Interview

Brian Thorsett Interview

In+Performance+Long+HSTenor Brian Thorsett (pictured left), well known to Bay Area opera fans, got a tenure track assistant professor position at Virginia Tech last year and subsequently moved to across the country. He is, however, still performing in here quite a bit, and will sing in the next Curious Flights concert on May 28 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer in the Bay Area?
The Bay Area has a tremendous classical music scene, with lots of opportunities, tons of opera companies, and great instrumentalists. San Francisco audiences are very supportive and you can do opera in weird places. There were lots of times when I couldn't believe we were allowed to do certain things.

The challenges are the expense of living here and the traffic. I would perform 40 weekend a year (which is nuts), do outreach with San Francisco Opera, and teach, but still got priced out of the Bay Area. Also the traffic here is terrible, I was so happy to sell my car when I moved to Virginia. I was sad to leave the Bay Area, but thankfully there are airplanes, so I can come back to perform.

You have degrees in mathematics and piano, it's easy to see how the latter relates to singing, but does math relate at all to being a singer?
It sure does. For one thing, I really know how to count.

Seriously though, there is a sense of creativity to finding proofs in math that is not unlike being a singer. You can take 3 or 4 different paths getting to the answer. Just as when you have to come to an understanding about characterizing a certain role or even dealing with a technical issue in your voice, there is more than one way to go about it.

Math definitely broadened my horizons and fostered both an intellectual curiosity in me and an appreciation for the interconnectedness of things.

Your repertory is quite varied, spanning Monteverdi to David Lang. Do you have a favorite composer?
I don't think you can be a classical musician and not love Bach. The St. Matthew Passion is the pinnacle of Western art music, without a doubt.

I do also love working with living composers because there is a special kind of collaboration that happens. Recently I sang a Scott Gendel song cycle on love and I'm performing "American Death Ballads" by David Conte in July. So those two composers are my favorites at the moment too.

Tell me about the pieces you are performing with Curious Flights.
Well, the main piece is the Blitzstein, The Airborne Symphony, which is somewhere between unabashedly Romantic and Coplandesque. It is a fun narrative about the history of flight but goes beyond that. It is about striving, failing, but eventually being able to do something great. And it shows the downsides of this success too.

I'm also singing three Korngold songs, two from Give Us This Night and one from The Constant Nymph. Give Us This Night starred the mezzo Gladys Swarthout and the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, it has a stunningly ridiculous plot. Weirdly enough the lyrics are by Hammerstein, so it was a Korngold and Hammerstein musical.

I don't know a single musician that isn't blown away by Korngold, but of course, he isn't performed that much. Part of it is because his music is out of print, and you have to hunt down songs if you want them. I had to call around, contacted Paramount and got someone to send me some PDFs. I did the piano reduction of the scores myself!


Brian Asawa Interview

Brian Asawa010Brian Asawa (pictured left) recently released a recording entitled "Spirits of the Air" with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash. The Merola Program is hosting a CD release celebration on November 7, 2014, honoring both singers, who are to attend and be interviewed.

How did you get your start in opera and how did you discover that you were a countertenor?
I was always very interested in music. I took piano lessons on and off since the age of 5. I sang in my elementary school chorus. In junior high school I took up cello and played in the junior high school orchestra. In high school I took up trombone and played in the award winning jazz band and award winning marching band at Venice High School in Los Angeles.

I attended UC Santa Cruz as a piano major, but my passion was singing. I sang in both the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir. My choral director and mentor gave me my first solo as a countertenor after I discovered my strong falsetto voice. I transferred to UCLA and focused entirely on my countertenor voice, graduated with a BA, then began a Master's degree at USC in Early Music, but left the program when I won the Met Auditions to start my career. The Met win was followed with my life changing participation in San Francisco Opera Center's Merola and Adler Fellowship programs, which provided me with musical, language, movement coachings, as well as performance opportunities that I never could have found elsewhere.

Regarding my early stages in opera, my first mentor was John Hall, the opera workshop director at UCLA. I performed in several productions there. At USC, I studied Baroque opera and performed arias with lutenist and early music specialist James Tyler and his Early Music Ensemble.

The first time I heard you sing was in Bayerische Staatsoper's Saul because David Daniels was indisposed. Does this sort of thing happen often as there are relatively few countertenors?
Countertenors used to be few and far between, especially in the United States, but now they is more supply of countertenors than demand. Countertenors like Jeffrey Gall, Derek Lee Ragin, Drew Minter, and myself brought the vocal category to the forefront in the US in the late 80's early 90's.

Regarding singers that are sick and unable to perform and replaced, it happens all the time. This is why singers in Europe are at such a huge advantage over American singers. Most European travel times are a two-hour flight or less. Jumping in for ailing singers is very common, especially in the winter.

I was at the right place at the right time. I just happened to be in Germany doing a concert tour in Baroque pitch of Handel's Saul, the last show in Wuppertal, when I got a call from my manager, saying I wasn't flying home to SF, but rather going to Munich to step in for David Daniels, who was ailing from bronchitis. There was no time to learn the staging, but I was able to quickly learn an aria which was cut from the concert tour version, and I had to sing the whole role up a half step.

It was crazy! I sang the part on the side of the stage, and the stage manager acted the part on stage. This is the best we could do. Singers are not robots. We get sick too, and the intelligent singers cancel, and the not so intelligent go on, and sometimes to catastrophic results. We don't have the luxury and assurance of pulling out our instruments from cases, or just opening a lid. No matter what instrumentalists say, they don't have the same stress that singers do. Many pianists or violinists have gone on with colds and even the flu because they can unless they are deathly ill. I have had numerous arguments with instrumentalists about this topic, but their instruments are not living in their throats.

Your repertoire includes many Händel operas, but you have also worked with contemporary composers such as Peter Eötvös and Daron Hagen. How do these roles compare?
Certainly the technical demands of contemporary opera are much different than Baroque opera. And more specifically, each role within Baroque and contemporary works presents different technical challenges. I found the roles of my lifetime in Peter Eotvös' Tri Sestri (The Three Sisters) as Masha, and in Georg Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre as Prince Go-Go.

Baroque opera is more exposed and technically challenging with fast coloratura arias, as well as slow, legato arias, often with long lines, requiring endless breath support. Contemporary opera often requires more vocal colors and heft, and the ability to count!

How was singing it working with West Edge Opera on Hagen's Vera of Las Vegas?
It was great fun. A professional drag artist was hired to teach me how to walk in high heels, and move like a drag performer. The make-up and wig alone took about 90 minutes to apply. Technically it was challenging to sing, because the role was written for a male soprano, and since I am a male alto, the aria was transposed a minor third down, making the role feel like there were two different tessituras.

How did the CD Spirits of the Air come together?
My duet partner Diana Tash and I met in Los Angeles Opera's 1995 production of Handel's Xerxes. We performed together at San Diego Opera in 2005 and were in different productions there the following season. I invited Diana to join me in a few benefit recitals for my church. We then performed in a duo recital at the Colburn School of Music in 2011. Subsequently we decided to do an all Baroque program, which we performed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Guadalajara. We recorded this with our continuo team and released it this month on LML Music.

What are your favorite operas?
My favorite operas are Elektra (I saw Gwyneth Jones in the title role blow the roof off of SF Opera in 1991), Xerxes, Giulio Cesare, Mitridate, Ascanio in Alba, Madama Butterfly, and L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Who do you look up to as far as musicians are concerned?
A partial list of singers that I admire are Mirella Freni, Leontyne Price, Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, Carol Vaness, Domingo, Emma Kirkby, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Baker, Marilyn Horne, Natalie Dessay, Jennifer Larmore, Jochen Kowalski, Reneè Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, John Tomlinson, and Joyce di Donato.

