Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Meet Our Singers: BRENDA RAE, Semele

Seattle Opera is very excited that American soprano Brenda Rae will be making her company debut starring as the title role in Semele this weekend. This much in-demand young singer spoke with me the other day about singing Handel and about the wonderfully appealing and infuriating character she’s discovering for the first time.

Brenda Rae sings "No, no, I'll take no less!" from Semele

Welcome to Seattle Opera! We’re excited for your debut. Now this is also your role debut as Semele. How is it going?
I learn more and more every day about the character. I used to use one of the arias, “Myself I shall adore,” as an audition aria. But I had never really delved deeply into the character, and I like her more and more. She has a tendency to be obsessed with herself...narcissistic tendencies. And Juno uses that against her. But Semele isn’t a bad person, really. You see that her relationship with her family, especially her sister. She does care a lot about the people around her. But if you push her a little bit...

She comes first. She doesn’t want to hurt her dad, or her sister...
Right, she’s just self-involved. Not in a malicious way.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal, with John Del Carlo as her father and Randall Scotting as her fiancé
John Vicery, photo

So have you found it easy to connect with Semele?
Not initially, no. But I think I’ve found ways to humanize her.

Is her story comic or tragic?
Oh, it’s so tragic. I mean, there’s comedy in everything. But this poor girl just can’t stop herself. We just staged the last scene, in which she burns to death. She’s like a moth attracted to the flame—she knows it’s going to hurt her. It’s like: “This is going to hurt, this is going to burn me—oh, my God, I want it!!!” [laughs]

So if you were anybody other than her, she’s infuriating. But from the inside--
Oh, yeah. If I ever had a friend like this, they’d annoy me. But I’d probably still like to be around them, up to a certain point. And then I’d be: “Ok, I’ve had enough of you for right now.” And you’d go away for a few weeks, and then think: “I miss her, she’s fun to be around!” Even though she’s so obsessed with herself.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

What are some of the other Handel roles you’ve sung?
I’ve sung Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and Polissena in Radamisto, in concert. And Armida in Rinaldo. That’s all so far.

Now, those are all in does Semele compare?
I’ve found that Semele is very different, stylistically. It reminds me more of Messiah, which he wrote around the same time. The way the arias develop is different—there’s almost less structure than in the Italian operas. Which makes it really fun to stage.

Do the arias still have Handel’s beloved ABA da capo form?
Not all of them. It’s more fluid than that. I have a couple arias that are written as da capo, but in some cases he through-composes an aria (instead of just writing a repeat sign) loosely following the ABA structure. For instance, “Endless pleasure,” which I sing at the end of Act One, is completely written out, including the ornaments he wants you to perform—although there's still freedom to add little ornaments!

And you and Gary [Thor Wedow, the conductor] are adding your own stuff, too?
Yeah...we spice it up a bit!

So musically it’s different from the other Handel roles you’ve done...what about Semele’s personality?
Well, Cleopatra is also this femme fatale. She knows the power she has and how to use it. And that role is a similar length. My role in Radamisto is also a fiery woman—she’s sad and dejected at the beginning, but then she snaps, and shows her power.

Brenda Rae in Semele rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Would you say Handel writes good female characters?
Oh, yeah. There’s so much strength in these women. They always get into trouble, but they fight back.

What are some of your favorite arias in Semele?
“O sleep” is so insanely beautiful. I’m really excited that we’ll have cello in our continuo group, which accompanies that aria—cello is one of my favorite instruments. It will be so intimate.

Yes, we’re looking forward to that—particularly given that it comes right after Stephanie Blythe sings this amazing rage aria, “Hence, Iris, away.”
Musically it’s a complete 180, yeah. Everybody will take a deep breath, and: okay, now we’re in bed! One aria that's quite daunting is “No, no, I’ll take no less,” which is ferociously wonderful. Terrifying but great. Semele is going a bit nuts, here—she just lets Jupiter have it: “NO!!! I WANT WHAT I WANT! And I’m gonna get it!”

One last question: who are your mentors?
My voice teacher, Edith Bers, back in New York. I started studying with her when I went to Juilliard for my Master’s and I still see her a few times a year. She’s great, when I check in with her it grounds me. Just the way she is as a person, too—she’s very calm, and I like that. This career is pretty crazy sometimes—you’re moving all around, meeting tons of different people all the time, and it’s good to be able to ‘keep calm and carry on.’

Juilliard was an incredible place for me. I know Gary [Thor Wedow, conductor of Semele] from Juilliard where he conducted a Mozart opera I was in, and I got a glimpse at his enormous knowledge of the Classical and Baroque styles. I also took so much from the language coaches there. I don’t get to see them too often nowadays but I carry what they taught with me always.

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