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.