Seattle Opera chorus member Dustin Kaspar met with me just before his costume fitting for Don Quichotte to talk opera—and movies. Kaspar works full time for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), screening films and educating the community, but when an opera is in rehearsal, he happily burns the candle at both ends.
When did you start with the Seattle Opera Chorus?
I started in 2003, with Parsifal, the first show in McCaw Hall.
What was your training before that?
I started singing when I was younger, really caught the bug in high school, and ended up going to college in music education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During my freshman year I sang the role of the First Armored Man in The Magic Flute. That was the first of nine operas I performed while in college. I moved out to Seattle after college and got a job as a high school music teacher and auditioned for the Seattle Opera Chorus because I thought, “I want to keep doing this.”
How far in advance does the chorus start rehearsals? Do you start when the leads arrive?
We usually start two to three weeks earlier than the leads. When they show up, they know their music ahead of time and just come for the staging portion. The choristers could go off and learn all of our music individually, but then it would end up sounding like 40 solo singers, as opposed to an ensemble. When we get together and rehearse, it’s to make sure everyone is singing the same vowels, the language is clear to the whole group from the beginning, and that we understand the expectations. It’s a juggling act. Like the leads or anybody who’s performing onstage, you’re singing, you’re moving, you’ve got costumes to deal with that are sometimes more challenging than others, and you’re also trying to keep with the orchestra.
What’s a typical rehearsal schedule?
For the most part chorus rehearsals are from seven to ten at night. It’s a job where you can have another full-time job. For the music rehearsal, we might meet two to three times a week, but as we get closer to the stagings, that number might jump. Two weeks out from the show, usually we’re rehearsing five or six nights a week.
Could you tell us about a memorable role?
When we started staging the Anvil Chorus in Il trovatore, Neil Jordan and I were chosen to hit the anvil. Since we only had one anvil with the two of us, we added a metal piece that would look like we were working on a sword. This metal piece, when struck, sounded higher. Neil played the anvil on the beat, and I struck the metal piece on the off- beats. It was tricky to look like we really were working as blacksmiths.
Let’s talk about your full-time job at SIFF.
It sounds fascinating. It is. It’s a lot of fun. I’m the educational programs coordinator and a film programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival. In addition to our big festival in May and June, we are a year-round organization with a year-round theater. We actually share a space in McCaw Hall with you, and in fall 2011, we’ll be opening the SIFF Film Center on the Seattle Center campus as well.
As the SIFF educational programs coordinator, what can you say about how the arts—whether it’s film or opera—can be used in the classroom?
Students today want to know why what they’re learning is important to them, and opera and film (as “total” art forms) have the opportunity to expand the academic curriculum with real world application. I can take a costume designer out to a history classroom to talk about how she researches to put things together. We might then create a costume design project in class, as an alternate means of assessment to writing a paper. A screenwriter in an English classroom is an opportunity to take a short story and adapt it as a screenplay and think about writing in two different ways. Then the students see an example of how they can use this knowledge in their regular daily life.
Do you screen a lot of the movies for the festival?
There are about 20 of us on the programming team at SIFF, and throughout the year I’d say we watch about 2,500 feature films to cut it down to the 240 that will play in the festival in May/June.
Some people would die to have that job, but when you really think about it...
Yes, most people would die to watch movies all day, but they aren’t always the best movies. When I was at the Toronto Film Festival, I think I averaged six movies a day, and while that’s a lot of fun (and the movies there were very good), there’s a stamina to it that you build up to be able to take it all in.
Photo of Dustin Kaspar, right, with Gabrielle Jacobson and choirster Jeff Jordan at a Family Day matinee, by Bill Mohn
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Don Quichotte in February 2011.