As for conductors, I admire Sir Colin Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Esa Pekka Salonen, Emmanuelle Häim, Ivor Bolton, and Gustav Dudamel.

We in the Bay Area were so sorry to lose your aunt Ruth Asawa, the amazing sculptor and arts education activist last year. Was she an influence for you?
She was such a generous woman. When I was young, we used to come up and visit her from LA, and she would keep us entertained with all kinds of arts and crafts activities, trips to museums, and even a lecture with Buckminister Fuller, a close friend of hers. She always was so gracious and showed such humility with regard to her gifts as an artist. When I started performing in my later years, she was so supportive and always came to my performances. She even came all the way to Mexico City for the Domingo Competition.

What are the challenges for opera singers in our age of social media and live high definition broadcasts?
With social media everything is instant. When people attend performances, they are tweeting and Facebooking at the intermissions about how everyone is singing, who the standouts are, how the conductor is conducting, how the orchestra sounds, and what the production is like. I have to say, it is refreshing that the audience has to put their devices away for classical performances! We are so attached and addicted to our phones, laptops, tablets that it's nice to see a forced break imposed, if even for a few hours.

I must say there are more benefits to the arts rather than challenges with regard to social media and the advancements of technology. Performances of operas and concerts are reaching so many more people than ever before through hi def performances. Musicians are now able to promote and publicize themselves so much more effectively than before the advent of social media. Luckily, there are very few incidences of cyberbullying amongst musicians. Most musicians seem very supportive of one another on social media. Sometimes fans can play favorites or be unnecessarily rude or critical, but one takes the good and ignores the bad.

Do you have a theory on why some many opera fans are also baseball fans?
It seems like opera fans are into many different types of sports. I personally love watching tennis and gymnastics, women's volleyball, and cheerleading. However, I know a lot of SF Opera chorus members who are completely obsessed with the SF Giants. On the topic of baseball, my father used to take me to LA Dodger games when I was a kid. I was probably more into the spectacle of being there, the chanting and singing, the Dodger dogs, and ice cream than the actual game!


Julie Adams Interview

Adams, JulieSan Francisco Conservatory of Music alumna Julie Adams (pictured left) was one of the winners of Met Council Auditions this year. She sang the role of Blanche DuBois in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire as a participant of the Merola Opera Program this summer. The program concludes this Saturday with the Grand Finale.

What was the first opera you sang in?
I was in the chorus of Die Fledermaus at L.A. County High School for the Arts. I initially went there for musical theater, but I don't dance, so that didn't work out so well. Stephanie Vlahos, who is in the music faculty there still, introduced me to opera.

Did you go to the recent performance of A Streetcar Named Desire in Los Angeles?
Yes, I managed to go to the last performance. I was on the edge of my seat, since I knew the music and was curious to hear how Renée Fleming tackled the role of Blanche. Her artistry is amazing.

How was it singing Blanche for Merola?
It was really hard but so rewarding. It was difficult to learn and I had to rely on muscle memory to get the starting pitches, as Previn didn't score things so that the orchestra is there to help. I miss the role now as I was living with it for so long. It was very intense. The movie version is obviously iconic, we had to bring something different to the roles and to make them our own.

What are your favorite operas?
I love Puccini. Bohème is one of my favorites and Mimì is a dream role for me. I also love Marriage of Figaro. Magic Flute, I know not everyone likes that one, but I do. Mozart is, of course, a genius. Traviata. Manon. Susannah. I am so excited that San Francisco Opera is doing this one. This is another dream role. I love Carlyle Floyd.

Is there a particular singer to you look up to?
Pat Racette. I admire her with my whole heart. She always gives 110 percent. She always moves me, and I think that is why people go to the opera, to be moved.

What do you think of musical theater as opera?
I think it is great, it gets people into the opera house. Obviously the opera wouldn't take on contemporary Broadway works. For Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kern and Hammerstein, or Gilbert and Sullivan, it completely makes sense. It is great music and is accessible.

What was it like to sing at the Met?
It was a great experience, very glamorous and thrilling. I was so nervous, so it was hard to be in the moment, but my favorite part was the Sitzprobe, when we rehearsed with conductor and orchestra. I sang "L'annee en vain chasse l'annee" from Debussy's L'Enfant Prodigue, which the orchestra wasn't familiar with, obviously, as the opera isn't done that much. The conductor, Marco Armiliato, asked me to bear with them, but the Met Orchestra is incredible. The musicians are such lovely people too.

What are you singing for the Merola Grand Finale?
The "Cherry Duet," "Suzel, buon dì…Tutto tace," from L'amico Fritz with Mr. Casey Candabat. I am also singing Alice in the final piece, "Volgiti e mira…Tutto nel mondo è burla." We are singing on the Susannah set, so we are all in formal wear on a desolate, stark stage.

One of your interests is watching professional hockey games. Do you support a particular team?
The Los Angeles Kings, sorry Sharks fans. Hockey is exciting and I enjoy watching games with my dad and brother.


Noah Stewart Interview

Noah StewartTenor Noah Stewart (pictured left, photograph by Mitch Jenkins) is singing the world premiere of Steven Stucky's The Stars and the Roses with Berkeley Symphony this Thursday.

How did you start singing?
I first started singing when I needed extra school activities while at junior high school in New York City. I was drawn to a diverse mix of musical styles ranging from jazz to Broadway and back. Before the age of 12, I had already sung in Latin, German, French, Swahili, and Hebrew. It definitely set the stage for an international career.

La costanza in amor vince l'inganno was the first opera you performed in, which seems unusual. How did that come about?
When I was a senior at LaGuardia High School or "The Fame School," I was given the options of Gospel Chorus or Opera Workshop. Most of my friends chose gospel, as it was closer to pop music, while I chose opera. At this stage, I was truly obsessed with opera and would jump at the chance for free tickets at the Met to see some of my favorite singers like Pavarotti and Jessye Norman.

Aminta, from Caldara's La costanza in amor vince l'inganno, was my first operatic role. (Tenor great, Beniamino Gigli frequently included songs like "Sebben, crudele" in his concerts.) My opera workshop teacher would stay after school teaching the recitatives, because he saw this passion for opera within me. Interestingly enough, it was the North American premiere of that opera. I wasn't your ordinary 16-year-old, I would say. By the time I auditioned for Juilliard, I had already sung with full orchestras for three years as a soloist for regular mass and oratorio performances while in high school.

Do you like creating roles, as for Appomattox?
I have been very fortunate to have had experience singing traditional repertory as well as contemporary music in my career. I enjoy working along side living composers and creating roles like T. Morris Chester in Glass' Appomattox here at SFO. It's nice to not have constant comparisons to artists and ghosts of the past. It also keeps up my technique as far as learning music.

What are your favorite operas?
At this time, my favorite operas to perform are those of the leading Italian and French heroic roles. I feel that the timbre and weight of my voice lends itself to the music of Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, and Massenet. I also enjoy the dramatic and physical challenges of a role like Don José, the dangerous soldier and lover in Bizet's Carmen.

How did you choose the pieces on your debut CD?
The music selections for the CD were made between the producer, creative team from Universal/Decca and myself.

How has working with Joana Carneiro and Berkeley Symphony been?
I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Joana at Chicago Opera Theater on John Adams' A Flowering Tree. She is one of my favorite conductors around. Not only is she an incredible musician, but the sheer passion that she displays inspires me whenever I see her perform.

