Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Grimsley Part 2: On Opera, Sports and Singers as Athletes

By Erica Miner

EM: To build on what came before - I’m sure Wagner thought about that especially with Wotan, the most interesting of all the Ring characters. What I so admire about opera singers is that many of you do roles and music that are so dramatically different. Such contrasts. That can’t be easy, to jump from one to another like Nicolai Gedda, who was flying here and there, not knowing what language he was going to sing in. I would think that would be one of the most fascinating, and perhaps difficult, things about being an opera singer?

GG: It is. I was just talking about this with Luretta. She had read a blog about some younger singers and how difficult being a younger opera singer is nowadays. There aren’t as many performance opportunities in this country for them, but also in general on the performing arts - a baseball player being considered for the Hall of Fame would be nominated if their batting average was 400, success just hitting the ball 40% of the time they’re at bat. If a performer or orchestra or dancer had that same average, they’d be done in two performances. It’s what we value in society nowadays. I fully believe it’s just because people don’t understand what it takes. You would think they’d understand that in an opera we don’t use microphones. I’ve spent the better part of my career singing without one, with orchestras that are close to 100 pieces in the pit. And people say, “You mean you weren’t miked?” No! The challenge is that the maestro is so far away if you’re way up stage, just making sure of your timing. 

EM: I think with opera, as time goes by, the tradition is lagging behind. In the 1700s and 1800s it was still evolving. Now it’s become something people look at it as something from the past and we’re trying to drag it along. 

GG: It becomes more difficult, as people are watching more baseball and football, what really goes into opera. Not to say that people shouldn’t go to see baseball or football. As a kid I loved basketball and baseball. I spent a lot of time on the basketball court. It’s just understanding what it takes. Opera’s just as skilled. There is a genetic element in being able to be an opera singer. Everybody can sing, but somewhere along the line - you didn’t plan it - you just have your voice. Even with professional athletes, there’s a genetic element. They are part of the population that has the ability to, for example, hit a fastball that’s coming at them at 100 miles an hour. They can coordinate that. 

EM: Opera singers have to train just like athletes. It takes physical stamina as well as talent. If more people understood that, do you think they’d come to opera more often? 

GG: I don't’ know. It’s interesting, because when any of these America’s Got Talent or American Idol, anyone comes out and sings anything remotely close to a trained voice, people go crazy. But they’re still using a microphone. 

EM: At least more people are familiar with Nessun Dorma. Speaking of roles: what are some of your favorites, and what haven’t you sung yet that you’d like to perform? 

GG: I’d have to start with Wotan. That’s an amazing role. Scarpia is up there as well. Jochanaan, Flying Dutchman, Mephistopheles for sure. I love singing Macbeth. 

EM: Is that role as difficult as it seems? It doesn’t quite fit into the usual niche. 

GG: It’s neither fully Verdi baritone nor Verdi bass. It’s a dark character. You have to have a lower voice to sing it as well as the top, though it doesn’t go as high as a lot of Verdi baritone roles do. Oddly enough every time I get to sing the role, I think, this is musically a much more mature opera than when he wrote it - it was written before Rigoletto. If you just heard it for the time and asked if this was an early opera or later opera, I would have said, no, it’s definitely a later opera. Despite not having a good translation of the play (Laughs) Verdi still managed to come up with an amazing representation. There are huge declamations and also a lot of soft singing. You have to be really comfortable with bel canto, at the same time knowing you can put your foot on the gas when you need to. 

EM: Being that it’s Shakespeare, the characterization must be very complex. How do you get up there and do that role - a beast for every actor who attacks it - to do that dramatically and sing. As you said, the singing is so varied. And he’s not the most sympathetic character. That’s got to be tough. The music is so divine, I guess you can get carried away. 

GG: (Laughs.) Yes, you can. The demands of the character - you’re not on stage a lot, but when you are it’s intense. The emotions after that first scene, from then on you’re either going mad or being driven crazy. 

EM: Or hallucinating. It’s difficult but it must be so much fun.

