Friday, April 20, 2012

Meet Our Singers: CARISSA CASTALDO, Kate Pinkerton

Singing Kate Pinkerton in our production of Madama Butterfly is Carissa Castaldo, who also appears in Act One with the chorus of geishas who accompany Cio-Cio-San’s entrance. Carissa, who spent several years with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, spoke to me about the differences between choral and solo singing, about the complicated emotions of Kate Pinkerton’s scene, and about the great costumes she gets to wear in this production.


Welcome! You’re making your mainstage soloist debut with this production. But it isn’t your first appearance with Seattle Opera.

No, that was last fall in Carmen, I was in the chorus.

Where were you before that?
I’d been singing with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. My debut there was War and Peace. The chorus in that opera is only on for certain blocks of time—I didn’t really get a sense of the whole opera, because when the chorus is on, it’s all about the chorus, but then we leave and it’s all about the soloists.

How many shows total did you do with the Met?
9 or 10. I was there for four seasons, not in the regular chorus but the extra chorus. And I loved it.

What do you love the most about singing in an opera chorus?
It gives you the opportunity to sing every genre, every language, every composer. When you’re a soloist, you’re sort of stuck with just what suits your voice.

Which was your favorite of the operas you did with the Met?
The one that sticks out the most was probably Peter Grimes.

Did you do that with Patricia Racette?
Yes, in 2007, she played Ellen Orford.

Ellen Orford (Patricia Racette) and Peter Grimes (Anthony Dean Griffey)
Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Of course! I saw the HD simulcast of that.
I actually loved that production—I know not everyone did. It was modern, very visual, a big black wall with lots of windows. I remember when I watched the HD, they’d be panning across the rows of chorus, and I’d think, “Ok, I’m gonna see me—” but then they’d cut. You could see half my face at one point!

Did you get to know Patricia at all?
No, it’s really a very different situation at the Met. There’s so much going on in that house, at once, that the chorus has a lot of rehearsal and staging without any of the soloists. Some of the singers may be singing someplace else, and often you don’t see the real conductor until the dress rehearsal. It all works, but...

It’s quite an adjustment, then, to come work at a stagione house like ours, where everybody is concentrating on one opera at a time.
Yes, and it’s nice to be able to have a closer relationship with the director and conductor. Only one time, in my years with the Met, did the conductor come in for a musical rehearsal with the chorus.

Carissa Castaldo (center) as part of the Seattle Opera Chorus in the October 2011 production of Carmen.
Photo by Elise Bakketun

What is the difference between singing as a member of the chorus and singing as a soloist?
It’s a huge difference. The opera chorus is a combined group of soloists who have to learn how to make a unified, blended sound. You sing in a different way, technically: you use more head voice. It’s all about not sticking out. When you’re the soloist, it’s “stick out as much as you can!” To get over the orchestra and the chorus and everyone who’s singing around you.

Besides more use of head voice, are there other technical differences, in choral singing?
This may not be the same for every singer in the chorus, but for me, technically, using more of a rounded sound. If you put more of your voice into the mask, the front of your face and nose, it gets more of a pointed direction, it can ‘ping’ really well out into the theater. In the chorus, that’s not so great.

So it’s more about placement.
Yes, if you focus the voice a little bit back. Not all the way back, so that you’re swallowing your sound, but a little bit, it gives it that nice rounded sound, that’s what you need to get that blend. It can change based on who you’re sitting next to...if the person next to you has a brighter voice, for example. You blend with the people you’re near.

When we did Orphée et Eurydice a month ago, it was funny, conductor Gary Thor Wedow had to twist their arms to get the chorus members NOT to blend. He would tell them, “You’re monsters in hell in this scene, make horrible, ghastly, hellish sounds!” And it took them a while to get it the way he wanted, they were so used to making this beautiful blended sound.
When I first moved here from New York, I knew I wanted to stay in the opera chorus, because that’s what I really loved doing. And I came to see the Lucia here, before I was hired, and I was totally taken aback and impressed by the sound of the chorus. The focus of this chorus is making a prominent, beautiful, round sound on the stage, and I have to say, I think it’s better than most choruses that I have heard.

Costume Design Coordinator Melanie Taylor Burgess and Costume Shop Manager Susan Davis look over Kate Pinkerton's costume.

Let’s talk about Kate Pinkerton. First, tell us about your costume.
It’s beautiful. Typical late 19th century American woman, with a corset, bustle, a parasol...she has a hat over the wig, which is light brown and blondish hair, curled up. You hardly see the hair under the hat, the hat is a little bit exaggerated, with a bow. But it’s understated, compared to some Kate Pinkertons; it’s not that she’s really going to ‘pop out’ on the stage. And I think that goes with the whole production, which is very simple and elegant. Her costume is obviously very different than the kimonos...