Tell me about the piece you are debuting.
The piece that I am premiering is comprised of three songs. The texts are poems written by Czesław Miłosz and the music is composed by Steven Stucky. The themes are nature and love, and are beautifully set.

Which singers to you look up to?
The singers of whom I look up to are the singers of the Golden Age. I collect historical recordings and often play them for inspiration and guidance. My favorite tenor and singer is Enrico Caruso who really changed what a leading tenor sounded like, combining a rich color capable of beautiful lyrical and dramatic shadings. The first time I saw and heard the voice of Leontyne Price, I was in love. It's like fine crystal and anyone I speak to who had the chance to hear her soprano says the sound was simply stunning. Other favorites include Gigli, Ponselle, Verrett, Bumbry, Callas, Corelli, and Cappucilli to name just a few.

You are really diligent with tweeting, how do you keep up?
I try to make time for it like so many things. The life of the modern day opera singer is very different from that of yesteryear. Being a New Yorker, I had to become good at multitasking.

What is your fitness regimen?
I try to do yoga as much as I can while on the road. I feel that it centers and helps me focus, as well as helps my breath in singing. I also love to enjoy the food and culture of every country and city I visit, so a gym membership is a must!

The picture you took of custard tarts from Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon was really cute. Are they really good for the voice?
They are good for the voice. Art is fed from life and great experiences. To be a great artist, you must be a communicator of many emotions. We feel special connections to our favorite people and artists. We do so because they are able to translate their experience through different mediums and forms of art. That custard definitely makes my High C a bit shinier, or so I like to think so.


Joyce DiDonato Interview

Joyce-DiDonato_credit_Sheila-RockMezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (pictured left, photograph by Sheila Rock) is midway through a tour with Il Complesso Barocco. Their last stop in the United States is tonight at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.

How did you get interested in opera?
I was studying Music Education in college, and could get a bit more scholarship money if I joined the opera, so I did. And I was hooked immediately. It was the marriage of everything I love: music, theater, emotion, physicality, intelligence. It requires everything that I am.

Your repertoire includes a lot of Baroque and Bel Canto roles. Is this different from working on new music like Dead Man Walking, or something like The Enchanted Island?
I don't actually see it as separate or different - to me it is all story telling. The structure is sometimes different, but the premise is the same. One thing I love about Baroque and Bel Canto roles, however, is the ability to ornament the vocal line, which provides a tremendous amount of freedom and liberation, allowing me to put a very individual stamp onto the role.

Was it stressful to be filmed in HD for the Met simulcast?
It was thrilling, but just a tad nerve-wracking, knowing that so many people are watching a live performance around the globe. However, the idea that opera can reach so many people at once far outweighs any nerves on my end. It is a tremendous undertaking!

How was singing in Bellini'’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi?
It is a role that I love deeply, for his youth, ardor, passion, and confusion ~ it is such a joy to play such extreme emotions. But it was also an absolute joy to play this piece with Nicole Cabell, who made a divine Giulietta. This is an opera that turns on the chemistry between to the two singers, and to find such a glorious singer and committed performer in Nicole was a real joy.

How did the CD Drama Queens come together?
I knew that I wanted to return to the Baroque world for my next disc, and the idea of the strong, powerful female prima donnas of that period really attracted me. They are larger than life, and I think brought out the very best in the composers who were inspired by the Royal ways. Without knowing which exact arias I wanted to sing, I started with the idea of the roles of Cleopatra and Octavia. At 3:00 am one night, I woke up out of a deep sleep thinking "DRAMA QUEENS" - and the idea was born.

What roles are you looking forward to most?
I'm very excited to revisit Maria Stuarda for the second time at the Metropolitan Opera this winter. The Met has never done the opera before, so it is a great privilege to bring this iconic role to such a storied theater for the first time.

Who do you look up to as far as musicians are concerned?
My greatest idol has always been Frederica von Stade - she is one of the greatest singers I know, who exudes buckets of generosity and sincerity on the stage, and has always been the model for how I have wished to build my career. Another favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald.

You are an amateur photographer. What camera do you use? What do you like to photograph?
I use a Canon and love to photograph whatever I see: landscape, architecture, candid shots, backstage - anything that falls into my line of sight!

How did you start blogging and tweeting?
When I first started my website I wanted it to include a kind of journal (this was before "blog" was even a word!) It has morphed into a real dialogue with my fans, which is something quite special.

What sort of yoga do you do?
I love Hatha and Ashtanga yoga.


Dominique Labelle Interview

Dominique-labelle-lino-alvarezSoprano Dominique Labelle (pictured left, photograph by Lino Alvarez) is currently singing with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. She spoke with The Opera Tattler on April 17, 2012 after rehearsal in Berkeley.

How did you start singing?
I started singing when I was very young. When I was about 13 I played flute, piano, and guitar. At the time I was writing poems and set them to music, and just started singing that way. I didn't even know I had a voice, it just turned out that way. I always loved music, and wanted to be inside of it. Singing happens to be how I am able to do that.

Was your family musical?
My mother always sang in choruses, as did her mother. My father played accordion. I do have a singer in my genealogy, Emma Albani. Her grandmother was a Labelle. Albani was born in the 1840s. She studied in Italy and even sang at Covent Garden. It took a long time for her to get married, because in those days a woman had to be a mother and stay at home. She would not have been able to continue her career if she had married. She was very brave. She sang all over, in Australia and Russia. I have heard recordings of her, but of course, it was very late in her career so it is hard to tell what her voice was really like. It is remarkable, because where she was from, people were mostly farmers.

You are from Laval, Quebec. Why is it that Canada produces so many great singers?
I think it might be a mixture of discipline and freedom. We don't have the constraints of tradition that perhaps effects the Europeans. We might not have the same pressures of making money as Americans do. But there are many great singers from different places.

How did you find yourself living in Central Massachusetts?
I went to Tanglewood Music Center in 1986 and met Phyllis Curtin. I wanted to really study with her, and was able to get a scholarship to attend Boston University. I moved to Massachusetts in 1988. I met my husband at school, he is a tenor. We did those love scenes over and over and it got us in trouble!

You sing a lot of Baroque music. What do you think of contemporary works?
I love all music, but new music can sometimes be hard on the voice. Especially with young composers, you really have to look at the score. There might be five pages of B flats, who knows! In any case, I love to be part of the music.

The ABA form that characterizes many Baroque arias can seem static. How do you avoid being dull?
Remember that this music was written before radio or recordings. The ABA form is quite nice if it is the first time you are hearing a piece. It helps familiarize the listener, and when the A part comes back, it is always a little bit transformed. You have to find that difference within yourself as an artist, and it is one of the challenges of singing Baroque music.

How is working with Philharmonia Baroque?
Everyone is involved in putting the music together. It is a collaborative environment, like a family.

Tell me about the piece you are singing with PBO, Alexander's Feast.
The text adapted from a Dryden poem written for Saint Cecilia. It is beautiful music. It is not dramatic, and there is no real narrative. We are at party, and there is lots of energy, ideas, and creativity.

You must love Handel, you sing a lot of his work.
Handel demands your whole life! I've thought a lot about the fascinating characters in his pieces. I am always trying to figure out what shaped the story at hand, because can be so much range of emotion in the arias of a given character.

What is next for you?
I am off to a concert in Monterrey, Mexico. I have been traveling since the middle of December!

