August 17th, 2015
Wm: This post is the first of a series of conversations on the impact of Young Artists programs, both on the career of opera singers and the opera companies that offer them. The first conversation took place at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is greatly appreciated.
[Below: Michael Heaston; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: Michael, you oversee the both the Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists’ program and the Domingo-Cafritz Program of the Washington National Opera. What is your musical background?
MH: I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and raised in West Des Moines, Iowa. At age 11 I began piano lessons. In my teens I was fond of theater and of Broadway musicals.
I enrolled in Drake University, where my father is a professor of accounting in the College of Business and Public Administration. I pursued degrees in piano and in business and even considered law school as a path at one point.
Wm: Was it your interest in Broadway musicals that led to an interest in vocal performance?
MH: It was, but then I veered off course. As a pianist who could sightread well, I quickly found myself very busy at school. I would accompany many of the voice majors at Drake – attending their voice lessons, partnering them in recital, playing at competitions, etc.
I had no background in opera, art song, or classical voice up to this point yet, when it was suggested to me that I consider becoming a vocal coach, I found the job fit me like a glove. So I left my Broadway music director dreams behind and focused instead on a career as a vocal coach.
[Below: Michael Heaston at the podium in an “opera talk”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: How does one become a vocal coach?
MH: I went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, for graduate study as a collaborative pianist, where I mentored with my principal teacher, Margo Garrett. She was holding dual appointments at Juilliard and Minnesota at that time.
Margo introduced me to her Juilliard colleague, Brian Zeger, and has also helped guide me over the years. Although I was playing a lot of chamber music and instrumental sonatas, vocal coaching became my primary focus.
In the year 2006, I was selected to be a member of the Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program, and was subsequently asked to return as a principal coach the following season.
But in 2007, there was a personnel change, and, instead of my being just a principal coach that season, I was invited to also be the Director of the Young Artists Program.
I jumped at the opportunity, even though I was still quite young and hadn’t done many important training programs myself.
[Below: Members of the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: It seems to me that even among persons of demonstrable talent that work hard, there is still an element of chance – being in the right place at the right time.
MH: I absolutely agree with that. The key, however, is to be ready for a big break when it presents itself. If you aren’t prepared within an inch of your life, ready to deliver the goods, at all times, then being in the right place at the right time is meaningless.
At that time, I was still learning the operatic repertory, devouring it as quickly as possible at every regional opera house (sometimes big and usually small) that would hire me. Between those gigs I was also one of the score consultants on the Met’s Live in HD series, working with the broadcast director and camera team as the musical point of reference.
I started judging vocal competitions, most often for the Metropolitan Opera National Council. Whenever possible, I continued to collaborate with other artists in concert work and vocal recitals.
In addition, I worked with The Dallas Opera for six seasons as Head of Music Staff and Assistant Conductor, which included the world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby-Dick.”
Wm: By that time, you had impressive credentials, yet one could argue that your work with Glimmerglass Festival has had a special impact on your current career activities.
MH: This is my tenth season at Glimmerglass and I have had the great opportunity to grow immensely in my various roles with the company, and to work under three successive Artistic and General Directors: Paul Kellogg, Michael MacLeod, and Francesca Zambello.
Wm: Obviously, you have a close connection with Francesca Zambello.
MH: I do, and I am lucky to work with such a great visionary and champion of our art form in both of her companies. At WNO I am both the Director of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and Advisor to the Artistic Director – consulting on artistic and musical materials, casting, and planning.
Here at Glimmerglass, Francesca has just named me Associate Artistic Director, which encompasses my duties related to season planning, casting, the Young Artists Program, and heading up the music staff.
Wm: It seems to me that you, as far as the Glimmerglass Festival is concerned, have a more comprehensive view than anyone I’ve spoken to of the interrelationships of the decision process for selecting a season’s offerings and for selecting the participants in the young artists programs. How do you start the process of figuring out what you need?
MH: We start with the casting grid.
Wm: Describe the casting grid.
MH: It’s an Excel document with multiple tabs (one for each voice type). As part of that process, I make up dummy contracts for, say, sopranos 1 to 7. I determine which role/cover assignments can be combined to create an interesting contract for a certain voice type.
