Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Music from Ariadne auf Naxos

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

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Meet Our Singers: MARY FEMINEAR, Semele

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Feminear as Semele
Elise Bakketun, photo

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

Mary Feminear as Semele
Philip Newton, photo

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Meet Our Artists: ERHARD ROM, Scenic Designer

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

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

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

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

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

For Semele’s final scene you’re projecting an image of Bacchus, whose birth is celebrated at the end. Where did you find that particular Bacchus image?
I wanted to an instantly recognizable, iconic image of Bacchus, so I looked through many sources. Hundreds of well-known (and lesser-known!) artists have rendered the face of Bacchus and I settled on this one because it is simple and clear. We wanted the audience to understand immediately, and I think the grapes make his identity abundantly obvious.
Also, tell us about the lovely warm glow you and Robert have given us here: are there lights very close to those big translucent panels on the sloping wall?

Robert put lighting instruments into the side wall to get that amber glow. The final scene is almost entirely done with stage light and very little projection. The only projected image is Bacchus, up on the small screen. We wanted the warm glow for the final scene because it symbolizes the glow of the fire and it is also something which is never seen up until that point.
Elise Bakketun, photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meet Our Singers: AMANDA FORSYTHE, Iris

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

Amanda Forsythe sings Iris's aria from Semele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Forsythe as Iris
Elise Bakketun, photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 difference...you 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 Italian...how 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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