Friday, January 17, 2020

Praise for Eugene Onegin

Act III of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Philip Newton.

“Esteemed for its gorgeous score, potent emotion and compelling arias, the work receives a sumptuous, expertly performed Seattle Opera production.” —Crosscut

“The production looked spectacular. The scenic, lighting, and costume designers had everything on the stage looking as perfect as can be. The country setting to start the first act was immediately evident with the three dimensional trees, extended background, and building decorations.” —Eclectic Arts

Bird Lives: A letter from the librettist

Dear Charlie Parker,

Getting to know and writing a libretto about you was quite the challenge. One that I had to “conquer” before music could be scored to a story creating an opera about you. Indeed, I had to find you in that haystack of myth, truth, and folklore. The young man growing up in segregated Kansas City, MO in the twenties and thirties before making New York City your home and birthing the jazz revolution, bebop. Daniel Schnyder, the composer, wanted the story to show your dream of creating a large-scale orchestral composition. This was something we understood you wanted to do while you were alive.

But stories about you also ignited old stories told by my grandmother, recounting over and over how you were responsible for my uncle’s drug addiction and ultimate death. Marcus, my mother’s twin brother, was a jazz musician who idolized you so much he not only played the alto saxophone, he also copied your heroin use. Heroin was supposed to free your mind, allowing music to take you places that freed your inhibition. Fourteen years your junior, my uncle Marcus also shared a birthday with you, August 29. I hear the two of you hung out and jammed together when you came to Cleveland, OH. Marcus, only in his late teens then, like many musicians, thought your extraordinary musical skills were enhanced by heroin. But for my uncle, the music, the drugs, and his obsession with you ultimately led to prison and an early death. To my grandmother, you were the devil incarnate who made her life hell.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

An Interview with Composer Daniel Schnyder

Why write an opera about Charlie Parker and bebop?
Opera Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for tenor Lawrence Brownlee. I saw him in recital at Lincoln Center and the idea to write an opera about the life of Charlie Parker came to me. In the opera, the virtuosity of the vocals reflects on the intricate work of the saxophone virtuoso. Telling this story in an opera was a beautiful challenge and something new for me.

Tell us about the music—is it a jazz opera, classical, or a mixture? What exactly connects classical music and opera to Charlie Parker?
I wouldn’t say it’s a jazz opera. The music is written for a classical orchestra; there are no improvisations. But it definitely has many jazz elements. The score bridges the world of classical music and jazz. Charlie Parker dreamed of studying with the French composer Edgard Varèse and other greats. His favorite composer was Bartók. Parker often inserted quotes from classical pieces into his improvisations. However, he never had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece, although it was something he wanted to do.

American composer and conductor Gunther Schuller told me that he and Bird would hang out in Nica’s apartment; Parker wanted to take lessons with him to learn how to write down the music he was hearing in his head. Hence, this opera is a dream. After he passed away, Parker comes back as a ghost to write down the orchestral music he hears in his head. That is the beginning of the opera.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meet Our Maestro: ALEKSANDAR MARKOVIĆ Makes His US Debut

Seattle Opera is thrilled to present the US debut of the talented young conductor Aleksandar Marković (pronounced “MARK-o-vitch”). With Vienna his home base, Marković conducts all over western and eastern Europe; he’s also conducted in Japan, Korea, and Qatar. But working in Seattle is a dream come true for a lifelong Wagnerian who first dedicated his life to music while studying in the US as a teen.
Welcome, and congratulations on your first Eugene Onegin! What appeals to you about Pushkin’s story and Tchaikovsky’s music?
I’ve always wanted to conduct this opera. It’s a piece which is very close to my heart. I must have been in my teens when I first discovered Onegin, and I remember I couldn’t find peace for days—the story disturbed me so. I had watched a documentary about Pushkin, and went and found the poem and read it, in Serbian translation (I grew up in Belgrade). Then when I discovered Tchaikovsky’s opera it blew me away. The first entrance of the chorus, singing offstage...it gives me goosebumps even to think about it. And the eerieness of the duel scene, the profundity of the letter scene...that incredible central moment in the Letter Aria, with oboe and horn, when she wonders whether Onegin is an angel or a devil, is something you never forget.

