Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"A Note on Little Nemo" by librettist J.D. McClatchy

J.D. McClatchy, the librettist for Sarasota Youth Opera's newest commissioned opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, is one of America's foremost librettists, authors and, poets.  His five collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted Hazmat, are widely acclaimed for their formal ingenuity, coupled with their fluency of thought and feeling.  His opera librettos have been performed in opera houses around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and Covent Garden.  Mr. McClatchy has served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is currently Professor of English at Yale where he edits The Yale Review.

We asked Mr. McClatchy to write a brief piece explaining how Little Nemo in Slumberland came to be as well as his thoughts on the upcoming performances of his work at Sarasota Opera.    

Librettist J.D. McClatchy
Photo by Geoff Spear
Little Nemo in Slumberland is the fifth commission in the Sarasota Youth Opera’s illustrious quarter-century history. The call for a competition went out in 2006, and when the nod finally went to composer Daron Hagen and myself, I had another project in mind altogether—something about Johnny Appleseed. It was then that my friend, the designer Chip Kidd, asked if I had thought about Little Nemo. Bingo!
Little Nemo in Slumerland was one of the first American comic strips, and  is still the most admired by connoisseurs. It started in the New York Herald on October 15, 1905, and ran until 1914. The genius behind it was Winsor McCay (1869 – 1934), a graphic artist of the first rank, whose sense of dream fantasy and whose exquisite draftsmanship helped bridge the divide between high art and the comics. (In fact, it was the first comic strip made into a Broadway musical, by Victor Herbert back in 1908, and in 1966 the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted an entire exhibit to McCay’s work.)

The characters of Nemo (Katherine Powell), The Princess
(Adriana Fernandez) and Flip (Natalie Almeter)
Photo by Rod Millington
Reading through the Little Nemo series, I was struck at once by its marvelous format and possibilities. For a children’s opera, I was aiming to create what used to be called “magic opera”—a story dependent on fantastic theatrical effects—and Nemo’s exploits in Slumberland are just that. From among many different stories, I chose a few that I could make into a continuous dream-adventure, broken up by an “intermission” of daylight. I added or eliminated details, tried to give some depth to the characters, and shaped the story into a moral fable about courage and fairness and the wonders of the imagination. To intrigue the set designer, I stirred into the mix a parade of improbable sights and a scene in which the characters dramatically change size.
The composer and I hope we have given the Sarasota team and its remarkable cast of young singers an opera that will be a pleasure to perform and will give their audiences an experience that will thrill and charm them.

- J. D. McClatchy

Tickets are going fast for the world premiere performances of this glorious new opera.  Performance dates are Saturday, November 10, at 5:30pm and Sunday, November 11, at 12:30pm.  To secure your seats today, go online at or call the box office at (941) 328-1300. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sarasota Opera is Looking for Dancers!

Sarasota Opera Announces an  Open Dance Call for upcoming Winter Opera production

A scene from the 2003 Sarasota Opera production
of The Pearl Fishers
Sarasota Opera will be hosting an open audition for dancers for their upcoming 2013 winter season production of The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet. Director/Choreographer Keturah Stickann is seeking 2 male dancers who are mature, athletic, possess a deep sense of theatricality and are 16 years of age or older. Ideally these dancers would have a modern background with a strong classical base, and an easy knowledge of partnering technique.  The men should be comfortable lifting women as well as each other. 

The ideal candidate must possess a modern background with a strong classical base and an easy knowledge of partnering technique.  The men should be comfortable lifting women as well as each other.    

Rehearsals will begin on or around Friday, January 18, 2013.  There will be 9 performances total.  The performance dates are February 16, 19, 21, 24, 27 and March 1, 8, 16, 22.  Dancers cast in the production will receive an honorarium of $2,000.00

This opera was last presented at Sarasota Opera in 2003 and every performance was sold out! 

Male dancers who want to be considered for The Pearl Fishers should contact Rob Holland, (941.366.8450 x 537) ASAP.

Director/Choreographer Keturah Stickann
 Keturah Stickann will be making her Sarasota Opera debut as the director and choreographer for the 2013 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. 

