Friday, October 31, 2014

Meet our singers: ERIK ANSTINE, Leporello

Photo by Rebecca Fay
Though the leading man is eventually dragged to hell, some may have noticed that the legend of Don Juan lives on in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni. Enter Leporello as portrayed by Erik Anstine, bass. The Seattle Opera Young Artist graduate, who's been singing in Europe for the past several years, was recently applauded by Gavin Borchert of The Seattle Weekly, who found him to have the most “debonair” of the deep voices in Don Giovanni. We spoke with Anstine about what it’s like to revisit the character of Leporello for Seattle Opera, now on the mainstage rather than in a Young Artist Program (YAP) performance, not to mention singing with his best friend Evan Boyer, our Masetto.

What’s it been like singing in Zurich?
It’s now my third season. After Don Giovanni, I head straight back for The Magic Flute. It’s nice to be on the European side of things. It’s exciting and different. There’s so much more opera being produced, too. I’m able to get good experience, and I’ve made lots of friends.

What are the big differences between singing in the states versus Europe?
Generally speaking, houses in the German-speaking part of Europe are more open to unconventional productions. I have been involved in some fantastic, interesting performances, and also some rather strange ones. With so much opera being produced, there is a real sense of our art form being alive and an ongoing dialogue.

Erik Anstine (Leporello), right, and Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni). Elise Bakketun photo
You’re quite active on Twitter. Tell me about the opera community on social media.
The community is definitely growing. There is always a flurry of conversation when a production is canceled or when an exciting production is happening. We also use Twitter to cheer on our friends performing in other productions. Like other social media, it's a great way to stay in touch with friends I might not see for years, or donors, fans, etc.

Publicity shot for Seattle Opera's social media channels with the two best friend and basses!
Tell us about being college roommates with Evan Boyer (Masetto).
We had a great time! By our senior year, we were good friends. We lived above both a pizza place, Gigio's, as well as another apartment full of friends. I think there was a pretty wild Halloween party we jointly hosted, but I can't get into too many details. Evan and I had actually never been in a production together before this Don Giovanni, so it's great to finally share the stage with him.

The first act finale finds you dancing with Evan. Tell us a) about your expertise as a dancer and b) something embarrassing about your friend.  

Ha! I have absolutely no "expertise as a dancer." Leporello is making Masetto dance with him in the score, so that's what we do. We have a basic framework of the dance, but we improvise a lot of it. It keeps things exciting!

In terms of an embarrassing moment about Evan? I did plan his bachelor party down in Orlando, but again, can't get into any details. I'm sworn to secrecy.

Erik Anstine (center) with members of the cast of Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Has Seattle changed at all since your Young Artist Program days here?
The most obvious change for me is how much the South Lake Union area (where Seattle Opera’s rehearsal studios and administrative offices are) has exploded business-wise. There are way more new glass-and-steel buildings, and a lot more on the way. The traffic is the same, however. Maybe even a little worse.

What are some of your fond YAP memories? Did you make any mistakes that helped you grow or learn?

That was the beauty of the young artist program—it was a safe place to make mistakes. I also made lasting friendships. It was an amazing time of training, learning and developing my craft.

Anstine as Truffaldino (far left) in the 2010 Seattle Opera Young Artists Program production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Chris Bennion photo 
Anstine as Leporello in the 2011 Seattle Opera Young Artists Program production of Don Giovanni. Rozarii Lynch photo
How has your Leporello changed since you last performed the role in the YAP production two years ago?
This is the first role I’ve ever repeated. Everything about the role is much more comfortable. My understanding of the text and character, my feel for the music and style, it has all developed in the past few years. When I picked the score back up over the summer, all I needed was a bit of refreshing, and it came back quite quickly. The biggest changes for me come from working with a different director, conductor, and cast. Nicolas Cavallier, who plays Don Giovanni in my cast, has such an elegance onstage. It makes my job as a foil really easy. It also helps that the costume department has put me in boots that are like five pounds each, so I just clomp around onstage.

What makes this particular production special?

Again, I think it's the cast. We're all having a blast onstage! Nicolas and Elizabeth are fantastic to work with, and most of my scenes are with them. Once we were solid on the blocking and everything, we could just have fun with the piece, and I think that comes across to audience.

Erik Anstine (second from left) as Leporello, with Evan Boyer, Lawrence Brownlee and Cecelia Hall in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Is this story relevant to today at all?
Completely. The story is old; the archetypes are timeless—I think that speaks to the genius of Mozart and Da Ponte. All of the characters are conflicted and complex. If you leave the theater simply hating The Don, then our production may not have done the piece justice.

You have two more opportunities to see Don Giovanni. Tonight (Halloween) and tomorrow!


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Diabolically Fun Opera Trivia at Seattle University

Congratulations to Warren Moskowitz, opera trivia champ Tuesday night at Opera InQUIZitive, our FREE Adult Education and Trivia series hosted at Seattle University! This week’s theme was The Devil & Friends, and Warren proved that he knows much—maybe too much?—about diabolical operatic baddies such as Méphistophélès, Iago, Hagen, and Carmen.

Opera InQUIZitive offers an exploration of music and myth, with plenty of fun and games to boot! Jonathan Dean, author of Seattle Opera’s supertitles and Spotlight Guides, and Tony Kay, critic, trivia master, and NW champion film fanatic, will lead inquisitive minds through a series of mythic archetypes, ranging from beloved operas to pop culture, with nightly trivia games such as “What’s My Line,” “Wait, Wait...Don’t Tell Me” and “Jeopardy.”

At this week’s Opera InQUIZitive, we hunted down archetypes of the Devil, from the snake in the Garden of Eden and Satan in the book of Job, through such operas as Das Rheingold, Salome, and Porgy and Bess, plus such pop culture devils as a 1938 Donald Duck cartoon, the Charlie Daniels Band’s 1979 country/pop crossover hit tune “The Devil Rides a Fiddlestick,” and cinematic devils including Robert DeNiro (as Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart) and Tim Curry (as Darkness in Legend).

Join us at upcoming nights of Opera InQUIZitive:

November 18: The Tyrant – Scarpia and Worse
December 16: The Hero’s Quest
January 27, 2015: The Diva Goddess
February 24: God, King, and Father
March 24: The Clown – from Arlecchino to Zerbinetta
April 28: Donna Abandonnata– Ariadne and Her Sisters
May 26: The Musician

Presented in the Wyckoff Auditorium in the Bannan Center for Science & Engineering on the Seattle University campus, Thursday evenings from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Image: Still from Häxan, a 1922 silent Swedish documentary about witchcraft, re-released in 1968 with voice-over narration by William S. Burroughs.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Meet our singers: RANDALL BILLS, Don Ottavio

Originally from Fresno, California, tenor Randall Bills was noted by The Seattle Times as an “appealingly lyrical Don Ottavio” for his Seattle Opera debut in Don Giovanni. Like his fellow cast member, Mark Walters (Don Giovanni), Bills also wanted to become a music teacher before he realized he had the potential of being an opera artist. Today, he stands poised on the brink of an impressive international career. We talked with Randall about what it’s like to sing for European opera houses, his character in Don Giovanni, and his desire to inspire others.

You’re new to Seattle Opera, welcome!—What has been your impression of Seattle, the city, so far?
I love it here! Of course everyone is going to talk about the climate as a negative thing, but the weather is pretty close to that of Bremen, northwestern Germany, where I’ve had an apartment since 2010. So I’m used to the cloud and drizzle, but there have been plenty of nice sunny days during my stay here for Don Giovanni. Also the food here in Seattle is just top status!

As another bit of an introduction: Tell us an interesting fact about yourself, something people may not know about you.
Well, I actually once was on How I Met Your Mother. It was the 2005 Halloween episode called “The Slutty Pumpkin.” I’m in a fictitious a cappella group called The Shagarats—we provide entertainment at a rooftop party in that episode. At the time, I was studying in Los Angeles and there were lots of opportunities to do different types of music—caroling gigs, movie scores, TV events, etc. and I knew people who were putting together the group for that show.