GG: Oh yes. Speaking of Shakespeare, the roles I haven’t done include Iago, which I would love to do. Having been in the Houston Opera Studio when Carlisle Floyd was one of the co-directors, I’ve never performed any of his operas. I would say he’s probably one of the reasons why I even stayed in opera. One of my first jobs in opera was after the year I spent at Juilliard. I was in Lake George as a young studio artist, and saw Susannah for the first time. My jaw hit the ground and I went, “Holy mackerel! I want to do  that.” So those two roles I think are the ones that I would love to get a hold of. 

EM: That’s quite a contrast between Verdi and Floyd. What about singing in English? Do you enjoy that, or do you find it more challenging than singing in other languages? 

GG: The challenge is that it’s my native language, and as we find shortcuts in our speech, as singers the challenge is to remember that singing is extended speech and when we extend speech we have to be a little more careful with beginning and ending consonants, just so people can understand. Choosing the right way to sing a vowel or to allow a diphthong to come into a phrase. 

EM: That’s got be tough. You’re supertitled in English but often I’ve heard people say, “It’s a good thing there are supertitles.” Some singers perhaps don’t focus enough because it it’s their native language. So I think you’re right. You have to make an extra effort, especially with English speaking audiences. Any other roles on your wish list? GG: Hans Sachs. That would be the top of the list. 

EM: Talk about a character that has so much color. 

GG: A historical character as well. 

EM: Hans Sachs - we’ll have to do something about that. Do you and Luretta ever perform together? 

GG: Yes, we do. We just did Sweeney Todd this past year, the first time for both of us, in Vancouver, and we’ll be doing it together in Glimmerglass this year. We look for opportunities in opera as well to perform together. We met performing. 

EM: What were you performing? 

GG: Carmen. She was singing her first Carmen and I was singing my first Escamillo. 

EM: And look what that led to. There’s something about Carmen. Talk about passion. 

GG: (Laughs.) 

EM: It’s wonderful when you can collaborate that way, if it meshes. 

GG: Yes. And if it doesn’t, just recognizing and saying, okay, for some reason this just doesn’t work. But for us it’s never been a problem to work together. 

EM: Unfortunately Tosca is not her role. Otherwise she could just be the one to do away with you. 

GG: (Laughs.) Yes. 

EM: One last question - your Facebook page, “Greer Grimsley is an Opera God.” How did that come about? 

GG: (Laughs) Well, I don’t “officially” have a Facebook page. It was not anything that I went after or asked anyone to do. It was completely done by a fan, started by a fan in Seattle. I have to say that the way it grew I felt honored and grateful that someone would be so moved, and continue to be. It’s very touching and flattering. It’s also a huge dose of humility. It keeps me humble (Laughs). 

EM: Finally, it’s been said you’re “the nicest man in the business,” yet you play the most dastardly villains. How do you do that? 

GG: I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t be the nicest guy in the business had I not done that (Laughs).

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera 
Erica can be reached at:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Greer Grimsley is the Nicest Villain in Opera: Part 1

By Erica Miner

He’s been called “the nicest man in the business.” Yet he plays the most dastardly villains. 

For the last three decades, baritone Greer Grimsley has led an active and highly acclaimed international opera career, singing lead roles with all of America's leading opera companies and at many important European opera houses. Having made his San Diego Opera debut in 2000 in Lohengrin, Grimsley last appeared here in 2012 as Jochanaan in Salome

Married to mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, New Orleans native Grimsley studied at Juilliard, made his professional opera debut with Houston Grand Opera in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and played Escamillo in the international tour of the Tony-award winning adaptation of Carmen, La Tragédie de Carmen, directed by Peter Brook. Grimsley’s first portrayal of Jochanaan in Salome with Scottish Opera made this one of his iconic roles along with that of Scarpia in Tosca. Other roles included Méphistophélès, Wotan, and the title role in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman

SDO general director David Bennett, in an interview with LA Opus on July 8, 2015 (, said of Grimsley, “He’s amazing. I saw him last summer in Santa Fe. The voice just kind of rolls out. It’s gorgeous. Healthy, virile, big sound.” 

