Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi - Busseto and Piacenza

After our special night with the “Club of the 27” everyone was tired but in a very Verdi mood. So it was exciting that the next day would take the group to the land where the composer was born and lived all of his life.

The morning bus ride passed through the small town of Le Roncole (now called Le Roncole Verdi), where Giuseppe Verdi was born and spent his first years. Following this we made our way to the town of Busseto.

When the composer was 11, he moved to Busseto to attend school. There he became close to the family of Giovanni Barezzi, whose daughter would become his first wife. He later received financial support from the town (and especially from Barezzi) for his musical studies in Milan. However, his relationship with the community soured when following his first wife’s death, he returned to Busseto and lived openly with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, who would later become his wife. The populace shunned Strepponi and felt  that Verdi was ungrateful for their earlier support. When he heard him claim that they “made” him, he declared that they should then “make another one.”
Inside the Teatro Verdi
Welcoming the group to Busseto were four members of the Club of the 27, who accompanied us on our day’s excursions. First stop on the day’s itinerary was the Teatro Verdi. The small (300 seat), beautiful, theater was named in the composer’s honor, despite his opposition to its construction. He felt the town was too small to support the venue, and made sure he was out of town on the day it was inaugurated. Nevertheless, it is elegantly decorated, with a box that was initially reserved for Verdi (but was never used by him.)

Crossing the square past a large statue of the composer, the next stop was the Casa Barezzi, home of the composer’s patron Giovanni Barezzi. It was as a lodger in this house, that the composer met his first wife Margherita, who, along with their two young children, died tragically only a few years after their marriage. The house was a center of musical life in the village and is now restored to display artifacts about the composer and his relationship to the Barezzi family.

After a quick stop for coffee at the Café Centrale and time to pose for a picture in front of the statue of Verdi, next on the itinerary was the Antica Corte Pallavicina, where “Culatello di Zibello” is made. This is a delicious type of Parma ham made from the butt of the pig. Verdi was one of  the past patrons of this delicacy. Among the current clients of the Antica Corte Pallavicina are Prince Charles and Prince Albert of Monaco (whose allocation could be found among the hanging meat).
Prince Charles stash of culatello
The Sarasotans were treated to a testing of cullatello, along with other types of prosciutto and salame, washed down with some local wine. This was the appetizer for a wonderful lunch next door at “Il Cavallino Bianco (The White Pony)” a Michelin-starred restaurant on the property.

Although after lunch everyone could have used a nice nap, the travelers moved on to one of the most honored places by Verdi lovers, the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata. Following his unpleasant experience living in Busseto and being a farmer at heart, the composer purchased a farm in 1848 and immediately began extensive alterations and additions. He expanded the house and the grounds so that within in few years it was the biggest employer in the area encompassing many acres. The composer and his wife lived there from 1851 through their deaths.
Outside the Casa Verdi in Sant'Agata
Several of the 100 rooms of the house are now maintained as a museum but the rest is still used as a home by Verdi’s descendants. The rooms of the museum are maintained as they were in Verdi’s time. However, the Sarasota visitors got a special treat, when the guide took them to rooms not generally open to the public including the salon, foyer, dining room,  and billiard room, where they were  joined by Angiolo Carrara-Verdi, the great-great-great grandson of Verdi’s heir Filomena Maria Carrara-Verdi and his wife.

After a quick stop at the Church in Le Roncole, where Verdi first played the organ, the group headed back to the hotel after a tiring, but enlightening day.

The following day included a short tour of conductor Arturo Toscanini’s birthplace and the beautiful Teatro Farnese. The travelers then had some time to wander the streets of Parma on their own before meeting for a trip to Piacenza for a concert performance of Verdi’s I due Foscari at the Teatro Municipale.
Teatro Municipale before the performance of Verdi's I due Foscari
The audiences in region of Parma are known as some of the most discerning and judgmental in the world. Singers who don’t make the grade have been literally run out of town. But when they are enthusiastic, they are indescribably appreciative and demonstrative. That was certainly the case this evening.

I due Foscari was performed without sets or costumes, but was sung complete with orchestra and chorus. The cast included world renowned baritone Leo Nucci, tenor Fabio Sartori, and soprano Kristin Lewis, who was known by the the Sarasota audience from her performance of Musetta in La bohème there in 2006.  Since then she has made a successful career in Europe and is now based in Vienna. The conductor was Donato Renzetti.