What was the last movie you saw?
I saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Jiro Ono, the famous sushi chef who is 85 years old. It really stuck with me, how obsessed with he is with getting everything exactly right.


Dawn Harms Interview

Dawn-harmsDawn Harms is conducting Symphony Parnassus in a spring concert this weekend with guest artist Frederica von Stade at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Harms also plays violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and is Associate Concertmaster of New Century Chamber Orchestra. She spoke with The Opera Tattler on March 19, 2012.

How did you come to be a violinist?
My parents always wanted a violinist in the family. My sister played cello, my brother played viola, and my mother was a voice teacher. I still remember a lot of the etudes and exercises she taught me. She was my accompanist when I was growing up too.

So you are from a musical family! I heard that one of your cousins is Tom Waits, is that true?
Yes, our mothers are sisters. Tom is a great guy. I've played on three of his albums. He'll often tell me that my playing is too sweet, and that I should play more like a child, rough it up more. He really loves the weirdest sounds!

How did you start playing for the opera?
I was in a string quartet in Amarillo, Texas, and that's only 4 hours away from Santa Fe Opera, so I auditioned and played there for 5 summers. The atmosphere there is really something.

How did you meet Frederica von Stade?
It was actually in Santa Fe, and because of recycling. It was early in the morning after a party, and I was recycling some bottles. I happened to see Flicka and introduced myself. She was and is so gracious and down-to-earth.

When did you come to San Francisco?
San Francisco Opera had an opening for the principal violist. I auditioned, and actually, I didn't get the position, the current principal, Carla Maria Rodrigues, did. She couldn't start right away though, so I played principal viola for one season, and then switched to violin.

What appeals to you about opera?
Who doesn't love drama? My favorite operas are Der Rosenkavalier and Peter Grimes. I tend toward the more dramatic. I'm a Puccini freak and also I love Jake Heggie's music.

How is working with other string players different than working with singers?
Playing a string instrument is similar to singing. It is an analogy I use with my students at Stanford, and I have them sing phrases. It helps them connect to the music and emote. The bow is like a vocal cord.

How did you start conducting?
I studied conducting in 2008 at Aspen, for an intensive 9 weeks. It was great to conduct such a fantastic orchestra.

What do you like about conducting?
A lot of people think conducting is about power and egotism, but I would say it is a bit more like dance. It is expressing music through movement, and the whole orchestra becomes your instrument.

Tell me about Symphony Parnassus.
It is a community orchestra made up of doctors, health care workers, and students from UCSF. People have to pay dues in order to join, and they are there for the love of the music. They are very devoted, rehearsing every Monday night after a full day of work.


Brian Jagde Interview

Brian-jagde Tenor Brian Jagde (pictured left as Pinkerton in Virginia Opera's production of Madama Butterfly, photograph by Anne M. Peterson) is currently an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera. He sings Vitellozzo in Lucrezia Borgia and Don José in Carmen for Families at San Francisco Opera during the 2011-2012 season, then heads to Fresno, Bozeman, Munich, Minnesota, and Santa Fe. The Opera Tattler caught up with Jagde on Wednesday.

How did you get into opera?
Last thing I'd thought I would do. I studied computer science and business for 2 years, but I sang in chorus at school at SUNY Albany. I realized that I liked playing around with computers more than programing them. I ended up auditioning for SUNY
Purchase College's Department of Opera Performance. My first performance was in The Magic Flute, and I was covering roles, singing, dealing with the sets, and even the lighting. Being on stage was incredible, especially feeling the sound of the orchestra.

Was it in college you discovered you were a tenor?
Actually, I had sung tenor up until college, and when I was there, I thought I had to produce a certain sound. So I went through college as a baritone. I have always had a high speaking voice, and, actually, being a tenor came naturally to me. It was funny, I was booked as Marcello in La Bohème at Virginia Opera, but I ended up singing Rodolfo at Syracuse. I really developed as a tenor in the Adler Program though.

How has the Adler Program been? I really liked your performance in Makropulos, but I know you have been covering a lot of roles too.
It has been really great, and I have learned so much. In Makropulos, the role of Janek is more of an acting role, playing someone so virginal and with such a problem of confidence. His father does treat him very badly, obviously. It was great working with Karita Mattila, she is just otherworldly. Covering roles has been eye-opening as well. Last Summer I was covering Brandon Jovanovich as Froh, and he is just the nicest person, so down to earth, but he has a great voice for the War Memorial, which is obviously such a huge space.

Was San Francisco Opera's Ring your first?
Yes, and I am so grateful. Of course was the singing amazing, not only with Brandon, but Mark Delavan as Wotan and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. But the production really was fantastic. I loved how human Francesca Zambello made the characters.

Speaking of which, how has your summer been going?
Well, I started off here covering Das Rheingold, and then headed off to sing
Bohème at Castleton. It really is in the middle of nowhere, there is hardly any cellular phone service or Internet out there. I had to get a phone card to even be able to make calls. But it was good to disconnect for a bit. I ended up rediscovering tennis while I was there, and it has been the best exercise. It is fun, and it is good to find physical activity that isn't a chore to do. After Castleton, I went to Italy for 10 days, and there is just such warmth there. I have been there before, but they just embrace opera singers. Rome is my favorite city in the world, so far.

Now you are back, covering Heart of A Soldier. How has that been?
That's right, I am covering Bill Burden (Daniel J. Hill) in Heart of A Soldier. The life of Rick Rescorla suits opera very well, his life involved a lot of singing! I think the biggest challenge of the opera is that a lot of time is covered, so it is up to the director (Francesca Zambello) to make those transitions make sense.

I understand you are also singing in the Stern Grove concert on your birthday this Sunday with Dolora Zajick. Are you excited?
Absolutely! I cannot think of a better way to celebrate my birthday! I am lucky that my voice and repertoire, with all the Puccini I am studying, because it affords me opportunity to sing the tenor/mezzo duet with her from Il Trovatore. Dolora has been very helpful too.

She is so good at that role, the first Trovatore I heard was with Dolora.
She said something really great, that there are two kinds of singers, regardless if you are famous or not. You can either sing 9 roles, and be the absolute best at those, or you can take on a wide variety, and sing 240 roles. She's obviously the former.


Peter Kazaras Interview

Peter-kazaras Peter Kazaras (pictured left) directed the Merola Opera Program's Schwabacher Summer Concert this year. Kazaras is currently the Director of Opera at UCLA and Artistic Director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program. He was kind enough to speak with The Opera Tattler on July 14, 2011.

In addition to being an opera director, you are also a tenor. When and how did you start singing?
My father was a dramatic tenor, until he had to give it up because of nearly fatal ulcers. My mother was a musicologist. So I knew I should not pursue a life as a professional singer, but the craziness won out! I went to Harvard and studied government, then I went to law school. But I was in shows all the time, and in plays. I started singing lessons at 19. I was an attorney for two years, but i started my professional career as a tenor when I was 27. I waited until I was ready, but I didn't do it the normal way. I considered myself a principal character tenor. Stephen Wadsworth was my friend from college, and I was in his Poppea at Skylight Opera Theatre as Nero. I created the role of François in A Quiet Place, so I got to work with Bernstein, which was a kick.

How did you go from being a tenor to being an opera director?
I was always watching, I would go to rehearsals and just watch. It was a natural thing for me, I was always interested in directing. I directed Norma in Seattle, and then Le Nozze di Figaro, Tristan und Isolde, and Barbiere on the main stage. At UCLA I've done Falstaff, Le Nozze di Fiagro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, Carousel (without amplification, not even for the dialogue), Three Penny Opera, and Dialogues of the Carmelites.