Grimsley is a complete singer in every sense. His powerful voice is always consistent from top to bottom of his range, vocally and dynamically; he has a magnificent elegance and stage presence; and he sings with great beauty, even playing a lecherous villain such as Scarpia in Tosca, which opens the SDO season starting Feb. 13, 2016. 

EM: We’re delighted to have you back at SDO. 

GG: It’s my pleasure. I love San Diego, and every time I get to sing Tosca it’s a gift. 

EM: Is Scarpia your signature role? 

GG: After all these years it’s one of my most performed roles. I never get tired of it. Tito Gobbi in his autobiography said, in the thousands of performances he did, one always finds something new in Scarpia. And it’s true. It’s just chock full. A lot of it has to do with the characters and the play. Puccini took this mediocre play and turned it into an incredible opera. That’s a real testament to Puccini as a composer and a genius. If you really listen and delve into his operas, they’re amazing.

EM: What was your journey to become an opera singer? 

GG: When I had to decide about college, I was wanting to be an archaeologist. But in high school I was always involved in the drama club and band and eventually the chorus. In hindsight my interest, my actions, were performance, music. Then Anthony Laciura, who was for many years at the Met as a character tenor, was my first voice teacher. He came to my high school in New Orleans to student teach my senior year. I took a few voice lessons with him and he said, “Maybe if you haven’t decided which college you want to go to, think about Loyola and studying with my teacher.” I applied and received a small scholarship from the School of Music and worked my way through Loyola in restaurants in New Orleans, full time and at night, and going to school during the day. I had no formal music training until I hit college. 

EM: That’s quite a disconnect between archaeology and music. You must always have been a real history buff. 

GG: I still am. In most cases science as well. In a way it’s an active passion. If I’m in a particular area that’s archaeologically interesting, I’ll seek it out. It’s served me well in opera. A lot of operas are based on either novels or historical figures. That research informs my characters. It was because I was passionate about history that I was able to understand the situation of the French Revolution and why Mozart was writing Le Nozze di Figaro, why Beethoven wrote Fidelio and the 9th, in response to Napoleon and post-Napoleonic Europe. Those things are important for me in delving into music. Because music is an expression, it comes out of time and experience. 

EM: Verdi was totally about that. 

GG: Aida is often written off as his opera that celebrated the Suez Canal. It’s beautiful music, but he also understood the history behind it. 

EM: Scarpia is such a familiar role for you. I’ve always wanted to know, but have never asked - do you find it anticlimactic to die at the end of the second act and not be there for the rest of the opera?

GG: (Laughs) Not really. That’s a wonderful question. I’ve never been asked that before. I’ve always looked at it as that’s where my story ends in the piece, but his influence still reaches far beyond his death for the third act. It’s a very compact and intense second act. Something had to come to a head there at that point. I think it would be anticlimactic if I did survive the second act.

EM: In a way that makes him even more powerful as a character, that he set things in motion that spell the end for everybody else later on. 

GG: Yes, and one of his themes (Sings letter/post-death theme), I don’t think you hear that until he’s writing his letter of safe passage for Tosca. The way he’s orchestrated it, you know it’s not a clean getaway.

EM: The undercurrent of impending doom. I read that when you did Scarpia at Seattle Opera, you received a “wave of applause” after you died. Did that actually happen? 

GG: It did. I don’t remember if it was in performance or in one of the rehearsals where we had an audience. I just thought it hadn’t happened, but I thought, okay, job well done. The audience was with me. I remember Speight (Jenkins, former Seattle Opera general director) was in the wings at the end of the second act, and he said, “I hope you didn’t think that was a bad thing.” I said, “No, not at all.”

EM: The audience must have gotten carried away. That must have felt pretty good. I read that you said Tosca is a perfect first opera for the novice operagoer. 