You’ve spent several years singing in Germany and other European opera houses; out of those, what's your favorite place to sing so far?
As far as the opera house itself, I love the Teatro Rossini in Pesaro, Italy. Acoustically and visually, it’s just beautiful and the history in that building is amazing. As far as European cities to spend time in, I was recently in London for three months singing with English National Opera; while there, I got to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theatre! That was a check off an old bucket list. For food? I went with a friend to Barcelona for four days in June. The city was very fun, and there was also an incredible tapas place right around the corner from the apartment we had rented. It was so good, we were there four nights in a row.

Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Alexandra LoBianco (Donna Anna) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Tell us about your character—Don Ottavio.
Don Ottavio is placed in an interesting situation early on in the opera. Right at the opening scene (spoiler alert!), Donna Anna and Don Giovanni are seen clearly enjoying a tryst. This is a problem, not only because I'm friends with the fellow "nobleman" Giovanni, but I'm also engaged to Anna. Ottavio has this cavalier code of honor, which he believes in strongly, so he can’t imagine one of his brethren would make advances on his girlfriend, let alone kill the Commendatore. While it seems ever clearer that Giovanni has broken this code, Ottavio wants to be informed, to get all of the facts together before he makes his decision. A lot of people slam him for being a “weak” character; I don’t find that to be weakness; it’s absolute control.

So how does Ottavio respond when Anna tells him that Giovanni attacked her?
Most of Ottavio’s interjections in her recitative are very short. After Anna says, “That’s the person who killed my father,” Ottavio simply responds, “What did you say?” After that, his next thought is, “Is this even possible? What happened? Tell me the story.” He’s definitely holding out for Giovanni and for the honor of his order.

Randall Bills as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Is there any universal truth in these characters?
I really think there is; I know that audience members will be able to relate to the feelings of these characters and the dilemmas they face (though hopefully not the actual circumstances of events) The events are certainly a bit exaggerated—this is opera and entertainment, after all—and these amped up situations are there to serve the communication of these emotions to the audience. Its just that mundane situations just don’t work so well: they don’t make operas about your roommate who took the last bit of milk from the refrigerator—although there’s potential for a really awesome aria!

Which of Ottavio’s two arias do you find more challenging?
For me “Dalla sua pace” is the most challenging because it’s all about bel canto—beautiful singing—providing that line and always making a pristine sound. There’s no hiding anything in bel canto; every momentary laps of legato is obvious. And that line is a work in progress, you never get it down, there’s still something more to strive for, and that’s what makes the aria difficult.

From left: Evan Boyer (Masetto), Ashraf Sewailam (Leporello), Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
So, once upon a time you wanted to be a high school choir teacher?
Yes, I had a great high school choir teacher myself—Marc Ferguson—and just this last weekend I reconnected with him, he had since moved up here to Seattle. He inspired me so much, and he’s also the one who made me want to pursue music. I studied Music Education in college, but realized that, while I enjoyed teaching music, I didn’t want to do the classroom management aspects that a high school music program required.

I was lucky to have another great mentor, my voice teacher Craig Johnson, who I now realized sort of tricked me into going to USC for a master’s program for voice. I loved performance and further studying of the voice, but even with this degree in vocal performance, I initially resisted the thought of wanting to be an opera singer because I knew it was a difficult and I had always heard there was only a small chance of a career.

I went on to complete a young artist program in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and I was still cautious—I didn’t know what the future held. Even in my first two years of a fest contract in Germany, I had to figure out if I was right to live the singer lifestyle on a daily basis. It was certainly a long path of discovery from high school choir teacher to singing where I am today.

Alexandra LoBianco (Donna Anna), Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Elizabeth Caballero (Donna Elvira) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
What’s the difference between being a performer versus an educator?
I really believe that the goals are actually the same: it’s about inspiring! I think that performers like myself were drawn to classroom teaching as a way to inspire students, in much the same way that we were inspired by our mentors. But in the end, not every one of your students in high school choir will want to pursue music, and that can be difficult for some people. I have so much respect for music educators who are constantly investing in these individuals' lives.

As a performer, my goal is still to inspire. But the audience that I’m given now includes those students (we had several local schools in the dress rehearsal performances and it was such a wonderful energy), lovers of opera of all ages, and the upcoming generation of singers, directors, musicians, technical and creative types, administrators, etc. who will continue this art form on. The opera house itself is a classroom for those who will listen and learn, and I hope to be performing, teaching, and learning from it for a long time.

You have one more opportunity to hear Randall Bills sing Don Ottavio--this Friday (Halloween!). All remaining Don Giovanni performance dates include today, Oct. 29, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. 


Monday, October 27, 2014

Meet Our Singers: EVAN BOYER, Masetto

What do you do if you’re a kid whose deep voice always sticks out? For Evan Boyer, the answer was: become an opera singer. “No matter how quiet I tried to talk in class, I was always that kid who the teacher could hear,” Boyer says. As a teenager, he discovered his true talent accidentally at camp: some cute girls who liked his bass sound asked him to sing for them. He impressed his audience, and surprised himself with what turned out to be a defining moment. It led him to pursue choir in high school, and later, he studied voice in college. Now, Boyer is a recent graduate of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s professional training program. He makes his Seattle Opera debut as Masetto in Don Giovanni, and has been called “excellent” by The Seattle Times.

Welcome to Seattle Opera! You’re making your debut with us.
Don Giovanni was actually the first opera I ever saw as a senior in high school. It was the Kentucky Opera in Louisville. [He says the name with a Southern accent: "Lou-ville."] I guess here in Seattle you’d say “Louie-ville” [laughs].

Based on some of the names Masetto calls his wife, as well as his quick temper, it might be easy to assume that he’s a bad guy. However, he’s more complex than that, isn’t he?

Masetto has a temper, and tends to see things in black and white--there's very little gray area for him. But he’s a really honest, good guy; he's just trapped in an impossibly difficult situation. He thinks his wife is abandoning him for someone else on his wedding day; in an instant, the happiest day of his life has become a nightmare. Masetto is of a lower class. There’s nothing he can do when this nobleman starts coming on to Zerlina. She’s definitely not resisting as much as she should be. Naturally, he’s pissed off.

In the center: Cecelia Hall as Zerlina, the bride, and Evan Boyer as Masetto, her groom, with the cast of Seattle Opera's Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
There are different ways to play Masetto: the big, burly moron who just runs around breaking things, or perhaps, as a buffo character. I don't see him as either. He's not the smartest guy you'll ever meet, and he's certainly coarse at times, but his situation is incredibly serious, so while he occasionally makes stupid decisions (like handing over his weapons to a disguised Giovanni in Act II), I think to play him as anything other than a normal guy trapped in a bizarre circumstance wouldn't be right.

Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) and Evan Boyer (Masetto) with members of the Seattle Opera Chorus in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Once upon a time, you and Erik Anstine (Leporello in Don Giovanni) were college roommates. Tell us about that.
Yes, we’ve been best friends for many years now. Day one of undergrad, we nerded out over bass-related opera stuff, and have been friends since.

It must be fun performing with him here at Seattle Opera.
Yes! And actually, I’ve also known Cecelia [Hall] (Zerlina in Don Giovanni) for almost as long as I've known Erik, so it’s been great to spend time with these two old friends. Even though we’ve known each other for so long, we’ve never actually been in a show together. It’s been a lot of fun finally getting to take the stage with them.

Best friends and basses, Evan Boyer as Masetto (far left) and Erik Anstine as Leporello (second from left) with Cecelia Hall as Zerlina and Lawrence Brownlee as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo 

What else have you enjoyed about being in Don Giovanni?
My part doesn’t rotate, and I have really enjoyed performing with both casts. It’s been interesting to see what each singer brings to the role, and how that shapes the performance as a whole. While the story always follows the same journey, each cast has a different way of getting us there. It keeps the production fresh and spontaneous.

Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) and Evan Boyer (Masetto) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
As a millennial who fell into classical music, you have a unique perspective. What’s the best way to get young people interested in our art form?
Growing up in Louisville in a non-musical family, I had minimal exposure to classical music. I think one of the easiest ways to get young people interested is to just give them opportunities to see it. Exposure is key. Once they attend an opera, they'll see that it is an enthralling art form, even if, like me, hip-hop music is their first love.

Evan Boyer (Masetto), right, and members of the Don Giovanni cast. Elise Bakketun photo

You still have three more opportunities to see Don Giovanni (Oct. 29, 31 and Nov. 1)! For tickets and more information, go to  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Join us for TALK-BACKS after the show!

Three great reasons to stay at McCaw Hall after your performance of Don Giovanni:

1. Share your thoughts and feelings! After each performance we’re hosting a lively conversation in the Allen Room (on the Mercer St. side of McCaw Hall) to discuss this most intriguing of operas and that evening’s performance.

2. Meet the people who make it happen! General Director Aidan Lang will be at each Talk-Back, eager to hear from you what you loved (and what you didn’t love so much). And he’ll have a special guest from the production each night. For remaining performances of Don Giovanni, the guests will be:

Wednesday, Oct. 22 / Erik Anstine, Leporello
Saturday, Oct. 25 / Gary Thor Wedow, conductor
Wednesday, Oct. 29 / Cecelia Hall, Zerlina
Friday, Oct. 31 / Alexandra LoBianco, Donna Anna
Saturday, Nov. 1 / Gary Wedow, conductor

3. Avoid the traffic! Who enjoys waiting in their car while the Mercer St. parking lot empties very slowly? Stay with us a few minutes longer—that will give the traffic a chance to clear, and you’ll go home stimulated instead of aggravated.

Meet Our Singers: ERIN WALL, Donna Anna

Vancouver native Erin Wall makes her Seattle Opera debut this fall as Donna Anna, the unhappy daughter of Don Giovanni’s stone guest. Vancouver opera-lovers saw her recently in this same role, but in a very different production from Seattle’s. The other day Wall told us a little about going to college in Washington, singing Donna Anna, and the perils of long-distance running in Seattle.

Erin Wall sings a passage from Donna Anna's Act Two aria, "Non mi dir"

Welcome to Seattle Opera! We’re excited about your debut. Tell us a little about your background.
Yes, I’m Canadian - I grew up in Vancouver, BC. I did my undergraduate degree at Western, in Bellingham. I wanted to be away from home, but still close enough to drive home on weekends. After that, I went to Rice University in Houston for two years of graduate school, and then I moved to Chicago, where I joined the Young Artists Program at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I lived in Chicago until I married my husband.

And where do you live now?

So you’re back to being Canadian! And let me ask you a question, as a family person—you have a husband, and children—the thing about Don Giovanni, to any of the characters in this opera have what it would take to be a decent wife, husband, mother, father, etc.?
Probably Ottavio does. He’s the only who seems to really want that.

That’s right. He’s very pushy with Anna about getting married.
Right?! He’s all, “Can we get married now? Your father’s dead body is still warm...but let’s go get married.”

Seems to me most of these characters have the maturity of teenagers. Leporello has a line in a recitative somewhere referring to his wife...but it’s hard think of him as being married.
Right! Like, where is she?! And what does she think about the fact that he’s never home, and that he’s constantly running around as Don Giovanni’s wing-man?

In terms of Anna, there are so many different ways to interpret her. The two basic frameworks you get are a) that everything that comes out of her mouth is true, that Don Giovanni did try to rape her, that she wasn’t into it, and that she just needs time to grieve for her father before she can get married with Don Ottavio. There’s a custom that you don’t get married while you’re in mourning, for a year. That’s why she says what she does, at the end. That’s the traditional approach to Donna Anna, and I think it makes sense. But then you also can have the Donna Anna who is lying about what happened with Giovanni, and maybe that lady is not ready to get with Ottavio.

Lawrence Brownlee as Don Ottavio and Erin Wall as Donna Anna
Elise Bakketun, photo

Tell us about the Don Giovanni you recently did in Vancouver.
Traditional, eighteenth-century. Lots of projections, in the production. Kelly Robinson was the director, and he believed what Anna says is the truth, and I had a nice, strong Ottavio, too. It worked fine.

Is the interpretation of the character slightly different in Seattle, then?
Yes , [Stage Director] Chris [Alexander]’s interpretation is that it’s not all so straightforward. You’ll see right from the beginning—this won’t be the same interpretation we did in Vancouver.

Photo by Tara McMullen, styled by Liz Anne Fumiko Parker, hair and makeup by Ivy Lam, dress by Rosemarie Umetsu

On your website we found a photo that shows you as a runner as well as a singer.
Oh, my publicity photo! Yes, most of those photographs come out being quite dull, you know, sitting there like this: [strikes a pose]. So we went outside with the photographer; I like to run, I’ve run in lots of races, and I had piles of running shoes and diva shoes, and we put a running bib over my gown. She wanted to show two sides of my personality.

Are you a sprinter?
No, I am a very slow runner. My favorite distances are the 10K and half-marathon. I haven’t done a full marathon yet. I’ve trained for two, but both times I became pregnant, and my doctors were strongly against marathon running while pregnant! But one of these days I will do one. I just did a half-marathon in Chicago, before coming here.

Are you going to run while you’re in Seattle?
Yes. In fact, I did a half-marathon here, in 2011, ending in disaster. It’s hilly here! It was very cold and wet, and I got hypothermia—I underdressed for the conditions and lived to regret it.

Erin Wall as Donna Anna
Elise Bakketun, photo

Tell us about your character’s journey over the course of the show.
Most of Donna Anna’s journey is Act One. It’s very exciting, from when you come onstage, then her father being killed, then finding out who did that. But from that point onward it’s less dynamic; you get this ambiguous situation at the end, where, Yay! Don Giovanni is dead, but she's still not ready to move on with her life and marry Ottavio.

And do you sing Donna Elvira?
No, I don’t think I can! I’ve tried in the practice room, fooled around with it, but it sits a little too low for me. And as for Zerlina, no, they would never cast anyone with my voice type. There must be some soprano who has sung all three.

If you were in the audience, as opposed to onstage, watching Don Giovanni, with which of the characters would you say: “Oh, that’s me.” Who would you identify with?
None of them. Maybe Leporello. Running around cleaning up other people’s messes—that’s what I do anyway, as a mother!

I love that! Leporello as Don Giovanni’s mother! Even keeping the scrapbook!
That’s right, he likes keeping track of things, statistics—I’m into that—now that’s going to go into print, and I’m going to be embarrassed!

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO, Donna Anna

Making her debut with Seattle Opera this fall is American soprano Alexandra LoBianco, who is also making her role debut as Donna Anna—and her first professional Mozart appearance. (Photos of Alexandra LoBianco as Donna Anna and Randall Bills as Don Ottavio by Elise Bakketun.) It’s an exciting time for this up-and-coming young soprano, and she told us a little about this intriguing character of Donna Anna, her career so far, and some recent adventures.

Alexandra LoBianco sings a passage from Anna's aria, "Or sai chi l'onore"

You’re new on our mainstage! Tell us about yourself.
I’m from St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m the only musician in my family. I started as a professional clarinetist. But I had also been singing all my life, and finally my high school choral teacher Todd Donovan (who is now a colleague) said, “You know, you have a great voice. Have you thought about opera?”

Was there much opera in your part of Florida?
Yes, there’s Opera Tampa, St. Petersburg Opera, Sarasota...there was a lot of opera, but we tended to go to the symphony or to the theater. My parents would go to opera when we traveled. When I was in middle school, my parents took me to the Met for Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci, and I fell in love with opera. They were very kind, they had gotten front row tickets so I could look into the pit, because I thought I was going to be a clarinetist and I wanted to watch what the conductor and orchestra were doing. But there came this moment in Pagliacci, it was when Nedda lay down on her back to sing her aria, and I thought: “How in the world...?!”

