Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ruggero Leoncavallo - Opera's "One-Hit Wonder"

Ruggero Leoncavallo
In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying” author Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” This was certainly the case with opera’s most well known one-hit wonder, Ruggero Leoncavallo, as he was forced to defend the source of his idea to create the opera that finally secured his place in operatic notoriety: Pagliacci
Leoncavallo was born to the Neopolitan elite. His father was a judge and his mother was from a prominent aristocratic family in Naples. He began his musical studies at age 11. Records differ if he ever received a degree but he left the conservatory at the age of 18 regarded as a very competent pianist and possessing thorough musical training.   
Leoncavallo traveled to Bologna after high school in 1877. Although it is not clear whether he was actually enrolled in University, he began working with Giosuè Carducci – Italy’s most famous poet, writer, and a dominant figure in the city life of Bologna. It was then Leoncavallo began to shape his musical ideals and started to see himself as a composer.  
It was Carducci who encouraged Leoncavallo to embark on his most ambitious composition project: a historical operatic trilogy of the Italian Renaissance modeled after Wagner’s Ring. Unfortunately, he only completed one of the three operas, I medici, which was not well received by audience and critics when it premiered 15 years after its inception. 
The Teatro Dal Verme in Milan where Pagliacci
had it's premiere in 1892.
Suffering from years of rejection and false promises, Leoncavallo was forced to support himself and his family working as a rehearsal pianist, vocal coach, and voice teacher. He had reached a point of desperation when he conceived of creating Pagliacci. Well aware of the run-away success of Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana which had debuted to great acclaim in 1890, he abandoned his trilogy and dove into the creation of a one-act opera meant to rival Mascagni’s success. 
He composed both the libretto and music for Pagliacci in only five months. He submitted the work to Edoardo Sonzogno, a music publisher who had established a one-act opera contest in 1883 and was responsible for launching Mascagni and Cavalleria Rusticana to fame. Sonzogno accepted the opera immediately and presented it at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892. The opera received mixed reviews critically but was an immediate success with the audience. Productions quickly spread across Italy and Central Europe finally earning Leoncavallo the fame and wealth he greatly desired.
Catulle Mendès
Despite the success of the opera, controversy remains over the source of the composer’s libretto. When the French version of the opera was published in 1894 in preparation for a production in Brussels, Catulle Mendès, a well known French playwright, accused Leoncavallo of plagiarism. His claim states Leoncavallo had plagiarized the plot of his opera from his play La femme de Tabarin, an extremely popular play which premiered in Paris in 1887. Mendès’s play centers around a clown named Tabarin who, during the course of a speech to the audience in the final scene, discovers his wife, Francisquine, in the arms of a soldier. Tabarin is provided with a sword from the audience and kills his wife in front of the crowd who initially take it as part of the show until it is revealed she is truly dead; very much in line with the course of action in Pagliacci. 
Leoncavallo rejected Mendès’s claims stating he had never seen his play. He claimed the story was based on an episode he had overheard sitting in his father’s court when he was a young boy. In addition, Leoncavallo made the point that Mendès’s play itself was based on another play entitled Un drama Nuevo by the playwright Manuel Tamayo y Baus, another story depicting a love triangle amongst a group of actors as they prepare a play for performance, which had premiered twenty years earlier. Mendès dropped his suit but questions lingered around the true genesis of Leoncavallo’s idea for Pagliacci.    
Still plagued by Mendès’s assertions of plagiarism five years later, Leoncavallo offered a more detailed explanation regarding the source of the storyline for Pagliacci. He now claimed that he had in fact witnessed the murder in his own household. He explains the character of Silvio was modeled after a man named Gaetano Scavello, a servant who worked in his family’s household, who was murdered by the D’Alessandro brothers, Luigi and Giovanni, with a knife. Court transcripts from the proceedings suggest that Giovanni and Gaetano were romancing the same woman, resulting in a murder spurred by jealousy and revenge just as in Pagliacci
Tenor Enrico Caruso (left) as Canio at the turn of the century and 
Michael Robert Hendrick (right) as Canio at Sarasota Opera. 
Despite Leoncavallo’s claims of ignorance to either of the two works, scholars find it difficult to believe that a man so well educated, traveled, and a proud aficionado of the theater would have never seen or at least been aware of the two plays in question. You also can’t help but notice the use of the play-within-the-play structure in which the characters portray actors on stage, and, in all three instances, mimic their “real life” circumstances.
Marco Nistico as Tonio, Veronica Mitina as Nedda, and Michael Robert Hendrick as Canio
in Sarasota Opera's production of
Pagliacci. Photo by Rod Millington.
Regardless of controversy, Pagliacci was an instance where Ruggero Leoncavallo illustrated his mastery of words and music. The musicologist Matteo Sansone stated the following in his essay “The Verismo of Ruggero Leoncavallo: A Source Study of Pagliacci”:
His single-handed, earnest efforts to achieve success in the fiercely competitive world of late nineteenth-century Italian opera deserve full recognition… Leoncavallo could shape libretto and then versify the text according to his own musical requirements – an ability that none of his colleagues possessed. He was able to research on a chosen subject… and insert authentic material, such as songs, poems and historical details, into his librettos… he was… an ingenious craftsman… a deft manipulator of literary sources and a perceptive observer of current trends.  
Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci opens at Sarasota Opera Friday, October 31st, and will run for six performances through November 15th. Tickets are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling the box office at (941) 328-1300.
- Samuel Lowry, Director of Audience Development

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Can You Sing in Elvish?

Youth Opera members sing in several different languages including Italian, French, Russian, and English. But this fall they will try a new one - Elvish - when Sarasota Youth Opera re-mounts it's production of Dean Burry's The Hobbit in November.

