Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ALEX MANSOORI, Nika Magadoff

As the world-famous magician, Nika Magadoff, Alex Mansoori performs the one genuinely funny scene in The Consul. He also performs about ten magic tricks while singing his big aria, “My charming Mademoiselle.” (Photo of Mansoori rehearsing The Consul, left, by Alan Alabastro.) The American tenor, born and bred in Seattle, has been performing with our company for most of his life—he made his debut as a boy soprano in Seattle Opera’s childrens’ chorus in 1995! As a Young Artist in 08/09 and 09/10, he excelled at comedy, adding great humor to shows such as Così fan tutte, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariadne auf Naxos, and (as an unforgettable Mime) Siegfried and the Ring of Fire. The other day he told me a little about all the magic he performs as Nika Magadoff—and about a fantastic recent theater experience he had.

Alex Mansoori as Nika Magadoff hypnotizes all the others at the consulate

Alex, it’s been a while since we’ve seen you! How have you been keeping busy?
Well, I got married! Plus, I spent most of last year touring Europe, Russia, and Morocco with Peter Brook’s Une flûte enchantée.

Oh, my. Is that in the tradition of his Tragedy of Carmen?
Yes, it was Mozart’s Magic Flute, pared down to seven characters: Monostatos, Tamino and Pamina, Papageno and Papagena, and Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. There was also a Magician, sort of an MC, who ran the whole thing. We did it with piano, singing in German and with the dialogue in French and English. (I spoke in English.) And we performed anywhere there was a theater!

Did you play the Bouffes du Nord, in Paris...Peter Brook’s home theater since 1974?
Yes, we were based there for five weeks, last summer. As it turned out, I’ve done nothing but The Magic Flute for the last year and a half. Before the Peter Brook production I’d done a more traditional production, in Ravinia, and with Chicago Opera Theater in concert, and stuff. But this time I got to work with Peter.

Peter Brook and Alex Mansoori in rehearsal

He can’t be young...he became this legendary theater wunderkind in the ‘60s.
No, he’s in his late 80s, I think. But he’s fascinating. He wanted to focus on the human side of the story, on the characters. A lot of the jokey humor was cut. The costumes were all very simple: Tamino wore black silk pajamas, and as Monostatos I wore simple American Apparel clothes.

You weren’t a monster, anything like that.
No. And that was the first time I sang the original German text, which is so racist. To Brook, it meant that Monostatos’ soul is black. Some directors may say: “Oh, that’s the bad guy, and he’s bad.” But with Peter, it’s: “I want to find the humanity in every character. That’s what will make the whole thing interesting.”

What was the most unexpected experience on the tour?
We toured five cities in Morocco in May. It was very warm, and I was ill; by the end, I was eager to leave. But after the show, a young man approached, who really wanted to know how he could do what we were doing. “I have a group of friends; we want to tell stories, we want to do what you’re doing. How do you do it?” I told him: “If you have the desire to create, just do it! Don’t think about whether you’re doing it right or wrong.There are no mistakes .”

The young Alex Mansoori sang in Seattle Opera's childrens' chorus in Turandot, 1996, with singers such as Jane Eaglen (Turandot), Byron Ellis (Mandarin), and Archie Drake (Emperor Altoum)
Jeffree Luke, photo

When we began rehearsing The Consul, cast, crew, and staff shared their stories, or their families’ stories, of escaping persecution. What did you take away from that conversation?
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had to deal with it very much. On this recent tour, when I entered Morocco—my name is Persian, and they really wanted to know if I was from Egypt. The border guard kept on asking me about my last name.

Tell us about your character in this opera, Nika Magadoff.
Don’t you think he tells you enough about himself in the aria? He’s a world-famous magician! There’s a big showman to him, and you don’t always know whether he’s full of it.You don’t know whether he really is a good magician, or if he’s someone who WAS a good magician. He’s obviously pretty good at hypnotizing people.

Alex Mansoori (Nika Magadoff) and Deborah Nansteel (the Foreign Woman) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Ok, but it may not be all that hard to hypnotize people who’ve been walled up alive in this horrible consulate with no windows for the last twelve years, like most of the characters in your scene!
There’s something driving him to leave this country. He has to get out of there. Peter [Kazaras, the stage director] hasn’t been explicit about it; I’m guessing Nika has been persecuted, but it’s not something that’s stated officially. When we first see him, at the end of Act One, he’s just trying to get out like everybody else. Of all of them, he is the artist.

Before taking on this role, did you have any experience performing magic?
Well, I somehow managed to make my wife fall in love with me!

Samuel Schaefer is our magician-consultant on this show, he’s amazing, and I started working with him in September of last year; I was practicing these tricks in Paris last year, even as we toured Russia.

So you have performed for the Prince and the Princess Yusoupoff! How do you coordinate performing all these tricks, singing this big aria, and ‘working the room’ there at the consulate?
I looked at it like: “At this point, I do this. Then, at that point, I do that.” When I started out, I couldn’t do any of it. Now, the more we work on it, the more we go: “this trick works, and it works right here!” We started out with a dozen or more tricks, and we’ve whittled it down a bit. The point is not to do trick after trick, but to tell the story.

Sarah Larsen (the Secretary) and Alex Mansoori (Nika Magadoff) in The Consul
Elise Bakketun, photo

Why does your character hypnotize people?
That’s the only trick he really does well. I think he does it because he doesn’t know what else to do—he figures the more he tries to impress this Secretary, the more likely it is that she’ll give him a visa. But besides his business card, he never at any point presents a single bit of paperwork that might encourage her to let him out of the country. It’s all smoke and mirrors with him.

Alex Mansoori (Thisbe) in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 2009 Young Artists Program production

What other crazy things (aside from magic tricks) have you had to do while singing operas?
I’ve dressed as a woman, including wearing a female bathing suit; in Midsummer Night’s Dream here I sang an aria upside down, with my head drizzling into the orchestra pit; in Don Quichotte I was in a sword fight; and once, singing the Stage Manager in the opera of Our Town, I had to mime making sodas in a 1950s soda shop, because we had no props. It was hard! I remember a rehearsal where the director kept saying: “You didn’t close the lid on the ice cream.” “You put her scoop on the floor.”

Ah, yes...the illusion must be complete!

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