And the stage stole your attention away from the pit!
[Chuckles] That’s it exactly! And then, in high school, theater became my way of being myself. I was the fat kid, the outsider, so theater became my outlet; telling stories. That’s where I found my voice. And then came my first opera job, in the chorus at Opera Carolina, and as I was sitting in the house watching the principals work I found myself muttering, “I have to do this!” ‘Cause I tried to quit singing multiple times. I was going to go into music therapy, I was going to go to culinary school...but at Opera Carolina I fell in love with the visceral connection that has to happen with the sound an opera singer makes. Yes, I knew I could make that sound; but I didn’t understand the power of that sound until then. So I was a bit of a late bloomer. I didn’t do any of the Young Artists Programs, don’t have a Master’s in voice. I studied privately, with the same teacher, for 10 years, and only really started my career six years ago.

Now, this is your Seattle Opera mainstage debut! But this is not your first time with Seattle Opera.
I came to Seattle Opera in 2013 and covered Maria Gavrilova as Suor Angelica. It was a phenomenal experience, and to work with Gary Thor Wedow...! They were kind enough, in scheduling, to let me go onstage to sing the final dress rehearsal, and that was just an out-of-this-world experience. I remember finishing and—there’s something extraordinarily humbling about walking out onstage for a bow. When the whole place goes nuts...I started crying, because it was so overwhelming. You get hit by that sound, that wave of energy, and—whoa! It was phenomenal. Also to work with Gary, before coming back to do Don Giovanni. Honestly, I’ve been terrified. Donna Anna is my first Mozart.

Really?! Into the deep end, you go, girl!
Yes: how do I do this?

So what do you normally sing? I see you’ve recently sung Menotti.
The Consul in Santa Barbara, right. We used the same set you had in Seattle, so I came up here to sit in on a few of the rehearsals, to get a sense of the whole show. It was great to watch Carlo [Montanaro, Seattle’s The Consul conductor] and meet Marcy [Stonikas, who sang Magda Sorel in Seattle] and the cast.

What was it like to sing Magda Sorel? There’s another huge, wildly emotional roller-coaster ride...
That was one of the hardest roles I’ve ever done. You’re onstage the entire time. We played Magda slightly differently than Marcy and Vira [Slywotzky] did in Seattle; we really made her into another freedom-fighter, a little stronger, more intense, in your face.

So, speaking of intense, in-your-face women, let’s talk about Donna Anna! Her big Act One aria, “Or sai,” calls for an almost heroic, laser-soprano sound. Are you going to sing Wagner?
I do. And it’s fun!

What do you sing?
Brünnhilde. Just a little Brünnhilde here and there! [laughs] No, we’ve been doing the reduced version of the Ring, by Jonathan Dove, which is perfect for me right now. My first one was Sieglinde, in a fully staged Die Walküre with piano when I was 26 years old. That was my first soprano role, in fact.

Gee, when you’re not in a Young Artists Program, you’re allowed to do all sorts of crazy things!
Well, my teacher said, “Of course you can do it, it’s with piano, you’ll be fine!” But to answer your question about “Or sai,” yes, I think it’s much like Elektra. Vengeance, power. I was just singing Brünnhilde in Siegfried before I came here, and this is much more fierce.

Tell us what “Or sai” is about.
This is her big realization—not only is the man who killed my father someone I know—but it’s my fault that it happened. I made that choice. The pain, the realization that all her choices in her life caused this. I think it turns at this moment into post-traumatic stress disorder.

So even though you’re singing this aria to your fiancé, Don Ottavio, it’s not really about him; it’s about you.
He’s there, because I want him to take vengeance for me. I don’t think I can do it myself, really.

You give him that job, in the aria; but the emotion of the aria is about herself and her father. Poor Ottavio is just caught in the cross-fire.
I think Anna and Ottavio have been connected for a long time. There are political reasons for the marriage; there is friendship. There is love, but I think it’s not a passionate love. We’re taking it to the point where, she cannot touch another man because of what she’s done.

And in the recit before “Or sai,” when you’re telling Ottavio how Giovanni crept into your bedroom and tried to rape you, you say, “At first I thought it was you.”
Yes, that’s a bold-faced lie. She knew it wasn’t him. At least in my opinion.

Has she ever touched Ottavio, do you think?

Anna’s second aria, “Non mi dir,” comes from a much more fragile person.
She’s spiraling into madness. She’s going into the angst, the “What do I do, how do I continue?” Maybe, maybe one day we might be able to make it work. As she sings the aria she’s wondering: “Am I ever going to be ok again? Or am I just making things up, to make him feel better, and to make me feel better?” That’s why there’s all that coloratura at the end. For me, that’s all this struggle between hope, which is the higher notes, and despair, when it all comes cascading down.

Randall Bills (Ottavio) tries to comfort Anna (Alexandra LoBianco), who has fainted upon finding the corpse of her father (Jordan Bisch)

And how is that coloratura for you? Sometimes you people with big, Wagner-sized voices don’t have to worry too much about coloratura...
I like coloratura, I enjoy it. It keeps my voice moving, it keeps it flexible. I’ve covered Norma, I enjoy singing Bach. But spending the time I did, learning to sing with my wonderful mentor, Carol Kirkpatrick...she insisted I learn how to sing coloratura, and it’s always in my voice, there’s always something I’m working on, to try to achieve clear coloratura. It never feels clear on the inside! It always feels like mush, even if it sounds right on the outside.

Which is trickier to sing, “Or sai” or “Non mi dir”?
“Or sai,” because of how it stacks. It steps up and up and up, and there’s no time to breathe. I worked it backwards; figured out how to do the ending, and then backed up and eventually learned how to do the recit.

Yes, that recit, where she tells the story of the attempted rape—that is fierce.
Yes, and you have no time at all between the end of the recit and the beginning of the aria. Whereas, with “Non mi dir” you have time to breathe here and there. And she uses that time to think. Whereas, in “Or sai” there is no time to think. She’s just exploding: “This must happen now!”

Why should people come to see Don Giovanni this fall?
You know, it’s awful to say, but I have not been that big a fan of Mozart’s operas up to now. I love Mozart; love his Clarinet Concerto, symphonies, etc.—the way Chris Alexander is staging this, it’s so beautiful, and it’s such great storytelling. You have really vibrant, three-dimensional characters onstage, real people. Everyone can identify with somebody in this story, at some stage. You’ll be able to find yourself in here. That’s what’s important to me, as an opera singer--to be able to bring the audience into the story. And it will happen here.

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ASHRAF SEWAILAM, Leporello

Ashraf Sewailam sings Leporello at tonight’s rehearsal of Don Giovanni. Hailing from Cairo, Egypt, this versatile bass has been singing with Seattle Opera since 2007, in roles such as Colline in La bohème, Pistola in Falstaff, and the Mandarin in Turandot. But he sings all over the world, and has much to say about Don Giovanni and opera in Egypt and the Middle East—and places even further afield.

Ashraf Sewailam and colleagues sing a passage from the Don Giovanni sextet

You’ve worked at New Zealand Opera, the former home of our new General Director, Aidan Lang.
Yes, when I heard that Aidan had been hired to run Seattle Opera, I was thrilled. I was impressed that you found him! He’s really an awesome guy. New Zealand Opera is a wonderful company; it’s welcoming, generous and friendly. Aidan really raised the stakes there, he established a wonderful Young Artists program, and he brought in singers from all over the world. Working there was a great experience. We did the best updated Rigoletto I’ve ever seen. I’m heading back there soon to do Alidoro in La Cenerentola, a co-production with Brisbane, in Australia. And I’m so looking forward to the trip. You can’t have a bad cup of coffee in Wellington! I thought Seattle was the be-all and end-all of coffee until I went to New Zealand.

Now, one of the things Aidan is known for is expanding the scope of New Zealand Opera so that the company performs in multiple cities.
Yes, we did nine performances, first in Wellington, then in Aukland. You know, the Kiwis tend to be a little down on themselves, and I think it’s totally unwarranted. It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen, with wonderful art and artists. Yet they feel they’re in the boonies; there’s a feeling that all the young ‘uns have to go to Europe, to “the real world,” to get experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to travel, to go abroad; but it’s not good to go because you feel that you’re not good enough. You are.

