and Gary [Thor Wedow, the conductor] are adding your own stuff, too?
Yeah...we spice it up a bit!

So musically it’s different from the other Handel roles you’ve done...what about Semele’s personality?
Well, Cleopatra is also this femme fatale. She knows the power she has and how to use it. And that role is a similar length. My role in Radamisto is also a fiery woman—she’s sad and dejected at the beginning, but then she snaps, and shows her power.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Would you say Handel writes good female characters?
Oh, yeah. There’s so much strength in these women. They always get into trouble, but they fight back.

What are some of your favorite arias in Semele?
“O sleep” is so insanely beautiful. I’m really excited that we’ll have cello in our continuo group, which accompanies that aria—cello is one of my favorite instruments. It will be so intimate.

Yes, we’re looking forward to that—particularly given that it comes right after Stephanie Blythe sings this amazing rage aria, “Hence, Iris, away.”
Musically it’s a complete 180, yeah. Everybody will take a deep breath, and: okay, now we’re in bed! One aria that's quite daunting is “No, no, I’ll take no less,” which is ferociously wonderful. Terrifying but great. Semele is going a bit nuts, here—she just lets Jupiter have it: “NO!!! I WANT WHAT I WANT! And I’m gonna get it!”

One last question: who are your mentors?
My voice teacher, Edith Bers, back in New York. I started studying with her when I went to Juilliard for my Master’s and I still see her a few times a year. She’s great, when I check in with her it grounds me. Just the way she is as a person, too—she’s very calm, and I like that. This career is pretty crazy sometimes—you’re moving all around, meeting tons of different people all the time, and it’s good to be able to ‘keep calm and carry on.’

Juilliard was an incredible place for me. I know Gary [Thor Wedow, conductor of Semele] from Juilliard where he conducted a Mozart opera I was in, and I got a glimpse at his enormous knowledge of the Classical and Baroque styles. I also took so much from the language coaches there. I don’t get to see them too often nowadays but I carry what they taught with me always.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Meet Our Singers: RANDALL SCOTTING, Athamas

Handel’s Semele features a voice type we don’t hear so often at Seattle Opera—the countertenor. The young American countertenor Randall Scotting makes his Seattle Opera debut as Athamas, Semele’s hapless fiancé. Poor Athamas is left standing at the altar when his bride is abducted by an eagle which turns out to be the king of the gods. (Don’t worry about Athamas, though—he ends up tying the knot with Semele’s sister instead!) Scotting explained a bit about how the countertenor voice works and about the history behind the voice types in Handel’s music. Randall Scotting sings "Thy tuneful voice my tale would tell" from Semele

You’re new here—welcome to Seattle Opera! Now, it’s been a while since we’ve heard a countertenor, so perhaps it’s best if I start by asking you what countertenors do?
Well, we sing high! Higher than your typical tenor and with a different technique. The idea for most countertenors is to sing with a strengthened head voice (sometimes called falsetto, it’s that high voice we all have – think Justin Timberlake). We countertenors train and strengthen it so that we can project, without a microphone, in a large opera house. On the history-side of things, we now often take over the heroic roles which were originally written during the 1700s for castratos, who were some of the most accomplished singers of all time and definitely the superstars of their day. Today many countertenors have developed the strength to take on these demanding roles. In Baroque music we often get to play the hero, which is really great fun.

You grew up in a small town in Colorado. How did you first learn about countertenors and how did you learn that you could be one?
Yes, I’m originally from Grand Junction, Colorado, and when I was young the concept of opera or being a professional opera singer wasn’t much in my consciousness. When I was growing up the people around me tended to be doing very functional jobs and the arts was often seen as something a little extravagant. It was a wonderful place to grow up but there was no opera house down the street where you could go and see that people were actually doing this thing I was drawn to but didn’t yet have a clear way to define. So it took me a little while to discover classical music as a career! I learned I could be a countertenor while I was in college. I sang baritone before that, in fact many countertenors have a lower voice when they aren’t using the head voice I mentioned earlier. That baritone speaking voice flips up into a higher range as a countertenor, closer to that of an alto, whereas if you have a higher speaking voice you might have a higher countertenor range too, more equivalent to a soprano. Either way, while in college, I was lucky to have a voice teacher who had studied in Germany in the 1970s; there weren’t a lot of countertenor singing then, not as many as there are now, but in Germany there were some singing Bach that my teacher had heard.

One afternoon in choir I was singing along, in my head voice, with a soprano sectional rehearsal, just for fun and not thinking there was anything unusual about it. But my voice teacher took me over to the piano and realized there was this high extension above my baritone voice. I was fortunate that he knew that this was a vocal range I could actually use. I eventually took a trip to Europe—on tour with a church choir actually—I was 19, and I sang for a teacher who worked specifically with countertenors. He heard me and said, “Well, this is natural-sounding, and you’ve got a nice quality,” and so I just went for it. Within about six months, the progress I made was night-and-day. I think I would have been a very average baritone—I certainly wouldn’t be singing at Seattle Opera if I hadn’t made the switch!

