Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, Part 3

January 13th, 2015

This continues from A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, Part 2.


[Below: Lyric-coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb; resized image of a Sergio Valente photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


Wm: Your show at Glyndebourne the summer before wa also Vladimir Jurowsky’s last show as Glyndebourne’s Music Director. What did that add to the mix of “Ariadne auf Naxos”?

LC: Well, our “Ariadne” was his first Richard Strauss to do onstage, and although he was leaving his post, it was not his last project at the festival. I was more excited to take part in a first with him than a last!

I was called in to replace a colleague at the last minute, and although I had my first Queens of the Night on the books in Bregenz, they allowed me to go back and forth from Lewes to Austria for rehearsals.

The director was the incredibly talented Katharina Thoma. She had a really interesting take on the whole show, which caused a lot of ruffled feathers in the audience, but I thought it was brilliant.

[Below: Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb) works out an improvisational sketch with her commedia dell’arte colleagues (Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jurgens, Andrew Stenson); resized image, based on a production photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]


Jurowsky was on board 100%, and was an incredible human being in addition to a stellar musician and intellect.

What other conductor would take out those last few moments before HIS opening night to do REIKI on a cast member with a crick in her neck? I am still blown away by his humanity.

The rest of our cast was wonderful, too, my “boys,” especially. The show had me as a USO-type pin-up entertainer during the Second World War, and my costume included a corseted top, tap pants and garters with my backside for all of the world to see . . . Boy, am I glad I’m in shape!

The second half takes place in a makeshift hospital, where we’re entertaining the wounded troops. During my big aria, I have a fit of sexual mania and the nurses put me in a straight jacket. Most people can’t sing that aria just standing there – try singing that crazy aria while struggling with all that!

[Below: Nurses Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Ana Maria Labin, Adriana di Paola, Gabriela Istoc) work to get a strait jacket onto Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb, center); edited image, based on an Alastair Muir photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]


Wm: I was surprised at the intense negative reaction of many of the critics who reviewed the production. So much of “Ariadne auf Naxos” is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Wild incongruity is built into the DNA of the opera.

In fact, I reviewed Francesca Zambello’s location of the opera in a rural New York barn with Christine Goerke as Ariadne sitting on bales of hay while she waited for Theseus. I think it’s supposed to be a wacky show.

LC: At first, I thought Katharina’s premise for the Glyndebourne show was crazy, but as we got into staging it, I saw how intricately she had worked with the words themselves to find meaning in each and every thing we said and did. She is a real actor’s director, and a musician, as well, so she makes sense of what the music is saying in addition to the words.

I would jump at doing anything with that lady again! Or Jurowsky, for that matter. He had the most amazingly insightful things to say about the score and the text; and his research into the score and his musicality informed every note of our performances. Intellect plus heart is the pinnacle of spirit for a collaborator in music, and both he and Katharina had it in spades.

I thought the problem with the audience’s mixed reception of the show had to do with the generalized English supertitles, actually, not necessarily with the audience’s conservative tastes. (Although there could be some of that, as well.)

Katharina supervised the supertitles herself. I think she needed a Hofmansthal expert who was a native ENGLISH speaker to help with them. You forget how integral supertitles have become to people’s experience at the opera these days.

[Below: Director Katharina Thoma, creator of the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival “Ariadne auf Naxos”; resized image, based on a Tristram Kenton photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]


The translation, because it wasn’t literal, lost the magic of how her new take on the show actually fit up PERFECTLY with Hofmansthal’s words. There were so many hilarious moments in the show where I was expecting laughter, but nary a peep out of the audience.

If you knew what the words actually meant literally, (or were helped to know them by the supertitles or the synopsis), our show was BRILLIANT!

I wish we could reprise it with a German-speaking audience. I’m sure they would be blown away. Many people in the Glyndebourne audience “got it”, but many others were expecting your literal-minded staging of the opera and were disappointed, or worse, MAD, because they had read a generalized (standard) reading of the opera in the program, and what they saw didn’t add up!

Luckily, the production just came out on DVD (available from the glyndebourneshop.com), so you can check it out for yourself! I’m very proud of the final product. Despite the back-and-forth voyages from Difficult-to-get-to-in-England and Difficulter-to-get-to-in-Austria, it was an incredible summer I’ll never forget.

Wm: From the reviews of the production that I read, I would suspect that many of the British and European critics would have preferred a more traditional staging such as that of John Cox’, in which I saw you perform in both San Francisco and Houston.

LC: I absolutely adored John’s production.  It was my first production of this opera, so it holds a place close to my heart.  But I love seeing new (intelligent!) takes on things, as well, if they make sense with the piece and respect it.