The theater was pulsing with excitement for the performance. All the principals were exciting and easily thrilled the audience. But the palm for this performance had to go to veteran baritone Nucci, who at the age of 73 still has the goods to deliver. After his final aria the audience could not contain themselves and lept to their feet in appreciation.
Baritone Leo Nucci takes a bow alongside conductor Donato Renzetti. Photo courtesy of
Adjourning around the corner to the  Antica Osteria del Teatro for cocktails and another sumptuous dinner, the group was joined by the stars of the performance, Leo Nucci and Kristin Lewis. One of the group Terry Osborne, received an extra special thrill as the singers serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.”
Renowned baritone Leo Nucci (left) with Terry and Valerie Osborne
Few will forget this exciting day and a performance that was a special highlight of the trip.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi (Day 3 and 4)

The Duomo in Milan

Despite rain, the Sarasota Verdi lovers spent the morning touring two of the major sites of Milan, the Duomo and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. The painting, housed in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is one of the glories of western art despite its severely deteriorated condition. The Sarasotans were struck by its beauty in, what was for some, a very moving visit.

The following day, the group decamped from Milan to the city of Parma, the area that was the birthplace and home of composer Giuseppe Verdi. First order of business was a tour of the Teatro Regio, a beautiful theater, similar in size to the Sarasota Opera House, where a Verdi Festival is held each October.
Sarasotans enjoying a tour of the Teatro Regio di Parma
This was followed by a visit to the Corale Verdi, home of the Verdi Choral Society (begun in 1905) and also a wonderful restaurant. The promised light lunch, was instead a simple, but sumptuous meal of Parmesan delicacies including tortelloni, stuffed veal, and roast Prosciutto (Parma Ham). The meal was accompanied by a sparkling white wine and Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine that is a speciality of the region.

Sarasotans enjoying lunch at the Corale Verdi
The evening that followed will no doubt for many, be the highlight of the tour. In March 2013, Sarasota Opera had a visit from four members of the “Club of the 27”.  Each of these devoted enthusiasts of the music of Giuseppe Verdi are named after one of the composer’s operas. They meet once a week to discuss music and have developed ongoing education programs in the schools about music and Verdi.

This year, the Sarasota Opera group visited “the 27” in their clubhouse, a small cove underneath Parma’s musical school “Casa della Musica.” The visitors entered a dark room the only illumination highlighting a bust of Verdi.
The Sarasotans in front of a statue of Verdi in his hometown of Busseto
The members of the 27 were lined up against the wall and began singing “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, which is a second national anthem for Italians. Following this ritual, the president Enzo Petrolini (Un giorno di regno) presented the Sarasotans with gifts and medals in the image of Verdi. There was then some social time with the two groups over prosecco and local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Next was a concert in honor of the Sarasota guests, in the Casa della Musica. Five accomplished young Italian singers, soprano Renata Campanella, soprano Scilla Cristiano, mezzo-soprano Leonora Sofia, tenor Antonio Corianò, and bass Davide Ruberti, were accompanied by Simone Savina, in arias from operas by Verdi and others. All of these singers are working in Italy and at the beginning of promising careers.

Everyone (including the artists) then moved to a restaurant just outside of Parma, Il granaio. The Sarasota travelers were the guests of the Club of the 27 for another typical and generous Parmesan meal: Tortelloni in brodo, ravioli alla erba, and a selection of delicious Parmesan meats including coppa, salami, and of course Prosciutto di Parma. Despite the pleas of the guests that they were stuffed, their hosts continued to bring out more food including wonderful desserts of fruit, various tortes, a delicious treat of apples baked in wine and gelato.

One more presentation ended the evening: a plaque that commemorates the friendship between the Club of the 27 and Sarasota Opera.  Members of the club promised that many of them would join their new friends in Sarasota for the Grand Finale of the Verdi Cycle in March 2016.

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi (Day 2)

The entrance to the Sala Verdi
The Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi began the evening of the second night with a reception in the “Sala Verdi”, the suite that was the composer’s home in Milan for 30 years and where he died in 1901. When Verdi wasn’t using it, his presumptive heirs like Pietro Mascagni could gain access, but when Verdi wanted it, the current occupant was asked to leave so the composer could have its use. In recent years luminaries like Oprah Winfrey have occupied the prized room in the hotel.