Ms. Stickann’s directing and choreographic credits include Glimmerglass Opera, Knoxville Opera, San Diego Opera, New York City Opera, Dallas Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Central City Opera, Envision Arts San Diego, Opera Theatre Saint Louis, Florida Grand Opera, Virginia Opera, Melange Dance, Opera Pacific and DePaul Opera Theater.  She has assisted and choreographed for, among others, Lillian Groag, John Copley, Mark Lamos, Michael Hampe, Lotfi Mansouri, Robert Driver, Harry Silverstein, for whom she choreographed the 2001 revival of Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik at Chicago Opera Theater, and Leonard Foglia, for whom she is the assistant director and choreographer on the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick (Dallas Opera, State Opera of South Australia) as well as the world premiere of To Cross the Face of the Moon (Houston Grand Opera, Theatre du Chatelet).

Trained as a classical and contemporary dancer, Ms. Stickann has performed with Cerulean Dance Theatre, Malashock Dance, The Wally Cardona Quartet, Colleen Halloran Dance, and Danny Grossman and Dancers.  In addition, she’s captained and been a principal dancer for Chicago Opera Theater, working with choreographer Daniel Pelzig on Death in Venice and Akhnaten, with which she also traveled to the Opera National Du Rhin in Strasbourg, France.  She was also the assistant choreographer and principal dancer for the Andrew Sinclair/Zandra Rhodes production of The Pearl Fishers which premiered at San Diego Opera, then traveled to Michigan Opera Theater, and New York City Opera.

Ms. Stickann is also a sought-after movement and acting coach for young singers and actors.  She’s trained and coached performers at The La Jolla Playhouse Theater Conservatory, The San Diego Opera Summer Singers Workshop, the Glimmerglass Opera Young American Artists Program, Emerald City Opera, Stephen’s College, and DePaul University, among others.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Ms. Stickann studied ballet and theater at Stephens College while still in high school, and spent her summers at DanceAspen, The State Ballet of Missouri and the prestigious Rep/Etudes Project at Jacob’s Pillow.  She received her B.A. in dance education and choreography from Columbia College Chicago, and was a 1997 nominee for the Princess Grace Award for excellence in the arts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ARTISTS CORNER: Mezzo Soprano Heather Johnson

ARTISTS CORNER:  This season, mezzo soprano Heather Johnson, last seen as Elizabeth Proctor in the 2011 production of The Crucible, returns to make her role debut as the sultry Maddalena in this seasons production of Rigoletto opening Friday, October 26th. 

We asked Ms. Johnson to answer a few questions about life as a singer, what she enjoys about singing in Sarasota and her thoughts on portraying a new type of character Sarasota audiences have never seen her as before.    

Mezzo soprano Heather Johnson
What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

Well, I guess you could say I came to it naturally.  My parents are both professional musicians so I’ve been surrounded by music my entire life.  My father is a choral conductor and my mother is pianist/organist (also, my grandfather was an accomplished tenor). They devoted their lives to educating young people in music, including myself. I was drenched with classical music whether it be orchestral, chamber music, oratorio or opera from the time I came out of the womb.  I was that kid on the block that could tell the difference between Pavoratti and Domingo or Mozart and Haydn.  I starting playing the violin at age 4, then added piano to my studies at age 7 which I continued to study though my college years.  I even played the oboe (horribly, I might add) for two years in middle school.  Although I loved playing these instruments I REALLY loved singing.  I always sang in choirs and did kiddie musicals.  I loved the drama of being on stage.  When I was 15 I started taking voice lessons and knew that singing, above all, was what I wanted to focus on.

But, it wasn’t until I got to college at St. Olaf and had several of my “aha” moments that I knew I wanted to spend my life as a singer.  One of these moments was while I was taking a advance opera history class where we focused on four different operas one of which was Aida.  I will never forget sitting at the listening station in the music library at St. Olaf having listened to the entire opera and sobbing when I reached the final scene.  I was so incredibly moved.  I turned to the person next to me with tears running down my face and said “this is the greatest thing I’ve even heard”.  They just looked at me like I was crazy and went back to their work.  I knew that I was officially addicted to opera.

Ms. Johnson in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola

What are you looking forward to most about performing this particular role?

Maddalena is a new role for me and I always get excited to perform new roles.  I’m especially looking forward to sharing the stage with my incredible colleagues and friends.   And, I’m not going to lie to you, I like being the “bad girl”!   So far here in Sarasota I have played two boys (Beppe in L’amico Fritz and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel), Cinderella (La Cenerentola) and a puritan (Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible).  It’s fun to let loose and be the sexy vixen.  Having played opposite Hak Soo Kim many times in different Rossini operas where we’re quite proper and innocent, it’s a whole new experience for us to get a little down and dirty in this opera.

