An Action-Packed Second Week of Rehearsal

Now, in the second week of rehearsal, the action is really picking up as brother and sister encounter the Witch, gleefully portrayed by Elizabeth Byrne. Director Amy Hutchison has packed so much action and interaction into the performances that even the most hardened computer game player will be entertained.

Now, in the second week of rehearsal, the action is really picking up as brother and sister encounter the Witch, gleefully portrayed by Elizabeth Byrne. Director Amy Hutchison has packed so much action and interaction into the performances that even the most hardened computer game player will be entertained.

As the Witch, Elizabeth Byrne (right) casts an evil spell on Gretel (Marnie Breckenridge, left) and Hansel (Kirsten Gunlogson).
As the Witch, Elizabeth Byrne (right) casts an evil spell on Gretel (Marnie Breckenridge, left) and Hansel (Kirsten Gunlogson).

 (Toward that end, Indianapolis Opera is offering a Special Family Promotion for Hansel and Gretel, in which select seats are only $20 each. Click Here)

Our chorus for this opera is being performed by the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. While this is a seasoned group of singers, it is always interesting to see young performers in their first opera. Most of their performances are in concert and don’t involve broad movement. So watching their fierce concentration on Amy’s stage direction is a lot of fun.

 

The children’s performance evokes quite a contrast. Parents often caution their children to “use your inside voice” when they become too rambunctious. With this group we are encouraging them to “use your playground voice, not your choir voice!” We are so lucky to be able to rehearse in the soon-to-be Basile Opera Center, where we have ample space and safe surroundings for the 50+ children in the cast.

Chloe, Marnie Beckenridge’s intrepid travel companion, snugs up with rehearsal accompanist  Sandra Baetzhold.

Chloe, Marnie Beckenridge’s intrepid travel companion, snugs up with rehearsal accompanist Sandra Baetzhold.

 Finally, I couldn’t report on rehearsals without mentioning the hands-down favorite member of our rehearsal crew—Chloe, soprano Marnie Breckenridge’s (Gretel) cute little dog. She too is a seasoned opera pro, sitting through rehearsals without a peep. (Although Marnie did confide that Chloe had a little whimper once while she was rehearsing a mad scene, but mad scene’s don’t count.)

This production is shaping up to be great fun. We look forward to seeing you!

 Jim

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Published in: on November 17, 2008 at 5:20 pm  Comments (1)  

The Many Facets of Hansel and Gretel

The first week of rehearsal for Hansel and Gretel is going gangbusters! We have a terrific group of our favorite guest artists back in Indianapolis, with a talented director who is an expert on this opera. And if you didn’t see the premier in 1999, you won’t believe the fabulous sets by renown children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

 

First the cast. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge is Gretel. You will remember her in the roles of Lucia and Pamina in prior IO productions. Her pure sound and physical grace make her a charming Gretel. Indiana University graduate Kirsten Gunlogson, portrays Hansel with great enthusiasm and a rich mezzo vocal quality. An Indianapolis favorite, her most recent performance was as Nicklause in last season’s Tales of Hoffmann. While both have performed here, they have not performed together until now, but you wouldn’t know that from watching them work together.

 

We are so pleased to welcome soprano Elizabeth Byrne to Indianapolis Opera, singing both the Witch and the Mother. While this is her Indianapolis debut, she has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago’s Lyric Opera and numerous European houses, and we are fortunate to have her. Baritone Victor Benedetti portrays the Father. His previous IO performances include last season’s Tosca and The Pearl Fishers.

 

Add to this mix stage director Amy Hutchison, who worked with Sendak in 2000 on the original premier. She is intimate with this opera and is conveying great nuance to her singers. “These children do not have a carefree childhood. They have lots of responsibility,” she told them. “They are careworn children thrust deep into danger.”

 

All of our guest artists have sung Hansel and Gretel before, but in English, which is common in the U.S. So our production holds an additional challenge in that they are singing in German. While German fits well with the music, picture, Marnie concentrating on her German lyrics while also practicing her hopscotch and imagine Kirsten enunciating German while chewing strawberries!

 

Speaking of the music, this opera is a very interesting study in contrasts. On the one hand it is based on the well-known folk tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, with a number of the musical themes based on folk motifs. On the other, the orchestration demonstrates the influence of Richard Wagner on composer Englebert Humperdinck, who worked briefly as an associate of Wagner’s. Certainly there are lighter moments when we focus on the children. But in the more moody scenes, such as in the forest, the homage to Wagner is discernable.