The reception was a precursor to attending a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot at La Scala. Unfortunately Sarasota Opera Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Executive Director Richard Russell had to leave the gathering early to meet La Scala’s sovrintendente Alexander Pereira and Director of External Affairs Dr. Donatella Brunezzi. Mr. Pereira welcomed the Sarasotans to La Scala. Mr. Pereira and Dr. Brunezzi already knew about Sarasota Opera and the company and listened with interest as Mo. DeRenzi and Mr. Russell talked about the end of their Verdi Cycle and plans for the future.

Puccini’s opera Turandot received its world premiere at La Scala in 1926, a year and a half following the composer’s death. Left unfinished at the time of Puccini’s demise, it was completed by composer Franco Alfano for the first performance. More recently composer Luciano Berio took another stab at the ending and it was in this version that the Sarasota Opera group saw it on Wednesday night.
Promotional poster for Turandot at La Scala
The performance starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, with Aleksandr Antonenko as Calaf and rising young Italian soprano Maria Agresta as Liù.  Music director designate Ricardo Chailly conducted. The production, much more conceptual than the traditional production seen in Sarasota in 2013, was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The audience was extremely enthusiastic about the singers but the visitors from Sarasota were surprised to hear booing as the conductor took his bow. It’s not something we are used to in Sarasota, but a staffer at La Scala warned everyone that it happens often in Italy.
Puccini's Turandot at La Scala

Click HERE to continue onto day 3 and 4 of Sarasota Opera's adventures in Italy...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi

At the end of March 2016, Sarasota Opera will complete its Verdi Cycle, a 28-season effort to perform all of the works of Italy’s greatest composer Giuseppe Verdi. This will be a landmark season for the company, with national and international attention focused on Sarasota Opera.
To kick-off the celebratory season, Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Executive Director Richard Russell are accompanying a group of 27 Sarasota Opera patrons to Italy as “Sarasota Visits Verdi.”  The 9-night tour includes a sample of audience members who live in Sarasota full-time, are snow-birds and some who come from as far as California and London to join this pilgrimage to visit places where the composer lived and worked.
The trip kicked off on Tuesday night (5/19) with a welcome dinner at the Grand Hotel et de Milan.  This 5-star hotel was the composer’s residence in Milan during the last 30 years of his life and it was in a suite on the first floor that he passed away at the age of 87 on January 27, 1901.
Members of Sarasota Opera's pilgrimage to the sites of Giuseppe Verdi join in the
Grand Hotel et de Milan for a welcome dinner
From the Royal Box at Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala,
a member of the staff  explaines the workings of  Italy's most
venerated Opera House 
The next morning everyone made the short walk to Milan’s famous “Teatro alla Scala,” probably the most venerated opera house in the world. Nevertheless, even this theater, which opened in 1778, and was the site of the premieres of Verdi’s Oberto, Un giorno di regno, Nabucco, I lombardi alla prima crociata, Otello, and Falstaff has not performed all of the composer’s operas, as Sarasota Opera will have by next year.

La Scala has an interesting museum attached to the opera house which charts its history and has a room devoted exclusively to Verdi. The visit also included a guided tour of the auditorium and backstage from one of the theater’s music staff.  The plush historical interior of the theater is in stark contrast to the updated technology visited backstage (result of a 3-year renovation from 2001-2004).
Entrance to the Casa di Riposo in Milan
Following the theater visit, a bus took the group to the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti (Rest Home for Musicians) which is more commonly known as the Casa Verdi. In a letter to a friend the composer wrote: “Among my works, the one I like best is the Home that I have had built in Milan for accommodating old singers not favored by fortune, or who, when they were young, did not possess the virtue of saving. The poor, dear companions of my lifetime! Believe me, my friend, that Home is truly my most beautiful work (la mia opera più bella.”)
Sarasota Opera Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi contemplates a bust of Giuseppe Verdi in the sitting room of the Casa Verdi, the retirement home for poor musicians the composer built in Milan  
It was a novel idea to build and equip a rest home for the disadvantaged when Verdi proposed this idea in in the last years of his life.  It was not the first example of this type of philanthropy. A few years earlier he had built a hospital for the residents of Villanova, a town near his country estate at Sant’Agata. He acquired land on the outskirts of Milan in 1889 for the retirement home and oversaw the design and construction of the building, attending to every detail. He endowed it  with the royalties from his operas (which expired in  1962; it is now funded by a private foundation and the state.)
Under a portrait of the composer Giuseppe Verdi, members of Sarasota Opera's Verdi trip 
hear about his life at the Casa Verdi  
The Sarasotans were  met by the Director of Communications for the Casa Verdi, who highlighted Verdi’s place not only as a great composer of opera, but as a national hero whose music inspired Italians in their quest for unification in the mid 1800s. The house is full of artifacts from Verdi’s collection (including a small piano that he was given as a boy and kept all of his life) and it is in a crypt off the courtyard of the house that is his final resting place, along with his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi.
The crypt at the Casa Verdi where the composer and his wife are buried.
The evening will take the Sarasota contingent back to La Scala for a performance of Turandot by Verdi’s heir, Giacomo Puccini.