Ashraf Sewailam as the Mandarin in Seattle Opera's Turandot, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

Speaking of moving from country to country, we see a lot of bad behavior in the opera Don Giovanni. Do you think this is universal, or is Don Giovanni about a specific culture?
Pondering the dramaturgy of Don know, Spain was occupied by the Arabs for 700 years. So this whole idea that honor resides between the thighs of the female—that’s where it came from. In the Middle East, people can be very Puritanical. And yet they’re obsessed with sex. That’s the duality of Don Giovanni.

Interesting. Technically this takes place in Seville, but you’re saying it could take place in North Africa....
...or in Cairo, my hometown! [chuckles] I would dare place it in Saudi Arabia, or someplace like Emirates, where it’s more open on the surface—more affluent, modern architecture, diverse nationalities, and...a lot goes on. And yet every now and then you hear, “A couple were arrested for kissing on the beach.” But if you check Google statistics, it’s one of the countries where people look for sex the most.

So you find the behavior in Don Giovanni universal, at least in terms of geography. What about in terms of time? Do you find there’s anything dated about this opera?
No, it’s not at all dated. The tug-of-war between Puritanism and libertinism is an ebb and flow, then as now. Compare America of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the sexual revolution and freedom, with the Calvinism which followed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This opera will never go out of fashion, because that fight will never end.

Ashraf Sewailam (Pistola) and Steven Goldstein (Bardolfo) in Falstaff, 2010
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Tell us about doing Julius Cesar in Egypt at the Egyptian Philharmonic. Do you get to sing in Egypt very often?
Yes, I try to sing at home as much as possible. I feel it’s my duty to contribute what I can. Some friends and I have a nonprofit which offers voice lessons to Egyptian students, and we’ve taken shows on tour, in Egyptian translation. Bassem Youssef, known as ‘the Jon Stewart of Egypt,’ featured videos of our performances, which then went viral. But in terms of Caesar, yes, they hired me a couple of years ago for that opera, so I thought, Oh, I’ll play the bass role, you know, Achilla. But due to budget cuts, the opera house had to scale back the production, and they called me to discuss which arias would be cut—and we went in circles until I realized they were expecting me to sing Caesar!’s a mezzo role! Or a countertenor. And you’re a bass.
Well, yes, but in the Middle East they’re not going to listen to a countertenor, sorry. It’s a cultural thing. So I found a recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and learned to sing Caesar as a bass!

Right, and Norman Treigle did it in the U.S. But really, if there’s a cultural objection to the way Handel wrote his music, why do it at all? Why not hire a composer and write a new opera?
Funny you should ask, because I’ve been going back and forth to Egypt for several years now, including the year of the revolution, doing new operas. Some great works of literature, stories from the ‘60s and ‘70s, set to music by Egyptian composers. Amazing experiences for me. One of these works was on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. It was amazing to meet him, and to premiere the opera in Alexandria, which is where his novel takes place.

How many different performing groups do you work with there?
There’s the Cairo Symphony Orchestra; then there’s the Cairo Opera, with Cairo Opera Orchestra, which is the pit orchestra that accompanies ballet and opera; and then a smaller group, the Cairo Philharmonic. The Alexandria Library is another entity which produces concerts and operas. I did a Magic Flute, in Egyptian translation, with them.

Any upcoming plans to go to Egypt?
December and January of this year, yes, I’m going to be giving a solo recital.

You must have a pretty good fan base built up there.
In Cairo and Alexandria, yes.

Ashraf Sewailam sang the voice of Louis, the jazz-loving alligator, in the Arabic dub of Disney's The Princess and the Frog

Do they like Don Giovanni, in Egypt?
We’ve done it, both in Italian and in Arabic, at the Cairo Opera. Culturally it’s a bit foreign. On the other hand, Egypt’s opera audience tends to be a bit more Westernized than the people of mainstream Egypt.

Have you sung elsewhere in the Middle East?
I sang Carmen in Dubai, in the UAE. The resources they have available there are amazing. They didn’t have an opera house at the time, so they turned a ballroom in the Grand Hyatt into a theater. Lights, costumes, sets, orchestra, the whole thing; a bunch of us singers from America were flown in.

You’re a dual citizen, both Egyptian and American.
Yes, I was naturalized earlier this year. I’m based in Boulder, Colorado, where I did my graduate work at the University of Colorado.

Ashraf Sewailam made his Seattle Opera debut as Colline (left) in La bohème, 2007, with Tony Dillon (Benoit), Marcus DeLoach (Schaunard), Scott Piper (Rodolfo), and Michael Todd Simpson (Marcello)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Let’s talk about Don Giovanni. As a bass, you could probably sing a bunch of the characters in this opera.
Yes, Masetto was one of the first roles I ever sang. I’m not really the right voice for the Commendatore. You need a voice like a cannon for that. Leporello is my favorite. I’ve actually done excerpts of Don Giovanni in Arabic, you can find it on YouTube.

What is important to you about the Don?
Giovanni is not pure evil. That’s the easy way out. You have to make him likeable; he has to have some redeeming quality. Ultimately, though, he is a person of no consequence. He does not change his world; he’s so wrapped up in his own desires, he’s not interested in anybody or anything else. It’s funny, because he may be a libertine, but there is nothing free about him. He is trapped. I find Leporello shows more promise, in terms of the future, because of his work ethic and his intelligence. He is the one who would get educated and become middle class, which is the core of modern society. Masetto, on the other hand, is salt of the earth. He’s genuine; but his IQ isn’t that high. He is all brute force, all absolutes. Because of that, I doubt Masetto will get anywhere in life or change his situation. For me, Leporello is the ideal character.

What motivates Leporello?
His professionalism. He is a professional butler, and he takes his job very seriously. Watch all those British movies and TV shows about the servants—they take a great pride in their craft. At the end of the opera, Leporello says he needs to go find a new, better master. He’s a fantastic professional butler, with just enough conscience to tell Giovanni off every now and then. He’s intelligent and resourceful, but not cultured, not educated. He wants to repeat all the eloquent vocabulary he hears Giovanni use.

It’s important that Leporello is not a buffoon. He’s a real man. He disapproves of Giovanni’s morality, but he’s fascinated by how it works. He wouldn’t do it himself.

Why does Leporello stay with this man who’s so awful to him?
It was a very class-oriented system. You’re born a servant and you remain a servant for the rest of your life. There was no middle class; there was no education, unless you were nobility. So you were stuck with where you were. If you were intelligent and resourceful you made the most of it. Last year, I was at San Diego Opera working with Ferrucio Furlanetto, who is my idol, in terms of Leporello.

Furlanetto, one of the all-time greats Leporellos.
Yes, a tremendous actor and with impeccable vocal technique. And he’s the one who told me: Leporello is a real man. The comedy comes from the situations, not from him. It will be funnier if Leporello plays each situation seriously.

Do you find Leporello funny?
I think he’s witty. He has a sense of humor, and he uses that to deal with the different situations he’s in. I come from Egypt, which is a country where we deal with calamities by making fun of them. Egyptian humor makes fun of everything. They downed Mubarak by making fun of him, ultimately.

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Meet Our Singers: CECELIA HALL, Zerlina

Last time Seattle audiences saw mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall, she was 30 feet in the air. As one of the Rhine Daughters in Wagner’s epic Ring, she underwent several months of intense, physical training to be able to “swim” through the air with the grace of a mermaid. She returns to Seattle for Don Giovanni, to sing the role of Zerlina, a beautiful peasant girl with eyes for the Don (despite that it's her wedding day!). Hall, a Juilliard graduate with an impressive, young career, talks to us about working with her former professor and mentor, Stephen Wadsworth (also, director of Seattle Opera’s Ring), the timeless archetypes in Mozart’s masterpiece, and her approach to acting.

