Opera Warhorses

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The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 2

June 29th, 2015

This post continues a conversation that began with The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 1.



Wm: The San Francisco Opera, among other companies, has on several occasions given you the task of reviving an older production, such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” or their current production of Puccini’s “Tosca”.  Do you find it more challenging to re-stage an older production than to create a new one?

JMC: The challenges are different. New productions are about concept, the teamwork with designers, dealing with budgets (or cuts to budgets), etc. Revivals are about how to create exciting storytelling even with pre-existing scenery or, often, with shorter rehearsal periods.

Some revivals can still be thrilling, even decades after its original presentation. If the production was solid and strong from the start, then it’s usually easier to remount it.

Other productions, which were not strong to begin with remain weak no matter what. But I’ve been lucky to get to work on iconic revivals such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff”, which is still exciting and fresh.

Sir David McVicar’s productions of our current day, like those of Ponnelle’s from the past, have something very powerful and true about them and they stand the test of time.

Wm: McVicar is able to make sure his works are mounted by himself or his assistants, but Ponnelle’s productions that still exist (why any were destroyed is another discussion) are sometimes staged in ways that I don’t think mesh with the original production. On the other hand, you have shown, in restaging, as an example, Ponnelle’s “Carmen” that you can add details not in the original production that enhance the story that Ponnelle and Bizet were telling.

JMC: It is always a balancing act between honoring the original director’s intention while keeping it fresh for the audience that is seeing it today. I do try to add details or even change things but always with an eye for the integrity of the overall concept.

But you have to keep in mind that sometimes I have to work with sets and costumes that are older than myself (for example, the production of “Tosca” that I have directed for Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera recently). However, even in those cases, with the right cast and if the presenting company allows proper rehearsal time and attention to details is served, they can still be a thrilling theatrical experience.

Wm: A revival obviously can still require a lot of work. Are there differences in approach to a revival and a new production?

JMC: Typically, new productions come with more resources and a generous allocation of time for rehearsals, perhaps up to six weeks. The added time allows for a director to really work with the singers on creating storytelling that goes beyond the surface of the story of the opera.

Revivals can be, sometimes, shortchanged when it come to rehearsal time or even technical rehearsals.

Wm: Let’s talk about the San Francisco Opera “Tosca”.

JMC: There is something about the painterly work used in San Francisco Opera’s “Tosca” sets that I think is still interesting to see, even in current days when projections seem to be quickly replacing the craft of stage painting. But I am also excited about doing a brand new production of “Tosca” for Cincinnati Opera next Summer, designed by the wonderful Robert Perdziola, which will be traditional in its approach, but not with “museum dusty”.

Wm: You were responsible for staging both San Francisco Opera’s 2012 and 2014 revivals of the “Tosca” production. There were some notable events in both years. In 2012, Angela Gheorghiu withdrew from the opening performance at the end of the first act and was transported to the hospital. Melody Moore sang the final two acts, although Gheorghiu performed in all the remaining performances for which she was committed. Is there a story there?

JMC: Nothing more than exactly what you described. Ms Gheorghiu became physically very ill at the end of Act I and could not continue beyond. Luckily, the wonderful Melody Moore had sat in rehearsals and was able to step in and take over the second and third act. It was both a nerve-racking and thrilling night for all involved.  

[Below: Tosca (Melody Moore, above) has just killed Scarpia (Roberto Frontali) in a 2012 San Francisco Opera performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” directed by José Maria Condemi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: You had another artist withdraw only a few days before the opening of the 2014 “Tosca” revival and Lianna Haroutounian made her San Francisco Opera debut in the role, even though she had never sung it before. I assume that was quite a situation.

JMC: I absolutely loved working with Lianna and you are correct she had not sung the role before. But her professionalism and consummate integrity as an artist made for one of the most enjoyable times for me ever. I can only hope to work with Ms Haroutounian again.

Wm: You all pulled it off, and it was one of highlights of the Fall 2014 season.

JMC: Before the 2014 “Tosca”, I had had the pleasure of working with Patricia Racette. a fascinating artist of uncompromising integrity to her craft. Ms Haroutounian belongs in the same level and, even with limited rehearsal time and not having done the role before, she rose to the occasion marvelously and also brought her fellow cast members to her high standards. I was thrilled for her success.

Wm: As a stage director, what do you look for in an artist with whom you will be working?

JMC: I like to work with artists who are intellectually curious, are willing to dig deep into their souls to reveal the complexity of the human condition and have a hunger for storytelling.