Stay tuned for more updates as Sarasota Opera continues its travels through Italy and the life of Giuseppe Verdi. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

ARTISTS CORNER: Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi

Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi

Hailed for her “beautiful, dusky, and expressive” voice with a “commanding presence”, mezzo-soprano, Kristen Choi is bursting onto the opera scene with full force. Ms. Choi made her debut as an apprentice artist with Sarasota Opera in 2013 and returns this season as a Studio Artist this season singing the role of Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Previously, Ms. Choi has bowed as Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterlfy at Glimmerglass Opera, Jo in Mark Adamo's Little Women, and Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?

A. I am originally from Valencia, California near Los Angeles. I still reside there but have been traveling since May of 2014. I'm sort of nomadic and have been very lucky to travel directly from job to job.

Ms. Choi as Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte
Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A. I've always loved singing! My parents are musical even though they aren't professional musicians; My father plays the guitar and sings for church and my mother plays piano. I love listening to her play all the classics such as Mozart Sonatas and Chopin's Nocturnes.

I'm not sure if I had an “Aha” moment but when I entered a talent show in the 6th grade I sang a disney song in front of an audience and had such a rush of joy and happiness that I knew I wanted to keep singing. I sang in choirs and musicals from then on. I did sort of have a moment of clarity and decided to pursue opera during my undergraduate degree. I was performing the role of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro and it was my first professional opera job. Opera used to intimidate me a lot but actually performing in a full scale production with orchestra, chorus, and professional singers sparked an even bigger fire in me to pursue classical music. I guess you could say that opera found me.

It's kind of amazing that I am performing Cherubino here. It makes me look back with fondness and pride that I adamantly decided I was going to be an opera singer. I'm here now and am very excited to do this role for the first time and I couldn't imagine a better place to do it.

Ms. Choi as Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly
at Glimmerglass Opera
Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?  

A. I've always been a fan of studying languages. They are so fascinating and I actually was accepted into several universities as a linguistics major. I did minor in Spanish in my undergraduate degree.

Q. What singing did you do growing up?

A. I sang everything! I grew up with old musicals and jazz, and sang in many choirs. I also used to sing with a big band and sang all the jazz standards at swing dances.

Q. This is a role debut for you. What are you looking forward to most about singing this role?

A. This is one of my favorite operas, and certainly my most favorite of Mozart's operas. I love singing pants roles (a woman portraying a man). Cherubino is the perfect, quintessential example of one. His energy and passion draws me to his character and he gets into so much mischief. It's a challenge, acting-wise, to really get his mannerisms and boyish movements in my body. All these challenges and character study make me really excited to perform this role.

Q. This is one of the more famous “pants roles” in opera where a woman plays a male character. Does that add additional challenges to performing this role?

A. Yes! It is a huge challenge to physically capture the mannerisms of a young man. Men carry themselves differently so I have to really think about the physicality of the character before I sing or do anything onstage.

Ms. Choi as Cherubino in this season's production of
The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Rod Millington.
Q. What can you tell us about this character?  What do you want the audience to know about him when the curtain comes down?