I also look at which groups will need to rehearse together so that their production assignments are similar. For instance, this year our Three Ladies in “The Magic Flute” are also in “Candide.” If one of them had been, say, in “Macbeth” we would have had a rehearsal planning debacle.
[Below: Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists portray the Three Ladies in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, from left to right, Claudia Chapa, Aleksandra Romano and Raquel González; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: Obviously, some of the roles will be sung by established artists and some by Glimmerglass Young Artists. I suspect it’s a major challenge when you are performing Wagner or Verdi operas that need the big voices.
MH: Yes, having done Verdi’s “Aida” and “Macbeth,” and Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” in recent seasons, it’s a special challenge to cast those roles and to have young artist covers for them as well.
Wm: Let’s get to the some of the technical questions I have about the Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists. First, what are the processes you follow in selecting the Young Artists?
MH: We start with an online application process. We currently have approximately 1200 applicants annually for our opera singer positions alone, from whom we select about 450 for a live audition.
Live auditions are held as part of a national tour, with stops in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Houston. We generally only have room for 36-40 opera singers.
Wm: In those auditions, for what are listening?
MH: I am listening first, and foremost, for the quality of the instrument. The voices must be well-produced, technically solid, and make an artistic statement. I am listening for people who use words, interpret text, and have both a musical and a dramatic opinion.
Wm: And you find the technically solid voices you are seeking?
MH: Yes. I’m more than pleased in the lyricism of so many of the voices I hear. In fact, I’m ecstatic.
When you make offers to people like that to become Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists, you know you are helping them establish their careers.
Wm: The career track record of the Glimmerglass Festival artists, suggests that at least some of the members of the current Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program will have with major careers in their future.
MH: Very much so. Many contemporary major artists were members of this program in their early careers.
[Below: Michael Heaston, left, appears alongside former Glimmerglass Young Artist, soprano Christine Goerke; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: After the Young Artists are selected, what happens next?
MH: We want them to know that they have the company behind them and that they are connected to us from the very beginning. We want to nurture and guide them as needed through their months of preparation prior to arriving at the Festival.
Wm: What do you do to nurture the young artists you have selected?
MH: There is a fair amount of interaction between us. We check in as they are learning their assignments for the summer and are always accessible for any questions that they or their team of teachers and coaches might have.
The Young Artists need to feel that they are entering a supportive atmosphere prior to the day they arrive in Cooperstown, home of the Glimmerglass Festival. That is very important to me.
Wm: I’ve reported [*see below] on the disastrous consequences that can happen when a major artist has to withdraw from a performance and there is no cover.
However, American opera companies, including the summer festivals, seem to do a good job in replacing a major artist on short notice. Obviously, that takes a lot of planning, including the right young artists for cover positions. How do you do it?
MH: We have covers for every single role on stage, and all covers are members of our Young Artists Program.
There are quite a few examples of covers performing roles of varying sizes over the years. Just last week, our cover for the role of Macduff went on for an indisposed colleague. He usually performs Malcolm, so we actually had TWO covers go on in a single performance as we needed to replace him in that capacity.
Sometimes they take over an entire run if someone needs to withdraw, which occurred in our productions of Cherubini’s “Medea” and Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in recent years.
Wm: The Glimmerglass Festival has invested in the training of some of its Young Artists to be both opera singers and dancers. When was this decision made? What has been the impact of training opera singers to dance on the Glimmerglass Festival and on the opera world in general?
MH: This decision was made when Francesca Zambello arrived and made a classic musical part of our annual planning. We usually have 6-8 artists for those opportunities, and about half of them actually want to have careers in musical theater and not opera.
This cross-fertilization of disciplines has been wonderful – our opera singers learn from the dancers and vice versa.
It is my frank opinion that singers have not had enough movement training in general, so I think that incorporating this at the young artist level will yield great results for people as their careers develop. No one ever complained about an opera singer moving too well.
[Below: Michael Heaston, left, works on a vocal score with two Young Artists, tenor Marco D. Cammarota and mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: In what ways do the Glimmerglass Festival and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists programs differ? Do you have different methods for recruiting members of each?
MH: They are certainly different animals. The WNO program has 11 singers, two pianists, and is a nine month program. While I want to hire the most accomplished artists I can find at each program, the filter for entry into the WNO program is much more refined because of the level we are seeking and the very limited number of openings.