I get extremely bored and often frustrated when a singer has decided that his or her character should only be played one way or who does not show curiosity or willingness to entertain alternative approaches, dimensions and nuances.

This is why I love working with young or early-career singers, as they tend to remain curious and open to inquiry.

Last year, I directed the “La Boheme for Families” performances for the San Francisco Opera, with the younger cast. We spent a lot of time talking about the opera, the characters and the situations. One day one of the singers said to me, “I find it interesting that Mimi makes a clear point of telling Rodolfo her real name, but that he does not do the same”. That type of insight and curious inquiry is precisely what I look for in any artist of any level.

Wm: You’ve subsequently returned to staging Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire” in Louisville and Santa Barbara. Are there other contemporary works that you are planning?

[Below: Conductor Joseph Mechavich (left) and Stage Director José Maria Condemi on the sets of the 2015 Kentucky Opera production of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


JMC: I will be doing a new production of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at Indiana University later this year and possible revivals of my production of “Frida”. I love working with living composers and to be able to interact with them in rehearsals and ask questions.

A few years ago, I created a new production of Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and I was thrilled to have the chance to meet and work with Daniel Catan. Unfortunately, he passed away only a few months before our rehearsals started.

Wm: Our first interview took place during your staging of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” for the Seattle Opera. You recently directed the same title for the Cincinnati Opera. How have your thoughts on this Romantic Era opera evolved as you return to it after a period of years?

JMC: I always enjoy the challenge of staging “Trovatore” – an opera known for its convoluted story, which demands dramatic cohesion and clarity. The cast in Cincinnati was terrific and included three our of four principals doing role debuts, so there was a lot of time spent in rehearsals discussing characters, dramatic situations, and our personal relationship with the themes of the opera: revenge, matriarchal mandates, mental illness, the pull of blood, karmic cycles, etc.

[Below: Azucena (Jamie Barton, front center) tells her story in Jose Maria Condemi’s 2015 Cincinnati Opera staging of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph for the Cincinnati Opera.]


I always strive to stage a “mid-Verdi” piece like “Trovatore” the way I like to think the composer would have wanted it done, knowing how his stagecraft developed in the later years of his career.

Wm: Your appointment as Director of Opera for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has been announced. What will be your role there, and do you expect it to tie into other operatic activities in the Bay Area?

 JMC: My overarching function will be to develop the training program and oversee its artistic output. I will also be teaching classes, directing production and spearheading a number of collaborative ventures with other local arts organizations. I am thrilled to be joining the faculty at SFCM during the dynamic leadership of President David Stull.

Wm: In Summer 2013, you had responsibility of staging a revival of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” at the San Francisco Opera in which Philippe Sly, the person cast as Guglielmo, was performing his first important mainstage role for an internationally ranked opera company. As a director (and a person, like Sly, who was an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera), did you feel a special responsibility to assure that his debut was successful? Do you look forward to staging an opera with a talented newcomer, but one who has little experience in “big company” mainstage work?

JMC: I had actually worked with Philippe prior to “Cosi fan Tutte”, when he played a role in the world premiere of “The Secret Garden”, a San Francisco Opera commission that I directed. So I was very aware of Philippe’s exceeding talent as a young singer and had no doubt that he would make a terrific mainstage debut as Guglielmo.

[Below: Philippe Sly, right, is Archibald Craven and Sarah Shafer, left, is Mary Lennox in the 2013 San Francisco Opera performances directed by José Maria Condemi at Zellerbach Hall of Gasser’s “The Secret Garden”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I was glad to have the opportunity to guide him and support him on such an important event in his career and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Wm: It is now clear that the investment in opera company Young Artist’s programs over the past half-century has paid dividends, with many current opera starts owing their success to this early experience.

You are still one of the only persons to have learned the craft of stage direction in a Young Artist’s program. Would you recommend that there be a much larger investment in training young artists in such “non-singing” auxiliary roles as stage direction, opera conducting and perhaps even projection design?

JMC: Absolutely! I would not be where I am in my career if it hadn’t been for the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and all of the opportunities that I was afforded not only to train and learn my craft, but, most importantly, to be able to make mistakes in a safe and supportive setting. I would love to see more opportunities for young stage directors, conductors and designers.

Wm: Thank you, José  Maria.

JMC: Thank you William. Always a pleasure catching up with you!




Tags: William's Conversations

The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 1

June 28th, 2015

The following conversation began in the administrative offices of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this conversation is deeply appreciated.