Do you have kimono-envy when you come onstage?
Not so much, because I have a kimono in Act One! I’m a geisha accompanying Cio-Cio-San in the wedding scene.

Tell us about that look.
There’s the geisha wig—waxed-out sides and top, the beautiful hairpins with jewels hanging from them, and then the kimonos are just gorgeous. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole opera, getting to wear one.

What is Kate thinking about when she’s onstage for that tense scene in Act Three?
Well, we’re still working through this. My original thoughts have changed a bit since we began staging. I think that she’s obviously a very strong woman. According to the book—

The novella by John Luther Long that inspired Belasco.
Yes. Pinkerton has been stationed again in Japan. That’s why they come back. So Kate goes with him because they’re moving there for a period of time. And she has no idea that he had this Japanese wife, let alone a child. So they just arrived yesterday and so today, this morning, in the scene I’m in, not only did she just find out that he had a wife, but a child, too? And we’re going to take this child from the woman and raise him on the American base. I’m assuming this is a big surprise to her. And any woman at the turn-of-the-century who could say, “Ok, I’m going to live up to my duty as a wife and accept that this happened...” She even says to Suzuki, “I’m going to raise him like he’s my own son.” I think that says a lot about the character. She’s very strong. Peter Kazaras, our stage director, wants her head always up, wants her to stand her ground. It’s almost a business deal for her at the beginning of the scene. And think of a woman at the turn-of-the-century going over to Japan. She had no idea what to expect—the houses, the way people look, everything about the culture is all brand-new. And here she is walking into this woman’s house to take her child from her. Which is my husband’s child as well.

I would think you’d be reeling from this discovery. Astonished.
Yes, there’s lots of time in the scene, she doesn’t necessarily sing a lot, there’s time when she’s off to the side and I hope I’m able to portray that she’s searching within herself to find strength. Realizing what has happened in the past, wondering what else he has been hiding from her. In my mind, Kate doesn’t have any children of her own yet. It’s almost hard for her to realize she’s now becoming a mother. That’s one of the reasons she starts trying to be more business-like, but when Butterfly comes out she gets very touched. She sings, “Povera piccina,” you poor thing, will you ever forgive me? When she sees Butterfly grieving, it’s not something that she thought of on her own—she’s only had a short time to process the situation herself—but to see a mother’s pain, giving up her child...not that she cracks and falls apart on the stage, but it hits home to Kate, when Butterfly says “You’re the luckiest woman in the world, and I hope that my unhappiness does not affect your future,” that’s when it really hits home to Kate Pinkerton that this is a real, feeling human who is making a huge sacrifice. And Kate is pretty much just doing her duty as a wife. I don’t think she has much of a choice of what to do in this situation. It’s not like today, where she could just tell Pinkerton, “I’m going back to America, see you later!”

Chorister Lucy Weber (left), Michael Todd Simpson (center, as Escamillo), and Carissa Castaldo (right) in Seattle Opera's 2011 production of Carmen.
Photo by Elise Bakketun

It must be hard to forget everything a modern person might think and feel and figure out what an American woman of a hundred years ago would be thinking. I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t something a bit condescending about “Povera piccina,” you know, oh, the poor little [foreign] person.
Well, Peter wants that to be heartfelt. It could come off that way, haughty, but he wants Kate to show a sentimental feeling when Butterfly turns to her and wishes her well with her life. He doesn’t want the stone-cold Kate Pinkerton, which you sometimes see. He has me say that directly to Butterfly, out of a recognition of the pain she must be going through.

Have you read Butterfly’s Child yet, this new novel that tells about how Kate and Frank take little Benji back to their farm in Illinois? Or have you worked out for yourself what happens to them next?
I think it’s probably a hard transition for everyone. I understood that they were stationed in Japan, so it’s not that they’re taking the child back to America immediately. Either way it’ll be tough, it isn’t Kate’s child, they’ll have a hard time getting acceptance in the community...I don’t know, I’m interested to read the book!


  1. awesome picture and Great blog, i really enjoyed to read this. and really great tips and advice. thanks for sharing this post.

  2. Thanks, Carissa and Jon for telling me a lot about the difference between singing in a chorus and as a soloist!!!

    Also about Kate's costume. In the production in Cologne, where the Butterfly is Ausrine Stundyte, Kate is dressed in the uniform of a US Navy officer, which she would have to have been in order to travel on a war-ship. In this Seattle production, I'll assume she wore her Navy-officer's uniform on the ship, but also took along civilian clothes, including the one she wears in Act III. I'm glad Carissa also gets to wear a geisha costume in Act I. I look forward to seeing her in both roles!!! Toi, toi, toi!!!!
    Win H.