 

To begin with, the orchestra is the same size as that Wagner used, and projects the same musical color. Like Wagner, Humperdinck through-composed, meaning there are no breaks after arias or between scenes. The music is also very dense—all instruments play all the time. Wagner operas are known for their powerful singers, who can out-sing orchestras with muscle. But for Hansel and Gretel, larger and older singers are not believable in the title roles, so we look for singers who are believable and who can still be heard over the orchestra (while dancing and playing!). All of these factors add to the difficulty our artists must overcome with this score.

 

Return here next week for a fun report on how the Indianapolis Children’s Choir is performing as the chorus for Hansel and Gretel!

 

Jim

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Marnie Breckenridge (Gretel), stage director Amy Hutchison and Kirsten Gunlogson (Hansel) stage the forest scene.

Marnie Breckenridge (Gretel), stage director Amy Hutchison and Kirsten Gunlogson (Hansel) stage the forest scene.

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 7:19 pm  Comments (5)  

Maestro Caraher on the second week of rehearsal

Well, the chorus and principals are conducting joint rehearsals this week, and things are really heating up! The presence of chorus members has heightened the sense of urgency and danger for the principals, and their performances are sharper and very convincing.

 

As usual, the chorus arrived very well prepared, thanks to Chorus Master John Schmid (who this year is celebrating his 25th season in his post—congratulations and thank you John!). And it is a good thing, since they got vigorous direction from Joseph Bascetta.

 

Vocally the chorus plays an important role in Il Trovatore, not just producing the famous Anvil Chorus, also throughout. In our current production, they also make their presence known dramatically, especially during the dramatic confrontation between the Count and Manrico.

 

They are very physically involved in the drama, as threatening armies, as guards snatching the grieving Manrico from the dead Leonora, and restraining the unfortunate Azucena as though she were a wild animal. Quite a workout!

 

And throughout our principals are singing wonderfully together—very balanced vocally. In both principals and chorus, we have the best of both musical and dramatic worlds. This production is shaping up to be one of our most memorable! Hope to see you there!

 

Jim

Chorus members portraying soldiers of the evil Count di Luna rehearse their threats.

Chorus members portraying soldiers of the evil Count di Luna rehearse their threats.

Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Comments (2)  

Jim Caraher reports on the first week of rehearsal

The first week of rehearsal for Verdi’s Il Trovatore has moved along at lightning speed. Thanks to the exceptional organizational skills of director Joseph Bascetta and an experienced cast of artists, the blocking of principals for the entire opera was completed by Thursday—far ahead of the customary schedule.

 

Mr. Bascetta also brings a fresh take on the staging of the opera, minus the typical gloom of setting and stage lighting. In his words, “the drama must come from the characters, not the environment.” As a result, during each run through he asks his artists to dig deeper into their feelings and to show them in every gesture and expression. “The audience must see your thoughts.”

 

Take, for example, his direction to Laura Brioli, who portrays the tragic Azucena. “We need to see the insanity burning a hole in your head—almost as though you are a wounded animal.” Her first rehearsal of the aria in which she recounts the brutal killing of her mother was absolutely gripping. Audiences are accustomed to seeing in Azucena only ugly bitterness. Ms. Brioli’s portrayal is the exact opposite. Using her rich mezzo voice and her nuance of movement, she makes us see Azucena’s grief and fragility as well as her insanity.

 

While the all of the cast is new to Indianapolis Opera, most have worked together before elsewhere, and it shows. Their professionalism and collegial attitudes toward one another make it easier for them to reveal the emotional depths they are asked to find.

 

Leonora, portrayed by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, begs the evil Count di Luna—baritone Todd Thomas—not to harm her beloved.

Leonora, portrayed by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, begs the evil Count di Luna—baritone Todd Thomas—not to harm her beloved.

When we hear the evil Count di Luna declare his love for the heroine Leonora, we usually see and hear only lust. But portrayed by baritone Todd Thomas in our production, the sincerity and almost gentleness of his declaration actually make him sympathetic (momentarily, at least).

 

Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora and tenor Arnold Rawls as Manrico make a stunning couple, both vocally and dramatically. Both must draw on their individual and joint strengths as artists to perform the difficult scene in which he accuses her of infidelity and moments later she dies in his arms—having sacrificed herself to save him.

 

Mr. Bascetta’s emphasis on emotion and internal conflict in our upcoming production means that the singers must also sing in a manner that befits the feelings being presented. People portraying anger sing with a markedly different cadence than if they were singing the same notes just to sing prettily. That makes conducting more challenging and more interesting at the same time—knowing when to increase intensity and when to step back.