Randall Scotting at Semele rehearsal, with Brenda Rae (Semele) and director Tomer Zvulun
John Vicery, photo

You don’t sing much traditional 19th century Romantic opera. Are you missing out on anything?
Well, yes and no. For a while I avoided Baroque music, even though I was a countertenor. I really love contemporary music; I love its psychological aspects. That felt like a natural extension of who I was when I was younger, trying to make sense of the world and where I fit. But as I got a little bit older, around my late 20s, I felt much more at home singing substantial Baroque roles. These days, my bread-and-butter is Baroque music and Handel specifically. When I was younger it was hard for me to find the balance of style and emotion and the right way of expressing myself in Baroque music, but now it’s become second nature to me. I do love listening to say, Norma or Tosca, and so much other 19th-century Romantic music...but it’s just not my voice. In recital however, I do get to sing some wonderful romantic art song.

And you’re still singing contemporary music, too?
Yes, after all, Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer is one of my favourite roles – I wish I could sing one every season! In general though, I had quite an atypical journey as a countertenor. After grad school I studied in Budapest for several years (with the Wagnerian soprano Eva Marton – which is another story) and I now make folk and contemporary Hungarian music sort of a specialty. It’s admittedly kind of an oddity... the language can be a barrier, but I lived there so am more comfortable with it. I love singing pieces by Bartók and Ligeti.

Handel wrote for both castratos and countertenors, and you sing both kinds of roles. What’s the difference?
The difference between the roles probably has more to do with spectacle (castratos were at the height of showiness). The difference between the singers has mostly to do with anatomy and training. Case in point, my role of Athamas was originally written for countertenor, not castrato, so he’s not the central hero in this one.

There was a period when Handel was new to London when Italian opera was all the rage. The Brits imported almost all their famous opera singers and composers in from Italy; and Italian opera, sung by Italians, was all anyone wanted to hear for quite a number of years. Eventually, it turned around, politics were involved, and it became a Catholics vs. Protestants thing too—then a taste emerged for more British music. That’s why Semele is written in English. Handel was then working with more home-grown British singers, and they had countertenors. There was also a growing backlash against this ‘unnatural’ idea of the castrato.

Randall Scotting at Semele rehearsal, with Stephanie Blythe (Ino)
John Vicery, photo

But is the vocal writing different, from your perspective as a singer? You’ve sung roles he wrote for castrato, such as the title roles in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Orlando, but here you’re singing a countertenor role.
Handel was so good at writing for specific voices, at finding the strength of a singer’s voice and bringing that out. You discover that when you sing roles like Orlando or Julius Caesar (which were written for a castrato named Senesino) which sit quite low, and the roles call for strong dramatic flair with long recitatives—apparently that’s what Senesino was really good at. Fortunately, my countertenor voice sits low as well and is a good match with Senesino’s range so I absolutely love doing all these castrato roles. Athamas is a little bit of different thing. It calls for strong coloratura technique and dramatic expression, but it’s not as extreme as what Handel wrote for the castratos.

Do you think a high tenor with a powerful extension, a Rossini tenor like Lawrence Brownlee, say, could sing Athamas?
I would say yes, but the timbre and style would be different, the way of approaching those high pitches. I approach them with head resonance, more of a soprano quality, whereas he might approach it with a chest resonance, carrying up the low voice. That makes for a very dramatic, exciting sound, but it’s probably not really the quality Handel was after.

How does Athamas grow or develop over the course of the opera?
Well, in Seattle Opera’s version, the focus is centred more on the power struggle involving the gods and we see Athamas only at the start. Semele leaves him standing at the altar in the first scene. He’s a hopeful guy, maybe just a touch oblivious. Semele’s fallen in love with Jupiter, a god who has come to her in human form, and Athamas is unaware of this. It’s his wedding-day to Semele and he’s ready to tie the knot, but everything falls apart. So he goes from hopeful and happy to the depths of despair, because it hits him like a boulder. Then, he soon realizes that Semele’s sister, Ino, is in love with him, and there’s a budding romance there which we explore—they connect in their suffering and eventually end up together. In the end, it was probably a more appropriate match, anyway!

To learn more about Semele, countertenors, and castrati, check out Seattle Opera's SPOTLIGHT GUIDE.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Meet Our Singers: DEBORAH NANSTEEL, Juno & Ino

The opera-lovers of Seattle remember the strong impression Deborah Nansteel made as a Young Artist here in 2012/13, and from small mainstage roles such as the Nursing Sister in Suor Angelica and the Foreign Woman in The Consul. But the Washington, D.C.-based mezzo is about to embark on a much bigger sing: the dual role of Ino and Juno, both rivals to the title character, in Semele. When we spoke the other day Nansteel told me about the great new journey Semele represents in her career—and about an extremely exciting world premiere she just did at Washington National Opera.

Deborah Nansteel sings a passage from Act 3 of Semele

First off, tell us about the role you played in this recent world premiere of Penny by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg.
Yes, Penny is about a 28 year-old autistic woman finding herself in life, finding her confidence and her voice. At the beginning of the opera she is traumatized—her uncle has just died and she was the one who found his body. She doesn’t speak, and she’s scared of going outside. So she goes to live with her estranged sister, who becomes her legal guardian. Penny’s uncle has left her a big trust to live off, but Penny’s brother-in-law wants to use her inheritance for a surgery he needs to go back to work. So the family situation is complicated! And my character, Penny, can’t speak.