Cecelia Hall sings a passage from Zerlina's aria "Vedrai, carino"

From the mythic, larger-than-life world of Wagner, to Mozart’s timeless classic set in Seville, Spain— your latest Seattle Opera role is a big change from your last one!
Yes! Now, I am on the ground the whole time [laughs]. You can’t get much more different than Wagner and Mozart; musically, they’re two different landscapes. In the Ring, I was very much part of this epic ensemble—putting on that production was a real undertaking. Obviously, Don Giovanni is still an undertaking, but it has fewer characters; there’s a lovely intimacy about this show. You get to see a few relatable, human characters reacting in extreme situations. You also get to see how they grow as individuals.

You’re a mezzo, but Zerlina is sometimes a soprano; do you find this comfortable vocally? Also, is there an advantage to having a mezzo sing the part?

Zerlina—I find her to be a really earthy girl. She’s of a lower class than the other women in the show. She has this simplicity to her. It doesn’t come from a place of ignorance or unintelligence, but rather, from a sort of spontaneity. She’s comfortable in her sexuality and in her own skin. Many sopranos are very successful in the role, but I find that the warmth of a mezzo color can help bring that sensuality to this part.

Cecelia Hall at Don Giovanni rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

In terms of acting, what have you learned from Stephen Wadsworth? Have you carried any of that into your work with other directors and other productions?
I spent two years in the Artist Diploma Program at Juilliard where I worked with Stephen. The acting for singers in that program is wonderful. I’ve done several shows with Stephen at Seattle Opera, Juilliard, and at The Met. To be in his class and in his shows has transformed the way I think about my craft, as well as the tools I use. What Stephen has taught me helps me every day in my career. You find ways to relate deeply to the character you’re playing, so you can bring all of your life experience to the situations that she finds herself in. This allows for a uniquely honest portrayal; you’re not acting, as in, a stereotypical characterization of a two-dimensional character. Instead, you’re taking your own personhood and allowing a more human response to happen.

Cecelia Hall (right) as Wellgunde in Götterdämmerung, with Renée Tatum (left) as Flosshilde
Elise Bakketun, photo

When we as people go through our days, we’re not thinking: “sadness,” “happiness,” etc. We’re thinking, “What am I going to do about that big party I’m planning?” or “I’m stressed about my relationship with my mom.” And these thoughts translate into emotions. Stephen has a way of teaching stage craft so that we understand how to apply our humanness. So, when Zerlina is thinking, “My husband is so angry at me,” that’s going to inspire anger, anxiety and worry—it comes from a flowing, moving, train of thought.

Why does Zerlina ask Masetto to beat her?
They have a fiery, passionate relationship that can get heated. Have you seen that Häagen-Dazs cream commercial with the husband who comes home? It’s all in Italian. The couple starts out fighting. But then, he’s brought this ice cream home and they quickly become all lovey dovey—but then, before you know it, they’re fighting again! I think this is the norm for Zerlina and Masetto; however, they’ve never had anything threaten their relationship as much as Don Giovanni does. Masetto is hurt, and he shows a side of himself that’s both cruel, and a little cold. That scares Zerlina into thinking she’s going to lose him. I think she knows he would never actually hurt her. So, she says, “Do whatever you want to me. I’m yours. All I want to do is make up.” And it works.

Cecelia Hall and Nicolas Cavallier rehearsing a scene from Don Giovanni
Alan Alabastro, photo

What’s your particular take on Zerlina? 
She is a very outgoing, spontaneous and strong woman. I try to cultivate those reactions to the situations she’s in. So, instead of a subtle weighing of options that might be my own default, when I’m playing Zerlina, I like to approach everything with a straightforwardness. Sometimes the character that I’m playing onstage actually affects my own behavior in real life.

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit


Friday, October 10, 2014

Meet Our Singers: MARK WALTERS, Don Giovanni

If it weren’t for a single opera camp he attended in Iowa at age 22, American baritone Mark Walters wouldn’t be about to make his Seattle Opera debut as the title role in Don Giovanni. Instead, he’d either be playing the French Horn, or perhaps directing a high school band somewhere in the Midwest. “Although I always sang growing up, I was a much better instrumentalist than vocalist,” he says. Learn more about this rising-star baritone who’s been noted by the press as a “force to be reckoned with.” He performs at McCaw Hall on Oct. 19 and 31.

Mark Walters sings Don Giovanni's "Champagne" aria

That opera camp, Dorian Opera Theater at Luther College, had a profound effect on you! Tell us more about it.
We were really trained in all aspects of opera. In addition to performing, we even built the sets and costumes. We took voice lessons and movement classes. I got a taste for the creative process, the sense of being onstage. I also got to meet other singers who said they were going to be opera singers; opera is much more social than playing an instrument, where you often spend many long hours of practice alone.

You’ve done leading male roles in Verdi operas such as Rigoletto and La Traviata, as well as German baritone roles. What do you hope to do in the future?
I actually started off as a very light baritone: I sang Curly in Oklahoma and Figaro in The Barber of Seville, for example. I plan to do more Verdi operas right now, and hopefully, more German parts in the future depending on how my voice develops. I always carry two or three scores around with me, and I'm constantly studying new repertoire. 

What motivates your character, Don Giovanni?
Lust for life. The singer who originally portrayed the role was 23. With that in mind, I think Giovanni has to have the impulsiveness of youth.

How does The Don justify his behavior?
He says, to be fair to women, he should be able to love them all because it’s cruel to withhold himself—it’s only fair that all women should get to experience him! [laughs].

You’re a baritone. Is Mozart’s Bad Boy a bass or a baritone role?
When this piece was written, the modern baritone didn’t exist. Verdi had a lot to do with pushing the baritone voice much higher. There were two types of basses available to Mozart: higher and lower; there was a darker bass, and a lighter bass—which turned into the modern baritone. Throughout history, The Don has been sung by many voice types.

Mark Walters in rehearsal for the title role in Don Giovanni. Alan Alabastro photo
What is unique about this particular role? In general, do you like being the bad guy or the good guy?
It’s a lot of fun to be the villain. I’m soon going to be doing my first Scarpia in Tosca—he’s a very cultivated villain, for example. Giovanni I don’t think of as a villain in my approach to him. He pursues what he wants, and he has no regrets, even in his dying moments. He doesn’t have the sin of fear or regret. He does leave a lot of collateral damage in his wake, though. Even when you play a villain, you can’t think of them as the bad guy.

You recently sang The Don in Osaka. What was that like?
I was the only non-Japanese singer there, and it was a concert situation—so, not fully staged. The voices were really great; some of them may go on to great careers. On the other hand, many of the people I worked with only spoke Japanese, which makes an international career more difficult. The Japanese language features pure Italian vowels, however, so singing Italian opera is actually pretty easy for them. The big adventure of Japan, of course, is the food and travel experiences

From left: Mark Walter (Don Giovanni), Evan Boyer (Masetto) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in rehearsal for Don Giovanni. Alan  Alabastro photo
What had you heard about Seattle before coming here; what do you think of our fair city?!
I heard Seattle Opera was a great place to work, and that the people and musicians were wonderful. I love to hike, so I’m really looking forward to doing that here!

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ELIZABETH CABALLERO, Donna Elvira

Elizabeth Caballero made her Seattle Opera debut five years ago, singing the spitfire Susanna who wed the Figaro of Nicolas Cavallier in The Marriage of Figaro. Now she returns, again opposite Cavallier, as the Donna Elvira who relentless pursues her wandering ‘husband’ Don Giovanni to the gates of hell itself. Caballero spoke to us the other day about this favorite character of hers, about the challenges of singing Mozart, and about the unique magic of being at a live performance.

Elizabeth Caballero sings a passage from Elvira's aria, "Mi tradi"

Thanks for speaking to our blog, Liz! You and your colleagues in this Don Giovanni cast are very active on social media.
Yes, there’s more people getting into it, more singers tweeting nowadays.

Were you one of the first singers to make social media a major part of your life?
I got on the bandwagon right away. I’d had a website for years, and it’s true that I set up a Facebook fan page before a lot of singers. I wanted a separate private persona away from my public career. We’re out in public, and people want to get to know us, but it’s nice to have your own life, too. That’s where the fan page is helpful. And when tweeting started, I got right on board. And Instagram. What I haven’t done is Tumblr.