I think Eugene Onegin is among the best pieces of musical theater ever created. So yes, conducting it has always been a goal of mine. I believe I understand how all the parts of this opera function; my job now is to put it all together and make the mechanism function, like a beautiful Swiss watch where everything connects and every element has an important function to fulfill.

What kind of opera is Eugene Onegin? American opera-goers who are accustomed to Italian opera might think, at the end of this one, “What?! Nobody dies!?”
It’s not as blood-and-guts as you sometimes get in, say, Italian opera. This work is subtle; it doesn’t go for the big effect. And yet, Tchaikovsky was smart enough to shape Pushkin’s story into effective drama. The scene of the challenge, for example. In Pushkin, Lensky writes a letter challenging Onegin to a duel. It’s behind-the-scenes. But Tchaikovsky knew that needed to be public; in his version the challenge is front-and-center, derailing the big party scene in Act 2.

That scene always reminds me of the party that goes so horribly awry in La traviata.
Yes; Tchaikovsky was by no means a Verdian, but he knew how to make use of the tools which worked for Verdi.

Tchaikovsky wrote this opera just after hearing the world premiere of Wagner’s Ring. You’re a big fan of Wagner; would you call Eugene Onegin a “Wagnerian” opera?
No, but here again you see Tchaikovsky’s genius! He is able to take an influence from something he hears without having to copy it. As in a Wagner opera, Onegin is full of subtle references which reach back and forth across the piece. How the winds play fragments of the tune of Lensky’s Act 1 aria, when Lensky and Onegin prepare to shoot each other...it suggests that what’s going through Lensky’s head is Olga.

Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Colin Ainsworth
Philip Newton, photo
I’m discovering things like that all the time. I just noticed the other day how Tatyana sings the theme of Gremin’s aria, in minor, when she rejects Onegin in the final scene.

Tchaikovsky adored Mozart. Do you hear Mozart in this opera?
Yes, he studied Mozart a lot, and you hear it in how he strives for transparency, for clear, delicate orchestration. Tchaikovsky was a great orchestrator. He knew how to use all the colors of the orchestra without stuffing the registers in a way that makes it all suffocate.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with the orchestra
Sunny Martini, photo
Speaking of clarity and delicacy...I notice you’re not using a baton!
Yes, I’ve always conducted with a baton, all my life. It was just last fall that I first tried going without it. I found the sound quite different, very warm, and the precision didn’t suffer. Nobody has said, “Maestro, we don’t see you,” or “We don’t understand.” I’m quite tall and I have long arms. So I realized there is not always a need for it. To use a baton just because of tradition makes no sense.

I saw you at one point making a fist...
Yes, you make a fist, you stretch your fingers out, you make a sweeping motion......you have more expressive potential. Nothing gets in the way. I’m not saying I won’t use a baton again later...it depends on the piece. With something that’s rhythmically precise, like Rossini, it’s very useful for the proper lightness and precision. But I feel very well doing Onegin without it.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Jay Rozendaal
Philip Newton, photo
You’re young, as conductors go, and we’re honored to be presenting your US debut. Tell us a little about your journey so far.
I studied piano when I was young, and came to the US to study piano for a summer festival, when I was a teenager. I wanted to learn English and experience a new environment. But it was in the US that I decided that classical music would be my vocation.

I wanted to get the best education possible as a conductor, so in my 20s I went to Vienna, where I studied in the famous class of Leopold Hager. We were at the Vienna Staatsoper almost daily...after classes all day long we’d go and stand through Meistersinger! It was intense, but it was great.