What does being the Artistic Director of Seatle Opera's YAP entail?
I started off at Seattle Opera as a singer, in 1985, and most recently I sang Loge in the 2005 Ring. I am actually making my return to the stage fairly soon. I became involved in the Young Artist's Program through Perry Lorenzo in the Department of Education at Seattle Opera. I do coachings and hear auditions. I have also directed the young artists in Le Nozze di Figaro, Turn of the Screw, Falstaff, a double bill of Enchanted Child and Gianni Schicchi, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Don Giovanni. The program runs from October through November, and January through April, so I fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Seattle quite a lot!

What do you do for Merola? Tell me about directing a concert rather than a whole opera.
I help the Merolini gain the skills they need, and we work on knowing what every word means. We have to figure out what works physically for them, and there is a lot of play involved.

What are the challenges of being an opera director?
My job is to create a page and then get everyone on it! What is on this page is dictated by the score, especially the music in the score. The brunt of the work is actually shouldered by the music and the singers. One of the challenges is that there should be no difference between acting and singing, and one should be able to hear what is going on through the voice as aided by the body.

When do you get your best ideas?
Usually either in the shower or when walking my poodle Tommy.


David Cangelosi Interview

David-cangelosi-in-siegfried-at-sfopera Tenor David Cangelosi (pictured left in Siegfried Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver) sings Mime in San Francisco Opera's current Ring production. Cangelosi has been blogging himself since 2009, and graciously agreed to meet with The Opera Tattler and Miss LCU before the final dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold last month.

What are your dream roles?
Mime is my dream role! Years ago I received the Solti Ring box set on cassette tape, and for some reason, I started listening to Siegfried first. I got into opera to sing this role.

You are clearly an athlete. How does your training as a springboard diver help you as an opera singer?
I've always been athletic and wiry. I have really good control of my body in the air, so springboard diving came very naturally to me. Being physically strong helps my stamina on stage. In Siegfried I am on stage for 90 minutes without a break, and my Mime is very physical, so it is pretty exhausting.

What makes a good Mime?
For any role, I make sure to listen to what the other characters say to me. 90 to 95 percent of what I do is simply to react. I've never had an acting lesson!

How does Francesca Zambello's production compare to your experiences at Lyric and the Met?
Zambello is great, she really challenged me. She is interested in a longer emotional arc of the character, from Das Rheingold into Siegfried, and she adds a human touch to Mime's narrative. You will notice that in the last scene of Das Rheingold she has me wait around, and then I run off stage right. So it makes sense how I get from Nibelheim to the forest.

Do you sympathize with Mime?
There's really no black and white in these operas, all of the characters have a humanity to them. I don't think Mime planned to kill Siegfried from the beginning. Of course, Mime has his own agenda, but he raised this child, and I think he does care for Siegfried. But there is a point at which Mime chooses himself over Siegfried, obviously.

What are your favorite hair products?
Local business Nancy Boy in Hayes Valley makes some great products that aren't too heavily scented.


Heidi Melton Interview

Melton_heidi_2011 Soprano Heidi Melton (pictured left, photograph by Kristin Hoebermann) sings Third Norn in Götterdämmerung and Sieglinde in Cycle Three's Die Walküre this summer at San Francisco Opera. She sings Third Norn in the Met's upcoming Ring cycle next year. The Opera Tattler caught up with Melton at the War Memorial before rehearsal a few weeks ago.

When did you first start singing?
When I was about 15 or 16, I wanted to be a soccer player. I didn't make it into the premier league, and I felt absolutely terrible. I locked myself in the bathroom at home and cried, and my sister, she picked the lock and talked some sense into me. She challenged me to find what was next. I started taking singing lessons, and it clicked right away.

What was your first Ring?
My first Ring was the one at Deutsche Oper Berlin by Götz Friedrich. It is from the 80s and set in the DC subway. I sang Third Norn, Helmwige, and Gutrune. For Gutrune, I didn't know I was singing the role until a week before, so it was pretty surreal. They had told me that I should look at the role, and thankfully I'm slightly OCD, so I did have the part memorized. I had about two days of rehearsal.

How do you like Berlin?
It is amazing, there is so much history.

What do you miss about the States?
Let me be honest, I really miss American Diet Coke. It is my biggest vice!

Welcome back! You spent three years here as an Adler. Is there a role that sticks out for you?
The funniest story is when I sang Diane in Iphigénie en Tauride. I had to sing from the second balcony, and I was standing up before I was to come in, watching Maestro Stewart carefully. An audience member was absolutely incensed that I was standing up, and kept hissing "Sit down, you sit down!" Once I started singing it was all fine, but I had to have an usher escort me for the rest of the performances.

You are singing Sieglinde soon. How do you relate to this character?
I've fallen in love with Sieglinde. I think you have to, in order to really do your job. Sieglinde is such a woman, not a girl. You do have to get past the incest, of course, in order to relate to the character. She has a serious case of arrested development. But I admire her cunning, and I feel this really comes out in Francesca Zambello's direction.

How have rehearsals been?
Great! I have been doing all the rehearsals for Die Walküre before Anja Kampe arrives. It is also Brandon Jovanovich's first Siegmund, so doing this together has been very rewarding. The most challenging scene has been the beginning of Götterdämmerung, though it doesn't look hard. We are on a pile of rubble, with the scrim down. We are wearing goggles and they had been fogging up, so it was difficult to see!

I hear your nickname is "Pippi." Why?
That's right! My mother named me "Heidi" because she just liked the book by Johanna Spyri. Once my colleagues heard of this, I got the nickname "Pippi," from the Pippi Longstocking books, of course.


Brandon Jovanovich Interview

Brandon-jovanovich This month tenor Brandon Jovanovich (pictured left, photograph by Peter Dressel) has role debuts of Froh and Siegmund in San Francisco Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen. In August, Jovanovich sings Věc Makropulos at the Salzburg Festival. Next season he performs in Cologne, Munich, Chicago, Berlin, Houston, and Washington, DC. The Opera Tattler spoke to Jovanovich at the War Memorial before rehearsal on Tuesday.

How did you get into opera?
By accident. I sang in high school choir. I had wanted to be a football player, and I went to the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota on a scholarship. The first year I was there it got to -80ºF below with the windchill factor. It was just too cold! I transferred to Northern Arizona University, but they wouldn't give me a scholarship for football without seeing me play. I ended up sending a tape of my choral singing, and was accepted into the music department.

Do you play an instrument?
Unfortunately, no. I can play enough piano to plunk out notes, and occasionally I can play a whole chord. I took about a year of piano at the age of 7 or 8. After the first 6 months I was allowed to take swimming lessons, and in another 6 I got a skateboard. And after the skateboard, well, that was it, no more piano.

How is working in opera? Is it stuffy as it is purported to be?
Since opera has to compete with other forms of entertainment, we do have to move around and act. I'm down two pairs of jeans from Ring rehearsals so far. Really, I've ripped two pairs!

You recently had a debut at the Met as Don José in Carmen (January 2010), and then returned the following season. How did that go?
It was a bit nerve-wracking, but it was great. I was covering Alagna, but it ended up that he sang 6 performances and I the other 6. I didn't get to work much with the director, Richard Eyre, until I went back to sing the role again last Fall, but it was so nice working with him.

Alagna was in the simulcast though, yes? How do you feel about the HD simulcasts?
That's right. It does bring bring opera to the masses. Especially with the HD broadcasts, they are such high quality, and that is wonderful. I am also apprehensive, as I have heard that some directors are looking at their work with an eye for the movie theater. Maybe something looks too much like stage acting for the camera, but that's where we are.