GG: It’s concise in its drama and the music is so well suited to the action on stage. There just isn’t a disconnect - very little time for someone who’s a novice, to go, “What’s happening?” Not a wasted note. Perfect structure, everything seamlessly integrated. There’s no dead space anywhere. That’s the beauty of Puccini. He’s able to let you know what the emotional life of a character is, whether or not they’re singing. Not many people know he was a fan of silent movies when they first came out. Maybe there was cross-pollination there, that he saw the power of image and music without the sound of characters speaking lines. One of the most popular musicals on Broadway was Les Misérables - Tosca is the same period, same kind of story - political prisoner, a tyrant who wants to mess with him.  

EM: What else about Tosca makes it jump out for you? 

GG: It’s so easy just to lose yourself in it. The best ideal of Greek drama in its classic era is that we come together and share in a group catharsis in live performance music - that’s the social glue. Not to sound like an old fogey, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s much easier to text than talk, to sit and watch TV, or go to a movie and watch an opera, as opposed to come to the theatre. What’s wonderful about live performance is the visceral experience - that I know when the orchestra plays and I sing, those sound waves are actually touching people - literally touch the audience. I know you felt it as an orchestra member. You feel the energy of the audience with you, an exchange of energy you can’t quantify. It’s there in live performance, as part of that cathartic experience we have. 

EM: How do you feel about opera, here and now? 

GG: As nonprofit organizations we’re constantly asked, whether from a city or from donors, to justify our expenses. All of those organizations - orchestras, ballet and theatre companies, opera companies - are community service organizations. The question should be, what is your impact upon the community, as opposed to, how much is your rent, how many patrons do you have. 

EM: That’s one thing I like so much about David Bennett. He’s been talking about community from day one - reaching out to the community, the community impact, how important it is to bring opera to the community. 

GG: Absolutely. 

EM: You did Jochanaan here in 2012. Do you find the role of Jochanaan more, less, or as challenging as Scarpia? 

GG: Yes to all of that. My musical responsibility for the role is about 20 minutes. But in the way Strauss has written this character, it’s like concentrated laundry detergent - 10 times the amount of drama in that 20 minutes than as if you were singing a 3-hour opera. Very powerful and demanding. Not a long role, but very dense. There is an example of a composer understanding, despite using almost word for word the play, the relevance of historical events and using the music to recreate the opera the way he wanted. It can be very chromatic at times, if you’re energetic and get caught up in the drama, to keep your concentration so you are singing the notes the composer wanted. Strauss was a devil - he would write notes he knew people couldn’t sing or play. 

EM: Starting off - back or under the stage - you don’t really get a chance to warm up much. And all of a sudden you’re there. Does that make it easier or more difficult for you to make your impact? 

GG: That’s a good question. I warm up before I come to the stage, but just like Scarpia - you couldn’t have paid for an entrance any better (Laughs). 

EM:Like Scarpia, you're murdered before the end. Unlike Scarpia, you’re murdered off stage - thank goodness. It must be really interesting to do that sort of thing that doesn’t quite fit the usual paradigm.  

GG: Yes. My interests have always been very mercurial - not in a negative sense but in a wide sense. I’m curious. Also I’m fed by variety. I think most musicians would say if there were a steady diet of one composer you end up losing your chops and ability to be supple with other composers. But when you’re performing other composers, the way I like to phrase it is that they all help feed and inform everything else. That’s what I love and enjoy. I do love the challenge of wildly different characters. That’s the joy of singing Wotan - not only is it an endurance test, but I love the challenge of the growth of one character as he progresses through three operas and making choices along the way.

Next, Part 2: From Wagner to…Baseball?