Is there something unique about your process for preparing for a role for performance?

Every artist prepares roles in different ways so I guess the answer is yes.  I always start by reading the libretto.   It’s imperative to understand the story, your character and how your character relates to others when you start working on a role. I then dive into the music.   I always work with my teacher and coach when preparing for a job, even if I’ve done the role many times.  It’s always good to refresh it.

What do you want the audience to know about your character?  What do you find most challenging about this role?

Maddalena is a woman who does what she needs in order to survivel; she’s not all bad (wink wink).  I would say the most challenging aspect of the role is it’s brevity.   I have to pack a lot into a short amount of stage time!

Ms. Johnson as Elizabeth Proctor in
The Crucible
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

Nothing really too special.  I try to rest the day of a performance both physically and emotionally.  I will usually go for a walk to get the blood flowing early in the day then rest and sometimes take a little snooze.  It really varies on the role. But when it gets closer to show time I always do the same routine.  I eat my meal 2 hours before I have to sing, organize my things I’m bring to the theater then take a long hot shower to really get a ton of steam on my vocal cords.  I use that time in the shower to warm up my voice.  After that I head to the theater to start getting in make-up.  While I’m in my dressing room waiting to start I always look over my score and any notes I need to incorporate into the performance.   The last thing I do is put my costume on.  For some reason, I like to get “suited up” later than most people would be comfortable about 15-20 minutes before the curtain.  The only superstition I have, which isn’t really a superstition, is that I have to have my score with me at every performance.  I need to be able to look through the role, especially if it’s an opera with a lot of recitative, during my time in my dressing room.  I guess it’s more habit and less superstition.

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

It really depends where I am on the gig.   Here in Sarasota it’s like paradise so I love to go to the beach and relax by the water or go for a ride on my bike.  But, I usually have to spend a lot of my down time between shows studying for my upcoming engagements and taking care of general life business.   I also really love spending time with my colleagues.  If you know me you know I’m a very social person and I love to socialize with my colleagues.  One of my favorite things to do is have everyone over and cook for them.

How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook?  Twitter?

I do a lot of talking on the phone, texting and emailing.  I’m on Facebook as well.  I am way too boring and lazy to have a blog.  Plus, I don’t really get blogs.

Are there towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

Although I have become a New Yorker having lived there for 14 years I will always be a true Minnesota girl at heart.  I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, well, right outside of St. Paul in White Bear Lake (GO BEARS!) so Minnesota is in my blood.   Also, central New Hampshire is a very special place for me and my family.  We spent every summer of my life growing up there at the New Hampshire Music Festival where my father is the choral conductor.  Some of my fondest memories are from my time there.

Are there any charities you are passionate about or donate your time?

I am very passionate about arts education.  Although not a charity, I have been involved with the Education Department at New York City Opera since 2000 as a teaching artist and curriculum advisor.  Even though my performing schedule has become quite full, I always find time to teach my 7th grade opera class at West Side Collaborative Middle School, a public middle school in New York.  I see the difference music and more specifically opera makes in these young people’s lives and I believe by getting them hooked at a young age we will build future audiences and enrich their lives.

A charity that I believe in strongly and have participated with is Sing for Hope.  It was founded by two dear friends and fellow singers Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus.  Sing for Hope mobilizes thousands of professional artists from singers to painters to dancers in volunteer service programs that bring the power of the arts to those who need it most.

Don't miss you chance to see Ms. Johnson in this season's fall production of Rigoletto opening this Friday, October 26th and running through November 12th.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the Sarasota Opera Box Office at (941) 328-1300.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


ARTISTS CORNER:  This season, tenor Hak Soo Kim, last seen as Prince Ramiro in the fall 2010 production of La Cenerentola, makes two role debuts with Sarasota Opera.  The first will be in this falls production of Verdi's Rigoletto and the second will be during the Winter season in the role of Edoardo in Verdi's rarely seen A King for a Day.

We asked Mr. Kim to answer a few questions about life as a singer, preparing for his first Verdi roles and just how he came to singing in the first place.   