Is this your first Ring?
Yes, it is my first Wagner, in fact. I did hear Die Meistersinger in Chicago back in 1999. The first Ring operas I heard were Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Los Angeles last year. I was there singing Die Vögel.

That's right, they had Die Vögel on that same steep rake as the Ring. How was that?
It was terrifying. The choreographer, Peggy Hickey, had us doing ankle exercises to keep us injuring ourselves.

How did you get the role of Siegmund?
That's a very good question! I have no idea! They hired me in 2008, I believe. In 2007, when I won the Richard Tucker award. I sang "Winterstürme," so maybe Greg Henkel heard that and thought that this role was in me. Or perhaps they heard it in the Pinkerton I sang here in that same year.

Is it an intimidating role?
On one hand, yes. Wagnerites definitely set the bar at a particular level, and many great singers have sung Siegmund. On the other hand, it is exhilarating. The role fits my voice like a glove.

Is Siegmund a hard role to relate to?
He is a very odd character, even setting aside the whole incest aspect. He's a vigilante who sees the world in black and white.

What are you singing next?
Let's see. I am singing in a couple of Carmen productions, of course. I also have Tenor/Bacchus in Ariadne, Don Carlos, and Samson et Dalila in the next season. I am learning roles from Lohengrin, Fidelio, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It is a lot of music to get into my wee little brain!

Your rep is varied, from Baroque to contemporary. What are the challenges of creating a role versus singing ones that everyone knows inside and out?
New works are important and rewarding to sing. You are given a blank slate and you get to create something, first and foremost with the composer, but also with the director, conductor, and your colleagues. I especially like Daniel Catán, as far as his style, his sound was his own, but people can relate to it.

Do you have favorite operas?
I should preface this with, I like everything I work on when I'm working on it, because when you are looking at the music and singing it all the time, you get to appreciate how great it is. But as for particular favorites, I love Peter Grimes and Jenůfa. From the very beginning of Jenůfa a nervousness invades your body, it just doesn't let up, and the very last five minutes are just sublime.

You've described yourself as a goofball before. Please explain.
I don't take myself too seriously, I like to make people laugh in rehearsals and to have fun.

Why don't you have a Wikipedia article?
I was wondering that too! I won't write one myself, and I don't mind not having one. I don't need to be in the limelight all the time.


Stephanie Blythe Interview

Stephanie-blythe Last Saturday mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (pictured left, photo by Kobie van Rensburg) finished singing the role Fricka in Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. Later this month she will sing the Verdi Requiem and Elijah at the May Festival in Cincinnati. In August she will be the soloist in the Brahms Alto Rhapsody at Tanglewood. Next season Blythe will sing in Dido and Aeneas with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at Cal Performances. She returns to the Met for Rodelinda, Aida, and the Ring Cycle. The Unbiased Opinionator met up with Blythe before rehearsal on Friday.

One thing I wanted to say first off is I saw your Kate Smith evening at the Allen Room, and you were great. Do you have plans to repeat the program?
We're looking for a place to do that. It was very nice, really lovely.

Did you grow up with music?
My father is a jazz musician, so I heard music swing from very early on in my life. We didn't listen to vocalists in my house, as my father never cared for vocalists. He likes me, but we don't listen to a lot of vocalists. But I learned very early on how to swing, and that's a style, that's all it is.

It's something that one has in one's blood. But that's how it was. I mean Ella and the others, the girl singers with the big bands, they were part of the band, they knew the jazz structure, they're part of the band, and they can could along without memorizing a sung measure by measure. To someone who is 25 today, or even younger, this music is really unknown. It's almost opera to them.
As a Kate Smith person, you would be amazed to know how many people came up to me after that concert and said "I had no idea who she was!"

What was your first involvement in opera? Was it a natural evolution of the musical background of your family?
No. I attended three operas before I sang at the Met and that was it. My mother was a great fan of opera. The first opera I ever saw was Tosca, on television. I asked my mother what was the name of "E Lucevan" was. She told me, and I wrote it down, and tacked it on my board in my room. It is still one of my favorite arias ever. I went to school to be a music teacher and I discovered then that I wanted to sing, so I got an English degree. I just took a very circuitous route. It was the best thing that could have happened to me because I got a liberal arts degree. I feel like you can't really be a complete artist unless you have something to say, and it gave me something to say. When you're a writer you have to have some idea of structure and it gave me away to organize my thoughts and ideas, which was incredibly helpful. And then I discovered that I really wanted to sing. I was 21 when I started to take singing seriously. I did the Met auditions when I was 23, won, and came to the Met. It was very circuitous! It's the old story, it just happened.

You recently spoke to Alex Ross of The New Yorker about being Fricka, how people see her as a harridan or a nag. You obviously don't feel that way. Could you help us see Fricka through your eyes?
Well, I can't really talk about the Walküre Fricka, unless I talk about the Rheingold Fricka. With the Rheingold Fricka, can you really develop a character with so few lines? The thing that I always say about Fricka is how do people not see that this is a woman who is in love with someone who's about to make a gigantic mistake. To try and fix the first gigantic mistake, which is to buy a house and have a house made that you can't afford. You've paid for that with your sister. Wotan never, ever intended to pay for that. He was going to default on that loan regardless. Fricka knows that. But now when the time comes, what do you do? I'm sure that everyone at one point or another in their lives has come across this, not maybe this exact moment, but more people than we would like to believe, who has loved somebody and seen them about to make this gigantic mistake and there's nothing they can do about it. There's absolutely nothing she can do. And there's actually one moment in Rheingold – you know she could have the gold for herself. Maybe he could be getting this gold for me. Because after all Valhalla is all about their relationship. If Wotan makes this great house he's going to stay home, or so she thinks. There's really nothing in that character that every single person cannot identify with. There's nothing. So I don't see how Fricka is a nag, I mean the music isn't written in such a way that makes her sound that way in Rheingold. It is extraordinarily lyrical. There are two big moments – "Wo Weiss Du" and then at the very end just before "Abendlich." These are two incredibly lyrical, beautiful moments. So it's not in the music. Not to mention the fact in Rheingold, both of them are young. He's a young God. He's inexperienced. All this stuff hasn't happened. He hasn't screwed around on her with other people. So to say "Oh it's a loveless marriage..." It's not a loveless marriage. When we find them the first time it's almost fruitful soil. They're very much in love. If they're not a couple, and there's no love in Rheingold, then there's no tragedy in Walküre. So that the tragedy in Walküre is that she is asking him to do something that will end their relationship.

Is there a possible coloration considering the fact that Walküre was actually written before Rheingold?
I have thought of it, but even if that was the case, I still can't show an arc of the character if I don't show where they came from, I can't show where they're going. So that's why I have people who come to me and say "Thank you for presenting a real marriage." It is a marriage. Now, I don't know how easy it is to portray that in this particular production, but that's what my goal was to do. To show them in a real marriage and in a marriage that's beginning to have some major conflict. So that when we get to Walküre you understand when she says to him: "How can you say to me, who has followed you and watched you all of your life; how can try to pull the wool over my eyes?" They know each other. She knows that with this request that she’s making of him. It's all over, it's finished. And it's devastating. Wagner made it devastating! Alex Ross' article was all about that.

Nimm den Eid...
Yes, that's his answer to all of that. It's heart wrenching. You can hear the heartbreak.