[Below: Opera stage director José Maria Condemi; resized image of a publicity photograph from josemariacondemi.com.]


Wm: When I interviewed you five years ago [Rising Stars: An Interview with Stage Director José Maria Condemi], I did not ask my usual questions on the influences on you that led to you becoming an operatic stage director. Let’s start this conversation discussing those influences.

JMC: I get asked that question often. I wish I had a “my life led me to my career” answer but certainly there was never a plan to follow this or that step so as to become an opera stage director.

Wm: Then let’s go back to the beginning in Argentina, and to your earliest involvement with music?

JMC: I come from an Italian background. My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina and my parents are first generation Argentinians. It was a very typical Italian upbringing when it came to food and popular culture, but there was no opera.

My mother kept me busy from an early age and, when I turned five, I was sent to piano lessons, which I took for more than ten years. In my early teens, I delved into painting, dance and later into theater. So I had a strong connection with classical music, visual arts and theater, but not necessarily with opera.

When it came time to choose a career, as it is often the case in Italian-South American families, I was expected to become either a physician or a lawyer. So I finished secondary school at age 17, moved out of the sleepy country town where I grew up and started medical school at the University of Buenos Aires.

There were no introductory pre-med courses, so in my very first class I had to dissect a cadaver. This proved a bit too much of a jump, from growing up in a very provincial small-town setting to being a “grown up” university student in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires barely out of my teens.

I very much enjoyed the scientific aspects of medical school, and even today, I am quite interested in science. But, at that time, I was not prepared for the human requirements of the job.

During the first three years in medical school I mostly dealt with books and theory, so I did very well. But on my fourth year we started going out into the community and doing actual work with patients, particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods. I vividly remember a particular day in which I had to vaccinate some babies. All my science education and the hours with books and anatomical specimens did not serve me well that day. I was simply not prepared or mature enough for the actual job.

Wm: I understand why you never became a family doc in Argentina’s rural interior, but don’t yet understand how you came to be an opera director.

JMC: Leaving medical school was a bit of an act of rebellion against my upbringing and the “plan” I was expected to follow. I wanted to do something radically different, but I had no idea what that would be about.

[Below: Stanley Kowalski (Thomas Gunther, left) confronts Blanche DuBois (Julie Adams, right), in José Maria Condemi’s 2014 staging of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” for San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program; resized image of a Kristen Loken photograph for the Merola Program.]


And one day Opera came to my life: I was walking down a street in Buenos Aires and heard a recording of Bizet’s “Carmen” being played at a record store. (It was the Agnes Baltsa/ Jose Carreras one.)

Even though I had probably heard the music before, on this particular day something struck me and I paid closer attention. I became fascinated by the visceral power of hearing that music.

Up to that day, I had never seen a full opera on the stage and I didn’t even own a single opera recording. Yet that “Carmen” had such a powerful effect on me that, six months later, I was spending a lot of time listening to opera, buying records and further immersing myself in the art form as a listener and dilettante, all while I was still a full time medical student.

Wm: How did you make the transition from medicine to music?

JMC: This happened slowly over the course of about one year. The famed Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was functioning at prime level and they had a training branch called the Teatro Colon Institute.

[Below: José Maria Condemi, right, rehearses a scene with Eurydice (Davinia Rodríguez, left) and Orphée (William Burden, center) in the 2012 Seattle Opera production of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice; resized image of an Alan Alabastro photograph for the Seattle Opera.]

Staging rehearsal for Seattle Opera production of Orpheus & Eurydice.


It came to my attention that they had a four-week course Summer course introducing one to the process of becoming an opera stage director (or Regisseur”; we use the French denomination back home).

Without knowing much about it, I decided to take the course and what had become a small passion quickly turned into an obsession and later a career.

I quit medical school and informed my family I was going to sign up for a three year undergraduate program in opera direction at the Colon Institute.

My family was not precisely receptive to my sudden career move and they announced that they would not support me financially.

However, in Argentina all school fees are waived and I was able to support myself teaching music in schools (finally all those many years of piano lessons were paying off.)

After graduating from the Teatro Colon Institute, I tried to make a living as an opera stage director, but with only one professional opera company in Argentina at that time, I knew my chances would be severely limited.

Through my grandparents, I had been able to become an Italian citizen and, with a brand new European passport, I started to plot a move to Europe.

In the process of doing research for the move, I came across and advertisement in Opera News for the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music (CCM), and their Artist Diploma in Opera Directing.