 

Another interesting idea Mr. Bascetta brings to this production of Il Trovatore is that the chorus will play a much more active role in the unfolding of the story than in many operas. We begin integrating the members of the chorus into the production this weekend—I think they will be surprised! Tune in here next week to see how that is going!

 

Jim

 

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Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 3:15 pm  Comments (2)  

Congratulations and good luck Abigail Mitchell! Cheerio!

Abigail Mitchell

IOE Soprano and recent recipient of the Georgina Joshi International Fellowship has a farewell lunch with Artistic Director James Caraher and Artist in Residence Joachim Schamberger.

Indianapolis Opera Ensembles own Abigail Mitchell is the inaugural recipient of the Georgina Joshi International Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded to a graduating Indiana University Jacobs School of Music student for two years of study in the Artist Diploma Program at the RCM International Opera School at the Royal College of Music in London.

“I have to say I’m a bit overwhelmed,” said Mitchell. “Overwhelmed at the generosity of Mr. Joshi, the amazing opportunity to study at the Royal College, the chance to live in London, and the knowledge that this a turning point in my career and my life. My time at IU has been phenomenal and has made me a different singer, a different artist and a different person.

“I have been spoiled here with great performing opportunities, fantastic colleagues and, most importantly, fabulous instruction from my teachers, Carol Vaness and Patricia Wise,” she said. “I am nearly ready to fully begin my operatic career, and I know that the Georgina Joshi Fellowship and studying at the Royal College will get me there.”

The fellowship provides for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and living and local travel expenses, and other costs related to studying and living in London, including participating in cultural experiences that would enhance the student’s study abroad.

“We are so very grateful to Louise and Yatish Joshi for the creation of the extraordinary opportunity for our students and for initiating this new relationship with the Royal College of Music,” said Gwyn Richards, dean od the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “Both institutions were academic homes for Georgina and now will similarly play a role in the education of future Indiana University Fellowship students.”

Both the Georgina Joshi International Fellowship and the Georgina Joshi Graduate Fellowship, awarded to a graduate student to assist with full-time study in the Jacobs School of Music, are the result of a recent $1 million gift from The Georgina Joshi Foundation, Inc. to the Jacobs School. The gift established these two major fellowships as a tribute to the memory of Joshi, a graduate student at Jacobs and an alumna of the Royal College of Music, London. The fellowships celebrate her life as a singer and her affiliation with both institutions.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 2:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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La Bohème: Different and fresh

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Rodolfo (William Joyner) comforts Mimi (Maureen O’Flynn) in rehearsal for Indianapolis Opera’s November 20 and 22 performances of La Bohème.

It is no secret that I love my job. But I have to confess that La Bohème is one of my favorite operas, and the thought of getting up in the morning to attend rehearsal of a favorite with a cast with this much talent is absolutely invigorating!

You will have no choice but to be drawn into love story of Mimi and Rodolfo through the exquisite Act 1 duet created by soprano Maureen O’Flynn and tenor William Joyner. They have worked together before, and they are well matched in that both care as much about their acting performances as they do the music they create. I mentioned Maureen’s acclaimed career in last week’s commentary. To that I would add my appreciation for Bill’s work. He is such a consummate professional—so comfortable in his roles that he can make instantaneous adjustments, in either rehearsal or performance, and make them appear entirely natural.

In contrast to the delicate love between Mimi and Rodolfo is the tumultuous relationship between Marcello and Musetta, sung by Sean Anderson and Laura Pedersen. You will remember Sean’s flair for comedy from last season’s Pirates of Penzance, in which he played the bungling Pirate King. In addition to his fine baritone, he demonstrates great comedic timing in his frustration with the on-again, off-again Musetta, whose glittering personality is perfectly captured by Laura’s obvious zest for this role and her dazzling command of the music.

While the love stories are central to this opera, we should not overlook the importance of the camaraderie among the four “bohemians”, who support each other through poverty, joy and sorrow. Rounding out this quartet are Gustav Andreassen as Colline and Chad Reagan as Schaunard. Gus’ rich bass tone captures perfectly the philosophical mood of his character, especially in Act 4, where things become very somber indeed.

Chad’s is a great story! As you may recall, last season he was a member of the Indianapolis Opera Ensemble, our young artist/education outreach program. It is such a pleasure to see him perform with confidence among a group of professionals who have a great deal more experience than he has. It means that the time we spend coaching and encouraging can provide excellent results.

