Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Chat with DEAN WILLIAMSON

Photo by Bill MohnDean Williamson, our maestro for The Barber of Seville, is no stranger to the Seattle Opera stage or to any of the performers in this production. He took the time to tell us a little about one of his favorite operas, the instrument he'll be playing during the performances, and the singers in our terrific cast.

How many times have you conducted The Barber of Seville before, and for which opera companies? Did you already know all the singers in the Seattle cast, or are some of these people new to you?
It’s been the opera I’ve most frequently conducted so far...at least 21 performances, and after Seattle it will be 30. I've done it for companies such as the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Kentucky Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and Opera Cleveland. The first Barbiere I conducted was at the 7000 seat Filene Center in Wolf Trap, and was also Sarah Coburn and Nic Phan’s first essays in the roles. I also conducted Kate Lindsey and Patrick Carfizzi in their first Barbieres in St. Louis. Larry Brownlee and I have done Cenerentola (Seattle YAP) and Italiana (Boston Lyric Opera), so we are completing a Rossini comedy trifecta with this production.

Why do you like this opera? What would you say to a hardcore opera fan who claims to be “over” The Barber of Seville?
I don’t know how anyone can be “over” Barbiere. Like Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, it’s such a perfect marriage (pun intended) of comedy, theater, beautiful music, and expressive virtuosity of the voice. I never tire of conducting the two works...well, maybe my back and shoulders tire from doing Barbiere...but the time always seems to zip by once I start the overture. Mozart and Rossini have Beaumarchais to thank for creating wonderful characters that have become like old friends. If you are seeing the operas for the first time, you can instantly relate to the people onstage.

Of course, the opera connoisseur is going to look at Barbiere from a completely different angle, one of judging the quality of singing and orchestra playing.

Rossini makes evil demands on the voices and the orchestra. Remember the poor musicians in the pit are working just as hard and playing twice as many notes! It demands a lightness and sunny spirit, two things that are about as far from the mind as possible when sweating it out in the rapid fire 16th notes.

What’s the hardest thing about Barber, musically?
Within the speed and agility, one has to strive for a naturalness and ease from the pit and stage, with a light hand from the director, conductor, and cast. It’s not easy for the conductor, as it can be like herding kittens! Musically there are also issues of period practice vs. modern practice, what edition to use, how often does one ornament, how does one ornament, etc. I wish I could get into a time capsule and go back to the early/mid 19th century and hear for myself how the singers and orchestras performed this music.

Also, as in all bel canto music, the conductor must know when to accommodate the singer, encourage more rubato, or do the opposite keeping them strictly on the beat. It’s a musical conversation that has a lot of give and take. With great singers such as those in our casts, it feels like chamber music, especially since we have done the opera before and are intimately familiar with each other on a musical level.

Dean Williamson played the recitatives on a Kurzweil keyboard during the rehearsal process. Here, Assistant Director Jeff Buchman helps the cast learn semaphore movements for the mayhem of the Act One imbroglio Finale (Photo by Alan Alabastro)


Audiences who attend on Saturdays and Wednesdays will hear a soprano Rosina; Sunday and Friday audiences will hear a mezzo. Beyond the voices of the individual singers, how would you characterize the difference between the sounds of the two voice types?
The mezzo has a lower, warmer, deeper timbre, while the soprano has a shimmer and spin, especially from the middle to the upper stratosphere.

With Sarah and Kate it’s difficult to separate their personalities from their voices...each one brings a different element or pizzazz to the role. And each is stretching her voice in both directions, singing very high and very low. We do accommodate them in the famoua aria “Una voce poco fa” by doing it in different keys so it better fits their voices.

Other than that and the specific ornaments and cadenzas they choose to do, musically it’s not that different. I do slightly adjust the tempi...they each move faster or slower in different passages, and my job is to find the tempi that best allow their voices to bloom into the large space of McCaw.

At his performances, Lawrence Brownlee will be singing the pyrotechnically demanding aria “Cessa di piĆ¹ resistere.” How do you respond to the charge that this aria, which is traditionally cut, is dramatically superfluous?
If done well by a tenor who can sing it (Larry is one of probably 3 in the world nowadays who can) it rings true. For me, it occupies the same emotional position in the opera as it does when it appears (in the identical tune) sung by Angelina in Cenerentola. Both occur in the end of the operas in what I call the revelation scene. Cinderella appears at the ball as her true self and speaks to each of her family members, offering forgiveness for their cruelty. The Count appears after removing his cloak as the true Count and man in love with Rosina, announcing his true intentions. In both cases they sing a tremendously difficult and sparkling aria with many changes of mood and tempi. It also must be staged with a delicate hand, so as to not stop all action while the tenor or mezzo sings a fancy aria.

Dean Williamson at the fortepiano in rehearsal at McCaw Hall (Photo by Alan Alabastro)

You will accompany the recitatives from a fortepiano on your conductor’s podium. Tell us a little about the instrument you’ll be playing.
It’s a beautiful instrument in a cherry wood case lent to us by Professor George Bozarth from the University of Washington. He is one of the world’s leading Brahms scholars and is also an avid collector of early keyboard instruments. The fortepiano is an early version of the modern pianoforte, smaller, with a more transparent tone. The instrument we are using has a clavichord action, which is a simple lever popping a leather covered hammer into the string. A modern piano has an escapement action, much more complicated, which allows more force and faster repetition. The fortepiano has about 20% of the key resistance of a modern piano, which makes it more difficult to play. I have to pull my arm weight out of the keys and use primarily finger action, which is counterintuitive to the many years of piano training I received. And the keyboard is much smaller with reversed black/white coloration of the keys, so my brain and eyes are having to adjust at the same time.

The instrument is also straight-strung, meaning the strings go straight back like a harp. The bottom third has brass strings, lending a unique brassy timbre. The middle and top registers have their own coloration, as well, so you can do neat effects by utilizing different parts of the scale.

It’s the first time I’ve ever played a fortepiano and I’m looking forward to the experience. Apparently it was Rossini and Mozart’s favorite instrument for secco recitatives in their operas. Previously in Baroque opera they used a harpsichord, which is still in use in many Mozart opera productions. Fortepiani are very hard to come by nowadays. So Seattle Opera audiences in for a rare treat.

2 comments:

Alice Bloch said...

One of the best chats ever on this blog! Interesting and informative. Thanks.

Jonathan Dean said...

You're very welcome!