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

A.  When I was a senior in college, I met a wonderful professor from Germany, who taught Political Science but was also an avid opera fan. One evening at dinner, he asked me what my plans were upon graduation. I mumbled, "Maybe a banker?!"  He told me that I might regret not having the courage to pursue what I truly enjoy, especially when I am born with such a talent.  I thought about it and realized that he was right.  After all, my life's goal is to have no regrets.

Q.  You are singing both The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto) and Edoardo (A King for a Day) this season.  What are you looking forward to most about performing these particular roles?

A.  Above all, this is my debut in a Verdi role, and I am just excited to be singing two different Verdi characters this season at Sarasota Opera.  Verdi was highly meticulous in his design and was quite specific about what he wants in his operas.  So, my goal as an artist is to do everything that he has asked for.  Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi's Rigoletto are two of my favorite operas, and I am just excited to be offered the opportunity to be part of Verdi's masterpiece.

Q.  Is there something unique about your process for preparing for a role for performance?

A.  I do research on the operas I am singing as thoroughly as I can in great detail.  When I was gathering information on Rigoletto himself, I learned about microcephaly and ended up watching a clip of Schlitzie (an American sideshow performer born with microcephaly) in the movie "Freaks" released in 1932.  Seeing an actual person with microcephaly totally changed the way I would look at Rigoletto and how I would speak to him.

Q.  What do you want the audience to know about your character? What do you find most challenging about this role?

A.  I have always sung a lot of Bel Canto repertoire where I play the sweet lover.  Both Don Ramiro in Rossini's La Cenerentola and Conte Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia step out of their high social status to find someone who will love them for who they are, NOT for what they are.  The hedonistic Duke, on the other hand, exploits anything and everything he has in pursuit of a woman without a stint of conscience.  He is indeed the iniquitous one, "iniquo".  As much as I am a tenor, I am definitely not a womanizer, and it will be great fun to infuse my personality with the evil one.

Hak Soo Kim singing the famous tenor
aria "La donna e mobile" in rehearsal.

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

A.  Once, the waist stitching of my pants broke on stage.  So I had to sing my aria, with 4 high Cs, standing still with my legs slightly twisted so the pants would not go down in front of the audience.

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

A.  I try to sleep as much as I can so that my voice is well rested. In addition, I normally take a vocal rest a day before the performance.  I like having a full hearty meal a couple of hours before my call-time at the theater to have enough of a source of energy.  If I have a matinee performance, I work out lightly in the morning to make sure that my body is fully awake and running.

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

A.  Between performances, I tend to be very careful about maintaining my physical well-being.  So, I try not to get sick.  I do not go to places where there are lots of people like a movie theater or a mall.  At home, I read, watch a movie or prepare myself for the next project.  I also enjoy learning about wine and food.  I particularly love Champagne and Sushi.  Outdoors, I like golfing and scuba-diving.

"On the road", however, I like driving around and riding a bicycle!

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 exchange text messages and use Skype with my family.  I also enjoy Facebook, although I try not to spend too much time on it.  I would love to start my own blog but I am afraid to take on additional responsibility when I actually have readers. Besides, I would talk about so many random things, and I have no idea how I would keep my blog organized and well-maintained.  For now, I am happy with my journals.  Perhaps, I will just publish them in print someday.

Mezzo soprano Heather Johnson and tenor Hak Soo Kim in the
fall 2010 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola.
Q.  Are there towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A.  New York has always been a special place for me.  I moved to NYC after spending school years in the Midwest.  No matter where my destiny took me, I just kept coming back to NYC.  I love the four distinct seasons in New York City, and more than anything else, I like the momentum of hardworking people.  I worked as a salesman in a luxury luggage company in Rockefeller Center and as a captain of a couple fine dining restaurants in TriBeCa.  I learned so many lessons from wonderful people and they continued to push me to be better in many facets of life.  I am proud to be a hardworking New Yorker who can blend in with folks coming home at 3am after a long day of work.

Q.  Are there any charities you are passionate about or donate your time?

A.  I grew up right across the street from a special school for the hearing impaired. It is quite ironic that I sing opera now. My parents in Korea spend their weekends at a care facility for deserted disabled children. One day, I hope to join my parents in one of their projects, giving those children their share of chances that they deserve.