Sarasota Youth Opera 2008 production of The Hobbit

The Hobbit is a classic story of an unwitting hero on a journey. Author J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit as a story for his own children. When he wrote it in book form, it became the mark against which all modern fantasy is measured. It is the first book of Lord of the Rings and the inspiration for most of the genre ever since. As in most adventures, our hero must have companions and a wise guide, encounter many hardships, meet more than a few villains, and finally have the chance to triumph. All of these adventures are spiced with magic, colorful characters, terrifying creatures and, of course, music. Even for those who are not familiar with Tolkien's story, the adventure and characters will become old friends by the end of the opera.


Dean Burry, Canadian composer and librettist, has crafted an operatic fantasy through Middle Earth, which Sarasota Youth Opera will perform May 9 and 10. Last fall, the singers were delighted to meet and sing for Burry. His rapport with the chorus members and willingness to answer their many questions were inspiring. Burry wrote the opera in English, adding phrases in Elvish to set the mood.


To help color this fantasy world, Burry has drawn on a variety of musical styles to represent the various groups of characters: English folk songs for the hobbits, madrigals for the elves, Russian folk songs for dwarves, a little bit of Kurt Weill for goblins, and a habanera-tango for the dragon.


Youth Opera members are excited about bring this piece back to the Sarasota Opera stage for everyone of all ages to enjoy!



Performances of Dean Burry's The Hobbit are Saturday, November 15th at 7:00pm and Sunday, November 16th at 1:30pm. Tickets range from $12 - $55 and are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Opera is Alive and Well!

For those of us who are opera lovers and follow the comings and goings in the opera world, we might feel that there is cause for despair. Recent tales of doom include one failed company (New York City Opera) and another that was saved from the brink (San Diego Opera.)  In addition the leader of the largest opera company in the world has been complaining that opera audiences are dying, the art form is moribund, and without significant union concessions, his company will go bankrupt in a few years.
James Buckhouse of Twitter presents to more than 500 attendees at the 2014 Opera America Conference.
Photo by Jerry Placken/Meyer Sound
I’ve just returned from the Opera America conference in San Francisco where representatives from most of the opera companies in North America met, shared best practices, and worked on strategies for the future. I believe that we all returned from that experience with renewed positive energy and a certainty that opera is not only alive and well, but thriving.

First let me just say that the situations in New York and San Diego were unique. New York City Opera succumbed after years of board and management missteps, well documented in the press and to the despair of many of us who grew up with that company. San Diego Opera on the other hand was saved by explosive community involvement that wouldn’t let the agenda of a few in the management and board close a company that had seen 28 years of surplus budgets.

As for the dilemma of the Metropolitan Opera, I won’t comment on a union negotiation, about which I don’t have the full details. I will, however, dispute Peter Gelb’s claims that opera is a “dinosaur of an art form.” Unlike that extinct species, opera is alive and breathing and more vital than ever.

At Opera America were many great stories to tell. Companies like San Francisco Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Houston Grand Opera have seen an increase in subscription sales. In an informal poll taken amongst General Directors of opera companies, most reported ending their fiscal years in the black. Performances have increased, the repertoire has widened, and many companies are finding interesting ways to innovate to attract new audiences.

One of the most heartening examples of the broad based appeal of operas is the reaction to the stadium or park simulcasts. Initiatives in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, and Houston to broadcast a live opera to a broad-based audience in baseball parks and public spaces far exceeded expectations, generating thousands of new opera lovers, many of whom turn into opera goers in the opera house.

The news here in Sarasota is positive as well. This past year we’ve seen an increase in subscriptions. And the response of our patrons to the Patterson Challenge to eliminate the Nadel clawback debt generated an overwhelming response that not only closed the appeal within a month of its announcement, it brought us a significant number of new donors, reversing a trend that has held since the outset of the recession in 2008.

And for the second year in a row, we closed our fiscal year with a substantial surplus, this year nearly $300,000.

And if some claim that our audiences are too old, I invite you to attend one of our Youth Opera events. This year’s enrollment included 80 young people and our summer camp exceeded 70 for the second year in a row.

To report that all is perfect in the opera world would be insincere. Like all non-profit arts organizations we face challenges. We are all recovering from the 2008 recession and we have to find a way to overcome the high cost of producing opera and to keep ticket prices at a level that are affordable, especially for new audiences. We have to bring the art form more to the public consciousness and eliminate stigmas (remember when opera singers were regularly on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) and we have to find a way to expose even more of our youth to the glories of opera, since availability in schools have decreased.

But, as Mark Twain purportedly said, “reports of my death are exaggerated.” Opera lives on and will continue to stimulate, excite, and entertain audiences for many years to come. I’m excited to be part of that, and I hope you are too.

- Richard Russell, Executive Director

Monday, February 24, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Tenor Hak Soo Kim

Tenor Hak Soo Kim
Korean-American tenor Hak Soo Kim returns to Sarasota Opera this season as The Count Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Last season, Mr. Kim won critical acclaim for his virtuosic performances of both the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto as well as Edoardo di Sanval in the 2013 winter production of A King for a Day (Un giorno di regno).  Mr. Kim's other recent appearances include Los Angeles Opera, Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro, Italy, Opera New Jersey as well as in concert with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

Continue reading to learn what has kept Mr. Kim returning to Sarasota for four productions as well as what specialty hobby he practices in between performances.    

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you base yourself out of today?
A. I am originally from Seoul, Korea.  I came to the U.S., when I was 17 years old to become a diplomat. Now, I base myself in New York City, where I have a fabulous support system of friends, mentors and teachers.