And our favorite mainstay is bass Mark Gilgallon, who plays two roles in this production. You will recognize him from a number of productions in recent seasons, and we are so fortunate to have such a talent here in Indianapolis.

Our director, Michael Ehrman, made an excellent point at the Opera Lite event this week. That was that, no matter how many times all of the artists have performed Bohème, each production is different and fresh because of the varied abilities and personalities that come together to create each performance. It is the level of professionalism and talent among such artists that produces new insight each and every time we present a classic such as Bohème.

Great art! Did I mention how much I love my job?

Jim

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Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Comments (1)  

Cher loved it! You will too!

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Indianapolis Opera's 2003 production of La Boheme

If I could, I would perform La Bohème every year! It is quintessential Puccini: great theater and music that brings the drama alive. I know some academics think it is unnecessarily maudlin, but I think it has all the elements of great drama.

If you are skeptical that the story and score are not timeless, realize that at one point in time, New York City simultaneously offered a Metropolitan Opera, a New York City Opera and a Broadway rendition of Bohème, along with a production of “Rent,” the popular musical that is based on the same story.

Bohème is said to be one of most loved and most frequently performed operas in the world. It is also a good one for introducing non-opera goers to the art form. (I’m showing my age here, but remember the transformation that Cher experienced in the movie “Moonstruck” when Nicholas Cage took her to see Bohème?)

My theory about the popularity is that it is the perfectly created package. Puccini is prolific in the notes that he wrote on his score; he knew exactly the effects he wanted and left nothing to chance. A great story, excellent character development and music that support both—a complete package. The result is this great example of how opera can and should work.

Another reason is that it works on real time. By that I mean that the story advancement continues as the artists sing, no “just standing and singing.” And there are comic elements in the beginning that endear us to the characters. That makes the story more impactful when, in later acts, Puccini pulls the rug out from under the audience. Even though we have seen it before, we are so engaged in the story and the characters that we can disengage our memories.

On a personal note, I can’t overstate how pleased I am to be working again with soprano Maureen O’Flynn, who portrays Mimi. I was fortunate to work with Maureen on Faust for the Fresno Opera, and she is not only an internationally acclaimed (and recorded!) artist, but a delightful person. We are so fortunate to lure her to Indianapolis!

Enough of my opinion. Puccini fans out there, is Bohème your favorite, or another opera? I would be interested in your opinions!

Jim

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Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm  Comments (3)  

Ariadne takes concentration and adrenalin

As we enter the final week of preparation of Ariadne auf Naxos, I reflect with gratitude and admiration on the level of professionalism being demonstrated by the cast members of this production. Even though we at Indianapolis Opera are accustomed to having only three weeks to bring principals, chorus and orchestra together into a smooth performance, it is an exhausting process. 

Comedy Troupe in Ariadne at work.

Comedy Troupe in Ariadne at work.

Ariadne is even more demanding than usual. The singers must deal with the complex melodies and rhythms of their own parts, and stay on track while other performers sing simultaneously but sometimes in a different meter. Add to this musical difficulty the stage action, or, in the case of those in the comedy troupe, skipping, hopping and juggling. Some must adjust to singing with a mask on.

The Prologue is especially difficult on conductors because of all the starts and stops. This is the “conversational” part of the opera that sets up the plot. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration so that no one misses a cue. Often I find that I have taken in breath with the singers but forgotten to exhale because I was so focused. So when we get past that first 15 minutes of conversation and into the musical flow, I remember to exhale and out comes a huge sigh.

That doesn’t mean the remainder is easy.  Much of this opera is wickedly fast, and all the artists must use their entire attention to stay on top of it. It takes the same concentration it would if you were driving 200 miles per hour, white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. It leaves no room for mental slips or errors.

When putting together an opera as musically difficult as Ariadne, it takes a cast of the highest caliber of professionalism and preparedness to become the well-honed team it takes to make it all work. And that is what you will see this weekend! Because this cast is so talented and so professional, they will make it look easy.

Jim

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Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jim and Joachim on Ariadne

Recently, IO Artistic Director Jim Caraher sat down with Stage Director Joachim Schamberger to discuss their upcoming production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Indianapolis Opera’s artistic director Jim Caraher (left) talks with stage director Joachim Schamberger about the upcoming production of Ariadne auf Naxos.

Indianapolis Opera’s artistic director Jim Caraher (left) talks with stage director Joachim Schamberger about the upcoming production of Ariadne auf Naxos.