You can see Mr. Kim on stage in one of the most famous roles for tenor in this season's fall production running October 26th through November 12th.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the Sarasota Opera Box Office at (941) 328-1300.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

RIGOLETTO: Behind The Scenes

The singers have arrived and rehearsals for Sarasota Opera's fall production of Verdi's RIGOLETTO are in full swing.  We thought you would enjoy a little sneak peek behind the scenes.  Here are some photos taken in rehearsal this week. 

Baritone Marco Nistico will make his role debut as Rigoletto this season. 

Greek Soprano Eleni Calenos will make her Sarasota Opera debut as Rigoletto's faithful daughter, Gilda. 

Stage director, Stephanie Sundine, works with Marco on staging.
Mezzo soprano Heather Johnson has returned to Sarasota Opera to sing the role of the seductive Maddalena. 
Tenor Hak Soo Kim also has returned to sing the role of the licentious Duke of Mantua. 

Hak Soo Kim singing through the bravura aria "La donna e mobile".
Working on the famous Act III Quartet. 
Gilda and Rigoletto reacting to what they see happening inside the house.

Maddalena and The Duke
The final offense that pushes Rigoletto to crave revenge. 
There will be 6 performances of RIGOLETTO opening October 26th and running through November 12th.  Don't miss our cast of stellar artists as they bring Verdi's characters and music to life on stage.  For more information and tickets, go to or call the box office at (941) 328-1300.  

ARTISTS CORNER: Bass Young Bok Kim

Bass Young Bok Kim has been a mainstay and favorite of Sarasota Opera audiences since his debut as Sarastro in The Magic Flute in 2004.  He has brought to life some of the most famous bass roles in the operatic repertoire.  This past fall, he returned to Sarasota to sing the role of Sparafucile, the assassin, in Sarasota Opera's production of Verdi's tragic masterpiece Rigoletto.   This winter, he returns again to sing the role of Timur, the deposed King and father of Prince Calaf, in Puccini's masterpiece Turandot.    

Mr. Kim offers us a little insight into how he came to singing, how he prepares for a performance, and how he balances having a family while working as a full time opera singer.     

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

A.  When I first came to New York, my goal was to become a music professor in Korea after my doctorate degree.  However, I met the famous voice teacher Beverly Johnson while attending the Aspen Music Festival in 1999 who strongly encouraged me to sing.  Although I had begun my postgraduate program at Stony Brook Univesity, I left after I was accepted in to Juilliard Opera Center. Thus began my journey to become a singer.

It may not be called an 'aha' moment but I can say that when I am on the stage to sing and perform, I feel utmost happiness and excitement. This is the case at every performance, which makes me think I made right decision to become a singer. 

Q.  Is there something unique about your process for preparing a role for performance?

A.  Whenever I get a new role, I study the character thoroughly.  Also, I try to get ideas of how I will express my character from daily life such as facial expressions and walking habits from people.  I also obtain ideas from old paintings.

As The Bonze in Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Q.  What do you want the audience to know about your character?  What do you find most challenging about this role?

A.  Playing the role of hired assassin?  What should I show about him?  He is sly and even gentle when he is approaching his client in the first act.  However, in Gilda's death scene in the third act, he is definitely rough and violent.  I'd like to show two different sides of him.  Also, the audience will get an idea of his ironic and twisted personality that takes pride in his profession.  For example, he says, "I murder the hunchback? You're out of your senses!  You think I am a robber?  A cheap little bandit?  My client has paid me, I'd never betray him!  He paid for the body... a body he'll have."

Q.  Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A.  I remember two bizarre things that happened during performances. One was during the performance of La bohème with New York City Opera.  It was the final performance of 13 performances.  In the final scene (Mimi's death), the performers had to open the hinged door to go out.  But, the door knob fell off and we could not get out.  It could've become a comedy if the backstage crew hadn't noticed in time and opened the door from the outside.

The second one happened during a performance of  Faust with Opera New Jersey.  I was singing the role of Méphistofèlés, the Devil.  Right before my aria, "Le veau d'or'", there was a sudden fire alarm and everyone had to evacuate from the theater.  It was found to be a false alarm and people jokingly said, it was a devilry. 

Mr. Kim in the title role of Verdi's Attila at Sarasota Opera

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

A.  It is my ritual/routine to jog before performances.  I also say the Lord's Prayer on my knees several times right before the performance.