Odd, for an opera character!
Instead she sings these dream-duets with her dead uncle, who is trying to help her find strength. Penny also has a social worker, who wants Penny to move out of her sister’s house and into assisted living. And there’s a neighbor, Martin, who is also a pianist, and he gets Penny to start talking again through music, through singing—he makes up a song and she repeats it. They have a strong connection. So the opera ends with this Penny opening the blinds and letting the sun come in, as she sings this empowering aria. We debated whether or not to show her walking out the door at the end, and untimately realized the audience may need the resolution after so much conflict in the show.

Deborah Nansteel sings the conclusion to Penny

This opera was premiered in Washington, D.C. at the National Opera?
Yes, Alan Paul was the director, he is currently the Associate Artistic Director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C.. He’s one of the best directors with whom I’ve ever worked.

And it was written for you! What’s that like, to have a composer get inside your voice like that?
I loved it, I’d never had something written for me! Douglas Pew and I went to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the same time, so we already had a great working relationship. He’s a wonderful collaborator—for instance, I could say: “What if the musical line were to go down here instead of up, because what has come before is pushing my voice this way?” And he’d take that to heart. We were still making changes up until the final dress rehearsal, which made it such an exciting process.

What research did you do to portray a character with autism?
We met with a high-functioning person on the autism spectrum, as well as a care-worker and some family members of people with autism. But no two autistic people are the same, in terms of body language or functionality. My character, Penny, was high-functioning but at the beginning she was so traumatized she couldn’t speak. But she did make noise! Alan, the director, and I spent lots of time figuring out the right kind of movement for the character.

Deborah Nansteel as the Foreign Woman in The Consul, 2014
Elise Bakketun, photo

Now in Semele you play both a downtrodden, rejected mortal woman and an all-powerful goddess. How do you switch gears from scene to scene?
Power is one of the big gears that you shift here. Juno has a lot of power. She’s not self-conscious; she’s always in control. Whereas Ino is more helpless. She’s passive-aggressive, whereas Juno is aggressive-aggressive. Juno sets out to make her husband feel the same pain that she’s felt.

That’s interesting, both your characters share this emotional state of pain: rejected, jilted.
Yes, but Ino lets it take over her life: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” Until she takes action and tells Athamas how she actually feels. In a way they are both strong women who take action, they just go about it in different ways. Also, they both get what they want in the end.

How do you play a superhuman divinity like Juno? As an actor, how do you make that character alive?
I think about—not necessarily a goddess, but someone who is grounded, in control, powerful. Whatever she does, whatever decision she makes, is going to affect other people and she knows it. She knows what she wants she’s going to go get it. I certainly don’t think about this...ethereal being.

Will Juno ever give up and just let Jupiter go do his thing?
No. [laughs] He’ll never stop.

But she’ll never stop, either!
No! That’s her husband.

Does she love him?
I think so. Without love you wouldn’t have the pain. If she didn’t love him, what would be the point of going to all this trouble to make him suffer? If she didn’t care about him, why bother? I don’t think she’d want revenge if she really didn’t care for him.

Deborah Nansteel as the Nursing Sister in Suor Angelica, 2013
Elise Bakketun, photo

We last heard you in Seattle singing lots of Verdi. Have you sung much Handel?
Only the Messiah.

How is singing Handel different from what you normally do?
Everything is different. I’m not used to singing coloratura—this is the first coloratura role I’ve ever done.

That’s right, you sing some fierce coloratura in this opera.
I didn’t even know how to move my voice until a couple of years ago. When I was an undergrad I experimented with “Una voce poco fa,” some things like that, my technique was very different then, and I had no idea how to sing it then, either! Figuring out how to do coloratura with good technique came late to me.

These are also bigger roles than you’ve sung here before.
Yes, I’m used to doing maids, or the Nursing Sister or the Foreign Woman.

What’s your favorite moment in Semele?
At first I wasn’t so fond of “Turn, hopeless lover.” But now that we’ve staged it and I’m there with Athamas, interacting, that might be my favorite. It’s such raw emotion, it connects so viscerally. I didn’t think that would happen. But I love it, I just love it.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Meet Our Singers: JOHN DEL CARLO, bass-baritone

John Del Carlo first sang with Seattle Opera over thirty years ago, and we couldn’t be more delighted that he’s back for our company premiere of this wild Handel opera, Semele. Del Carlo, a 6 foot 6 inch bass with a Wotan-sized voice, has made a name for himself as one of America’s greatest comic basses. In Semele he plays two roles, the serious priest-king, Cadmus and the absurd god of sleep, Somnus. Del Carlo and I spoke the other day about these roles and the chance Handel offers him to relax a bit and sing his heart out.