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at:

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Stunning Verdi Requiem by the L.A. Master Chorale

Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra with soloists. (Photo by Patrick Brown)

By Rodney Punt
This past weekend at Disney Hall, an inspired Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra, conducted by Artistic Director Grant Gershon, gave two thrilling, ultimately cathartic performances of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. I caught the first one Saturday afternoon, in which the combined forces, with stellar guest soloists, gave full account to both the work's titanic musical architecture and its human-scaled pathos.
The work was originally prompted not by any religious enthusiasm on Verdi's part, but by the deaths of two towering figures he revered in Italy's artistic firmament: composer Giacomo Rossini and novelist-poet Alessandro Manzoni. Agnostic and solidly anti-Catholic, Verdi had already in his Don Carlo conveyed an acidic contempt for abuses of authority by both clerical and temporal rulers. Ironic then that it was a respect for two "secular saints" that imbued the Messa da Requiem, premiered in 1874, with such fervid convictions. Playing some part may have been lingering memories of an early tragedy in Verdi's life, the loss to sudden illness of his wife and children.
All but two of Verdi's operas are tragedies of no return. With his Requiem, he rights the imbalance by making of Catholicism's episodic liturgy a coherent narrative of direct human quest for redemption, with no ecclesiastical intermediary. He casts his soloists as ordinary people, and his chorus as a collective humanity. More than a sum of parts, Verdi's Requiem is a holistic vision, called by many his "greatest opera."
Last Saturday was one of those occasions where a masterpiece's potential was fully matched in performance...... (See here for more on Huffington Post.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera Form a perfect ‘Marriage’ - Part 2

By Erica Miner

EM: Sounds like doing Figaro in Seattle after New Zealand was good synchronicity. 

AL: It was, actually. It was more to say, this is how I think Mozart should be done within this aesthetic. It has a particular style, a very different scenic structure. I felt it was a good thing to show people. 

EM: I find your Figaro character analyses fascinating. Are there universal themes you wish to capture in this production? Of those very complex characters in the opera, which one or ones do you find the most complex and/or intriguing? 

AL: Every time you do this piece - and I lose track of just how many over the years (Laughs) - you really do find more. You can almost take any two characters in a room and there’s a story line between them. It’s what’s so fascinating about the opera. In Act 2 when the Count and Susanna are in a state, then when Bartolo and Marcellina come in and sing with the Count, and even the quartet When Marcellina, Bartolo, Basilio and the Count are all singing, “Heavens come to my aid at this moment,” they’ve actually each got a different reason for singing that text. The brilliance of this piece is if you have time to follow everyone’s story line logically you have a set of characters of infinite complexity, even if they’re only on for a relatively short time. There’s back history to them, going back to Barber of Seville. That’s really the huge pleasure. 

EM: Do you have one particular favorite character? 

AL: I love the Count, because his actions dictate the action of the piece. His decision to go back on his promise to abolish this ancient rite - which is of course a fiction anyway by that time in history - is the catalyst of the whole events. What we’re trying to get with both the Count and Figaro, is to echo notes Beaumarchais wrote to his actors. It’s really interesting. There’s a huge paragraph to the Count where Beaumarchais says that despite his devious actions he needs to be played with an elegance and charm. So often the Count gets played rather darkly, blackly, like a mini Don Giovanni. Actually the way the comedy works - what I’ve said to both those characters, the singers - is we have to want you to be forgiven at the end in order to have completion. The purpose of comedy, going right back to the Greeks, was to correct deviant social behavior. This comedy, this house, is a microcosm of society. You, the leader of this household, a young 19-year-old whose parents have died, are responsible for setting the tone of this castle. You are off the rails with your going after anything in a skirt. We try to get his wildly inappropriate behavior done with a charm, that when he is forgiven by the Countess we actually want that to happen. It’s quite hard to play that because it’s very easy to play the dark side, the anger, and lose the charm. So that’s why I like him. It’s fascinating, finding that balance - he’s a complete dork sometimes, but completely driven by what he wants to achieve, which is Susanna before the wedding (Laughs). If you’re really honest and get that balance between the Count’s intensity and a lightness of playing him - and don’t let it be goofy - but finding a balance of that lightness as well. I love the Count, he’s so complicated, a really fascinating character. He sets the tone of the evening. 

EM: And he has to be redeemable. 

AL: And you need to want him to be redeemable. That’s the key thing, that if you don’t like him because of his behavior, you think, why doesn’t she divorce him? 

EM: Or send him to hell, like Don Giovanni. 