I am truly looking for artists of the highest caliber, with the most promise for a major international career upon completion. The WNO program should be the final training stop for its participants.
I recruit for both programs in a similar manner, but recruiting for WNO is certainly more hands on and involved. I am tracking dozens of singers for both programs at any given time—some artists might be for both and others are only for one of the two.
The WNO young artists do not participate in chorus assignments. Rather, their time is spent in equal parts training (with one of the finest faculties in the industry) and performance in WNO’s busy season.
Wm: You are still a young man with important responsibilities in opera administration. We seem to be in a period of transition in which the idea of an opera company being led by a “general director” is giving way to shared responsibility at the leadership level of many opera companies?
What is your assessment of the future of opera administration, and are you personally preparing for even greater responsibilities in the future?
MH: Those in my peer group, including myself, have a special challenge in that we have to think of not only how to sustain this wonderful industry, but also to identify the unique thumbprint each company can leave on its individual, local community.
There is no room for those of us in different opera companies to be in competition with each other. We have to work collectively to figure out how to sustain and further the art form. We have so much to learn from one another as we work to make our companies an invaluable part of our local cultural landscapes.
Wm: If one considers the vocal and dramatic talent that currently exists in the operatic community, the “supply” side for opera is in very good shape. I think that much more work has to be done on the “demand” side, but it’s a great product being offered once people come to understand and appreciate it.
MH: There is so much ingenuity and talent available to the world of opera performance, but we need to constantly look for all the possible ways of furthering the art form.
Opera is so important to culture. And culture should be central to our society.
Wm: Thank you, Michael.
MH: Thank you!
[*As an example of what can happen in a performance that has no cover, see: No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.]
Tags: William's Conversations
August 13th, 2015
The following conversation took place in the administrative offices of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated. Following the conversation, the Santa Fe Opera announced that it has commissioned its 15th world premiere for its 2017 season, Mason Bates’ opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”
[Below: Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles MacKay; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: My first questions of an opera administrator is when did you first became involved with opera and how did you get into the business?
CM: I had been introduced to opera by age nine. I remember quite vividly coming into the original Santa Fe Opera theater and feeling the power of the music – as if I was hooked up to a powerful electric current. Through the music, the drama and the scenery, I had the overwhelming sense of being transported to another world.
Wm: And how did you become professionally involved with opera?
CM: Even before I was 13 years old, I was one of the kids that shepherded cars into the Santa Fe Opera parking lots. We were all volunteers. Only later did the company have a paid parking lot staff.
During my teenage years I was a serious student of the French Horn. At age 17, I auditioned for a position with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra, playing a movement from Mozart’s Horn Concerto in D Major.
At that time, the fearsome John Crosby was director and was famous for mounting the works of Richard Strauss, whose works use a lot of French horns. I was invited to become an extra player, but principally to be the orchestra’s pit boy, the lowest position in the company, which I did for several summers.
Wm: What is a “pit boy’s” job description?
CM: The pit boy was a “gopher” position that had lots to do backstage, including painting scenery. But in my early 20s, having taken accounting courses, I was invited to assist the company’s controller as a bookkeeper. and thus got into the administrative side of the opera company in 1968, during the time when the theater was being rebuilt from a destructive fire,
Wm: Most of us know about how the Santa Fe Opera rebounded from the fire, but I doubt that many of us have heard about that time from the perspective of a bookkeeper. What was it like then?
CM: Remember, this was a time when banks closed at 3 p.m. The ebb and flow in the cash receipts was so considerable that sometimes we waited until after 3 pm. on Friday to distribute paychecks.
However, through the process of dealing with financial issues, I became very interested in the management side of opera. I finally approached John Crosby and let him know of my desire to do more on the administrative side.
He said to me, “Young man, I have a job for you starting next Monday”. That’s when I became his administrative assistant and fund drive clerk. It was then that I became fascinated with how the company functioned and what it would take to make it flourish.
Wm: From the orchestra’s pit-boy to the general director’s principal assistant seems quite an accomplishment for a person just in his 20s.
CM: It rounded out my experience. I’ve seen opera both from the backstage nuts and bolts and from the musical side. I have been part of the rehearsal process and helped prepare productions both from the technical and financial side.