You have some ancient history with Seattle Opera.
I sure do! Back in the early ‘80s. Speight [Jenkins, former General Director of Seattle Opera] first hired me for Donner and Gunther in 1984, for the last summer of the old Ring. And then I came back and did Speight’s new Ring, the François Rochaix Ring, a few times. I sang my first-ever Dr. Bartolo, in The Barber of Seville, in Seattle, in 1992.

John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo and Earle Patriarco as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at Seattle Opera, 2000
Gary Smith, photo

I didn’t realize you premiered that role here in Seattle.
Yes, cute story on that. Edoardo Mueller was the conductor, and at the first rehearsal, we get to my aria, the fast pitter-patter section. And Edoardo—who doesn’t know me, I don’t know him, we’d just met—he says, “How would you like to do this?” Meaning: “How fast?” And I say, “Oh, Maestro, however fast you like.” So he starts out at this very gentle tempo, [demonstrates: “Signorina, un’altra volta” about 1 ½ times slower than normal]. And I’m thinking: “Well, I practiced it a heck of a lot faster than that!” So we get to when I came in, and I go: “Signorina’un’altra-voltaquandoBartoloandràfuori, SignorinaunaltravoltaquandoBartolandràfuori!” and he stopped and looked at me and said: “Oh, wow!” So then he rolls up his sleeves and says, “Ok...let’s go!”

That’s fantastic. And now you’re famous for singing Dr. Bartolo, all over the country.
Yes, I’ve sung it a lot. As an Italian-American, 2nd generation, you know...

Are you going to tell me you based Dr. Bartolo on your grandfather?
No, when I look at a role I just study the score and ask, what can I, John Del Carlo, bring to the character? I mean, I’ve watched videos of the great buffo basses—Italo Tajo, Paolo Montarsolo, Fernando Corena, Salvatore Baccaloni—and while I don’t like to copy anybody, you can adapt things for a different voice, a different physique. When I did Don Pasquale at the Met, the character was a mixture of myself, the great Italo Tajo, and of course Otto Schenk, who directed that production.

John Del Carlo (far left) as Frank in 1988's Die Fledermaus, with Dale Duesing (Eisenstein) and Beverly Morgan (Rosalinde)
Michael McVay, photo

So you’ve done a fair amount of Italian buffo bass roles.
Yes. Never Don Magnifico, in La Cenerentola. But Dr. Bartolo, Don Pasquale, Dr. Dulcamara—I’ve done those three a lot.

How is Handel different, vocally?
I actually get a chance to sing in this opera! I have this beautiful aria, “Leave me, loathsome light,” with this gorgeous line of voice. With those buffo roles, the vocal line is so broken up—into patter, into quick little ins and outs. With Semele I actually get a chance to make some beautiful music. It’s more like Meistersinger, the role of Fritz Kothner, which I did here as well—I get to sing a little bit in that.

John Del Carlo sings Kothner's "Tabulature" aria from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Seattle Opera, 1989

You sing coloratura in Meistersinger, too, as you do in Handel.
Yes, that’s something I’ve always been able to do. It’s like the fast patter, it’s always been easy for me. Even with my huge voice. But Handel! I haven’t sung Handel for 35, 40 years. I sang Giulio Cesare when I was in my 20s, at Spring Opera Theater in San Francisco. I love it—it’s balm for the voice.

You have two different roles in this opera.
Three, in fact. I open the opera—I sing the first page, and I’ll be dressed as Cadmus, king and father to Semele and Ino. But technically that first page is sung by the High Priest of Juno. He only sings that one passage, so the singer who sings Cadmus always does it—but it’s different, it’s more declamatory, less emotional than what Cadmus sings. Cadmus is very involved with his two daughters and their emotional lives.

John Del Carlo at Semele rehearsal
John Vicory, photo

I saw you the other day, they were singing “Endless pleasure,” the scene in which Jupiter has abducted Semele away to this gorgeous love-nest up in heaven. You made me laugh, because you were beaming on them beatifically, so proud: “Look at that, Jupiter picked my daughter to abduct!”
Sure, from that standpoint, I’m happy for her!

Is Semele a comedy or a tragedy?
I wonder what they thought of it in Handel’s time. Today I think we’re comfortable with it being both. But originally I think there was a problem in presenting it—he tried to pass it off as an oratorio, and as I understand that didn’t quite work.

John Del Carlo as Kothner, surrounded by the Mastersingers, in Seattle Opera's 1989 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Somnus is a very silly character. How could anybody possibly take the Somnus scene seriously?
Yes, that part is really quite funny—Juno has this line about “Thy rod,” which in this production is a hypodermic needle, so that’s funny in and of itself.

Costume design for Somnus by Vita Tzykun

Tell us about your costume as Somnus.
Oh, it’s fantastic. I have this huge, flowing, blue silky cape that’s got five dancers underneath it. It has these big square patches with astrological signs, the constellations of the Zodiac, all over it, with LED lights for the stars. The dancers are undulating, moving around as I move. I’ve never done anything like it, it’s a first for me.