What surprises me about that is...in rehearsal, you’re so pleasant! Training in Vienna, you must have witnessed those old-school dictator-style Maestros...
Times have changed. Conducting used to be a profession where you constantly had to exercise authority. I believe authority has to be natural. Authority isn’t about being unpleasant to people; authority is something you radiate. If you come in front of people and you’re able to get their attention immediately, without having to reinforce it, that’s natural authority. Combine natural authority with great preparation, and a respectful attitude towards your collaborators, and you operate more efficiently. Let people know when they do a good job! Correct someone if they need a correction. But do it constructively. The moment you make somebody feel fear, or insecurity, you have gambled away their full potential. They may yet perform well, under tension; but they will never give you their heart. And I want them to give their hearts into what they do.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Michael Adams
Philip Newton, photo
And have your American collaborators met your expectations, so far?
Before coming here I knew this orchestra is great. I heard about Seattle Opera back in the ‘90s, when I was studying piano on the east coast; Seattle’s Wagner productions were very famous, people were talking about them all over the country. Because I was a Wagnerian, ardently in love with that music, Seattle was like a Mecca for me. I had a book I really liked about Wagner’s Ring, with a big photo of a Seattle production on the front. So coming here and standing in front of that wonderful orchestra is a dream come true.

I find this house to be one of the best organized, most professional, most efficient places I’ve worked. I’m not buttering you up, I’m giving honest feedback. The vibe is great; everybody is supportive, kind and respectful. There’s a great constructive energy. The singers are wonderful, they’re intelligent, they have beautiful voices, they have brilliant personalities, they’re well-prepared, they listen, they work, they learn something new every day. Every day I come to work and can feel the production growing.

I understand that European orchestras typically have more rehearsal time than in America.
Yes, here we have about half the time. But they’re extremely professional and well-prepared. They pay such careful attention—to me, to tempo changes, to the singers—that we’ve done the work with incredible speed. The chorus, too—they’re great singers, with beautiful voices, their energy is good, their acting is convincing, their diction is clear—in Russian, which probably none of them really speak!

This production has played all over North America. Would European audiences consider it too safe, too traditional?
I don’t think so. In Austria sometimes productions are traditional, sometimes more modern. The only thing I don’t like is when a production fights the music, or contradicts the composer’s intention. This production does the style justice, and yet it’s very well thought-through. It may look traditional; but it allows us to explore the characters in a very real way. The themes are universal, and absolutely contemporary.

In a way, this story is worse than one which ends with death. This ends with the mutilation of a spirit. Onegin arrives at the end at the very bottom, he realizes that he missed his one chance at happiness. Death at least would bring an end to things. But both Tatyana and Onegin, both young people, have to live the rest of their lives knowing the dream is gone and it’s never going to return.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal
Philip Newton, photo
Tchaikovsky was setting Pushkin’s story, which concerns a missed connnection between a man and a woman. But the composer himself didn’t have much experience of heterosexual love. Does it matter? Does his emotional experience color the music he wrote?
You hear a duality in Tchaikovsky’s music. There was an official Tchaikovsky and an unofficial Tchaikovsky. A public and a private individual. And the tension between these two lives is what makes his music so explosive, so sweeping, so incredibly expressive. You always have a feeling Tchaikovsky needs to tell you something, but cannot. In addition to his elegant side, all the dances, there is this tension, this frustration and anger which I think comes from not being able to be who he was, officially. He diverted much of that energy, that urge, into his music.

Seattle Opera’s Eugene Onegin plays January 11–25 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: seattleopera.org/onegin

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Seattle Opera Unveils 2020/21 Season

Photos: © Philip Newton; © Philip Newton; © Faye Fox; © Bree Anne Clowdus; © Philip Newton; © Philip Newton; © Elise Bakketun
Seattle Opera has just unveiled its 2020/21 season—a year that highlights opera’s rich past, and its bold, diverse future. Audiences will be treated to beloved classics Tosca and Don Giovanni, as well as a contemporary work Flight, inspired by the true story of stateless refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who was stranded for 18 years and forced to live in the Charles de Gaulle airport. The romantic comedy The Elixir of Love and the double-bill Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci will all be performed for the first time in decades.