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

A.  I personally love to go hiking whether with my family or by myself.  The most impressive mountain I remember climbing is Mt. Sandia in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Q.  How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook?  

A.  We rely on Skype.  Modern technology always amazes me eventhough I use it all the time and I'm used to it.  I also have a website ( which lists all of my recent and upcoming performances as well as displays photos from previous productions. 

Q.  Are there towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A.  Except for my family (my wife and two kids), everybody else, that is, my parents, siblings, relatives, and friends, live in Seoul, Korea.

Don't miss Mr. Kim's performance as Timur in Puccini's masterpiece Turandot opening February 9 and running through March 23rd.  Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (941) 328-1300. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Eleni Calenos

Our singers for the fall have arrived and rehearsals for Rigoletto are in full swing.  To help you, the audience member, learn more about the artist you will be seeing on stage this season, we asked each of our principal singers to offer some insight into not only how they prepare for their upcoming performances, but also what life is like for them as a professional singer in general.

We present to you Eleni Calenos, a Greek soprano enjoying an international career.  Ms. Calenos will be singing the role of Gilda, the jester's daughter in this fall's production of Verdi's tragic masterpiece Rigoletto.      

Soprano Eleni Calenos

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

A.  My whole life was filled with music, and not only classical and opera. In fact opera came much later in my life…  My beginning in music, besides listening, was learning to play cello and piano at the age of seven. I also loved to sing in the various choral ensembles of my conservatory.  After, I obtained my diploma in cello performance and performed as a member of my hometown’s Municipal Symphony Orchestra, I took, what I considered at the time, to be a bold turn. I started exploring Greek traditional, ethnic, and even more contemporary/popular music as a singer.  I was successful as a recording session musician and singer, and was performing in different music scenes, often for various Greek TV channels, and already establishing my name.  Little that I knew, I did not expect any radical life changes.  The “Aha”! moment came with my first voice lessons in Athens, Greece. I thought I was just trying to protect my voice by learning healthy vocal technique.  However, this experience “forced” me to explore my full potential, to discover my real natural volume that I had never used before, high notes and extension in general, and finally the use of all my body and soul in an unprecedented way.  The moment I hit my fist high B flat was an epiphany that changed everything, and there was no way back!!

Q.  What are you looking forward to most about performing this particular role?

A.  I am looking forward to the challenges I will meet performing this role.  I’ve had already a taste during my preparation, but performance time and doing it on stage is completely different and teaches you a great deal.  Gilda is a very different role than the ones I have performed up until today.  It is in essence the very first fully staged Verdi opera that I am doing, and in a way among the first in the bel canto style.  Working on it, I had a new and exciting, for me, technical discoveries that I am looking forward to applying as perfectly as I can.  So, I am anticipating discovering new nuances for my character.  I am also looking forward to working and making music and theater on stage with a new conductor, director, orchestra, chorus and of course with great singers!

Q.  Is there something unique about your process for preparing for a role for performance?

A.  I do not know if I could call my preparation unique.  It just includes a lot of work.  First, translating the whole opera and listening to a recording while reading my piano vocal score.  Then, learning my part by repetition, and sometimes rehearsing in front of a mirror repeating the text with different color and intention as an experiment until I have a preferable choice.  After I do my own preparation, I start with coachings, voice lessons, and occasionally one or two theatrical coachings on dramatic interpretation.  I personally consider movement and body posture very important so I try to prepare accordingly with the help of Alexander Technique*.

Q.  What do you want the audience to know about your character?  What do you find most challenging about this role?

A.  I do not want the audience to know anything about my character.  I think everybody’s perception is different and I believe it’s more exciting for them to discover my character along the way without any preconceptions.  They will be able to tell at the end if I, as a singer/actress, have portrayed Gilda well, and if I indeed was being her.  The greatest challenge I find about this role is that Gilda is many women in one. (What woman isn’t?) In the first act, she starts out very innocent and virginal, and we only have a glimpse of what is going to follow. Then she falls in love, she tastes love, and by the last act, she suffers disappointment, betrayal, and pain. She is at times frail and then she is courageous, and has the strength to sacrifice her life in order to save her beloved.  There is a contrast between the act one, act two, and act three Gilda.  Verdi depicts her changes and development throughout the acts very distinctly with his music. 