Mr. Kim as Gastone in La traviata at Los Angeles Opera
Q. Why Opera?  What drew you to become a singer?
A. I love singing, simply because it makes me feel great.  Opera is so multi-faceted that, no matter how much I study, it still remains mysteriously challenging.  In other words, I can never get bored.  Besides, I always ended up getting back to singing, no matter how much I tried to venture into other career paths--in college I majored in German and Economics and was on the verge of becoming an investment banker, and recently, I worked as a captain and sommelier at a restaurant with two Michelin star rating in New York City.  In the end, though, nothing else makes me happier but singing on stage!

Q. What singing did you do as a teenager?
A. I sang at the school musicals for all four years in high school.  Fortunately, the private boarding school that I attended, Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, OH, had a great theater program, and I was able to fully take advantage of the resources.  I sang Frederic in Pirates of Penzance, Billy Lawlor in 42nd St, Nanki-Poo in Mikado and John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Mr. Kim as the Duke of Mantua in
Rigoletto at Sarasota Opera
A. Your past three operas with Sarasota Opera have all been role debuts, correct?  Is it nice to sing a role you have already done somewhere else?
Q. Yes, "Repetition is the mother of perfection."  As long as I keep my standard high, there is always room for improvement, and the best and the simplest way to improve oneself is through repetition.  Besides, even though this is my fourth production of The Barber of Seville, I feel that my journey is different every time. We are using a different edition of the score, Maestro Cormio takes different tempos from other conductors I have worked with, and the cast has different chemistry.  It definitely is an exciting process to mold my previous experiences into what we have here in Sarasota.

Q. What are you looking forward to most about performing the role of Count Almaviva in this season’s production of The Barber of Seville?
A. I am excited about bringing my own vocal interpretation of the role.  Maestro Cormio and I are working particularly on bringing more lyric legato lines and unifying them into Italian poetry with more directional rhymes, instead of fast, jumpy and light singing.

Mr. Kim as Ernesto in Don Pasquale at Opera Colorado
Q. What is your process for preparing a role for performance?
A. First, I start by finding and reading the original literature.  Secondly, I move to the poetry of the libretto with focus on rhymes and accents.  Then, I focus on designing how I am going to sing the role.  Because every role has its unique challenges, I need to figure out how I am going to move my voice through those passages.  During rehearsals, I concentrate on how I am going to pace myself, singing and acting.  The Barber of Seville especially needs this game plan, since the role of Count Almaviva is such a marathon role vocally.

Q. What do you want the audience to know about your character?  What do you find most challenging about this role?
A. Count Almaviva is unfortunately not that smart in this opera.  His eagerness to find his true love dictates his behavior.  He is looking for someone to love him for who he is, not what he is.  Therefore, he does not want to reveal his true identity.

This role is extremely difficult, because of its sheer length.  I open the opera with an aria and close the opera with one of the toughest arias for tenors.  Throughout the performance, I disguise as a student, drunk soldier, music teacher and come back as a count, which means that I am constantly changing costumes and wigs, even when I am not on stage.  I never get to rest during the entire performance, and that is just exhausting. The role of Count Almaviva calls for a lot of athleticism.

Mr. Kim as Matteo in Strauss' Arabella at Santa Fe Opera
Q. As I mentioned before, this will be your fourth opera with Sarasota Opera.  You must enjoy singing here. What do you think makes Sarasota Opera so special that people return season after season?
A. The support system here is incredible--music staff and administrators are always there to help me in any means possible.  In addition, there is a wonderful group of patrons, ushers, and supporters whom I have gotten to know better since my debut season in 2010.  It just has been a great experience to be working in this company.

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A. Fortunately and unfortunately, I really do not have any bizarre episode during rehearsals or performances.

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms? 
A. My pre-performance preparation starts from the day before the performance.  I go on vocal rest to make sure my voice is fresh for the day of the show.  Then, on the very day, I just make sure that my body is fully awake and has a good rate of metabolism--I eat and exercise.  I also make sure that I am very well hydrated before the performance, because I know for sure that I will be sweating a lot out there.

Mr. Kim as Edoardo di Sanval and soprano
Danielle Walker as Giuletta in Verdi's A King for a Day 
Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?
A. Last July, I passed three-day long exams to be a certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers. So, I definitely enjoy wine to relax between performances.  Like opera, wine requires a life-long study. Whenever I grow weary of a musical journey, I pick up a wine book and a glass of wine, and my soul gets recharged.

I also enjoy bike-riding, golfing, scuba diving and skiing, depending on the season and where I am.

Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook?  Twitter?
A. Last December I deactivated my Facebook account because I felt that I was getting too distracted.  I wanted to use my time more wisely.  Then, I received so many messages from my friends all over the world to open it back up, as they wanted to be updated on where I am and what journey I am taking whether it is on wine, restaurant or opera.  So, I crawled my way back to the Facebook empire.

Don't miss your chance to hear Mr. Kim's dazzling vocalism as Count Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville now through March 21st.  Tickets are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300.

Monday, February 17, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Bass-baritone Matthew Burns

Bass-baritone Matt Burns
Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, who the New York Times describes as possessing a "beautiful bass-baritone voice," makes his debut at Sarasota Opera this season as Basilio in The Barber of Seville which opened February 15th.  Mr. Burns career highlights include appearances at New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Boston Lyric Opera as well as performing in concert at some of the world's most prestigious stages. 

Continue reading to learn what opera inspired Mr. Burns to become an opera singer, what he avoids putting on his cheesecake before a performance, and how a "chance" meeting on the street introduced him to the love of his life.      