Interestingly, John Crosby arranged a three-year management apprenticeship for me at the First National Bank of Santa Fe, even while I was occasionally playing in the orchestra or working elsewhere at the Opera during the evenings.
[Below: Composer Mason Bates, who has been commissioned by Santa Fe Opera to write a new opera for the 2017 season, based on the life of Apple CEO Steve Jobs; resized image, based on a Ryan Schude photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: The bank management apprenticeship was yet another step in your opera administrative career!
CM: An important one. In a bank, you don’t leave at the end of any day until the credits and debits are balanced.
That gave me a foundation and reference point in how to budget for producing an opera. The artistic plans must be rigorously reviewed in the context of the financial plans.
Getting into fundraising added a new dimension to my experience.
Wm: In the United States in which governmental subsidies, if they exist at all, are very small, and ticket prices do not cover the full costs of producing the opera, fundraising is critical. It also suggests that production costs and fundraising are closely linked. Would you comment?
CM: I hearken back to what Sir Rudolph Bing of the Metropolitan Opera said – that there is no artistic decision that is not also a financial decision.
We are playing a numbers game as we look at repertory and casting. That is the key to the success of any performing arts organization.
As the company grew, I was, at the same, growing professionally. By then, I was Santa Fe Opera’s business manager.
Wm: With a solid foundation in the operatic business, this is when you left Santa Fe for operatic experiences elsewhere.
CM: Yes. I spent six summers with the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Then I joined Richard Gaddes at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.
Wm: Now that you’re back and have served several seasons as general manager, what are the attributes of the Santa Fe Opera that make it such a distinctive experience?
CM: The company’s most important attribute is this unique setting with the view of New Mexico’s Sangre de Christo mountains that draws people from all over the world. They want to see something different, new and unusual.
They enjoy the physical settings. They may visit the neighboring pueblos or relax in Santa Fe’s hotel properties. The experience is so different from comparably sized opera companies.
Wm: What do you regard as the comparably sized companies?
CM: We have an operating budget of almost 22 million, which places us seventh or eighth in size. Seattle Opera’s budget is close to ours and Houston Grand Opera’s is a bit larger, but they both are in cities with metropolitan areas of five million or so.
Santa Fe has only around 80,000 people, with no large corporate base. Only the tourism industries are a real business presence in our area, and hotels and restaurants are not the type of industries that have a lot of extra money to give away.
[Below: the Santa Fe Opera’s John Crosby Theater, with its view of the Sangue de Christo Mountains; edited image, based on a Peter Oglive photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: Where does the Santa Fe Opera go to raise money?
CM: That’s an interesting question. Originally, the Santa Fe Opera board was composed of Santa Fe businessmen, who sought large donations. But we’ve moved to a national board and we have shifted our focus towards individual philanthropy from across the nation.
Wm: Having been involved with the Santa Fe Opera for most of your life, what are your thoughts as the current leader of the company?
CM: I feel that I have a special responsibility, because I am not only a direct successor of Crosby’s leadership, but that I will be the last of the line of directors trained by Crosby.
I feel I have to do everything possible to assure that the next generation of leadership has inherited an institution in the best possible condition. We want to achieve both an artistic balance sheet and to assure that our facilities are in good physical condition.
For me it’s thrilling to see the company poised for its next important evolutionary step. We are now addressing the facility deficiencies on both the patron and artistic side.
Wm: Would you discuss the condition of the facilities further?
CM: Our backstage area dates from 1968 when the theater was rebuilt. Now, our productions are much larger and more complex.
As we development more co-productions with other companies, the inadequacy of our current stage becomes ever more apparent.
For me, the tipping point came in 2012 with Lee Blakeley’s production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”.
CM: I was backstage observing the severe traffic congestion with the chorus coming offstage as the different pieces of scenery were being moved around the stage. All the stage management personnel were involved in keeping everything moving properly.
I turned to my Productions Director Paul Horpedahl and said we needed more wing space, even though I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to expand the backstage area.
Soon we were discussing the issues with the Board of Directors. We found them to be responsive to the idea of discussing the long-term planning for the facilities.
The board members, in their business dealings might be discussing with their property managers the needs of a wastewater plant, or acres of hotel and resort properties. The board related to me as the property manager of a large institution in the same matter-of-fact way.