Ms. Calenos as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly
Q.  Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A.  Nothing bizarre besides little jokes during a performance.  However, I remember an experience that I had in Houston during rehearsals.  I was singing my first Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly.  After the first couple of musical rehearsals, Hurricane Ike came into town.  The city was almost in a state of emergency, but we kept preparing in the theater even without electricity, even with a flooded basement for a while.  There was no air conditioning in a city infamous for its humidity, and a power generator was used during the dress rehearsals, so that the orchestra musicians could read their parts!  It was all in all a bizarre experience that will stay in my memory.  As if we were a troupe of actors from another era, where art comes first, and we made our sacrifice to save the show!

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

A.  My main concern is to trying to keep calm.  Good sleep, not much talking, eating well, no alcohol, yoga practice for stretching of the body and warming it up, listening to recording of my coachings and voice lessons, going over my staging directions are included in my pre-performance routine.  Maybe not so interesting or fun for a non-singer…. But I think singing demands an athletic kind of concentration and treatment, and so my preparation is also a bit athletic.

I have no superstitions or good luck charms.  I just like to be positive, and to feel in an emotionally healthy and loving working environment .  Thus hugging my colleagues and wishing them well beforehand is important.  This profession is not only egotistic.  It’s also very much about team work, and spreading the love before a performance helps!

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

A.  Many times between performances I need to tone down my rhythms. I seek opportunities to be alone and in complete silence, so I am able to “empty” my head and stay away from annoying and loud sounds. Otherwise, I enjoy small companies of friends and colleagues, soft music, cooking, yoga, reading, swimming if possible, and the best: having a massage session!

Q.  How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook? 

A.  The most practical way to keep connected with my family overseas is Skype.  I also maintain a website ( for people who wish to follow my career, as well as facebook for friends and fans. Don’t forget about e-mails and the old fashioned phone calls!

Q.  Are there towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A.  The city that I have a strong connection with is New York.  It has become my new home and almost replaced my hometown Thessaloniki, Greece.  I have spent eight of my ten US years in New York, since I studied there for my masters and then started my career.  Of course, there are other cities where I’ve developed and established friendships because of traveling for performances.  I feel in many cases, there is a room/bed for me in many cities provided that I wish to visit again.

You can see Ms. Calenos on stage and hear her elegant voice as she performs the role of Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, in this season's fall production running October 26th through November 12th.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the Sarasota Opera Box Office at (941) 328-1300.

*The Alexander Technique is a study in body movement that aims to teach people how to stand, hold themselves, and move differently in order to eliminate unnecessary tension in their bodies.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

LET THERE BE LIGHT: A Chat with Ken Yunker

Let There Be Light:  A Chat with Ken Yunker, Sarasota Opera’s Resident Lighting Designer


Have you ever wondered how the Sarasota Opera stage seems to always be lit so perfectly?  Artistic Administrator Greg Trupiano takes us backstage to meet Resident Lighting Designer, Ken Yunker, as he prepares for Sarasota Opera's busy fall season which will present Verdi's Rigoletto and the Sarasota Youth Opera world premiere of Little Nemo in Slumberland. 

Ken Yunker first worked as Sarasota Opera's resident lighting designer for the 2007 season. His responsibility is to devise the lighting plots for all the mainstage operas.

Ken Yunker

Born in Oregon and raised in the northwest, Ken says that becoming a lighting designer is his reaction to growing up in a military government town. His father was a nuclear chemist at the Handford Nuclear Project. Ken recalls, "It was a dry, not very interesting environment. Probably the one time when the town came to life was Christmas with all the sparkly colors and seasonal tree lights."

As an undergraduate, Ken tried to make his parents happy by taking courses they wanted him to take. "I grew up in a very scientific household!" says Ken. But by the time he was at Ann Arbor in Michigan for graduate studies, Ken was studying the arts. There he got to design the lighting for his first opera, Hansel and Gretel. It was an emergency situation and Ken only had a total of 48 hours to learn and design the opera before it hit the stage. From this humble beginning, Ken has gone on to design a large number of opera and non-opera productions. But for Ken, opera is special because it contains everything: music, staging, singing, scenery, costumes, and lighting.