Caraher:  We have produced Ariadne only once before, in 1987. On one hand, I have been looking forward to it. We don’t do very much from the German repertoire, and this is a Strauss opera that we can afford to do, in terms of size of cast and orchestra. On the other hand, it is so bloody difficult! But once the decision was made, we immediately thought of you, Joachim, because of your intimacy with German repertoire. And you have directed it before, right?

Schamberger: Yes, I directed a conservatory production of Ariadne. And I have seen it many, many times, since I was a child and my parents took me. It is much better known in Europe—maybe not as popular as Wagner—but performed much more often than in the United States. I really love this opera. In conjunction with the music, it’s the opera’s subject and deeper meaning that really move me a lot.

Caraher: Why don’t you tell our readers a little about that.

Schamberger: Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an acclaimed writer in his own right, touch on a very profound subject, that of grief and faithfulness. They explore questions like: How do we, as humans, deal with loss? How long do we hold onto grief for our own good? How faithful are we to the living and to the dead? In their opera, they offer two opposing approaches to those questions. One is represented by the “opera seria” (serious opera), which shows Ariadne deeply depressed over a lost lover, holding onto her grief with no perspective other than wanting to die. The other is represented by the “opera buffa” (comic opera), led by Zerbinetta, who moves quickly from one lover to the next (to “a new god” as she puts it). When, at the end of the opera, the god Bacchus appears, Ariadne mistakes him for the messenger of Death and opens herself entirely to him. And indeed he does end her suffering, however not through death but through love. She is transformed back to life as he frees her from the island (her isolation).  For Zerbinetta this seems to be what she said all along. The two views are ironically connected to each other. The brilliance is that these issues are explored at the same time that we see both serious drama and comic antics on the stage.

Ariadne rehearsal at The Basile Opera Center

Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore, right) tries to persuade Ariadne (Angela Brown) not to grieve over lost love.

Caraher: I agree. If you don’t have humor, you can’t dramatically portray seriousness. I have seen productions of “serious” operas like Don Giovanni and La Bohème fail because the tragedy was not offset, not contrasted by the lighter elements.

These different characters are portrayed by the music as well. Ariadne’s music consists of long, somber lines, using the harmonium and quiet, gloomy instrumentation. Zerbinetta’s music is fast and rhythmic, with light treatment from the winds and the piano. And as the opera gets closer to conclusion, their musical qualities (like their dramatic qualities) have moved away from the extremes and have come closer together.

In the first half, the music is driven by the conversations that establish the characters and the plot. It is in the second half that the music rules, and demonstrates the lushness that Strauss had at his command.

Schamberger: Von Hofmannsthal provides equal brilliance—his lyrics are very poetic. It would be impossible to capture what he brings to the opera in a translation. I think the collaboration of these two individuals resulted in unique artistry, and at the same time illustrated a symbolic merger of life views—with no judgment involved. I believe they knew that we as humans will never fully comprehend the mystery of life, but in the end we can still, along with the characters of the opera, stand in astonishment of its wonders.

Caraher: And it’s our job to be sure this is what our audience experiences!

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Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 8:05 pm  Comments (1)  

Ariadne: More Lush than Harsh

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Ariadne auf Naxos, The Dallas Opera. Photo credit: Karen Almond

Based on conversations at last weekend’s Operapalooza festival, it appears that our season opener Ariadne auf Naxos (October 2 and 4) requires a bit of explanation. Strauss completed the opera in 1916, and relative to some other pieces in his body of work, Ariadne has more of a 19th- than a 20th-century sound, more lush than harsh.

The plot involves two performance groups hired by a rich host: one is a serious opera company, and the second is a “commedia dell’arte” company, which today would be likened to a Second City troupe. During the prologue, the rich man’s major-domo arrives backstage with the news that, to stay on schedule for the fireworks, both groups must perform their significantly different works simultaneously. This sends all performers into an uproar as they scheme how to have their own roles in the spotlight.

The next act then becomes the combined opera and comedy, and we (as our audience) see what the rich man’s audience sees. The scene opens as the morose Ariadne looks forward to death, having been abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Zerbinetta, the head mischief-maker of the comedia troupe, sends in various colleagues to try to cheer up Ariadne and liven up the somberness of the opera. This involves lots of vocal and physical comedy. In the end, Bacchus arrives and falls in love with Ariadne, and off they go, presumably to live happily ever after. This is the really short version of a complex story—I strongly recommend that you get to Clowes early enough to read a more detailed description in the program.