My plan to move to Europe started to shift and I started looking at schools in the USA. I learned that, besides Cincinnati Conservatory, there were two other schools – Indiana University and University of Florida in Tallahassee that offered a degree in opera directing.

Wm: What did you decide to do?

JMC: I applied to both Cincinnati and Indiana University. I made it to the short list in Cincinnati and came for a series of interviews and auditions. I was blown away by the facilities and opportunities that CCM would provide me.

It is an amazing school and since it only accepted one director a year, the opportunities for training and practical work were too good to pass. In the end, I was accepted into the Artist Diploma track and was offered a full scholarship ride and a paid assistantship. So I packed up my life in Buenos Aires and moved to Cincinnati with two suitcases.

Wm: How did the Cincinnati program influence your career?

JMC: Both of my main teachers were British: Malcolm Fraser, who was the founder of the Buxton Festival, and Jonathan Eaton. These two teachers were simply extraordinary. I owe them both a huge deal of any success I enjoy today.

[Below: British opera director Malcolm Fraser; resized image of a publicity photograph, from the Buxton Festival.]


Mr Fraser passed away a few years ago and I sorely miss his presence in my life. Early in my first year at CCM, Professor Fisher told me that if I was intent in remaining in the USA after graduating, then he suggested I consider switching from the Artist Diploma track to a full Master of Fine Arts degree, which would offer a more rounded academic education.

And so I took his advice and transferred to the MFA program.

He said to me that if you are doing a career in United States, having a music degree is more useful than the degree I was pursuing. He suggested that I stay another year and do a thesis.

I stayed an extra year at CCM writing a thesis and taking very interesting classes in dramaturgy, script analysis, etc. I was also able to train in both the Opera and Theater schools, working with opera singers, but also actors.

My thesis project in opera was a full production of Poulenc’s “Les mamelles de Terésias”, supplemented by an academic paper on the Surrealism movement around its creation.

My main project in the Theater track was a play by Caryl Churchill called Mad Forest, about the Rumanian Revolution.

Wm: How did you move from academic music to a professional career?

JMC: It was by chance. I was finishing up coursework at CCM, but I had to secure a professional internship, which was a requirement for graduation. While researching options, I came across another Opera News advertisement for the apprentice stage director position in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program.

I applied and I was invited to “audition” for the program. I had to discuss a number of opera scenes and explain what conceptual approach I may take and how I would stage them.

The interview went well, but, knowing I was only one of more than two dozen applicants, I was certain I would not be chosen. Three days later, my cellphone rang and I was invited me to join Merola. I participated in the program in the Summer of 1999 and then I was invited for a second time in the Summer of 2000.

Wm: What did you do as an apprentice director in the Merola program?

JMC: I assisted renowned stage directors such as Lotfi Mansouri, directed the Merola Grand Finale, attended master classes, took language lessons and just soaked it all up. It was a thrilling Summer and many of my fellow “Merolini” have gone to very successful careers.

Wm: And the Merola program success paid dividends for you!

JMC: During my second Merola summer, I was told that the Opera Center had considered adding a stage director to their roster of Adler Fellows, their full-time resident artists program.

They asked me if I would be interested and, of course, I jumped at the incredible chance. I became the first (and so far only) Adler Fellow Stage Director, a position I held for two years.

It was also an exciting time, because my second year as an Adler Fellow coincided with the arrival of the new San Francisco Opera General Director, Pamela Rosenberg, so I got to work on some really interesting mainstage shows (Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”, Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise”, etc.)

Wm: Are there other productions that you have done that you regard as particularly special?

JMC: Yes, there are a number. The new production of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” that you saw at the Seattle Opera, is one of them [See William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012]. I had created a concept for that opera for a small production I did for West Bay Opera in Palo Alto.

Several years later, I was able to revisit the same concept in a full new production at Seattle Opera with a much larger budget. It remains one of my favorite productions that I’ve done.

Another one I am proud of is my staging of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar” at Cincinnati Opera, included most of the original cast (Dawn Upshaw, Kelly O’Connor, Jessica Rivera)

[Below: Dawn Upshaw in José Maria Condemi’s 2009 Cincinnati Opera production of Golijov’s “Ainadamar”; resized image of a production photograph for the Cincinnati Opera.]


I also enjoyed doing the new production of Verdi’s “Ernani” for Lyric Opera of Chicago that you reviewed [Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009].

Most recently, my new production of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’ “Frida” at Michigan Opera Theater has a special place in my heart. And I thoroughly enjoyed the production of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I did for Merola last Summer.