John Del Carlo (right) in his Seattle Opera debut as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, 1984, with Ed Sooter as Siegfried and John Macurdy as Hagen
Chris Bennion, photo

One last question: as a veteran opera singer, what are your thoughts about the current state of the industry?
Well, it’s no secret that the money for opera is getting harder to come by. In the big cities, in New York and Chicago and these places, we have people who’ve traditionally been strong supporters of opera, but who are now getting on in years, and the young people—their kids, the next generation—need to pick that up and run with it, but I don’t think that’s happening. And you need those donations. In opera, even when you have a sell-out crowd, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be in the black.

As for the artistry, I think every house is trying to find ways of engaging new people, and young people, by changing the product, not always putting on the standard fare. I think it’s a good thing to try to find something that’s modern. I think this Semele, for instance, will appeal to and engage with the next generation.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

AIDAN LANG on Semele

Of all the operas we’re presenting this season, Aidan Lang, General Director of Seattle Opera, is particularly excited about Semele. Not only are we creating a new production, Semele is an opera we’ve never before presented—and a great masterpiece, too. We checked in with Aidan the other day and got some pointers for getting the most out of Semele.

Semele is quite different from Tosca, our last opera. When I came to Seattle and saw that Speight had organized Semele for this season, I was absolutely delighted, because for me a good season program consists of contrasts and variety. For Semele to come so close on the heels of Tosca is the best way for our audience to appreciate that opera comes in many, many shapes and forms. Variety is not only the spice of life—it’s essential for us to understand the whole spectrum of this wonderful art form. I like it when the audience enter the theater and they do not know what is behind the curtain. You think you know opera because you’ve seen Tosca? Suddenly we give you a completely different way of getting to the same outcome: a highly charged, intense, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling evening in the theater.

What is it you love about Handel? Handel has always been very dear to me. What I love about him is the humanity in his music, coupled with great style, elegance, and grace. Now we’re doing this piece directly after Tosca, and I cannot think of two pieces more dissimilar. Tosca overwhelms you with the force of its emotion, whereas by comparison Semele seems restrained. But its secrets are just hidden below the surface. And whereas Tosca is plotted in a very linear fashion, cause and effect—if Cavaradossi hadn’t happened to see Angelotti come out of the chapel at that very moment, the rest of the opera wouldn’t have happened—Semele has a complicated setup and then moves in a more measured way. It’s like peeling an orange, you go beneath the surface to get the fruit, and you realize it’s more delicious than it looked on the outside.

Semele is unfamiliar in Seattle. Can you outline the story for us? It begins on the wedding day of Princess Semele, who is due to marry a young prince called Athamas. But she has fallen in love with Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Jupiter loves her. Jupiter is of course married to Juno, so we have a love triangle or love-quartet, made more complex by the fact that Semele’s sister Ino loves Athamas, the man Semele is about to marry. So yes, a complex setup.

What happens is, in the nick of time, Jupiter swoops down in the form of an eagle and plucks Semele up from the marriage ceremony to his higher realm, where he installs her in a pleasure-palace guarded by dragons. Then Juno concocts a plot: she will obtain a powerful drug for her husband which will enflame his desire, rob him of his reason, and make him bow to Semele’s every whim. Then, disguising herself as Semele’s beloved sister, Juno gives Semele a mirror enhancing her beauty and suggests that Semele ask Jupiter to make her immortal. But Juno knows all along that if Jupiter appears to Semele in his godlike form, the girl will be consumed by flames. And indeed that’s exactly what happens. And at the end, out of her ashes is born Bacchus, or Dionysus, the god of wine. And so the moral of the tale is that from this philandering god and beautiful starlet, the world is given the god who represents abandon and unconstrained love. Semele is a bawdy tale.

Handel was the master of Italian opera when he first came to London. But as public tastes moved away from that art form, he developed the oratorio. Now, the vast bulk of his oratorios are to Old Testament texts, Bible stories. So what shocked his audiences about Semele is that it didn’t follow an Old Testament text; he used a bawdy libretto written by William Congreve, which playfully suggested that licentiousness and free love was ok, just part of human nature.

Is Semele happy or sad? Comic or tragic? It’s hard to say. It’s witty—the text is knowing, it’s saucy. Yes, she dies; but it’s almost as if she and Jupiter have the last laugh, by giving birth to Bacchus. Their little child, born out of wedlock, is a little devil who encourages free thought. It doesn’t fit neatly within a genre, which is akin to the English spoken theater. Shakespeare, for instance, likes to mix genres, whereas European theater tends to be written either as a comedy or a tragedy. English theater has always relished ambiguity. In dark or serious moments there’s dry or black humor, and vice versa—within comedies there’s great seriousness. So it’s almost impossible to say whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.

Is there a trick to enjoying Handel’s music? Handel’s music doesn’t have the immediate dynamism of Puccini or Wagner or Verdi. Just as the action doesn’t propel forward at great pace, so this music allows you time to reflect. In those days people had more leisure time than we do, and they accepted that going to an opera was a leisurely experience. So Handel’s operas are structured as this series of strong insights and strong emotions, which move inexorably from one to the next, until the conclusion.