AL: (Laughs) Yes. He isn’t Don Giovanni. It’s a very different play, a different purpose. With all these characters you really play the true situation. Some of the cast who’ve done the roles before, they say, “I haven’t really considered that before.” You have to play moment by moment as to what’s happening, what they know. The real difficulty is we know this piece so well we jump to the end of a scene. He doesn’t know that yet until that line. It’s fascinating. 

EM: Yes, difficult to play because we think we know the piece. That’s why I find the way you analyze these characters and their relationships so intriguing.

AL: It’s a question of being honest and not taking the shortcut, “Oh, we do this all the time.” Really saying, in this circumstance how would you react. And we’ve gone into a period “look” but we’ve very slyly cheated - all the chorus costumes are made of old jeans. You don’t notice that detail, your seat is thirty feet away, but the fabric moves in a different way. We’ve given all the lower orders things like Vans or street shoes rather than period shoes. Only the Count and Countess have period shoes. We wanted people to behave in a normal way. If you’ve got flat soles you walk in a different way to an elevated heel. We wanted to get away with period acting, yet make the audience comfortable with who the characters are with a period look silhouette to the costumes, and still make the behavior, gestural language, modern. We’re playing kind of a deliberate “cheat” game, to allow the singers to walk in a contemporary fashion which is identifiable to our audience, but with that reassurance that the social setting is authentic. 

EM: At the same time you’re giving the audience more to think about, the universal details. 

AL: That’s right, the universal thing you mentioned, but these are people we should identify with. I’ve just come up from a run of acts one and two, and my final note to the singers was that the way to make it real is not to let the music dictate what you do in a diamond-like precision, but the kind of acting that responds to each sharp moment in the score. In Rossini it kind of works that the music dictates the action. This is 40 years earlier, close to Gluck, and actually they need to act in a way that makes the music come as a natural consequence to what they do and not the other way around. It’s a subtle difference, but other than a few moments it should just feel that it’s in continual motion. Most people on stage do a stage turn so their body is always front, always facing the audience. I’ve told them if in doubt make a full circle, do a complete turn. That smoothes out the rough edges. They’re always on the go. It creates momentum to the whole action, especially in Act two, which is 45 minutes of non-stop. 

EM: Indeed. No one knows that better than I do. Now I’m going to take a leap, if you’ll forgive me, from Figaro to Wagner. Is there a new Seattle Ring cycle in the offing? We’re all dying to know more. Anything you can reveal yet? 

AL: (Laughs) As Figaro says, “My face lies but I don’t lie.” We’re not quite ready to do our reveal. We’re hoping to make a statement around Flying Dutchman in May. A few ducks are being put in line. We’re very mindful that we’re renowned as a Ring house (, and we’re not betraying that legacy. 

EM: Your answer was absolutely perfect. I hope you will keep me somewhere close to the front of the line. 

AL: (Laughs) I will, yes. 

EM: To wrap up, what are some of your ultimate goals for Seattle Opera, and how do you see the future of opera in general? 

AL: Those are key points, really. I think if you went back to the glorious period of opera, which is from Handel through to 1920s - Puccini and a bit later to Strauss - in that period before film and TV, opera was the theatre of its day. Audiences in the 19th century saw no difference between going to an opera and going to a play for their entertainment, in a way that today they see no difference in going to a Broadway show, a musical or a play. When all these great operas were written that was the condition of the day. So really my vision - the unattainable vision (Laughs) - is that opera-going here in Seattle should just become a normal thing. “The opera’s on, so I’ll go to that. I don’t know the title, it’s Katya Kabanova, I have no idea what that is, but I know that Seattle Opera is doing it so I know it will be good.” That’s really where I want us to be. And to get there, when you look at all the entertainment options, the way opera is suddenly perceived now, I think we get there by giving this wonderful integrated theatrical experience. There’s a point of difference for each thing we do, we make people think a bit, but without lecturing, that people go away from our shows having an experience which is emotional but also thought-provoking. And each piece has its different level of being thought-provoking. 