A. Cherubino is a ball of passion and energy. He's not all innocent and cute, and definitely develops and learns a lot throughout the opera. He's sort of a miniature Count in training and definitely does not hold back around the ladies. His boldness and willingness is a preview of what is to come soon in the next Beaumarchais play. He's in love with love and is not afraid to express it to any woman and every woman.

Q. Are there any famous Cherubino’s from the past whose interpretations you admire?

A. Well, yes, of course there are the famous performances by Frederica von Stade. She's great because she really captures the character in her facial expression. It's amazing that she can express everything Cherubino is feeling in her eyes. It's subtle yet so intense and strong. I've also met her and worked with her in a master class on Cherubino's first aria “Non so più cosa son”.

Ms. Choi as Lady Thiang in
Rodger and Hammerstein's
The King and I.
Q. You are a former Apprentice Artist with Sarasota Opera and this season you will be returning as a Studio Artist. Do you feel your time in Sarasota Opera’s young artist program has helped to prepare you for a professional singing career?

A. I learned so much as an apprentice and it definitely prepared me well for the opera world. It was nice to sing for other companies the year after but when I received the opportunity to return as a Studio Artist, I was eager to take it; especially for this role. Working for this company always renews my passion for opera and with such an amazing staff, I feel extremely fulfilled and satisfied with the art we create. Everything I have learned here, whether it's strengthening my repertoire, acting, or singing, I have taken with me to other jobs. It feels good to be back.

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A. Well I'm not sure about bizarre experiences during a rehearsal, but definitely have had my share of clumsiness during performances. During my graduate degree I played another pants role, Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. After we had pushed the Witch in the oven, Gretel and I were supposed to run out and help the gingerbread children. While running, I slipped on a net that the witch had used to capture me, and flew in the air and landed on all fours. I quickly got up and recovered, but it was mortifying. I mean, Hansel is a kid and can probably have clumsy moments here and there. At least that's what I told myself.

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A. I don't really have any rituals except warming up before performances by vocalizing a little. I usually do not like having rituals or relying on them in the case of something interrupting the ritual and making me think I would have a bad show. I'm very simple and just rest and warm up before singing. I make sure to get a good night's sleep the night before.

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A. I enjoy going to the gym and exercising on days where I don't perform. I'm a very active person and love to dance or play tennis. When I was an apprentice, I used to go play basketball with the other artists. My hobbies would have to include dancing and watching movies. I always take movies with me on the road and watch them to relax. Going to the cinema is also a joy for me. There's nothing more relaxing for me than going to the theater alone and watching a movie.

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 am an avid Facebook user and also have a website ( I stay connected to close friends and family by video chatting on Skype. It's so interesting how social media can keep me connected to friends especially for my nomadic lifestyle.

Don't miss Ms. Choi as the charming and lively Cherubino in this season's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Tickets are available at or by phone at (941) 328-1300.

Friday, March 13, 2015

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Michelle Johnson

Soprano Michelle Johnson

Soprano Michelle Johnson makes her Sarasota Opera debut this season as Élisabeth de Valois in Verdi's Don Carlos. Since being a Grand Prize winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2011, Ms. Johnson's career has skyrocketed taking her leading roles at Glimmerglass Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Kentucky Opera, and now Sarasota Opera. Her voice is described as being "velvety and pliant" and regarded as "similar to young Renata Tebaldi." 

Continuing reading to learn more about this soprano on the rise. 

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?

A. I am from Pearland, Texas close to Houston, Texas.

Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A. When I was 8 years old I saw a production of Madame Butterfly on PBS. I have been hooked ever since.
Ms. Johnson in the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.
Photo by Kelly & Masa Photography
Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?  

A. I come from a long line of educators. I was certain that I was going to be a teacher in the field of English or History

Ms. Johnson as Elisabeth de Valois in
Don Carlos at Sarasota Opera
Q. What can you tell us about the character of Élisabeth?  What is her role in the opera?

A. Élisabeth is a strong young woman dealing with heavy decisions throughout the entire opera. She battles with being faithful to her duties as royalty and her own wants for her life. She is the face of hope, honesty, and purety.

Q. This is not exactly what one would consider a standard sized role in opera. What challenges do you face taking on a role of this length?

A. My main focus is stamina. One must not give too much too soon. With the leadership of Maestro DeRenzi the role is becoming super familiar.

Q. At the end of the performance, what knowledge about the character of Élisabeth would you like the audience to walk away with?