The chief musical style of a Handel opera is the da capo aria, an ABA form. The first section takes two lines of text and gives a very extended iteration of that. There’s then a shorter B section, which takes a further piece of text, adding a different tone or color or thought to that stated originally. And then what happens—da capo means ‘from the top’—we go back to the beginning and have a full statement of the A section again which is colored in the light of the B section. It’s a repeat which the singer is encouraged to ornament, and the character, who has had their second thought, reconsiders their first thought. It’s a very formal device, and it’s the core musical structure of Handelian opera.

So do you have to suspend your disbelief to listen to a da capo aria? Coleridge’s phrase, “the willing suspension of disbelief,” was actually coined about fifty years after this opera was written. And yes, stylistically this form may seem quite alien to our 21st-century sensibility. But if you sit back and allow yourself to be consumed by the dramatic pace and the style, it may require a bit more work initially; but once one buys into the tempo, we have an exceedingly rich experience. Strong emotions, be they love or rage, are given full vent. You know, if we get angry, we tend to get angry for a few moments. Whereas here people are angry for six or seven minutes nonstop! It’s like an extended riff on the idea of anger. The music and action moves, like a game of chess, from step to step, and just as a chess player thinks about his move before he makes it, the audience is also given that breathing space to assess the situation.

And don’t forget the performance of the singer. This was one of the great eras for opera singers. In these operas we’re not meant to engage exclusively with the character. The skill of the performer is inextricably linked with our understanding and appreciation. And the ornamentation or improvisation was not written down. So it gives a singer today the same scope it gave Handel’s singers: to interpret the music or give it their own feel, to add that personal embellishment which helps the audience communicate with the singer and connect with the character.

Singers today understand how wonderfully Handel writes for the voice. He’s not writing mechanically, even though at first hearing the music may seem to follow strict structural rules. There is immense feeling in the writing for voice, great depth of emotion.

Speaking of singers, does this production feature a countertenor? Yes, another interesting feature of Semele is the role of Athamas, which is sung by a countertenor, a male alto. The taste for the castrato, the castrated male sopranos who dominated Handel’s earlier Italian opera phase, had died out, probably much to the relief of choir boys around Europe. So why did Handel choose to cast Athamas as an alto and not, say, as a tenor? I presume Handel wanted to reserve the emotion which the tenor voice compels for Jupiter. The slightly ethereal, perhaps even asexual voice of the countertenor seemed appropriate to this ineffective character, who fails to win Semele’s love. Then, when Jupiter comes in, with his tenor voice, the audience thinks: “Ah, yes, at last, that’s got the real emotion, I can see why Semele is drawn to him.” Rather than the pure and virtuous, if slightly dull, Athamas.

What else should we be listening for? There are several very famous arias. “Where’er you walk,” Jupiter’s Act Two aria to Semele, is one of Handel’s best-known tunes, and people are often pleasantly surprised to discover it comes from this opera.

Mark Padmore sings "Where'er you walk"

Semele’s “Myself I shall adore” is a beautiful highlight. I also love Juno’s “Hence, Iris, away,” the aria in Act Two in which she fires up her plot.

Marilyn Horne sings "Hence, Iris, away"

And by complete contrast, the aria for Somnus at the beginning of Act Three, “Leave me, loathsome light,” is this wonderfully slow, lethargic aria sung by the god of sleep. So it’s that variety which delights and surprises in this piece.

Tell us a little about our design team and all the creative technology they’re using in this new production. First of all, we have Gary Thor Wedow, a Handelian specialist, on the podium, so we’re in the finest possible hands there. Our director, Tomer Zvulun, is a child of Seattle Opera. He worked here as an Assistant Director over a few years. He’s now the General Director of Atlanta Opera, and we’re delighted to bring him back for this brand-new production. The scenic designer, Erhard Rom, is also a Seattle person; he cut his teeth on La bohème for us. Keep an eye on his use of projections—that’s an important part of his visual language. Our costume designer, making her Seattle Opera debut, is Vita Tzykun, and she’s come up with some fantastic and fantastical costumes, which have a rich palette of fabric, of color, and also of different looks. So I think we’re in for a real visual treat. Robert Wierzel is lighting the production. And it may surprise you to learn that choreography also plays a role. Donald Byrd, of Spectrum Dance, is taking charge of the dancers.

The beauty of doing a piece involving classical gods is: what on earth do they look like? To answer the question we have to go to the heart of what the myth is about and deliver accordingly. So we have what you might call a modern take on Greek mythology. The team has created sculptural costumes for the mortal scenes and given sensuality and flamboyance to the gods. Because in a sense that’s where the heart of the story lies, the love triangle spread across those two worlds. Semele aspires to a glamorous world beyond her mortal existence. So our costume designs for the gods are soft, sensual, flowing fabrics, whereas the characters of the mortal world are really quite stiff, they’re geometric. It’s no surprise that Semele wants to get out of the stiff mortal world into the sensual and flowing world of Jupiter.

The set features many different planes and uses projection. It’s not descriptive, the way the set for Tosca was highly descriptive of place. Here we’re in a more abstracted place, and the projection can change its tone and quality very deftly. This technology gives us the ability to really change the visual picture quickly and silently, without huge scene changes which would interrupt the action. It’s also very beautiful—I think when we saw the designs we were all taken with how beautiful it is. I think what the team have given us is something very fluid. Paired with Handel’s measured musical structure, we actually have a visual language which allows speed and transition and change. That way we don’t feel constrained by the five or six minutes we may spend on a single da capo aria, because the stage picture may well evolve over the course of the music.