Seattle Opera/TeenTix Internship

Seattle Opera is pleased to announce a new internship program in collaboration with TeenTix, set for Summer 2020. This six-week internship will take place July 6–August 14 (with some flexibility). The work schedule is approximately 20 hours a week.


TeenTix Internship at Seattle Opera

Are you a storyteller who wants to work in the arts or for a nonprofit someday? Are you passionate about making the arts a space where more young people and People of Color feel seen and represented? Or—are you an artist who wants to learn about how to market your work? The TeenTix Internship at Seattle Opera is the ideal opportunity for you!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Rejection Letter

“I have not yet said a tenth part of what I want to say,” Tchaikovsky once wrote his patron. “My heart is full. It thirsts to pour itself out in music.” Music was one way he expressed himself; he also wrote countless letters, and there’s even a wax cylinder recording of Tchaikovsky speaking. It’s fun, if pointless, to speculate about what communication channels Tchaikovsky would favor were he living among us now. Would he keep a blog? Would he tweet? Would he keep in touch with his brothers by video call, or would he text them incessantly? Perhaps he would still write letters.

Tatyana writes a long, passionate love letter in the privacy of her room. Photo: Eugene Onegin, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, 2017 © Cory Weaver.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Literature and Legacy of Alexander Pushkin

Located in central Moscow, this famous statue of Alexander Pushkin was dedicated in 1880 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The wild story of Alexander Pushkin’s life resembles characters from dramas written by the author himself. Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799 to a family with a long and complicated history in Russia. His father descended from an ancient aristocratic line who had fallen on hard times. On the other side, Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather was the nobleman and military leader Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Kidnapped as a child from present-day Cameroon, Gannibal was brought to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great, who ended up adopting him as a godson. When Peter’s daughter Elizabeth assumed power, Gannibal served as a member of her court. Pushkin celebrated his storied lineage, even as his African heritage at times alienated him from Russian society.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird: an operatic tale of a jazz legend

Joshua Stewart alternates in the title role of Charlie Parker along with tenor Frederick Ballentine. 

Black artistry and storytelling surround Seattle Opera’s next production: Charlie Parker's Yardbird, which plays Feb. 22–March 7, 2020 at McCaw Hall. Tickets start at $35

In the centennial year of legendary alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, one company is using opera to tell a story about jazz. Seattle Opera presents Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a work created by saxophonist and composer Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly, an award-winning poet and playwright.

“While I wanted the opera to be about Parker’s real life, I did not want it to be a typical biography,” Wimberly said. “I searched for those private stories that helped us understand him as son, husband, musician, and man. His mother Addie sings about the fear of her son being lynched, as well as her pride and love for the musician he has become. When he dies, she sings of the pain in her heart. Through her story, we understand Parker’s.”

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Who was Alexander Pushkin?


Pushkin, author of the original novel in verse Eugene Onegin, occupies a unique place in Russian literature. Russians don’t simply view him as their greatest poet; he is the symbol of Russian culture itself. 

A literary legacy 

Pushkin’s prose spans a remarkable range: from satires to epistolary tales, from light comedies to romantic adventures in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, from travel narratives to historical fiction. The haunting dream world of The Queen of Spades draws on his own experiences with high-stakes society gambling. The five short stories of The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin are deceptively light as they reveal astonishing human depths, and his short novel, The Captain’s Daughter, a love story set during the Cossack rebellion against Catherine the Great, has been called the most perfect book in Russian literature. Pushkin’s life and work have acquired mythic status. Deeply playful and experimental, the writer adopted a vast array of conflicting masks and personae. His writing is serious, then ironic—then ironic at his own irony—on moral and philosophical themes. A philosophical fox, Pushkin appreciated the limitations, as well as the virtues, of any set of ideas.