Ken describes the process of designing the lights for a production, "When I work on an opera, I try to hear what the composer wants me to hear and push it through the lighting technology we have. With success, the art will reemerge on the other side." Last season, Ken had to light operas as varied in locale as exotic Japan (Madama Butterfly) to a frigid, unnamed northern country (Vanessa), with stops in Spain (Carmen), Scotland (Lucia di Lammermoor), and Cyprus (Otello).

The 2012-13 season promises to test further his skills as a lighting designer. First up is the fall production of the Verdi masterpiece, Rigoletto. Ken says, “Rigoletto is a production that we are familiar with from the grand opening of the renovated theater in March 2008. The Act III storm, dramatically so important to the climax of the opera, is a lot of fun to design. It showcases the Opera House’s wonderful lighting system.   For this production, we have a gorgeous white marble set that makes it challenging to light the opera’s many night scenes; if I am not careful, the lighting will look too theatrical and not be believable. In addition, whatever I design for the performances in Sarasota has to be replicated for the performance of Rigoletto that takes place at the Philharmonic Center in Naples in mid-November. And at that venue we have very limited time to get the lighting right.”

In addition, Yunker has to consider that for the first time since the inauguration of Sarasota Opera’s fall season of fully produced operas, two different productions will be presented. In the middle of the Rigoletto run will be the two world-premiere performances of Sarasota Youth Opera’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. This opera with music by Daron Aric Hagen and libretto by J.D. McClatchy is based on the famous early twentieth century comic strip by Winsor McCay.

“Having to coordinate these two productions in a repertoire schedule is a massive but rewarding undertaking,” says the lighting design. “For Little Nemo we are using a state-of-the-art digital projection system called SCRIBE (self-contained rapidly integratable background environment). It was developed by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. This style of production will give our audiences a unique visual treat that is perfect for the day and night topsy-turvy world of Little Nemo in Slumberland.”
─ Greg Trupiano, Artistic Administrator

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Summer at Camp: A Voice Teacher's Perspective

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Mitchell was asked to join the artistic faculty of the 2012 Sarasota Youth Opera Summer Camp just this past June.  Her primary responsibility was teaching voice.  Ms. Nicole, as the campers called her, has been both an apprentice artist and studio artist with Sarasota Opera and won critical acclaim for her performance of Tituba in the 2011 production of Robert Ward's The Crucible.
We asked her to write up what her experience was like and the challenges she faced working with such young singers.  Here is what she had to say: 

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Mitchell
When I was asked to be a part of Sarasota Opera's 2012 Youth Opera Summer Camp I have to say I was THRILLED!!!  As thrilled as I was though, I was also a bit nervous and perplexed at how I would be able to relay information on the process of singing to almost four dozen children- whose ages ranged from about seven to eighteen years old. Overall, I was excited at the opportunity to share what I've learned as a classically trained singer, but I was also excited to be on the receiving end of knowledge as well. Nothing hones a teacher's skills better than their students. 

Learning how to sing in the classical style is more than just learning how to sing a song without a microphone. It is about what one does physically, emotionally and mentally to prepare BEFORE using the vocal cords.  Teaching voice to a group is a challenge in that you must find the simplest way to convey knowledge to over forty minds about posture, good breathing technique, pitch accuracy, scales, diction and name a few, in a limited amount of time. 
Over the three-week period I saw the young singers, some with more abandon, others a little shyer, take chances in trying to do what was asked of them during different exercises.  It was great to see youthful courage, enthusiasm and imagination being used from the many. At times it was a bit daunting as they were asked to combine the information they'd received, not only from my instructions, but that of their other teachers as well. The art of an artist at any age is the effective merging of their talents with their acquired skills and techniques to make a performance look "easy".  
Members of the Sarasota Youth Opera perform a
selection from Little Nemo in Slumberland
on the last day of camp.

In the end, what I was most proud of for each student is that they stepped out of their comfort zones and tried and succeeded! They gave their ALL which is what great performers do. I was thoroughly impressed at their willingness to put their best creative selves forward. In the camp's final exhibition, the young artists sang, emoted and moved in character to tell the stories they were involved in from excerpts of Puccini's Turandot, Verdi's Macbeth and the upcoming children's opera Little Nemo in Slumberland by composer Daron Hagen. I was SO proud!!!

What I stressed most for the young artists during our three weeks together is that they try their best in all they do. Try, just try. You can't go wrong from there because you'll learn something new no matter what.  Now isn't that good advice for us all? It was good for me!

-- Nicole Mitchell