Wm: In fact, in my first interviews with you, as part of my “Rising Stars” series, we spent a bit of time on discussing the Cox “Ariadne”.

LC: I went back and read our first interview. As a result, there are a few things I’d like to pick up from that first conversation.

In our first interview, if you want to add something in there – that even in our first interview, I had mentioned some up and coming artists that were doing small roles with me at the time.

Liam Bonner was one of them I mentioned, and last year nearly stole the show as the star of our “Fledermaus”.  I am so proud of what he is doing.He just did Billy Budd at Los Angeles Opera as well.

Wm: I’ve reported on Liam Bonner performances from the time of such small roles as Wagner in Gounod’s “Faust” in 2007 at the Houston Grand Opera. He is an impressive performer, who distinguished himself in 2014 the title roles of Britten’s “Billy Budd” and as Aeneas in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” at the Los Angeles Opera. I think he is one of the lyric baritone “Rising Stars”.

LC: Another artist I mentioned, Marjorie Owens, is debuting shortly as Aida at the Met!  That’s a far cry from my sidekick in Lucia!  It’s wonderful to see these talented people doing so well.

also found it interesting that in the first interview, I mentioned to you two roles (the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Amina in Bellini’s “Sonnambula”) as possible future roles.

Wm: We’ve discussed your Queen of the Night at the Bregenz Festival. Let’s talk about your Amina.

I sang Amina in Sonnambula at the Bolshoi in Moscow!  I’d been waiting to do this role my whole career!

I’ve gone back three times to the Bolshoi now to sing Amina, reprising the production I created with Pier Luigi Pizzi in 2013.

[Below: Amina (Laura Claycomb, front center right) sleepwalks in the 2013 Pier Luigi Pizzi production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” for the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


It was a huge big deal for me to finally be able to sing this beautiful role.  Not many good productions of it exist, because most directors don’t respect or know Bellini enough to realize that it is the music that provides the pathos.  The libretto is not bad.  It’s certainly not Shakespeare, but the characters are well delineated and it is the music that makes the drama intense.  Pizzi knew how to bring that out and trust both the story and music.

Wm: I agree that there are currently few available productions. I believe the one that Renata Scotto directed for the Florida Grand Opera that I reviewed in early 2013 is respectful of the opera.

LC:  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen that production. Many times, stage directors try to apologize for the libretto, or have such disdain for this “simple” music that they don’t realize it is in no way simple.   The show doesn’t need to be changed around to touch people, and the libretto needs no apology.

Wm: I agree with you that the plot of “Sonnambula” actually is substantive. By the way, I’ve argued that “Sonnambula” is a kind of spinoff sequel of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Whenever I see either opera I also imagine that Elvino was a friend of Masetto and was in his wedding party. This would make Elvino especially suspicious of Rodolfo when he intervenes into an engaged couple’s affairs to offer his “protection”. 

LC: I don’t know about that – I think Elvino is a small-town rich guy who’s a bit of a bully, frankly. But women fall in love with bullies, nonetheless.

Amina’s got self-esteem problems, her mother obviously made up the story of “finding and adopting” this child, and it’s quite clear to me that Rodolfo is her father, even if the censors didn’t want to keep that part of the story! This isn’t just an idyllic hillbilly farce.

I wish directors that don’t respect the bel canto rep nor realize how much personal  input comes from the artists themselves in their interpretation of this repertoire would just stay away from trying to stage bel canto operas!!   Far away!!

How many times have I heard from a director, “Well, (Fill in your bel canto composer)’s libretti are shit, and the stories are trite, but we’ll try to make something out of it…” Why take such a gig?  Do another opera that you LIKE, for goodness’ sake!

LC: Bel canto style is SO detail-oriented, and so personal, that a director’s conceptual take on the opera, ignoring the libretto and the music out of disdain for its “simplicity” is only going to confuse us as audience members. And it will certainly not convince us of the director’s cleverness.  What a bore!

It is interesting to keep digging into this style and realize there is always more behind the notes than I had found before. The pathos is in the notes, the inflection, the bowing, the accents, the articulation, the tone…  not in some concept to “make it more interesting because it’s boring music.”

And I have so much more life experience to bring to the table, it’s always interesting to come back to this music.  Some people feel that way with Mozart.  I feel like this with the bel canto repertoire.

Wm: I agree completely. No stage director should take on an assignment of an opera he disrespects. The French opera repertory suffers from the same disdain from certain directors.

I’m not arguing for conservative productions of bel canto or French productions, but for creative concepts that starts from the premise that, say, Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” or Delibes’ “Lakme” are masterworks that the directors believe that they can present to modern audiences in a way that  will cause them to share their enthusiasm.

 LC: I couldn’t agree more!!


Part 4 of this conversation follows soon. 

Tags: William's Conversations