We have been working together on a list of needs, including new dressing rooms and more restrooms. We looked at the parking lot, that has not been repaved since 1968, and is worn in many places, with potholes.
We are aware that access and egress to the theater can be difficult, particularly on nights when we are sold out.
But it was “The Pearl Fishers” production that created the breakthrough moment. It occurred to us, what if we were to package all of our needs in a way that could be attractive to donors? What if we conceived of a major campaign to upgrade facilities that would meet the needs of at least the next 50 years.
Wm: Was this the first major fundraising effort since the rebuilding after the 1968 fire?
CM: There had been a fundraising campaign during Richard Gaddes’ tenure, about halfway through my time here. But the stock market crash in 2008 caused the Board to resist pursuing a large fundraising campaign, feeling it was too soon.
Wm: And yet they were in time persuaded to go ahead with the fundraising.
CM: An organization that is thriving and strong must be pushing the envelope and forging ahead If you don’t go on forward, the world will pass you by.
There are a lot of theories about fundraising. I am persuaded that a healthy organization should be in one of four phases. First, thinking about what you need and laying out the plan. Second, a quiet phase of preparing for a fundraising campaign. Third, an active fundraising effort and fourth, the completion of the fundraising and use of the funds for the planned project. Then, the cycle should begin again.
Wm: You mentioned artistic balance. That would include operatic repertory, which has observable differences between the Crosby era and yours. Would you comment?
CM: I feel that I was very fortunate to have grown up here and to have attended Santa Fe Opera performances regularly. I would travel from afar to come here, because I liked the repertory. That said, I know there were some real gaps.
Wm: Such as the French repertory, in which such standards as Gounod’s “Faust”, Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” were not performed until you mounted them.
CM: It’s true that John Crosby was not fond of the French repertory and that I love those pieces. I was so grateful that this was uncharted territory and that I was able to bring “Faust” and “The Pearl Fishers” to the company, as well as some pieces for which I have a personal fondness such as “King Roger”.
We have more French opera ahead. At the same time, since the time I became general director in the 52nd season, I have been guided by the mission statement created by Crosby to present a mixture of standard, rarely performed and new works.
Wm: Are there other parts of the repertory you would like to showcase here?
CM: There are still a lot of areas I would like to explore. As an example, I am frustrated that our setup makes it difficult to produce Wagner.
Wm: Most Wagnerian opera challenges any company. What are the particular issues for the Santa Fe Opera?
CM: One issue is that we are an outdoor theater. Therefore, lighting rehearsals cannot take place until it’s dark. This places extraordinary demands on our technical schedule.
CM: Once we have begun preparations for the season, the theater is in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Let’s say there is a dress rehearsal of one of the operas. It will be finished at midnight. Then the changeover to the lighting rehearsal would begin at 2 a.m. and go on until 4 a.m., with work on another opera squeezed in from 4 p.m. to sunrise. By 9 a.m. staging rehearsals for another opera might begin.
But if you have a five-hour long opera, how do you find enough time to light it properly? We’ve studied it, but, unless someone figures out how magically to produce longer days and nights, I don’t see how it is possible.
Perhaps the day will come when we can do more Wagner than “The Flying Dutchman”, that I enjoyed here in my youth, when it was conducted by Edo de Waart.
Wm: If there is no Wagner in the immediate future, where do you see repertory expansion?
CM: The younger operas can be really difficult, but there is a great expanse of unexplored territory in the baroque and bel canto repertories.
Wm: Perhaps one of the most important things to say about the Santa Fe Opera is that there are so many artists that enjoy coming here.
CM: That’s very important. Artists are excited about coming to Santa Fe to spend a summer here. They get a long rehearsal period and then perform over a span of two months. Contrast this with companies in which they have a short, intense rehearsal period, then three or so performances, before leaving for their next role elsewhere.
Dramatic soprano Alex Penda has said that by singing a role like Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” or the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” once or twice a week for six weeks, she can immerse herself in her role.
[Below: Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda as Salome; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
It all comes back to John Crosby’s incredible vision and daring to establish an opera company in Santa Fe surrounded by the beautiful Sangue de Christo Mountains.
Wm: Thank you for your time.
CM: Thank you!