Q. Where are you from originally and where do you live currently?
A. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. I now live in Astoria, Queens, NYC, once home to Maria Callas, Tony Bennett, Ethel Merman, The Costanzas from Seinfeld, and Archie Bunker.

Mr. Burns as Leporello in Don Giovanni
at Boston Lyric Opera
Q. What drew you to become a singer? Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?
A. I like transient living and poverty. Maybe I should have just been a carny?
Seriously, I have been singing since I can remember. I used to sing for my extended family at Christmas time when I was a little guy. I got into choir in middle school and stayed through graduation. I was in a grunge band in high school. I decided to go to college to be a better singer but they only taught opera. So I stuck it out for a couple of years. I took up a double major in music education and performance. In 1995, I saw a performance of Don Giovanni at Virginia Opera. I laughed for the first time as an opera audience member. "Aha!" It was a combination of the character of Leporello, Mozart's music, and my cumulative training to that point, but that was it for me. I decided that I wanted to do THAT, make people laugh. I devoted myself to this amazing art form from that moment on.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?
A. I loved psychology. I thought about a double major in college in Music and Psychology. This has proven useful when delving into the minds of the characters I have had the privilege of playing over the years.

Q. You have sung the role of Basilio before. What do you enjoy about performing this role?
A. Basilio sings one of the classic opera arias, "La Calunnia", the rumor. When I first started studying opera, I noticed that "La Calunnia" was on every great bass aria  compilation. I love that this role has lived in the throats and bodies of some of the greatest performers of all time.

Mr. Burns as Basilio in The Barber of Seville
at Sarasota Opera
Q. This is your chance to put Basilio center stage. What do you want the audience know about Basilio?
A. My therapist says that people drop clues about themselves all the time. You just have to be paying attention. The fun part of playing Basilio is that no one really pays attention to him throughout the opera. They are all wrapped up in their own mess. Even at the end of his big number, Bartolo immediately dismisses Basilio's idea for his own. "Do re mi fa sol" (Money makes me King)! This is a phrase Basilio mutters when he enters in the Act 1 finale. Characters reveal who they truly are when they are talking to themselves.  This line has lead many directors to make Basilio a kleptomaniac. I look forward revisiting Basilio to see how this side of his personality develops.

Q. Looking over your performance resume, you have sung both a number of dramatic and comedic roles. Do you have a preference?
A. Until last year, I would have said comedic roles, also given my answer from earlier asking about my inspiration for pursuing this career. However, I got the opportunity to sing the role of George in Of Mice and Men, an opera Sarasota Opera produced last year. It was one of the highlights of my life. There is so much meat on that bone. I look forward to delving into many dramatic roles in the future in addition to many Leporellos, Basilios and Figaros.

Q. Now, is it true that you met your wife (soprano Anne Carolyn Bird) performing in an opera?
A. No, I first "accosted" her on the street in front of Time Warner Center in NYC. We were scheduled to perform opposite each other as Figaro and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro in Grand Rapids, MI later that month. I recognized her from her Facebook profile pic.

When we were in Grand Rapids rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro, (which should really be called Figaro's wedding) is when I fell pretty hard for her. I kept my feelings hidden as we were just colleagues. But as fate has it, while we were there rehearsing, she got a last minute replacement job to sing Rosina in The Barber of Seville in Dayton, Ohio, where I was scheduled to be Basilio. We had three weeks off between The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. The first day of rehearsal in Dayton I knew I was toast. We started "datin' in Dayton", were engaged four months later, and were married four months after that. We had the chance to perform Susanna and Figaro at Virginia Opera last season. It was a dream to revisit the roles that brought us together.
Mr. Burns wife, soprano Anne Carolyn Bird, in rehearsal while Mr. Burns and their son Henry watch from off-stage.
Q. It must be exciting being married to another successful singer but I imagine it poses some unique challenges?
A. It is exciting and boring and everything else in between, just like any other marriage. We are the proud parents of a wonderful three and a half year old boy, Henry. That does complicate things a bit. I won't get into the logistics that is required to do…well, anything. Let's just say, my next career should be in air traffic control with the amount of logistical planning I have to go through on a daily basis.

Mr. Burns as George in Of Mice and Men
at Utah Opera
Q. Why do you think people should come and see this opera?
A. Why should people go see the Mona Lisa? Why should people go see the Grand canyon? Because when you have access to something as great as this in your hometown, you have to experience it. Opera is an always changing art form. So even if you have seen The Barber of Seville before, you have not seen this one. Operas are like great cuisine. The basic recipes are the same, but the amounts of the ingredients, the quality of the ingredients and the way it is presented will change with each chef. We, the artists, bring our years of experience and training with us making this performance unique. No two will be the same. So, Don't miss it!

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal or performance anywhere you have sung? 
A. I was just out of music school working with an independent producer at Brooklyn Academy of Music on a Handel Opera called Siroe. I was the only American in the cast. The agreed upon language to speak in was French. I took French in high school so I felt pretty comfortable but was certainly not fluent by any means. At the intermission of the final dress rehearsal right before the first entrance, the director sees me backstage and asks: "Ou est la salle?" To which I replied, in French "follow me". I remember well that one of the phrases you had to know in high school if you wanted to go the restroom was "puis-je aller à la salle de bains?". "May I go to the restroom?" Clever me, I take him, an older, heavy set man with very slender legs down two flights of stairs and point into the dressing rooms. I gesture in and say, "D'accord, la salle" He looks at me and says something to the effect of "pas la salle de bain, la salle de Theatre" ("Not the bathroom, the hall to the theater")!