Indianapolis native and opera sensation Angela Brown will perform the title role of Ariadne

Indianapolis native and opera sensation Angela Brown will perform the title role of Ariadne

Now, the music is a very interesting study in contrast. While the orchestra is small, the music is very dense and very demanding of singers and orchestra musicians alike (and conductors!). The score changes meter and tempo with regularity, and sometimes the singers are working in a different meter than the orchestra. For example, the singers might be singing in four while the orchestra plays in six. That means I have to figure out a beat that simultaneously signals both groups where we are. In addition, the cast members are asked to sing complex music while also performing vigorous physical antics as actors. It’s hard to be funny and at the same time concentrate on complicated music.

Some of our cast members have performed with us in the past several years: Arnold Rawls, Matthew Chellis, Joseph Gaines and John Ames. Corey McKern is new to us, and a great addition to a wonderful group of singers. We also are pleased to welcome back the talented Joachim Schamberger, who stage directed our 2008 Tosca and last season’s acclaimed Das Rheingold. In addition to directing Ariadne, Joachim, a native of Germany, will be playing the speaking role of the major-domo! Finally, special appreciation goes to our two Indiana-based Met stars, Angela Brown (Ariadne) and Jane Dutton (Composer), who are proud to call Indianapolis home.

Rachele Gilmore returns to the IO stage

Rachele Gilmore returns to the IO stage

The opera proper contains one of the most famous and virtuosic arias in the opera repertoire, which lasts (I kid you not) 20 minutes and requires great vocal stamina and range. (It is often used as an audition piece to demonstrate that the soprano has the high notes; I usually ask them to start halfway through just to save time.) If you witnessed the show-stopping vocal fireworks of Rachele Gilmore in our 2008 production of Tales of Hoffmann, you can understand how thrilled we are to have her back as Zerbinetta for Ariadne. Click to hear her performance of the aria. (You may be prompted to click on the enhanced Java version.) 

We completed our first sing-through yesterday, and the ability of this stellar cast, and their already apparent enthusiasm for working together, make me excited to be off to rehearsal today. I think you will be just as excited come performance time!

Jim

Published in: on September 17, 2009 at 8:21 pm  Comments (2)  

From Mao to the Met

Usually I don’t presume to make book recommendations, but in this instance, I feel the need to make an exception. While the book I’m about to recommend tells the story of a magnificent singer, opera is secondary. This is an incredibly compelling human tale that kept me riveted from beginning to end. More about that in a moment. . .

Backstory

Hao Jiang Tian

Hao Jiang Tian

This spring I was very fortunate to conduct a production of Faust for the Fresno Grand Opera. The principals included three renowned Metropolitan Opera singers: soprano Maureen O’Flynn, tenor Fernando de la Mora, bass Hao Jiang Tian, and La Scala veteran, Luis Ledesma. I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive in the days leading up to the first rehearsal. These were all singers who had sung all over the word, in all of the biggest opera houses, and l was coming into this as low man on the totem pole.

I very quickly found that I had no reason to be nervous. While all were quintessential professionals, they were also warm and collegial professionals who offered me the same deference they would offer to the most famous of conductors. We quickly became a lively group of friends, who looked forward to socializing and having dinner together after rehearsals. We even spent our first day off together taking a guided tour of Yosemite Park with one of our fabulous Fresno hosts.

We also were a virtual United Nations of origins. Fernando and Luis are from Mexico; Fernando’s wife is from France; Maureen and I share Irish ancestry; Maureen’s husband, Claude Corbeil, (a wonderful bass) is French Canadian; and Tian and his wife, Martha, are from China.

One of my favorite memories from those three weeks came while waiting in front of our hotel for the beginning of the Yosemite tour. We learned that it was Claude’s birthday that day, and immediately Fernando and Luis burst into a traditional Mexican birthday song, in two part harmony, that went on for a good four our five minutes.  As you might expect, a sidewalk serenade by two world class opera singers began to draw attention, and people stopped what they were doing and stared in amazement. “Who are you people?” one of them asked when the “concert” had come to a dramatic conclusion.

Along the Roaring River

Hao Jiang Tian as Mephistopheles at The Met.

Hao Jiang Tian as Mephistopheles at The Met.

Back to the book. During our three weeks together, Hao Jiang Tian (he is addressed as Tian) held a book signing for his new book, which I attended not really knowing anything about his early background. What I knew of him was that he was a wonderful artist, and one of the most polite and friendly people that I had ever met.  I couldn’t help wondering how—with this underlying warmth—he could transform himself into the wrathful evil that is Mephistopheles. (Oh, but he did!) You would think he was shy, but that would only make his mischievous rehearsal interjections even funnier.