Tags: William's Conversations
August 10th, 2015
The Seattle Opera has an established tradition of mounting opera productions in which the key principal roles are double cast. This permits the opera company to maximize the number of performances on Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees, when demand for tickets is at its strongest.
For Verdi’s “Nabucco”, the Seattle Opera selected pairs of artists, each to perform four of the eight scheduled performances, for the roles of Nabucco, his fatally ambitious stepdaughter Abigaille, and Zaccaria, the religious leader of Nabucco’s enemies, the Hebrews.
I have already reported on the company’s first performance in the series [see Review: Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Beautifully Sung Abigaille, Deep Casting Enrich New “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 8, 2015].
Weston Hurt’s Nabucco
This review is of the second performance in which Texas baritone Weston Hurt assumed the role of Nabucco, with Italian soprano Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille, and German bass Andreas Bauer as Zaccaria. Each of these principals presented a competent portrayal, often varying stylistically from their first evening predecessors (Gordon Hawkins, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Christian Van Horn).
I was particularly impressed with the Nabucco of Weston Hurt, famous for his diction and his sympathetic reading of the characters he portrays.
His Nabucco’s physical bearing exuded regal authority up to the moment he was thunderstruck and from the moment when his reason was restored to him, and his time of trial was truly poignant.
[Below: Weston Hurt as Nabucco; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Raffaella Angeletti’s Abigaille
Raffaella Angeletti, assuming the role of his illegitimate stepdaughter Abigaille, captured the destructive relationship between herself and her mother’s powerful husband.
Angeletti has the range and power to encompass the vocal demands that Verdi’s score requires of any Abigaille, that many consider one of opera’s most difficult soprano roles.
[Below: Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Andreas Bauer’s Zaccaria
Also impressive was Andreas Bauer, who is heir to the great basso cantante style of vocally portraying the Verdi bass characters like Zaccaria who so eloquently evoke moral authority.
Zaccaria is an extraordinary role, and it is the mark of a great bass such as Bauer to be able to sing each of his three big arias (and both verses of the first aria’s cabaletta) competently (and sonorously).
[Below: Andreas Bauer as Zaccaria; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Two of the principal roles were not double cast – that of the young Hebrew, Ismaele and the person with whom he has fallen in love, Fenena, legitimate daughter of Nabucco, half-sister of Abigaille. The formidable duo of Russell Thomas and Jamie Barton sing the roles in all eight performances.
Russell Thomas’ Ismaele
Russell Thomas, who 13 years ago was a Seattle Opera Young Artist, is a rising star who is in world-wide demand for the spinto tenor roles that comprise so much of the traditional opera repertory.
Seattle Opera audiences saw Thomas in the role of Foresto in Verdi’s “Attila”, the opera in which “Nabucco’ conductor Carlo Montanaro made his Seattle Opera debut [see Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012].
With a voice that continues to grow in power, Thomas demonstrated that the role of Ismaele, often assigned to tenor voices of lighter weight, benefits from a having a large-voiced Verdian tenor perform it.
[Below: Russell Thomas (center) as Ismaele; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Jamie Barton’s Fenena
Jamie Barton, named 2015 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, is already recognized as an international star of opera.
Barton’s rich mezzo was a strong presence in the several ensembles in which Fenena takes part. Fenena’s last act aria Oh, dischiuso e il firmamento! was sung by Barton with a beauty that will be long-remembered.
[Below: Jamie Barton as Fenena; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Carlo Montanaro’s Musical Performance and Francois Racine’s Stage Direction
I had commented in my review of the previous night’s cast, that the new production of “Nabucco”, which placed the opera orchestra in mid-stage, rather than in a pit in front of the stage, was a revelatory innovation.
As a reviewer, I wouldn’t usually recount an opera’s plot, particularly one that can seem opaque to those unfamiliar with it. I would argue, however, that the Seattle Opera staging enhances the storytelling.
The big chorus, representing at various times Hebrews or Assyrians, would cluster behind the orchestra, except when singing Va pensiero, the most famous passage in the opera (and arguably the most famous Verdi composition of the 1840s) when it assembled in front of the orchestra (utilizing the extension of the stage resulting from covering over the orchestra pit).
The principal singers in virtually all of their appearances sang in front of the orchestra.
These changes – as to where principals, chorus and orchestra are located in relation to each other and to the audience – have both acoustical and dramatic impacts.