Do you like working with a cast like this, where everyone is tweeting to each other?
Yes, it’s fun! We take pictures in rehearsal, and share them, and I think it helps create a buzz before the show. My fans tweet to me or Facebook-message me, and I try to reply to what they say.

How are opera-lovers different on social media than in real life?
Oh, they’re not very different. They’re excited to know you’re in town: “Oh, you’re here! I can’t wait to see you!” Some of them are shy, so I’m usually the one to invite fans to meet me at the backstage door. Many fans on Twitter are students, who are learning about opera or learning to sing your roles, so they have lots of questions. Others may be people who have been following opera for years, and it’s nice to be on their radar.

Elizabeth Caballero as Mimì in La boheme
Elise Bakketun, photo

We last heard you in Seattle as Mimì. What’s the difference between singing Puccini and singing Mozart?
You use the same exact voice; just the style is different. I’m not going to change the color of my sound, I’m not going to change my technique; but Mozart calls for clean lines, whereas in Puccini, in verismo style, you’re allowed to make portamento, that is connecting note to note, or more flexibility in terms of matching the voice to the orchestra. Mozart is much more exposed. I find Mozart to be much more difficult. With Puccini, there’s a big orchestra beneath you, and there are places you might be able to hide a technical flaw in there.

That’s so interesting...when that happens, are you aware of it? Do you know you’re hiding a technical flaw?
I don’t. This is why I love to maintain Mozart in my repertoire, because with Mozart you can’t hide it. It creeps up. “Oh, I’m having trouble singing this line...why?” You have to go into technique and fix it, to figure out why you’re having trouble.

Ted Schmitz as Don Basilio and Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

It’s like hearing a funny noise from your car, and you have to become the technician who fixes it.
And once I fix the problem, in Mozart, suddenly Puccini becomes easier to sing, too. It worries me when I hear young singers say, “Oh, I can’t sing Mozart.” Well, you should be able to sing Mozart! Just sing it with your voice—that’s one of the things it took me a while to figure out. Your voice doesn’t change; the style does. Tucker sang Mozart. Birgit Nilsson sang Mozart. There’s no excuse for a person with a big voice to say, “Sorry, I don’t sing Mozart.” Alexandra LoBianco, one of our Donna Annas here, has a huge voice, a Brünnhilde voice, and she’s singing Mozart and it sounds absolutely stunning.

What do you sing by Verdi?
I like to sing La traviata, and I just sang my first Alice Ford, in Falstaff. I’d like to do Desdemona someday. Luisa Miller I’ve been learning. I would like to learn more of these early Verdi roles, the more bel canto roles.

Lots of great heroines there. Who’s the best female character in Don Giovanni?
I just sang my first Donna Anna. But I’m singing Elvira here in Seattle—that’s one of the roles I’ve done the most, so I know her very well. I’m a little scared to ask why they always cast me as Elvira! Donna Anna is a lot easier to sing. Elvira sits in the middle, and my voice is higher-placed, so for me it’s comfortable to sing Anna, who is always up on top. But dramatically, Anna doesn’t interest me as much, particularly toward the end of the second act.

Dramatically, that’s when Elvira stops being so funny and pathetic, and starts getting awesome.
That’s the thing about Elvira—you do get to be funny, too, whereas with Anna you have to be serious the entire time. I love Anna’s Act One aria, “Or sai,” and the recit...

That’s that fiery quality you have—that’s why everyone is keen to cast you as Elvira! So have you ever known a Don Giovanni or an Elvira?
Oh, of course...I’ve been Elvira a few times, I’m sure! Every man likes to think of himself as a Don Juan. And every woman, every person, really, has played Elvira once or twice...this part of, “Oh, why don’t you love me anymore?” That’s life.

So everyone has been an Elvira, has gotten dumped, abandoned. But the woman in the opera goes one step beyond most of us, no?
The difference with Elvira is that she has God in her life. Don Giovanni found her in a convent. She was a novice, going to become a nun, and you see that in her when she sings “Mi tradi.” She’s still in love with him; but she now feels this sense of responsibility, that she must save his soul.

She likes to save people, to intervene. We saw her try to save Zerlina in the first act...
Exactly. But is she trying to save Zerlina for Zerlina’s sake, or is she just trying to prevent Giovanni from getting with any other woman—does she want to keep him for herself there? She is jealous. But in “Mi tradi” it become Elvira’s responsibility to save Giovanni—now she knows that he’s a murderer. That’s mortal sin.

If you could suddenly become a bass, which male character in this opera would you want to be?
My favorite character is Leporello, without a doubt. I know the opera is called Don Giovanni, but I think it should be called A Day in the Life of Leporello. He goes through so much. And I love, love, love the Catalog Aria!

Playing Elvira as often as you do, you must hear that Catalog Aria a lot—you probably know it as well as most basses!
That’s one of the best things about being Elvira, is you’re a prop for Leporello during his aria.

Is it always the same? Or do you find new reactions as you hear about Giovanni’s conquests for the umpteenth time?
That’s what’s so great about live theater. Every night, every moment is different. Every cast is different, every person is different, on each day they’re different. That’s why you need to come see live performances. Sure, enjoy the HD broadcasts, they’re wonderful—but at a live event, your energy is what is feeding the performers. We need that. We’re all responsible for putting this baby up together.

Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna and Nicolas Cavallier as Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

It’s the Cavallier/Caballero show once again at Seattle Opera! What’s it like working with Nicolas again?
Right, Nicolas Cavallier and I sang Figaro and Susanna here in 2009. He was such a wonderful colleague, my first time here in Seattle, my first and only Susanna. I’ve never sung her again—people see me as a Countess. Speight gave me the wonderful opportunity to sing Susanna, and I thank him so much for that. I was nervous, it’s a long role, lots of recitative, it was my Seattle Opera debut, and there was a lot of pressure. When I went online to do my research, I found I’d be working with this French guy, Nicolas Cavallier, who had done it so many times...I thought, Oh, my God, he’s going to be so hard on me, he’s going to expect so much! But he was such a sweetheart—he held my hand the entire time, he was so kind, and the performance was a huge success because we had such lovely, lovely chemistry. So I was very happy when I saw that he was coming back to sing the Don.

Nicolas Cavallier as Figaro and Elizabeth Caballero as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro
Rozarii Lynch, photo

How would you describe Cavallier as Don Giovanni?
I love it. He’s so elegant. It’s been played for so long as this gruff, woman-eating kind of man, just out to get women. And that misses the elegance which the Don needs in order to be able to seduce, both women and men. There’s a reason why Leporello won’t leave. There’s a reason why everyone buys into his lies, his trickery. He has this art of seduction, this grace. And Nicolas is doing that so beautifully. He’s bringing a lot more colors to the role than you normally see nowadays.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Poetry of Opera

Carol Levin, a Seattle-area poet, has been appearing on the Seattle Opera stage, as a volunteer, for most of her adult life. Her new book of poetry, Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise, draws inspiration from her many years of experience in opera, and juxtaposes the fantasy life of the stage with sounds and silences of ordinary life. Levin is an artist on multiple fronts: writer, editor, teacher, dancer, actor, dramaturg, and teaches The Breathing Lab, based on the principles of the Alexander Technique. She graciously agreed to let us print one of her poems on our blog, and answered our questions about her remarkable new book.

Lights Out, Curtain Closed, It Begins
Das Rheingold

Although he’s dead deliberately
he manipulates this extra long darkness

to ensure gossip will subside
with a shuffle of coughs, a settling-in.

Under its weight you’re seized
by the magnetic field of Wagner’s silence

forcing you to leave everything
in the lighted world behind.

He makes you forsake harsh car honks
and potholes, he frees you

from gridlock’s green, rapid yellow
and unresponsive red, puts to rest

anxiety flashes, to-do lists,
forgets and failures. You wave to

years flashing on, rush to conclude
all goodbyes. He impels surrender

sets you adrift
on an inhale of the baton.