So there's really no excuse for a singer to yell through it as if she were angry all the time; the nuance is there.
You can look at it that way, if you want to look at it that way. I mean there are phenomenal renderings of this particular character by many, many brilliant women, brilliant singing actresses, but I can't personally yell the whole time. If all she does is yell at him, then she's a total one-note. Then that scene doesn't mean anything. If there's not a bigger, deeper meaning to it, then how's he going to sing the following monologue?

Let's get to obvious things about character development: what you pull from yourself, your personal life and your own experience. You are looking at the couple and in effect having to put yourself somewhat in Wotan's mindset as well?
Of course, Wagner shows that it doesn't matter. She already knows what he's going to say before he says it. Whenever he says something, whenever he makes an argument back at her, and they are very measured arguments, incredibly logical. Even her jealousy argument: she doesn't say to him: "I hate you for what you've done to me." Fricka is barren; they have no children. They've been together a millennium and they have no children. So I don't think that she accepts this because she has a hearth and a home. That's the irony. But I don't think she expects his philandering, but it is part of who he is. Though it's not about him making those children, it's about him putting their needs before hers.

So, as you say, she's barren and childless. Is she really in fact just defending the institution of marriage and the fact that incest is wrong? So her principles are so high that that's the tragedy?
I'm sorry, incest is wrong! I mean, the way the music is written for these two young people is so passionate. When an audiences sees two people who have been totally lost their entire lives and never felt right, and never felt that they were where they should be, and all of a sudden, in an instant, they know who they are. In an instant they all know – we all, hopefully, know what that is like when you see somebody for the first time and all of a sudden you realize that your life is complete. Of course we're going to love them for that. The audience is going to forget that they're related and that they're brother and sister. It is Fricka's job to remind him: when has anything like this ever been acceptable? He says to her, well, now we've seen it. You are the fortunate one who has seen it happen for the first time. Here it is. His arguments to her are very good arguments but they cannot stop the logic of what has happened. The part that wins him over is "You couldn't do this to me!" Which means there has to be some love there, I'm sorry. He married her for a reason, you know. The other one is when she says to him: "You cannot expect this young man to fulfill your obligation, because all he is is you."

I'm just curious when you look at other characters, perhaps Elisabeth in Don Carlo, purely as an example, someone who is faced with these terrible decisions and torn between the duty of state and her own personal feelings: you would approach those characters in the same way?
Of course. I don't sing Elisabeth obviously. But if you cannot find something in that character to connect with then there is no way you're ever going to convince anybody in the audience of that character. Every single character has to be essential, every single one. One of the hardest roles that I sing is Azucena. It's a very difficult role. You might think that's just a story, but Susan Smith drove her children into a lake and got out of the car and there was the woman who drowned every single one of her children in the bathtub. These things happen. They happen today. We just don't want to think of them in those terms.

Now we have psychoanalytic or psychiatric definitions, depression and so forth that drive these people to that. That's our contemporary explanation of this, but going back 150 years, before any of these theories were there, the tragic element, totally apart from how we interpret as modern day people. In that vein, who can sing a role like this without an enormous amount of preparation? You first sang of Fricka about a decade ago. Can you describe a bit how it has evolved for you over time?
I got married in 2001 and I had done Fricka twice at that point. When I came back to sing it in 2005 it was shocking how much different it was understanding what was at stake in a relationship. Understanding for the first time what it's like not living just for yourself, but for somebody else, it makes a very big difference. Playing Fricka with a different person made a huge difference. Working with Greer Grimsley was an enormous help to me because we developed that character, Fricka, together.

To finish up, what are your interests outside of the opera world?
For about the last ten years I would have to say birding and gardening and my family. My husband and I really like bird watching and I like gardening. I like playing with my dogs and being in my home. I'm a real homebody. I come here and everything's so hectic, in Northeastern Pennsylvania I feel like I can breathe. I'm very happy there. When I'm not singing I like being at home.


Alan Held Interview

AH-Steiner-color Dr Miracle This weekend bass-baritone Alan Held (pictured left, leftmost photo by Christian Steiner) finishes a run of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. He goes to Baden-Baden next for Salome, Munich in July for Rusalka, Washington DC in September for Tosca, and Bilbao in October and November for Tristan und Isolde. Next season he returns to San Francisco for the Symphony's semi-staged Bluebeard's Castle. The Last Chinese Unicorn and the Unbiased Opinionator caught up with Held last Monday.

LCU: There are those who have difficulty sitting through pieces by Berg, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. What advice would you give to those unaccustomed to atonal music to prepare for Wozzeck?
AH: I have a friend who's flying in from LA this weekend to see the show and intimidated by it as well. She just wanted to enjoy it and I told her to be familiar with the story. To me a piece like Wozzeck is almost musical theater. There are wonderful sections of the piece that are very melodic, but there is all the atonal music and the Sprechstimme. The first step is to get familiar with the play, it's a gripping story. Then, listen to fragments of it. When you're preparing to hear a piece like this, don't try to listen to it all at one time. People are shocked at how much enjoy this thing, because it is so musical. The orchestra is so strong. But you have to take it in small portions at first, and then when you see it all together it will blow you away. If the artist is doing his or her job, to express the text and the story, to me Wozzeck is more natural and easier to absorb than just about any other operas out there. There's no repetition of the same phrases over and over. The bones of this stuff – the music and the sound palette is put out there to put the emphasis on the drama even more than you would in many other types of opera, or other theater pieces.

UO: That will be quite helpful to those less inclined toward the Second Viennese School.
AH: I'm very committed to this piece and to contemporary music. I do a lot of it. My bread and butter is probably Wagner and Strauss. I've been in the business 25 years this year, and I've seen the tastes and what audiences go for really change in these 25 years. When I was starting out you'd see Verdi, Wagner, Mozart and Puccini; that was the meat and potatoes. Things have really changed. You're getting more contemporary music, Czech music, a lot more of Bartok, and the Russian repertoire. And there's a change in the other direction, too. You're getting a lot more Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, because of the artists who come around in certain time periods. Maybe we're a little bit low on the Verdi end right now. The economy affects the repertory too. You're not getting as much Wagner in some houses as you once were, because it's very expensive to do Wagner. But I think audiences become more enlightened, more intelligent about different styles of music and more accepting of it. It used to be, when Wozzeck was done, you'd have a very small audience. Same thing for Lulu. Now the audiences are becoming much fuller and more active. The response we received after opening night of Wozzeck was as huge as anything I've ever heard at the Metropolitan Opera House. So, I think audiences, singers, and companies are all becoming more appreciative and open to a wider range of repertoire.

UO: That's great to hear, Alan. I'm looking forward very much to hearing the broadcast and being in the house this Saturday to hear you.
AH: I'm glad you're going to be in the house because this is a production that you must see as well as listen to. I think it comes off one way on the radio, or CD, but this is a production that needs to be seen. You have merits of the theater and the music together, especially in a piece like Wozzeck.

UO: Of course you have the enormous advantage of having James Levine conducting.
AH: We're thrilled to have him step on the podium once again when he came back after being away for so long.