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals? Performance superstitions? Good luck charms?
A. I don't have any superstitions but I do have reflux. So eating cheesecake with bacon covered with Sriracha the night before the show is not happening.

Q. How do you relax in between performances? What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road?
A. I eat Sriracha covered cheesecake with bacon. Not exactly! But, I am a foodie and an oenophile. I will be seeking out amazing food in and around Sarasota. I love finding holes in the wall that only locals know about in addition to exploring chef restaurants and trying new foods. I am not big on the chain restaurants.
So if anyone wants to take me to somewhere amazing, I'm game. I love cooking too. I bring a spice kit and a chef knife on every gig. I anticipate many cast meals.

Mr. Burns as Taddeo in Rossini L'italiana in Algieri
Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”? Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook? Twitter?
A. With Anne-Carolyn and Henry, we Skype at least once a day usually at breakfast.  For the rest of the family, I am on Facebook. I treat Facebook like a living photo album for the sake of my family. Some of my extended family don't get to see us except once a year. I like to keep them updated. I try to keep Facebook to actual friends, people I would stop to chat with on the street if I saw them. But the list grows every year.
I have a twitter feed but am not very active. You can find me at @baseberrytone on Twitter.

Don't miss Mr. Burns' critically acclaimed comic timing as Basilio in Rossini's The Barber of Seville opening Saturday, February 15th and running through March 21st.  Tickets are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Dara Hobbs

Soprano Dara Hobbs
Dramatic soprano Dara Hobbs, who will be singing Senta in this season's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, has already built an impressive career of leading roles as opera houses around the world.
Her operatic experience includes the title roles in Tosca, Aida, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Tristan und Isolde, and leading roles in Suor Angelica, Don Carlo, and Die Fledermaus.  In addition to five seasons as a a full time soloist at Theater Mönchengladbach in Krefeld, Germany, recent appearances include performing at Opera Frankfurt, Bayreuther Festspiele, Theater Bonn, Theater Minden, and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf.  In 2014 she looks forward to a return to the Bayreuther Festspiele as Ortlinde (Die Walküre) and singing Isolde at Theater Chemnitz and Theater Regensburg.

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?
A. I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, near Lake Geneva. I went to college and grad school at Northwestern University near Chicago and lived in Chicagoland for 15+ years before moving
to Germany in 2007. I now live outside Cologne, Germany.

Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?
A. I can't remember a time when I didn't sing, pretty much constantly throughout the day, either under my breath or aloud. My grandmother was a trained singer; my mother is a professional harpist and pianist, and my afternoon naps were often accompanied by my mother practicing. I would sing while on my backyard swing set, not realizing the whole neighborhood could hear me, and I had piano and flute lessons from an early age, was in church and school choirs and so on. I absolutely adored watching Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, and as a teenager, my parents took me to hear Leontyne Price sing. I think I fell in love that night. For me, it was a pipe dream for many years – a dream, not something realistic, and my parents, being very practical people, emphasized the importance of a “realistic” professional life and earning a living. My father thought I'd make a fabulous computer programmer, but over the years he's become one of my biggest fans. I don't think I even really believed singing would work out for me, right up until I received my first full-time contract in Europe.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?  
A. I wanted to be a singer for as long as I can remember, but I hedged my bets by doing a double degree program and I had professional experience in other fields up until I was in my early 30s – as a dramatic soprano, you aren't really suited for a lot of smaller roles, and your voice doesn't mature enough to be marketable for lead roles until that time. I worked as a bilingual insurance agent, I taught English as a Second Language, I worked full-time for a church for a while – all interesting jobs, but definitely not what I wanted to do long-term.
Ms. Hobbs as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde at Theater Bonn.  Photo by Thilo Beu
Q. You were a member of both the Sarasota Opera Apprentice and Studio Artist programs.  Do you feel that experience helped to prepare you for a professional singing career?
A. Absolutely. I like to say that Sarasota helped raise me. It's an invaluable experience, seeing the process in action, understanding how it all works, how things come together, honing one's craft, watching how the soloists do things, getting a sense of the workplace atmosphere. Maestro DeRenzi also gave me invaluable career advice when I was here previously, telling me that because of the “German sound” of my instrument, I would do best to focus on German repertoire (Wagner, Strauss, etc) and he was very specific: figure out what roles are going to be most likely for you to perform, and learn them – the complete roles, not just the arias. Learn German. Go to Germany. Because, as he pointed out, every small and medium-sized house in Germany does German repertoire, but in the U.S., it's mostly just the big houses, who only hire world-famous singers. In Germany, I'd have the opportunity to sing all sorts of the right repertoire for me, instead of trying to force my voice into the repertoire available here in the U.S.