Part Two of this Conversaton follows soon.






Tags: William's Conversations

Rising Stars: An Interview with Philippe Sly

June 21st, 2015

The following interview with Philippe Sly took place at the War Memorial Opera House of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated: 


[Below: Bass-baritone Philippe Sly; resized image of an Adam Scotti photograph.]


Wm: What were your earliest memories of music? Of classical music? Of opera?

PS: My parents lived in Germany before I was born and brought many recordings back to Canada, Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Simon and Garfunkel albums, the Forrest Gump soundtrack and Schönberg’s “Les Misérables”.

 In fact, when I auditioned for the Ottawa Boys Choir, my audition song was Do You Hear the People Sing? from “Les Misérables”.

Wm: You have a bachelors in music from McGill University in Montreal. What were the circumstances that led you to choose that institution and that course of study? When did you decide on a career in vocal performance?

PS:  From an early age I was telling people that I wanted to be an opera singer. I decided that I wanted to go to whichever school had the best voice teacher.

Five minutes into an introductory voice lesson with Sanford Sylvan I knew that I wanted him to be my teacher. Luckily he was to begin teaching at McGill University that same year, and it just happened to be the institution closest to my home in Ottawa!

[Below: Philippe Sly as Escamillo in “La Tragédie de Carmen” at McGill University; resized image of an Adam Scotti photograph.]


Wm: You were a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Elaborate on that experience and how that influenced your career.

PS: That, to me, was a fluke, because I was still a student. I knew that there were regional auditions being held in nearby Buffalo, New York, and I thought that even if I were unsuccessful, I could still apply again. But I made it to the semi-finals, and then to the finals. It was a surreal experience.

Luckily I did not make the mistake of learning new repertoire especially for the competition, I stuck with the arias I had been singing for years and somehow came out a winner.

Wm: What was the result of your success in the auditions?

PS: Winning the Met competition gives you visibility in a career field which is very crowded and extremely difficult.

There are so many great artists out there. Yet, the first thing you are told in university is that less than 10 percent of the class will even work in the field of music. Winning the Met was a way to have my “voice” heard.

Wm: You entered the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and sang the role of Bartolo in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. Then you began an apprenticeship with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto but soon received an invitation to become an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera.

What were the circumstances that convinced you to return to San Francisco?

PS:  At the time I began my round of auditioning, I had been accepted into the Canadian Opera Company’s Young Artists program. Then, the summer just before the Met auditions, I was accepted as a member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program.

I had returned to the Canadian Opera Company when I received a call from Gregory Henkel, San Francisco Opera’s Director of Artistic and Music Planning that the Guglielmo for San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” had cancelled and asked if I would be willing to replace him, with one condition: I had to become an Adler Fellow and hence needed to cut my two years with the Canadian Opera Company short.

[Below: Guglielmo (Philippe Sly, right), disguised as an Albanian sailor, begins the seduction of Dorabella (Christel Lötzsch, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SLY LOTSCH COSI S F 2013 (400)

Wm: That’s not the kind of news a Young Artist’s program would want to hear, particularly from a Canadian artist in a Canadian program. I suspect that they weren’t happy about it. 

PS: They had invested in me generously, but they had no plans to offer me a role similar in importance to Guglielmo in the near future.

As artists we have only a limited number of career changing opportunities, and experience on stage is extremely valuable. They completely understood my decision and supported it.

Wm: Many alumni of the Adler Fellowships have later established important relationships with the San Francisco Opera, but your career is especially notable in that you have been tapped for principal roles in Mozart operas – besides Guglielmo in “Cosi fan Tutte”, you are performing the title role in “Nozze di Figaro” and in a few weeks you will star as  Papageno in “The Magic Flute” – even though you are only in your 20s.

Do you foresee Mozart as being the central part of your repertory for the early decades of your career? What other roles would you like to add to your repertory at present?

 PS: The Mozart roles are ideally suited for my type of voice.  I will be singing the title role of “Don Giovanni” in the future and more Guglielmos in “Cosi”, but no other other Mozart roles yet. I have concentrated on classical and baroque music.

[Below: the pairs of “Cosi fan Tutte” lovers in a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, staged by Christopher Alden and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, from left to right Philippe Sly as Guglielmo, Roxana Constantinescu as Dorabella, Alek Shrader as Ferrando and Miah Persson as Fiordiligi; edited image, based on a photograph for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.]