A. Élisabeth wants the best for everyone, her people of France and the people of Spain. She’s willing to give up her happiness for the happiness of others.

Q. Are there any famous “Élisabeth’s” from the past whose performances you admire?

A. I admire any soprano who attempts this role!

Ms. Johnson as Minnie in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West at Kentucky Opera. 
Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A. Unfortunately, I have had to hold up a skirt or two until the end of a scene. It’s not fun!

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  

A. The only thing I need is about 20 minutes of meditation then I’m ready to go!

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A. I love movies. So, Netflix is very dangerous. I travel with my Yorkshire Terrior, Jasper, so I hang out with him a ton when I’m off.

Ms. Johnson as Giulietta in Jacque Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.
Don't miss Ms. Johnson's performance as Élisabeth de Valois which was described as "a pure-voiced soprano of regal deportment" by Remaining performances are March 15, 18, 21, and 24. Go to or call (941) 328-1300 for information and tickets. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

ARTISTS CORNER: Tenor Timur Bekbosunov

Tenor Timur Bekbosunov
Kazakh-American Tenor Timur Bekbosunov makes his Sarasota Opera debut as The Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy tale opera The Golden Cockerel this season. Mr. Bekbosunov has appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Opera Boston, Saint Cecilia Academy, and in such esteemed concert halls as the Hollywood Bowl, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Timur has worked with many composers, including Thomas Adès, Evan Ziporyn, Anne LeBaron, David T. Little, Mohammed Fairouz, Silvano Bussotti, Anthony Davis, Meyer Kupferman, Veronika Krausas, David Rosenboom, Matt Marks, Peter Eötvös, Tobias Picker; and film composers Charles Bernstein, Joel Goldsmith, and Nick Urata.    

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?

A. I am originally from Almaty, Kazakhstan, the former capital of my native country. In the United States, I have lived in Wichita, Kansas, and Boston. I now reside in Los Angeles, the sunny California!

Mr. Bekbosunov and the
Kazakh Folk Instrument Orchestra
Q. I’m sure you could write pages about growing up in Kazakhstan. Can you give us a brief description of what life was like for you there when you were younger?

A. Growing up in the last decade of the Soviet Union, I remember the long lines for essential things, such as bread and bread. I was an early riser, and I loved waking up early and get into a milk line in time because by 8 am all the milk would be sold out. I also recall the extravagant and engaging State-organized holiday events with concerts, musicians, delicious national food, and cultural events.  In addition to attending a public school, I was enrolled in a music school and was tutored in English. Such events were always a nice reprieve from studies.

Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A. My mother was a piano teacher and my grandmother was an amateur singer, whose talent got her accepted into the Moscow Conservatory where she only stayed for one year. Singing was always around me, through my grandmother’s singing Russian folk and patriotic songs and my grandfather’s passionate interest in the Kazakh traditional ethnographic music. The choice to pursue singing came much later, as in Kazakhstan, I was planning to pursue a career in music journalism.

Mr. Bekbosunov in the
New York Premiere of
The House of Bali
at Brooklyn Academy of Music
Q. Did you have many opportunities to sing in your home country while growing up?

A. I attended a music school in the afternoon for seven years where I studied everything from solfeggio to music history. In particular, the concentration was vocal performance, which resulted in choral singing with three different ensembles. The school, which was founded as a private studio, became a dominant force in Almaty, traveling to many festivals around the world eventually winning the top prize in the First Choir Olympics in Budapest, Hungary.

Q. What brought you to the United States?

A. My dad enrolled me in a student exchange program to study English, because it was always his dream to visit the United States. In fact, it was an incredible surprise to me when he revealed his plan. But it was also a pleasant and fascinating surprise as the United States was uncharted territory in our post-Soviet mentality. I thought that I would return to Kazakhstan at the end of my studies, but after being accepted into university, my plans had changed. I was placed to live in Kansas, where I met a wonderful host-mother, who later on became my best friend and an American mom. I was very lucky to have two mothers!

Q. Do you travel back to Kazakhstan with any regularity?

A. My dad still lives in Kazakhstan so I try to visit the country at least twice a year. In 2011, I created and co-produced a large-scale musical project, Silent Steppe Cantata, which commissioned an American composer Anne LeBaron to write a piece for a folk orchestra, women’s choir, and tenor. The project was a three year process and was premiered in the capital of Kazakhstan with support from many U.S. and Kazakh organizations, and I was honored to be a part of it. A short documentary about the project, The Nomad’s Song, will be streaming live on Netflix in 2016.