Q. You worked as a full time soloist at Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach in Germany from 2007 to 2012. That is different from American opera companies where you are hired for only one show at a time.  How did you enjoy singing primarily at one opera house for five years?
A. It was wonderful. I had the best of both worlds – a full-time position at two houses but enough free time to fit in work at other opera companies once a season. I am a person who really likes to have a home. I don't enjoy living out of a suitcase. So being full-time in one place for five years was wonderful: I had terrific repertoire to sing, an opportunity to really build repertoire and gain experience, great colleagues, interesting work, and could develop a sense of “a home away from home.” Even now that I am freelance, my husband and I still live in the area, so I've been able to keep in touch with the friends and colleagues who've become such a big part of my life. And I had the chance to sing one lead role after another, and a wide variety of repertoire, from Don Carlo, Aida, and Tosca to Die Fledermaus, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tristan and Isolde, and Brünnhilde (The Ring Cycle) - even Pique Dame in Russian. That is the advantage – and sometimes the disadvantage – to being full-time at a medium-sized house: you GET to sing everything, but you also HAVE TO sing everything. I sang Ann Trulove (The Rake's Progress), Countess Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro) and Brünnhilde all at the same time – pretty extreme ends of my repertoire spectrum. My last season I seemed to sing every direction at once: Countess, Brünnhilde, Elisabeth in Don Carlo, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, a modern work, and they wanted me to do Norma as well, which I declined. My brain and voice were going in enough different directions, especially when Countess and Brünnhilde were two days apart. But it was wonderful, and I was sorry to leave – I only did so because my agent really felt it was time to move on. I miss my colleagues and I'm not thrilled to be freelancing, but it's also been a great experience, freeing me up to really focus on the German repertoire, freeing me up to come here to Sarasota again, to sing Sieglinde (Die Walküre) in Frankfurt, to sing in Bayreuth, and to sing Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) pretty much non-stop. So it's all been good!
Ms. Hobbs (center) as Sieglinde in Die Walkure at Oper Frankfurt.  Photo by Wolfgang Runkel 
Q. What can you tell us about the character of Senta?  What do you want the audience to know about her?
A. I think Senta has been living her life on two levels for a long time – the dream level and the reality one. I can identify with this, having dreamed of being a singer for so many years while I went about the business of earning a living in other fields. I think she has long had an intense, deep longing for an extraordinary life, a longing to be “the one” who saves the Dutchman – she believes in this story, is fascinated by it, almost obsessed. But she goes about her life in the meantime, at least on the surface, telling herself it will probably never happen, accepting that she should probably be realistic, be with Erik, lead a “normal” life, trying to ignore that something is missing in her feelings for him, because at some level, she doesn't believe she'll ever meet this phantasm. But from the first minute she does, there is an almost audible click – everything else falls away and he has her complete and total attention, devotion, passion. Clearly, she would rather have a short but intensely meaningful life than a long but mundane one. She is a woman of intense passion, deep feelings, and secrets.

Ms. Hobbs in the title role of Tosca 
at Theater Krefeld.
Photo by Mattias Stutte
Q. How do you prepare a role for performance?  Beyond the music, what other type of preparation work do you do?
A. Of course one does background study, learning about the piece, the history behind it, the circumstances in which it was written, the meaning of it in the composer's life, where it falls in his oeuvre and so on. It's also so helpful to speak the language well, because it's so important to try to understand the nuances of the text, which may be saying much more than it seems on the surface. Tristan und Isolde, for example, spend much of the second act philosophizing, speaking in very poetic ways, almost psychoanalyzing things, and the text is incredibly complicated and difficult to understand, even for native speakers. In addition, Wagner uses outdated expressions that aren't used any more, and it's important to understand where that is coming from – was it a usual expression in his time? Was is out of date even then? Does it stem from the time at which the piece is set, rather than from when it was written? What is the significance of that, if any? In addition to work with the text, there is a need for an emotional preparation, trying to understand the motivations of the character, her emotional world, where she's coming from – what are her passions, what is driving her, what is her life like? Mostly we see only a small fragment of that life – what is the rest of it like? How does she spend her time? Is she rich, with servants; is she poor, and scrubbing and cleaning much of the day? How is she dressed? What is her home like, both physically and emotionally? Does she live with parents or with someone else? Is she loved at home? Are her parents (or whomever) kind? What is her outlook on the world – is she an optimist or not? Is she hopeful that her life will be happy, or pretty certain it won't be? Does she have a plan for her life? What is she looking forward to, hoping for, dreading?

Q. Wagner roles seem particularly demanding.  Are there additional challenges in singing a Wagner role compared to other types of roles you have performed?
A. The main things needed in a Wagner role are strength, flexibility and especially endurance. The sheer amount of voice needed is always a challenge.  The orchestra is usually huge, and the operas are frequently very long, so getting the role into your voice takes on new dimensions – sometimes it takes a few productions before you really feel comfortable with a role.

My first Wagner role was Isolde – I also did some excerpts from the Brünnhildes -  and both “sit” really well for my voice, but Isolde  (and the “complete” Brünnhilde) are two of the longest roles there are, so I was surprised to start with them, and thrilled when I finally got a chance to sing some of the shorter roles: Sieglinde last year, Ortlinde (one of the Walküres) in Bayreuth, and now Senta – I thought, “Oh, after Isolde, they'll be a walk in the park.” Not so. Senta is probably only a third as long as Isolde but it sits differently and I am every bit as vocally tired at the end as I am after singing Isolde. I can sing Senta through once in a day, but I simply cannot rehearse it for hours on end, certainly not full voice – it is too tiring.

Dutchman is one of Wagner's earliest operas that is still performed today, and it's been said that Wagner got better as he went along, that he learned to write better and better for singers, and I have to say I tend to agree. Senta is unusually tiring for the length of the piece. I'm still figuring out how much voice to give, whether to pull back a bit so as to have some reserves, or whether to really sing it full out, in order to produce the kind of sound – and the amount of sound - one expects. As with many roles, it's a case of finding the line between enough and too much voice, but that line feels more elusive than with most roles. It's been very interesting.