What I heard at his book signing was an absolutely incredible story. Tian was the son of a symphony conductor in Beijing when the Cultural Revolution erupted. He recalled having to destroy his father’s entire record collection of western music by smashing each disc into little pieces, and his no longer having to take the “dreaded” piano lessons.  At the time, both were welcome developments, much to his embarrassment now.  His parents were influential in the Communist Party, and it was important for them all to be politically correct, even in their musical tastes.

He next told us of how he soon developed an interest in American popular music after being given a guitar by his older brother, and he performed several of his favorites, in very entertaining English, accompanying himself on the guitar and piano.  These had been learned by hiding under the blankets at night and listening to one of the western Radio Free stations that he could get on a transistor radio.  It he had been caught, he could have been arrested!

Once out of school, Tian worked in a boiler factory. One day he cycled across Beijing to see a friend and, at the friend’s high rise apartment, stood on the sidewalk and yelled his friend’s name, louder and louder. Finally a window opened and a man leaned out, commenting on the carrying power of Tian’s voice and told him to come upstairs. The man told him that he should become a singer.

Against unbelievable odds, the path of this undeniable talent changed; the world of opera would be changed as well. After time at a Chinese conservatory, Tian took the plunge and traveled to the United States. He landed in the U.S. with nowhere to go, speaking no English, and with $30 in his pocket, of which he spent $18 to buy a standing room ticket at the Metropolitan Opera. At intermission, departing patrons gave him a ticket for fifth row, center, and there he was, just yards away from James Levine in the pit, and Luciano Pavarotti on stage.

It was just ten years later, almost to the day, that Tian performed at the Met for the first of many times, with both Levine and Pavarotti.

Toward the end of our time together, Tian came to me and said, “We have been talking about you. You may be one of the quietest maestros we know, but you have it here.” And he thumped his heart. That is the kind of person he is.

These are just a few examples of how Tian came to be the amazing star and wonderful human being that he is today. I wish that you all could meet him in person. As Placido Domingo said about him, “Tian has had a life worthy of an opera!”

I encourage you to read the rest in his book. The full title is Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met. You can hear Tian’s magnificent voice and learn more about him at his website: tianhaojiang.com

 Happy reading!

Jim

Published in: on June 19, 2009 at 3:12 pm  Comments (3)  

Week 5: Blow-out Cast!

In previous letters I have mentioned the international reputations of Maestro Venzago, who will conduct, and stage director Joachim Schamberger, who has created an exciting virtual set. Our cast in the three largest roles are equally well known as Wagnerian singers.

What do I mean by a Wagnerian singer? To begin with, the size of Wagner’s orchestra is much larger than that of many other operatic styles. Add to that the density of his orchestration and you need voices that not only are loud enough to project, but also vocally focused. And I should add that Wagner requires stamina.

Let’s take a look at the qualifications of our cast:

Greer Grimsley

Greer Grimsley

Greer Grimsley (bass-baritone: Wotan) – Making is IO debut. Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Royal Danish Opera, Saint Louis Symphony, Portland Opera, New Orleans Opera, San Diego Opera, Montreal Opera, the Deutsch Op Berlin and the Teatro Comunale di Bologna.

Elizabeth Byrne

Elizabeth Byrne

Elizabeth Byrne (soprano: Fricka) has both performed and covered at the Metropolitan Opera. Other US performances have included the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dallas Opera, Portland Opera, Arizona Opera and Austin Lyric Opera. She also has performed with the Glimmerglass Opera, Staatstheater Stuttgart and the Scottish Opera, the latter earning her a Royal Philharmonic Society Award Nomination.

Richard Paul Fink

Richard Paul Fink

Richard Paul Fink  (baritone: Alberich) is making is IO debut and recently peformed Kurwenal, Tristan und Isolde, Metropolitan Opera; Alberich, Lohengrin, San Francisco Opera; Amonasro, Aida, Seattle Opera; Water Sprite, Rusalka, Canadian Opera Company; Alberich, Der Ring des Grand Opera; Alberich, Lohengrin, Casals Festival; Rigoletto, Rigoletto, Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Greer Grimsley is hugely popular for Wagner productions, and Indianapolis is very lucky that he had time in his schedule to perform here. As an added bonus, Greer has agreed to participate in a symposium for ticketholders that will take place Saturday, May 16, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Other participants include conductor Mario Venzago and designer/director Joachim Schamberger in a lively discussion moderated by Michael Sells of Butler University.  They will explore Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “The Ring Cycle” with the creative team behind it.  Hear how to interpret Wagner without sets and costumes from the perspective of the conductor, the singer, and the designer. This symposium is free and reservations are not required. It will take place at the Hilbert Circle Theatre Wood Room, 45 Monument Circle, Indianapolis.