Mr. Bekbosunov as The Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel
Q. What can you tell us about the Astrologer?  How does he fit into the plot of the opera?

A. The Astrologer seems to function as a narrator as well as a clairvoyant magical being who predicts, foreshadows, and knows what’s to come in the future. There is a great satiric quality to his presence, who with a sly smile, appears to pretend as if he does not know much, but in fact understands everything.

Q. What is it about this role that made you want to take it on?

A. I absolutely love singing unusual roles in different styles. The Astrologer in particular requires a high vocal range. I always wanted to tackle it, as Rimsky-Korsakoff composed it for a voice that he called tenor-alto, and is often interpreted by a high tenor voice.

Q. Beyond the musical work, what other kind of preparation/research work do you incorporate in the learning process?  Historical?  Character study?  

A. Familiarity with Pushkin’s fairy tales as well as doing pictorial and visual research of the era inspires me to look at the role from a historical angle. I then try to bring in my own individual interpretation.

Q. The bulk of your work seems to lie in the contemporary music world. What is it about that type of music that pulls you in?

A. Contemporary music has always been a vibrant source of open exploration, experimentation, and flexibility. There are always hidden corners to uncover once I get passed the harmonic and rhythmic obstacles. Infusing the character into what seems like impossibly difficult musical material, becomes an absolutely liberating force. I feel that I am able to let go completely when I start with a new composition. Contemporary music is a perfect vehicle for singing in different genres and it allows me to express myself without restraint.

Q. Through your work, you seem to be broadening the definition of the term “opera singer” from what most of our audience might be familiar with. Can you tell us a little about some of the projects you have created?

A. Outside of performing in traditional operatic repertoire, contemporary music and interdisciplinary projects, I have a glam rock band called "Timur and the Dime Museum," which now takes up almost half of my performance activities. "Timur and the Dime Museum" has been featured at several major festivals as well as performed in many clubs, so it is certainly very different from the classical music world but has a similar vocal approach. My band was commissioned to create a theatrical project COLLAPSE based on man-made environmental disasters. Produced by Beth Morrison Projects and composed by Daniel Corral as a Requiem, COLLAPSE has been staged in LA, Miami and Rotterdam, and will premiere in NYC in September 2015.

Living in Los Angeles has also allowed me to create music videos and sing on soundtracks. I have been lucky to collaborate with Charles Bernstein, the famed composer of horror films, as well as Nick Urata, the frontman of DeVotchKa, in his score to Ruby Sparks. Film artist Sandra Powers (and an editor of Nickelodeon show "Dora the Explorer"), has exclusively directed all of my music videos. Our collaboration has been mutually rewarding.

(Click HERE to hear an interview with Mr. Bekbosunov on NPR's "Here & Now" program)

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A. I performed a small role of Paul Mache in the newly discovered unfinished opera of Shostakovich, "Orango." Directed by Peter Sellars for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my job was to distract Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor, during my solo. Peter Sellars told me that I can do anything to Maestro, which felt strangely gratifying. Not sure if anybody would remember my five minutes of fame, but I know that Maestro Salonen will be probably have nightmares about me harassing him on the podium for the rest of his life.

The Astrologer demands the Queen of Shemakha as his prize
 for bringing
The Golden Cockerel to King Dodon. Photo by Rod Millington.
Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A. I wish I could have a glass of Prosecco before I sing! I often take a shot of espresso, and try not to talk too much during the day of performance. I also prefer to sing when I am slightly hungry, so it is very rare that I eat before a performance. So I guess that makes food my superstition!

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A. When I am at home, I enjoy working in the yard. Right now, I am working hard on growing drought-resistant plants, though a certain affinity for roses tends to be in a way.  On the road, I like to drink as much water as possible.

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 maintain several websites:,, and on Facebook (, Twitter (@gloomycomrade), and Instagram (@timurdimemuseum)

Don't miss Mr. Bekbosunov's performance in
The Golden Cockerel playing now through March 19th. Tickets are available at or by phone at (941) 328-1300.