Ms. Hobbs as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at Theater Bonn.  Photo by Matthis Stutte
Q. What advice would you give someone who might be intimidated to see their first Wagner opera?
A. Oh, don't be! It's such an amazing thing – think of it as a movie but even more intense, and try to keep an open mind.  Of course some of it may seem over the top – but focus on the music and the emotions, not the details.  It can be hard to handle the intensity of the music – it can be wrenching. But let it flow over you, let yourself simply experience it. And the emotions: most of us have at least a few times in our lives in which we have very intense experiences and emotions: death of a deeply beloved friend or family member, divorce, betrayal, heartbreak, falling in love, the end of a cherished dream, etc. Opera puts the most intense experiences of our lives on the stage – no one buys a ticket to watch someone wash their laundry, pay their bills, or go through other humdrum everyday experiences. We go to experience that intensity - usually there is something that we can identify with, something that strikes a chord of recognition or memory from a time when we, too, felt like that. Alternatively, it can be an opportunity to experience these things vicariously, because let's admit it, it can be too much to experience them in our own lives.

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A. Well, after a rehearsal last summer I had a lot of my hair cut off by accident by the hair and makeup department. They had french-braided my hair and sewn magnets into it, so as to attach an additional hairpiece on top with magnets, and upon cutting the magnets out of the French braid, they accidentally cut off several big chunks of my hair – the whole length of it, leaving me with only an inch along the scalp up front in a few places, as well as shortening the whole underside row of the back of my hair by about 6-8 inches.  I had to have the rest cut much shorter and I'm still feeling a bit short and thin in places. Needless to say, they then built me a wig with built-in magnets for the rest of the run.

As for a performance, this is a long story on paper but goes fast in the verbal telling – but here goes: my worst moments onstage were a series of three problems during a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. First, the pieces are often performed in a slightly different order than they are printed in the score. One night I came out to sing “Dove sono,” in which the harpsichord gives me a C- Major chord and I begin, a cappella, but this night our usual harpsichord player and conductor were not scheduled and the young men who  replaced them had been there for many rehearsals but never a performance, and were getting their first chance to perform the piece. Unfortunately the harpsichord player hadn't marked the places in the score that were out of order. So I walked out onto the stage and he played a I-don't-know-what chord, but it sure wasn't C Major, and I had no earthly idea where my pitch was. I walked around a bit, trying to stay calm but feeling my breath starting to come too fast. I looked down into the pit to see him frantically paging through the score, not knowing where we were. I looked at the young conductor, who didn't seem to really know what was going on. I walked around a bit, trying to make the moment a dramatic pause, all the while thinking, “Should I wait and hope he finds the right place? Should I start on who-knows-what-pitch? This is going to be a very, very long and painful recitative.” I looked over again and he is still frantically paging through the score, and by this time the conductor is gesturing at me, getting a bit frantic himself, so I mentally shrugged and started the recitative in who-knows-what key. Fortunately the orchestra comes in after my first phrase, and I thought, “Thank heavens that's over.” Ha!

Ms. Hobbs as the Countess in
The Marriage of Figaro.
Photo by Matthias Stutte
During the aria I was to cross to a closet door, which was to be opened with the key sticking out of its lock - there was no handle. Opening the closet door was crucial to the director's dramatic idea, because Countess was cast as an alcoholic who now reaches a turning point and pours all her liquor down the drain, symbolizing her decision to stop drinking and take control of her life. When I turned the key that night, it snapped in half, falling to the ground. First I spent some time trying to open the door with the inch of key left in the lock, all the while singing away. Eventually I gave up on that but realized I had to get the other piece of key off the floor, because the whole piece of scenery has to be rolled into another position at the end of the scene, and the supernumeraries who move it had a hard time anyway, and it would likely not roll at all over the large piece of old-fashioned, clunky key. So I'm down on hands and knees in my gown, searching for the key, singing away, and the conductor is looking at me, completely puzzled as to what in the world I am doing, and I finally find it and I am making the aria all about the key, the key, the importance of the key!! and how meaningful that all is, and I stand up to leave, thinking “thank heavens that's over”. Ha again!

Finally, I am supposed to make a dramatic exit over the top of another rolling piece of scenery in the back, which is a platform and double doorway with a pair of curtains hanging down – I am to dramatically fling aside the curtains and storm out to reclaim my husband and my life. And I get back there and the technical folks have stapled them closed at the bottom and I'm able to open them about 4 inches.  So I try and try and adrenaline is pouring through me by this point and I finally just give it my all and rip them away from the staples and storm out, laughing from relief as soon as I was out of sight.

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?
A. Not really. I generally don't do much or talk much the day of a performance, especially if it's a demanding role, but that's not really a ritual – just good sense. :)

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?
A. I spend as much time as I can with friends and family, I'm an avid reader, I try to do sports regularly and recently I've started experimenting with cooking, broadening my culinary horizons...

Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook?  Twitter?
A. Email, phone, and sometimes Skype. I have a website, but I am not really a big social media person.  I have a Facebook page under a false name to keep in touch with a few close friends and family members, but I keep it very small – I think I have about 12 “Friends”.  It's important to me to keep professional and personal lives somewhat separate – I don't really want people to connect a post I just wrote to one of my nieces, in my private life, with Dara Hobbs the singer, so it just didn't work to have a FB page under my real name.  I could of course do both - I know a lot of people feel it's important to use Facebook and Twitter for professional purposes -  but I just don't have the desire to spend my time and energy on this, honestly. I'd rather practice than post regular updates about my career on Facebook or Twitter. But I think it's a personal thing – if you have the interest, why not? It might help you, who knows?

Don't miss your chance to be one of the first to see and hear Ms. Hobbs in what will be sure to become one of her signature roles.  There will be seven performances of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman between March 1st and March 23rd.  Tickets are on sale now at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Bass-baritone Kevin Short

Bass Kevin Short
Bass-baritone Kevin Short has been a frequent artist at Sarasota Opera since making his debut in 1991 as Méphistophélès in Gounod's Faust.  Since his debut, Mr. Short has been seen in many leading roles at Sarasota Opera, particularly the works of Verdi.  In addition, Mr. Short's career has taken him to the stages of Stuttgart Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera House. 