Drenched in darkness separated
from gravity palpated by Wagner’s

double-bass’ insistent opening E note
lengthening like a lifeline, aerating

into an octave, he offers no inkling
of the world about to be revealed

in music’s mingling colors, until bass-
viols and the audience

are out of breath and the whole earth cracks
as strings strafe flexing the pitch like a rolling red tide.

Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise is available now at Seattle Opera’s gift shop and from Amazon.

Carol Levin

Carol, your new book of poetry is inspired by your involvement with Seattle Opera. Have you always been interested in opera?
Even though all through my growing-up years opera music one way or another had been a presence in my house, I myself felt no connection with it. I loved other classical music forms. But in about 1978 my friends—who in my opinion were “opera fanatics”—said, “It is time you learned about opera.” They sat my husband and me down to listen to a recording and meet Ariadne auf Naxos. They tuned our ear as we listened to the recording, stopping to point out themes, to discuss the story as we followed along, reading librettos. Then the four of us went to San Francisco to see it. This was before supertitles. Our friends saw an opera each day that weekend. We thought they were crazy.

But you liked it enough to try again…
Yes, the University of Washington offered a course to cover Seattle Opera’s coming season, and the teacher was fabulous. We studied operas from the Ring, Norma, Carmen, Macbeth, Don Giovanni, La bohème. My husband and I were electrified and bought our first season subscription.

Then you took your interest to another level. You auditioned to be a supernumerary—a silent actor—onstage. You got the performance bug!
In 1982 I saw Seattle Opera was going to present Rigoletto. I had a fuzzy memory that when I was about twelve, my mother had been a super in Rigoletto in Los Angeles. She was very excited and thought of course I would be too. I have a memory of being involved in the production—in a gunny sack being dragged across the stage. I was not the least bit happy about any of it. The experience became the inspiration for my poem “The Prop Bag Needed a Body.”

Great title!
So in 1981, I applied to Seattle Opera, and was cast in the show. There I was, standing on the opera stage in fabulous costumes as the Duke, in the middle of his aria, leaned me into a backbend and kissed me on the neck. I became even crazier and more fanatic about opera than our friends who had introduced us.

Carol Levin standing between Rigoletto (Richard J. Clark) and the Duke (Enrico Di Giuseppe) in 1982
Chris Bennion, photo

Being a Seattle Opera supernumerary has been a family affair for you. Tell us a little about that history, and what opera has meant to your family. You must have some fun family memories.
In Cavalleria rusticana, my husband was the first person to come onstage as the curtain rose, leading a burro. Of course at one performance the burro decided to put on his brakes and not leave the stage as Geo was leading him off. Geo managed to engage his imagination in order to solve the problem. I can’t remember how our son, Ari Steinberg, and his wife, Suzanne DeWitt, joined us as supers, but Ari eventually became the person who cast supers in productions. We were a very jolly team. In The Tales of Hoffman I was one of the women in a bordello, and Ari was cast as a “love slave” standing guard next to me. I still remember how much we laughed about it. There is a poem in my book about Suzanne and me, “Suzanne and I Were Cast.”

Can you bring us behind the scenes a bit? What is it like to be backstage in rehearsal?
The Daughter of The Regiment in 1990 was the first opera Linda Brovsky directed for Seattle. I was scheduled to be at the first all-day rehearsal with the chorus because, cast as a maid, I had a lot of stage business to learn. I watched Brovsky begin to block the chorus’s entrance that would become a ball scene. It was a big chorus—I don’t know how many singers—but within a few minutes Brovsky knew each person’s name and gave each one an individualized character complete with intentions and stage business. I watched as the scene came alive, that very first meeting. An amazing director in complete service of the drama.

That rehearsal explains my favorite aspect about being part of the production of an opera—experiencing how a disparate group of people come together and slowly the stage blocking, the character roles, costumes, the words and music, the cues, come into existence where there was nothing before. At each rehearsal new elements come to life, by repeating and refining and then finally the makeup and wigs, and dressing room excitement, lights, and the orchestra and audience and first night jitters and each person on each side of the stage live in this world created and then the bows and applause. It is a magical fantastical transformation.

Thematically, a recurring topic in Confident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise is a tension between silence and voice. Tell us a little about the origin of that theme, for you.
That theme of tension between silence and voice is inspired by my childhood. As a child living in my grandparents’ home, I felt paralyzing fear when I was spoken to. I was an adult before I realized that, in that house, I had been avoided, only spoken to when it was absolutely necessary. Safety was silence. My mother and I moved in with them when I was somewhere between three and four. I guess they were not happy about their least favorite daughter and her small child arriving. People described me as very shy.

Did shyness have anything to do with your becoming a writer?
This answer is the long way around. The moment I understood I was dyslexic (after I was a young adult) I was freed. I flunked first grade, the result of refusing to go to school, feigning illness out of fear because I could not understand the big alphabet letters gaily written on the walls of the classroom. When I eventually learned to read, I went to live in books. I didn’t need to speak to anyone as I was sponging up language. Safe in the library and used-bookstores. I still love the smell of those places. When I was about eighteen, I got curious about speaking. Somewhere along the way—maybe when I started teaching dance—I discovered I love communicating aloud.

How does a poem begin, for you as a writer?
Usually with what I would call a riff. Some chunk of words I have read or heard, or dreamt, or comes to me (often, when I am brushing my teeth or in the bathtub). I just start playing around writing everything. I visualize it like an artist flailing images wildly onto a surface to catch whatever is floating by; it’s messy. Eventually, I begin to shape it like a sculptor not knowing exactly where it is going. Playing with braiding various topics to see what works. Anything can be the subject of a poem.

Later I go word to word asking each one: Is this what I want to say? Is this the most active way to express it? Is this a cliché? Delete. Is this repetitive? Delete. Thinking about verbs, nouns, pronouns, carefully weeding extra adverbs. Using line-breaks to accentuate and shape what I am expressing, experimenting with how it is visually scored on the page, wondering if it needs more breathing space or if what I am saying works better being very compressed, etc. Sometimes I am having a great good time sometimes, on rare occasions a gift poem just suddenly appears almost fully formed (examples of this are Mark Morris: Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No. 3). But sometimes composing a certain poem can cause me to be extremely agitated. I can work on poems for decades.

As you’ve been doing poetry readings for this book, which poem has evoked an interesting response from the audience?
The response to the poem “A Cool Hand Settles the Score” has been interesting. The historical context for this poem—about Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites—is the Carmelite Nuns in the French Revolution who were guillotined.

In the last act I was one of the rabble standing onstage, with the tenor Paul Gudas cheering, my back to the audience. The 12 nuns begin singing the most exquisite refrain as the first one mounts the plank and walks up until she’s out of sight. We hear this thump, then they all begin the song again, and it continues with fewer singers until it is just one voice. I started thinking about Poulenc, he had to live this to create it in music. What he must have felt deciding note by note. So many people have responded to that poem; people who are not “opera people” have said that was a favorite. My yoga teacher came to my book-launch reading. At our next class she was talking about that poem as she walked into the studio so animated, telling everyone the story and everybody got excited, curious to see it, people whose eyes usually glaze over at the mention of opera and poetry. I told them where to buy the book. “The Prop Bag Needed a Body,” and “Madama Butterfly’s Mother” have also been getting comments.

Any onstage moments at Seattle Opera you wish you could bottle up and take with you forever?
Boris Godunov, my last opera, had been a favorite of mine before Seattle Opera produced it. I was part of the Coronation Scene. I entered stage left, carrying a banner surrounded by the chorus, and they sang their hearts out and the pealing bells and the bells and the bells. Just thinking about that music—a huge moment—every cell of my body begins to vibrate. Totally transported as Alexander Anisimov sang, an unmatchable bass voice filling the house. I would love to live that again. Every performance, when I was not onstage, I sat on the side watching, the whole four hours completely enveloped in the story, the music. I couldn’t get enough of it.