You can also download and listen to Aidan Lang’s comments on Semele on our SoundCloud page.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Introducing Our New Production of Semele

On the first day of rehearsal for Semele, our director, Tomer Zvulun, addressed the cast, crew, and staff of Seattle Opera to give everyone an orientation regarding the work that’s already been done on this exciting new production and to set the stage for the work we have to do before opening night on February 21. Among the many interesting things we heard from the design team (Zvulun, costume designer Vita Tzykun, and set designer Erhard Rom):

Semele and Handel’s operas are very much like a series of poems. Unlike the more contemporary aesthetic of verismo operas such as Tosca, which attempt to put reality up onstage, Semele is extremely stylized. The music organizes the emotions of the various characters into these grand statements of passion, Handel’s bravura da capo arias, and the drama proceeds more like poetry, or beautiful paintings that come to life, than any kind of cinematic reality.

Set design for "Endless pleasure" by Erhard Rom

Our design is an attempt not to replicate tradition, nor to update, but to offer you the idea of a modern mythological world. What do the gods look like? It’s not enough to mimic what they might have looked like to artists in the past. Nor are we telling this story through a strict allegory, such as Jupiter = Brad Pitt or Semele = Anna Nicole. We want to create a world that feels recognizably modern to everyone in the audience, but one where this fantastical story could take place. This modern mythological world includes elements that are recognizable from our own world: the architecture and clothing will look familiar, but they are infused with expressive elements, bordering on the surreal, which make them poetic and ethereal. Young people conceal their love-lives from their parents, goddesses fly, dangerous concoctions can be obtained from a horny drug-lord, and love causes as much pain as pleasure.

Costume design for Iris by Vita Tzykun

It’s Handel’s irony that makes him such a modern artist. Although you tend to get one emotion at a time in Handel’s music, in the theater everything comes with an equal and opposite reaction. One character is singing about how angry she is, while the other character onstage, the one who’s listening, is clearly delighted. Love is equal parts innocence and guilt. These characters lie to themselves and others, and the audience knows it. It’s extremely sophisticated, and it’s startlingly modern.

Set design for "I must with speed amuse her" by Erhard Rom

To learn more about Semele and to hear some of this opera's wondrous music, check out our Spotlight Guide.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marcy Stonikas to Sing Final Performance of TOSCA Saturday 1/24

Marcy Stonikas will sing the title role at our final performance of Tosca this Saturday, January 24. Ausrine Stundyte, who sang on opening night and on Wednesday, January 14, has withdrawn from the production after not recovering from a cold. Stundyte was originally scheduled to share the role with Mary Elizabeth Williams, who sang her own scheduled performance on January 11 as well as the broadcast performance last Saturday, January 17, and last night's show, January 21. Williams will also sing tomorrow, Friday, January 23, as scheduled. Williams returns to Seattle Opera twice next year: as Abigaille in Nabucco and as Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart.

Stonikas gave Seattle Opera riveting mainstage performances of Turandot and Leonore in Fidelio in 2012 as well as Magda Sorel in The Consul in 2014. Prior to those performances Stonikas sang Tosca in an Opera Santa Barbara production directed by Josemaria Condemi, who also staged Seattle Opera's current production. She sings Fidelio in Vienna in March and Turandot in Cincinnati in July. The Chicago-born soprano is scheduled to return to Seattle as Ariadne in May’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, a role she will share with Christiane Libor.

Seattle Opera engages two casts for major roles, so that the company can present back-to-back performances such as this weekend’s Friday and Saturday. Leading roles, like Tosca and Ariadne, are so vocally demanding the singers need at least a day off between performances.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery for Ausrine Stundyte, whose riveting opening night performance received strong reviews. And many thanks to Mary Elizabeth Williams and Marcy Stonikas--both graduates of Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program--for their professionalism as well as their incredible voices.

Photo of Marcy Stonikas as Tosca at Opera Santa Barbara

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mary Elizabeth Williams Also Sings Tosca Tonight 1/21

Mary Elizabeth Williams will sing the role of Tosca at tonight's performance. Unfortunately, the cold which prevented Ausrine Stundyte from singing Saturday night's performance hasn't let up. Many thanks to Ms. Williams for again taking on the role at this evening's performance. Photo of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca by Elise Bakketun

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Greer Grimsley Shares Seattle Opera Memories

The other night we snuck into Greer Grimsley’s dressing room—after Tosca had given him her fatal kiss of death—and showed him a series of photos chronicling the many fine performances he’s given us at Seattle Opera. Greer shared memories of the wonderful colleagues who appear in these photos and spoke about some of the challenges of bringing great opera to the stage.