This season, Mr. Short returns to sing the title role in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, a role he has performed at Indianapolis Opera, the Stadttheater Bern, and most recently in Croatia. Continue reading to learn why Mr. Short enjoys singing the music of Wagner and what he thinks makes Sarasota Opera so special that has kept him coming back since 1991.  




Mr. Short as Nourabad in Sarasota Opera's
2000 production of The Pearl Fishers
Q. Where are you originally from and where do you base yourself out of today?
A. I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Charles County, Maryland. Today I’m based between Basel, Switzerland and Miami, Florida

Q. Why Opera?  What drew you to become a singer?  
A. I had very good instructors/mentors at  Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD), the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia, PA), and Juilliard’s AOC (American Opera Center) that  were quite influential to me as a young singer. But by the time I was a junior at Morgan State University and had won a few young artist competitions, I was certain I wanted to be a professional opera singer.

Q. What singing did you do as a teenager?
A. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I joined the school choir and I also sang a bit in the choir while attending St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Q. What are you looking forward to most about performing the role of The Dutchman in this season’s production of The Flying Dutchman?
A. I am most looking forward to literally singing every note of this brilliant score again and exploring undiscovered dramatic possibilities. The role is such a tour de force and the vocal and dramatic demands it places upon me are extremely exciting. I’m also very much looking forward to working with my outstanding colleagues, the musical and directing team, and I’m very interested to hear what the typical outstanding Sarasota Opera chorus will sound like with this masterpiece.



Mr. Short in the title role of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at Indianapolis Opera
A. What is your process for preparing a role for performance?
Q. I find it very helpful to read the libretto first to get a real sense of the dramatic flow or arc of a piece and how my character factors into the overall equation. What is my relationship  to or how do I feel about each character in the opera whether I interact with them or not? It’s important for me to find out why I say what I say. I then start at the piano playing a section of my part multiple times to begin the memorization process. I move to the next section the next day while always revisiting the section from  the day before. If it’s music that is quite taxing I will often sing it down an octave or better yet, sing it very lightly in the octave. This helps to not start forming bad habits when trying to sing and learn at the same time. Overall there’s a sort of layering process that takes place. I also find it helpful to sing  my music in different tempi and mix things up a bit to not become too fixated with only one way of singing the music. This is espcecially useful if I’ve listened to or am familiar with recordings that could influence my interpretation before I’ve had input from the Maestro and director.



Mr. Short as Pagano in Verdi's
I Lombardi alla prima crociata
at Sarasota Opera
Q. Wagner roles seem particularly demanding.  Are there additional challenges in singing a Wagner role compared to other types of roles you have performed?
A. Yes, I find  for example, early Verdi and Wagner to be equally difficult to sing because of the tessitura of large sections of their music. Later Verdi is less problemic in this manner. Early Verdi also can require vocal gymnastics when handling vocal leaps. Dutchman does not as much as early Verdi, but there is the added demand of  having to contend with the thickness of his orchestration during  some musical and dramatic climaxes. A temptation for the Wagner singer is to try to force a bit too much. I think the singer benefits greatly if vocally they approach Wagner as they would singing a good many Italian operas. I also feel that Dutchman is the mist Italianate of his opera.

Q. What do you want the audience to know about the character of The Dutchman?  
A. That there may be a personality flaw that causes the Dutchman to have been so unsuccessful in finding  a true woman for so many years. He’s also not to be pitied as much as some may want to pity him. It’s his own arrogance in defying nature and God that caused his predicament

Q. What would you say to someone who might be intimidated to try their first Wagner opera?  
A. Dutchman is extremely accessible dramatically ,and musically it is some of the most sublime and glorious music one can imagine. If they’ve ever wondered what Wagner is like, then this is the perfect first Wagner opera, and it’s also not a long night at the opera at under 3 hours  from beginning to end with intermission.



Mr. Short as Signor La Rocca in
Sarasota Opera's production of
Verdi's
A King for a Day
Q. You have been a steady presence at Sarasota Opera for several seasons.  You must enjoy singing here. What do you think makes Sarasota Opera so special that people return season after season?
A. I absolutely love singing here for so many reasons such as the attention to detail from top to bottom. with everyone working at the company.

Because of the generous amount of time given to the rehearsal process, a singer will really develop and can explore the possibilities dramatically as well as vocally. There are also multiple performances that help facilitate this growth, which is extremely rare for most opera companies in the U.S.  Another reason is that Maestro DeRenzi has created an ensemble of singers and orchestra players that understand the Sarasota Opera music making process. Maestro’s musical language and performers that work regularly in Sarasota create an environment and unofficial system that is the closest thing we have in the States to a typical European fixed engagement system. 


Q. You have performed all over the world.  Do you find audiences behave differently in all the different countries you perform in? 
A. Yes, audiences seem to react in the manner and character of the characteristics of their country.


Mr. Short as The King in Opera Birmingham's production of Aida
Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A. I don’t want to elaborate, but the whole rehearsal and performance period this past summer performing Dutchman at the Split Festival.

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?
A. I enjoy riding my bicycle, drawing,and reading historical books.

Q. What music do you listen to when you are driving in the car?
A. A wide variety.  I enjoy listening to opera but also enjoy jazz, classic R&B, and pop music. 

Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook?  Twitter?
A. I use Skype a good deal while on the road. Facebook also comes in handy for keeping in touch with family and friends.  


Don't miss a note Mr. Short's performances as The Dutchman in this season's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman running for 7 performances between March 1st through March 23rd. Tickets are on sale now at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling (941) 328-1300.