You’ve given Seattle Opera many of our finest comedies over the years. Does Daughter play to your sense of humor?
Interesting question; Don Pasquale, which we did with the Seattle Opera Young Artists in 2012, does a little bit more. It’s such a masterpiece. But I think Daughter of the Regiment is lots of fun. And what beautiful tunes!
What’s the difference between these two Donizetti comedies?
It’s my experience—and I’m just at the beginning of my work on this production, so I don’t know if this comment applies here—that Daughter tends to be a bit broader, a bit more slapstick. But there’s always pain at the core, with Donizetti. Which is wonderful. You know, Marie sings “Il faut partir” and Tonio sings “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” and you’ll find that kind of music in Donizetti’s other comedies as well.
Elise Bakketun, photo
This production is filled with former Young Artists. Can you comment on the success of these singers’ careers, and what it means to the company to have them return?
It’s great that we have everybody from Sarah Coburn and Larry Brownlee to Andrew Stenson, who’s singing the Silver Tonio. This is the reason to have a Young Artists Program. It’s not only so that we have young and attractive people who can be a public face for the company and do outreach concerts; it’s also about making the pool of singers in the world richer. And Larry and Sarah are certainly evidence of that. They both have stellar careers and have sung at all sorts of important places.
Elise Bakketun, photo
And I have no doubt that Andrew will go out and join their ranks. He is already doing beautiful work at the Met, and every second onstage for him is filled with the joy of singing.
He wasn’t a Young Artist here, but Alexander Hajek, who plays Sulpice, is also a talented young singer in this cast. Have you worked with him?
I was talking about this with Alex, and I think our paths crossed many years ago in Chautauqua. It’s a small world! You run into people again and again and again. It’s an important lesson for Young Artists, or students in a university. Down at UCLA I tell my students: “Somebody will call me at some point, and ask me to tell them the real story about you.” And that’s one thing if they’re asking, “Does this singer have the voice for this role?” and something else if the question is: “Is this person to be counted upon? Do they cause panic in the streets?” And you have to answer truthfully, or else your own reputation is jeopardized.
Elise Bakketun, photo
Whose idea was it to have you do this role of the Duchess?
Originally, Bernard Uzan was going to do it. He’s a fantastic actor. And I happened to be with Aren [Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera’s Artistic Administrator] and Speight [Jenkins, General Director] when Aren said, “Oh, my God, Bernard can’t do it, because he’s directing Carmen in Germany or whatever,” and I was like, “I’ll do it!” And Speight said, “Done!” It was the easiest sell I’ve ever made. The problem is, I know that Bernard would be unbelievable in this role. I was onstage with Bernard once, I was Eisenstein and he was Frosch, and I could not stop from laughing.
When was this?
It was In Dayton in 1988. It was pretty much the nadir of my professional existence, but meeting Bernard made it a lot of fun. I know he’d be unbelievable in this, so in my mind, I’m trying to catch up. It’s like trying to sing Britten after Peter Pears—I know exactly what he would do with it, and it would be definitive. So I'll just have to ignore my mental image of Bernard and just do my own thing. It's been great working with Emilio Sagi because he has come up with some pretty out there suggestions which add to the general mayhem. Plus, any moment with Joyce Castle is always an invitation to anarchy, whether onstage or off...
That’s right, the two of you have a long history together.
Of course it is a special treat to share the stage with my beloved Joyce Castle once again—we have appeared together in Seattle as Peter Quint and Mrs. Grose (she resplendent in green plaid), as Fricka and Loge, and as Herod and Herodias. But this time she is actually accompanying not only Marie (her "niece") but also me, and she's quite something. I'm looking forward to a judicious bit of improvising with her, in French of course! She is the definition of what it’s all about. I have also had the pleasure of directing her in our last version of The Marriage of Figaro. So this is real fun – I hope for us both!
Have you done a drag role before?
In high school. I was Ruth in Wonderful Town, the Roz Russell role, and I was quite something! I looked like an enraged Eleanor Roosevelt for most of it. [Remembering a line from the show:] “Yes, that’s my typewriter, the letter W is missing. It fell off after I wrote my thesis. On Walt Whitman!” Directed by Barbara Alden, mother of David and Christopher. That was the last time I was in a dress...I should say, ‘for pay.’ There was once a costume party...I came as Turandot, in my grandfather’s old silk robe. Not sure if that counts.
Not a real Chinese dress.
No, but it looked great. I did the wig!
With all the spikes and balls?
Oh, yes. There’s a photo someplace; a bit out of focus, perhaps, but that only adds to the allure. The party was in Stephen [Wadsworth]’s apartment, and everyone was supposed to come as an opera character of the opposite sex. But people were all, “I’m coming as Fidelio,” “I’m coming as Cherubino,” and I thought, “Ach! You people have no imagination.”
How do you make the shift, from being a director to being directed?
How do you make the shift from driving to being a passenger? You just say, “For this car ride, I will sit in this seat.” Now, if you’re like me, you also scream at your husband: “Slow down!” And some director-friends of mine might tell you that I was occasionally second-guessing them, asking: “Do you really want me to do that?” Of course, now I act as a producer occasionally at UCLA, and that is also really interesting – my job is to support the director's vision, but within financial (and other) limits! But everybody has a different role to play in a production. The director has one role, and as an actor you have a quite different role.
Elise Bakketun, photo
We understand you’re going to favor us with a little piece from Offenbach--the "Drunk" aria from La Périchole. How did that come about?
Speight was not sure about several suggestions I made, for what to sing, and this idea came from John DeMain [Artistic Director of Madison Opera]. I thought it sounded like fun, so I suggested it to Yves [Abel, conductor of Daughter of the Regiment], who said, “Great! No matter what you do you’re going to be funnier than some of the others I've worked with!"