Cosi-Sly-Constantinescu-Shrader-Persson (425)

As a French-Canadian, French works are very important to me, and suit my voice. I will be singing Golaud in a concert performance of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” this fall in Montreal. It’s important to find ways of “stretching” one’s repertoire in a safe environment.

Golaud will become an important role later in my career but I think it’s important to begin work on such iconic roles early in one’s development. I want to grow with these roles.

Wm: The great basso Ferruccio Furlanetto has made a point that several of the roles that you sing or are about to sing are “young men’s roles” appropriate to early stages of a basso or bass-baritone’s career. 

PS: Although these Mozart roles feel like young persons’ roles, Mozart is harder to sing than other roles you might be offered in early career.

Mozart’s operas function almost in real time. That is to say that musical gestures are not elongated like in bel canto and this leaves less time for the voice to resonate.

If the voice isn’t resonating chances are you are pushing and therefore slowly damaging your voice. It is very tricky!!

Wm: And you are surrounded by a young cast in the other principal roles as well.

PS: Yes, I think there is a naturalness that one can approach the roles when characters who are supposed to be young are played by artists of a similar age. Soprano Nadine Sierra is a very young countess, but she is the age that the character is supposed to be.

[Below: Susanna (Lisette Oropesa, standing) shows affection to her fiancé, Figaro (Philippe Sly, lying on bed); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


There is one “inversion”. Figaro really should be a bit older than Almaviva, as we recall from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, but that’s not something you usually see.

Wm: Christopher Alden’s production of Handel’s “Partenope” at the San Francisco Opera in Fall 2014 proved to be one of the season’s artistic triumphs. What was it like working in Alden and that cast?

PS: I, for sure, thought it was the highlight of the San Francisco Opera Fall season. I had worked with Christopher Alden before. He is very good at assessing each artist’s strengths and making the best use of them.

His staging was very specific and it was exuberant and immediate as theater. It was experiential to be on stage. It felt much more than a succession of recitative and arias.

[Below: Philippe Sly as Ormonte in the Christopher Alden production of Handel’s “Partenope”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: You have been preparing the title role in “Nozze di Figaro” with Houston Grand Opera’s music director, Patrick Summers. Do you feel a special bond with Summers in preparing and performing this Mozart masterpiece?

PS: Patrick Summers has been very helpful in working one-on-one with me, knowing that this is my first Figaro. He wants to be sure that I am singing healthily while keeping my musical and theatrical imagination alive.

This is my first leading role. Before Figaro, I was subordinate to artists in the most important parts. As the leading male I am expected to fill the space around me, to be the artist that other members of the cast play against.

My time with Summers has been a very wholesome process. It’s not just helping me on details in the score. It’s been a true mentorship. 

Wm: Earlier this year you made your European stage debut at the Paris Opéra-Comique as Ory in Philippe Boesman’s opera “Au Monde”. What were the circumstances that came to your being asked to take that role?

PS: My big opportunities have come from replacing baritones who have dropped out of projects. In this case, French baritone Stéphane Degout had sung the role of Ory in Boesman’s “Au Monde” in the world premiere performances at the Monnaie in Brussels, but when the opera was to travel to the Opéra-Comique earlier this year, he had been engaged by the Opéra de Paris to sing the role of Pelléas in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Melisande”.

I was the only new member 0f the cast who had not sung the role in Brussels.They needed to find someone who could replace Degout, who, as a baritone has a range that is higher than mine, so a few notes were changed to conform to my vocal range as a bass-baritone.

Wm: What was it like doing a contemporary opera in such a venerable setting?

PS: The culture of the Opéra-Comique is very different. Both the composer and librettist were there to work with us. Because the size of the theater is so much smaller than an American opera house, we worked like film actors. It was luxurious experience and could have been made into a film.

The intimacy we were able to achieve can be accomplished in very small theaters. There were not any compromises – not directly.

Wm: What is it like being recognized as a star so early in your career by a company with the international standing of the San Francisco Opera?

PS: It’s magic for me to be assigned the dressing room that great male artists such as Luciano Pavarotti have used. I am amazed at all the wonderful people who have sung here. My dresser will tell me about helping Samuel Ramey with his costume!

Wm: Where do you see your career going from here?

PS: At the present time, I am like a nomad, with no encumbrances that prevent me from following whatever path that “going with the flow” leads me. One artist’s career can be built very differently from another’s.

Wm: Thank you, Philippe, for your time.

PS: Thank you!

Tags: 2008-2015 William's Interviews