UO: I've done a little bit of chorus work with Jimmy, and I find him enormously inspiring. Would you tell us a little bit about what the working process is like with him as a soloist? I imagine at the point you start working with him it's so integrated that you're working less on details and more on the larger picture.
AH: I've worked with Maestro Levine quite a bit on many different things over the years including the Ring, Elektra, Hoffmann, and Wozzeck. The process that we usually use at the Met is that, unless it's a brand new production, we rehearse the staging first – we do that for a couple of weeks. Then he'll come in when we start to do the stage rehearsals, sometimes before, when we're still in the rehearsal room, and he really puts a lot of polish on it. Sometimes it takes a lot more polish than other things. But we usually do the rehearsal on stage and then we'll get together in List Hall or somewhere else at the Met, really working on details and working on characters. Maestro Levine is such a master at melding the character into the voice and he loves pure sound and expression of the text. He's very good with Wozzeck at not just being such a great technician and a great musician, but he does a great amount with the drama as well. He's so familiar with it; he loves the score and he does so much to help bring more out of you. It's been said so many times what a great accompanist he is and that's absolutely true. He's right there with you all the time and you really feel when you're working with him that you're working together. There's none of this: just someone beating a stick. I've had the privilege of watching him work not only with the Met orchestra but also with the Youth Orchestra at Tanglewood. He's a master technician as far as teaching the orchestra, and he's teaching us all the time.

UO: When you first debuted the role in San Francisco back in 1999, how did you go about learning it? Did you simply pound it into yourself?
AH: I began as a pianist and I also listened in theory class, so I understood the 12 tone style. But again, I approached it from the drama as much as I did it from the music at the beginning, because the two have to be married together. Yes, I did pound out the notes, but I looked at the rhythm and how the language flowed and Berg set it masterfully. It all makes sense, what he did. I think this piece is almost as tough rhythmically as it is note-wise. The rhythm is just as important. And then incorporating it into how I work as an artist, and as an actor, all together. I didn't do it separately: note, note, note, note. That would be the wrong way to approach Wozzeck.

UO: You've sung, as you say, for 25 years on an international level and you’re working in constantly changing acoustic environments. I'm sure you're familiar with most of the big houses but if you're confronted with a very dry, unforgiving acoustic, what do you do?
AH: There's really not a lot you can do. If you go messing around and trying to change the way you're singing to fit the acoustic of a certain opera house, you're going to end up in trouble. You can't change the acoustic. If you try to change your voice you're going to end up hurting yourself. So you have to just accept it. Fortunately, we get several rehearsals in the halls so you have the time to adjust your mind more than anything. A tough house is Amsterdam and it's not simply because of the acoustic, but the stage is very, very wide and you're not used to the audience being almost at your side all the time. But again, you can't really go changing your singing. You may have to sing more straight out, and less to the sides in certain houses, but your technical apparatus is the same.

LCU: What is your favorite city, and what do you love about it?
AH: Boy, you know when I do operas, I think, "Oh, this is my favorite scene! Oh, no, I love this one!" Every time I think that I have a favorite, it's the thing that I'm singing. I oftentimes say the same things about cities and I like a lot of different ones. I love San Francisco. The weather there is fabulous; it's a great walking city. I love Chicago, maybe because I'm originally from Illinois although I didn't spend much time there as a kid. I love New York. In Europe, I like Munich a great deal and Vienna. I just spent two months in Barcelona and that was great because I avoided all the weather on the East Coast! So, yes, there are a lot of places I love to be. There are some places that I don't want to go back to (laughter). I'm not going to say what they are. I may need a job there someday!

LCU: Wasn't it in Barcelona that you took the picture of those pig heads for Valentine's Day?
Oh yes! Nothing says Valentine's Day like a pig head! I tend to walk around, I'm a pretty observant guy when I'm doing so. So in Barcelona there was this meat case and it had all these pig heads and stuff, and they had Valentine hearts all over the place, and I was like "Oh my gosh!" (Laughter)

LCU: I remember seeing that picture, wondering if it was a joke or real.
AH: It was absolutely real.
UO: It's either a joke or another piece of Regietheater.

LCU: What's the story behind your Facebook profile picture (above right)?
AH: Thats Dr. Miracle from Tales of Hoffman in 1993 at the Met, the old Otto Schenk production. I love that picture! I figure that's how I look after four kids. (Laughter) That old production at the Met was amazing. It's one of my favorites. Dr. Miracle pops out of the fireplace, and he pops through the floor. I get so many people commenting on that picture all the time! And someone said that that's the best picture on Facebook so I said "OK, I'll keep it!"


Melody Moore Interview

Melody-moore This week the soprano Melody Moore (pictured left) performs with New Century Chamber Orchestra. She will be singing in Stephen Schwartz's Séance on a Wet Afternoon at New York City Opera next month, Gordon Getty's Plump Jack with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester in May, and returns to San Francisco for the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis' Heart of a Soldier in September. Last week, the Opera Tattler spoke to her by telephone.

How did you get involved with opera?
Purely by the encouragement of others. I was in my high school choral program, and the director pulled me aside, and got me to audition for the Texas All State Choir. I had some piano as a child, but as far as music goes, it was mostly church music around me, or bluegrass, or country, since I'm from Memphis. The choral director gave me sheet music and tapes to listen to, and I sang alto in the Texas All State Choir. Only 300 people are chosen a year. I never even know you could have a job as a singer, but I went to school for music in Baton Rouge, Louisiana because of my music teacher. I did also study music therapy.

So you were a mezzo-soprano? When did you switch?
I sang lyric mezzo rep until I was 26 or 27. I always had a lot of top, a B natural and even a C, so my music teacher had me explore that. I don't know if I ever fully transitioned to a soprano mindset, however.

How are mezzos different from sopranos?
There are fewer lyric mezzo-sopranos than lyric sopranos, so it is a more competitive environment for the latter group.

What are you singing with New Century Chamber Orchestra? How has it been?
They are a great group, very tight-knit, and they play like one instrument. I enjoy coming back to work with them. This concert is Schubert, Bach, and Mendelssohn. I will be singing 4 little tiny songs, Schubert Lieder. They have a lovely arc of poetry to them, dreaming about love but not being fulfilled, or rather fulfilling love through the search for love.

Did you just sing Kurt Weill at San Francisco Ballet?
Yes, it was a blast. I was in the pit, and no one could see me so there was no pressure, I just had to deliver the text. Weill really gets down to brass tacks, his music is bawdy and gutsy.

With the exception of Faust earlier this year in Hawai'i, you have a lot of new music for 2011. What are the challenges of contemporary music?
Thankfully I do learn fast. I sit with the score and listen to recordings of the orchestra, if there are any. I try to get the scope, shape, and bones of the music so I know where I fit in. All the music I am working on this year is tonal, though there are challenges with mixed meter in the Schwartz, the meter can change 3 or 4 times on a page, from 9/8 to 7/8 to 5/8, and so forth. Looking over the Getty, it does seem to be mostly in 4/4 and 3/4. I will have to learn it in the next month, so I will be busy! I do feel really comfortable with the Theofanidis, as we work-shopped it in December, and there haven't been any major changes.

What is your workout regimen?
I work with a trainer, just as I prefer to work with a coach with my singing. It is good for me to be responsible to a person as far as exercise is concerned. It makes me feel ready for the day. Working out has been great for me, I had a year of terrible back pain, so strengthening my core has been key to changing that.

What are your hobbies and interests?
I love to cook, I love the alchemy of it. I also love reading. It makes me sad that there is not enough time in one's life to read all the books worth reading.

I love books too! What are your favorites?
Cormac McCarthy's The Road. To me, it is one of the most beautiful love stories. That might sound strange, given that the awful circumstances of the novel, but the love of the father for the son is incredible. Another favorite of mine is The Handmaid's Tale. You could say I am drawn toward dystopian novels.

Any guilty pleasures you are willing to share?
I enjoy American Idol. It is completely awful, but I watch it every week. When it comes on air I feel chipper!