We were fortunate to have Elizabeth Byrne earlier this season portraying the Mother and the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” When she heard we were mounting “Das Rheingold” she expressed keen interest in being cast, since it was the only opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle missing from her repertoire. Similarly, Richard Paul Fink is well-known as a Wagnerian and is excited to be Indianapolis for this one-of-a-kind production of the famed opera.

Dynamic staging, first rate cast and dynamic artistic collaboration will make for a memorable Indianapolis debut of “Das Rheingold”! See you there!

Jim

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Published in: on May 13, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rheingold goes Multimedia

As we have discussed earlier, the upcoming production of “Das Rheingold” will feature the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on the stage and the singers staged on a rising and lowering pit. This staging precludes a standard opera set. So our talented young director set about designing how forms and images could be used to create a “virtual set.”

rheingold-image

One of Joachim's images that will be used as part of the "virtual set" of Das Rheingold.

German stage director Joachim Schamberger has put together some very creative ideas! First a “megalithic” set piece will be present in the pit, symbolic of mountains, castles, underwater formations, and other images that are already deep in your imagination. The epic visual aspects of the production also will include “virtual” set pieces that will frame the stage and feature frequently changing digital images representative of the story and the power of the Rhine.  In a standard staging, you have giants who are not that much larger than other characters. Think what virtual images can do for giants!

You probably have noticed the otherworldly Rheingold illustration here on our web page. This is one of Joachim’s images and it is among the digital imagery that will be projected on the Rheingold stage. That one individual can be such an excellent director of “standard” operatic staging and also so talented at creating virtual sets is most impressive. I think Wagner himself would be impressed.

And, I believe, this kind of talent illustrates the future direction of opera and theater.

Next time a preview of some of the internationally recognized Wagnerian singers that our collaborative production has attracted to Indianapolis!

 Jim

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Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 8:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Week 3: Artistic Collaboration

While I am gazing at murky images of Rhinemaidens and giant gods, I also am taking advantage of the weather in sunny California. I write from Fresno, where we are preparing a production of “Faust.” So please pardon if I have a bit of whiplash! 

Mario Venzago
Mario Venzago

I wanted to take this opportunity to say how fortunate we are to have Mario Venzago conducting our collaborative production of “Das Rheingold.” Because of his leadership of the Indianapolis Symphony, you may think of him as only a symphonic conductor. You may not know that in addition to leading a number of prominent symphony orchestras, he also has served as music director of the Graz (Austria), Heidelberg and Lucerne opera companies. Born in Zurich, he is a natural German-speaker and has an affinity for Wagner. So you are in for a treat as you witness his Indiana opera conducting premiere. 

Mario introduced himself to me following an opera just after he arrived in Indianapolis. He expressed his pleasure that his new home had such a quality opera company, and suggested that sometime we collaborate on a production. Now, several years later, that idea is coming to fruition. “Das Rheingold” was actually his recommendation for our joint project. He was familiar with the opera and also wanted a relatively short program. (Rheingold is Wagner’s shortest opera.) This turned out to be most fortunate for Indianapolis Opera. Not long afterward we found that we were going use a quasi-virtual set for “Tosca.” We brought Joachim in to direct, and he introduced us to the possibilities of this technology. His stage direction was admired by both singers and audience.

Joachim Schamberger
Joachim Schamberger

Knowing that the orchestra would be onstage for this production, thereby precluding a normal set, but also desiring to offer more than a traditional “concert” version of the opera, we thought of a talented young German director with impressive experience at creating “virtual” sets. His name is Joachim Schamberger. Joachim has relatives living in Indianapolis, and during one of his visits he called to introduce himself and his portfolio. 

So now flash forward to the introduction of Maestro Venzago and Director Schamberger, both German speakers and steeped in Germanic music and lore. They hit it off instantly, both personally and artistically. Having artistic leadership intimate with both the language and the cultural aspects of the opera suggests ringing performances. Having listened as they discussed artistic issues, I can’t tell you how very much I am looking forward to them!

Next week, more about Joachim’s wonderful set design.

Wish you were here!

Jim

 

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Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 9:41 pm  Leave a Comment