Photos: Gary Smith

Ha ha ha ha! This was my first show here! I remember it vividly; I was so excited to get to work here in Seattle. I loved this costume, which Marty [Pakledinaz] designed—and I remember the robotic swan, and Ben [Heppner, who sang Lohengrin], and Gordon [Hawkins] as the Herald, who was awesome. That prop sword weighed as much as a real broadsword. It always bothers me when people look awkward handling props, so I always had that sword, carrying it with one arm, so it would look natural. That was my first Wagner role, and it’s all thanks to Speight [Jenkins]. He started me down this road. I was supposed to share the role, but the other fellow got sick, so Speight asked if I could do all the performances. I ended up singing 5 Telramunds in 7 days, including opening night and a matinee the next day. I was tired, physically, after that, but I remember saying to myself: “Okay...I think I can do this repertoire.” It was a fateful moment for me.

Photo: Gary Smith

The next year, Speight had me come do Escamillo, that was fun. I love this little tango-move—that’s in the Toreador song, I’m pretending I’ve got the red cape, the muleta, and the bull is coming in very close.

Photo: Gary Smith

Here I am as Kurwenal, with Ben Heppner, on that amazing set for Francesca [Zambello]’s production, which was like being on board the Titanic. Ben and I had become great friends when we did Lohengrin, and here it really was a case of art mirroring life, because that was his first Tristan, and I was able to help him through the ordeal a bit as Kurwenal helps Tristan.

1998 FAUST
Photo: Gary Smith

Again it was Speight who said, “You need to sing Méphistophélès.” And I had such a great time! I don’t get to do this character often enough. There’s such humor in it. Bernard Uzan directed this production, and he gave me great insight into the character. It was really a gift, working with Bernard on this.

2001 TOSCA
Photo: Gary Smith

This is from the first time I did Tosca in Seattle, with Carol Vaness. What an honor! It was a thrill to do it with her.

Photo: Gary Smith

I sang Donner and Gunther the first time we did the ‘Green’ Ring in Seattle. I love this scene, from the end of Act 1 of Götterdämmerung, because it’s supposed to look like Siegfried has transformed into Gunther, and it never does. But [stage director] Stephen [Wadsworth] had the idea to let me mouth the words and have the tenor singing into a cut-out, he’s behind that wall. It worked brilliantly. One reviewer didn’t understand that it wasn’t me singing, and I got a review that in that scene my high notes were a little tight!

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

Parsifal, the first opera in McCaw Hall, was also a great production. I haven’t sung this role, Amfortas, too often—they don’t do Parsifal a lot—but it’s a great role. Bob Israel’s designs were fun, as you can see—here I am holding the holy grail.

Photo: Chris Bennion

In this one you can see I have this prosthetic wound that will never heal. That’s for the scene where, as Amfortas, I rip off my bandages and cry out, “Let me die!!!!”

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

I sang my first Jack Rance here in Seattle, too! I’ve done it 4 or 5 times since then. What American singer would complain about getting to wear a leather coat and a leather vest with a star on it and a sidearm! Every American boy wants to be a cowboy. Bernard directed this show, too.

Photo: Bill Mohn

Ewa Podles was wonderful as Erda. She was really a very nice lady, I really enjoyed working with her.

Photo: Bill Mohn

There’s Peter [Kazaras] as Loge, in 2005, the only time I did it with him. That was great fun. The very first thing I ever sang with Peter was Orpheus in the Underworld, in Santa Fe, a long time ago.

At this moment I’m keeping everybody from running after Freia, who’s just been kidnapped by the giants. You have to get the spear at just the right balance point in order for that to work. And the way the stage floor is this uneven mountainside, my balance is always a little bit off anyway, so it’s hard to get it right. Plus, that coat is really heavy!

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

There’s Tom [Harper] as Mime! We had a great rapport in that Riddle Game scene. He was a wonderful Mime.

Photo: Chris Bennion

And there’s Jane [Eaglen], we’re doing Wotan’s monologue. I never think of the monologue as a solo piece of music, I think of it as a duet. Brünnhilde plays such a big role in it. I love this picture of us together—she’s there with me, through my pain.

2008 TOSCA
Photo: Rozarii Lynch

Here I am as Scarpia, with Steven Cole as Spoletta. I’m wearing the same coat I have on now, which still fits quite nicely! Steven was an amazing Spoletta. He played him so concentrated; everything was exact.

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

This is the Tristan und Isolde that Peter [Kazaras] directed, with Cliff [Forbis]! I’ve done a lot of Tristans with Cliff. I love singing Kurwenal with him—he’s a great colleague, and he sings the snot out of it. And he also is very in it—he acts it so well, he makes it easier for me.

Photo: Elise Bakketun

Chris Alexander updated Fidelio, setting it in contemporary Europe somewhere. I’m getting ready to shoot Florestan here, but I’m stopped by Fidelio holding the gun to me. I’ve worked with Chris Alexander two or three times, I’ve loved it every time.

Photo: Alan Alabastro

Here’s a great moment: when I take the ring away from Richard [Paul Fink] as Alberich. I’m so focused on the ring, I don’t even notice that he’s there. Before the end of his aria, there’s one word he sings that shakes me out of the trance I’m in. just looking at this photo, I couldn’t tell you which year it was taken—we’ve been doing it together for ten years now!

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