The first impact was to center the audience’s attention on Verdi’s orchestral score, which some may discount as primitive, but from which Conductor Montanaro’s sympathetic leadership of the Seattle Opera Orchestra, produces a brilliant sound.
The opening chorus evokes the terror of the threatened destruction of the Temple of Solomon. In Racine’s lively staging the chorus members run in one by one and assemble behind the orchestra.
Throughout the opera, the space just to the rear of the orchestra is the province of the chorus – never massed as an oratorio-like monolith as had been the custom in so much of the opera staging late into the 20th century. Instead, choristers are individual actors who happen to sing (beautifully and with accomplished precision) simultaneously.
[Below: members of the Seattle Opera chorus costumed as Hebrews; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
The stage area in front of the orchestra becomes the place where the principal singers interact with one another. Here the opera’s dramatic content plays out and, I would argue, becomes rather less muddled than can be the case with traditional theatrical staging.
What is going on? Fenena and Abigaille, as all of Babylon knows, are sisters (although we learn what Abigaille has learned secretly that she is product of her queen mother’s cuckolding Babylon’s King Nabucco with a slave, and that Nabucco knows this as well).
Ismaele and Fenena, like Romeo and Juliet from enemy camps, have each saved the other in a hostile situation. Nabucco, not recognizing that Abigaille leads an enemy faction, declares himself a god and is struck by a thunderbolt, temporarily losing his reason, thereby playing into Abigaille’s treacherous scheming. But Nabucco recovers his reason, reconciles with Fenena and the Hebrews, and repudiates the Babylonian god, Baal.
The Verdi of the 1840s, like his colleague and mentor Donizetti before him, enhances dramatic situations by exploiting traditional Italian operatic conventions – arias and ensembles – in innovative ways. The drama in “Nabucco” is not what happens to Nabucco, nor to Abigaille, nor to Fenena and Ismaele, but how they record their emotions at any given moment by means of wonderfully conceived arias, duos, trios, sextets and concertati.
[Below: Nabucco (Weston Hurt, left) reconciles with his daughter Fenena (Jamie Barton, right); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
What Racine does so elegantly is to stage these ensemble pieces on the stage in front of the orchestra in ways that engage the audience and advance the plot.
Take “Nabucco’s” most famous concertato, the rondo S’appressan gl’istanti in which Nabucco, then Abigaille, then Ismaele, then Fenena, then the four remaining principals (Zaccaria, Anna, Abdallo and the Gran Sacerdote, together with the full chorus) repeat the main theme, while everyone who has sung before them sing accompanying phrases.
Racine’s staging is masterful. Everyone is, one at a time, expressing the thought that “something ominous is going on”. By itself, the information is hardly dramatic, but with music expertly composed by Verdi for principals, orchestra and chorus and each artist’s actions choreographed by Racine, it has a stunning effect.
We don’t go to “Nabucco” to learn Ancient Middle Eastern history. We go for the music.
Robert Bonniol’s Projections
In commenting on Robert Bonniol’s projections, I’ll start by noting a scene in the final act in which the projection of an enormous image of the Babylonian god Baal towers above the back part of the stage, reminding me somewhat of the monster in the Night on Bald Mountain episode of Disney’s film Fantasia.
At a point when Nabucco repudiates the god Baal and embraces the god of the Hebrews, the image begins a rapid process of disintegration. I found this to be an effective and very theatrical use of projections to enhance the storytelling.
In general, though, I found the Bonniol projections to be less than successful, as if they were a separate activity being presented by the McCaw Theater, in which the Seattle Opera performs, rather than an integral part of a “Nabucco” production.
More often than not, Seattle Opera’s innovations in the rapidly evolving field of projections are praiseworthy. The projections – in conjunction with the ideas for organizing orchestra, principals and chorus – provide us with a blueprint for the successful launching of worthy early Verdi operas that are undeservedly unfamiliar.
One imagines Verdi’s “I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata” or “Il Corsaro” or “Giovanna d’Arco” or “I Masnadieri” or “La Battaglia di Legnano”, beautifully mounted with notable singers, attractive costumes, and exciting projections, produced by Seattle Opera with virtually the same formula as this performance of “Nabucco”.
I recommend this production, with either cast, to all lovers of Italian opera.
Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews