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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