EM: Has opera changed in this century? 

AL: I think it has. I was talking to a journalist yesterday about how a lot of Italian singers are now all around the world rather than just in Italy. The world has shifted. The implosion of the CD industry, which had poor consequences, was followed pretty swiftly by the Met going to the HDs, the videos, the camera technology. Rather than having to rely on TV companies to record an opera performance, which is hugely expensive, companies can now form in-house teams with portable cameras, which they can do much more efficiently. So there’s a move away from opera being perceived as just a vocal, aural experience. I think that’s really timely because that kind of understanding helps to break down those age-old barriers we struggle with in opera. When we get young people in, they think, “Oh my God, I really enjoyed that, it’s like a play.” That’s what I want people to feel. This shift in the industry has helped it anyway, and it’s important that we lead in that way. Some people are pessimistic, but I think if we get enough entry points to people of today, without cheapening or losing the resonance, to make that presentable in a way that people understand. Not let productions be straitjacketed by the historical context, just allow it to breathe and make the modernity and relevance of these pieces - make something that is fascinating to people and they want to see what we’re doing. That’s really where I want it to go. In a way, the shift in the industry should help that rather than it being a barrier. Does that make sense? 

EM: It does. A lot of people say opera will see a resurgence. In the context you just described I think that’s entirely possible and doable. That’s a wonderful concept, and I thank you for sharing that and for your great insights. It’s been a delight to speak with you. 

AL: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much indeed.

Photos used by permission of: Philip Newton, Rick Dahms
Erica can be reached at:

Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera Form a Perfect ‘Marriage’- Part 1

By Erica Miner

How many opera directors have directed Wagner’s first Ring cycle in Brazil? Newly minted Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang can make that claim. He also is one of only three general directors in the history of Seattle’s opera company.

Described as “an Englishman by way of New Zealand,” the London-born Lang served as general director of New Zealand Opera from 2006 to 2014, and took the Seattle Opera reins from Speight Jenkins, who helmed the company for 30-plus years. Lang’s remarkable blend of talents, which include expertise in the theatrical, artistic and business realms, serve him well in his new position. 

After a well-received run of Bizet’s all too seldom performed early opera The Pearl Fishers (, Lang takes to the stage to direct the current production of Mozart’s beloved classic, The Marriage of Figaro, which incidentally is the first opera Lang saw as a child. Lang’s Figaro is all about marriage: three couples of three different generations and their diverging and intersecting journeys in matrimony. I caught up with Lang in the midst of a hectic rehearsal schedule that itself resembles the busy-ness of the Figaro overture. 

EM: This is your first full season under your aegis at Seattle? 

AL: Yes. Last season was all in place. We did actually have a new production, Semele, which I kind of helped steer through the designs, but the designs were complete when I arrived. This season is a funny one, in that the program was kind of in place but we made changes. The fifth opera got suspended, so I added it back, and I put in a new Jack Perla piece. The Pearl Fishers was mine and Flying Dutchman I put in, which I cast together with Speight (Jenkins, former general director) because obviously he knows his Wagner. Figaro was a curious one - no production was in place. So I’ve had total say over the production style we’ve gone for, the productions we’ve done. In the case of Figaro, the main casting was all in place. The smaller parts hadn’t been cast yet when I arrived. So it’s a bit of a hybrid season, but I’ve had a lot more influence, especially from a production point of view, than is normal for the case when you inherit these jobs. All of next season, which we just announced on January 1st (, is entirely mine. So I’ve had a lot more input this year than I’ve had any right to expect (Laughs). 

EM: What has it been like to take over from Speight, who was such a legend and had such a long tenure? 

AL: I actually came six or seven months before I was due to start, so we had a very long handover. The reason the board wanted that to happen - I think was a really good idea - was most importantly that it gave me time to understand how all the arts sit in this city. Running an arts organization in one city - each community has its own kind of tastes, and that of course is the legacy of what’s gone before. But also the arts sit in different cities in different ways. Some are more “arts” cities than others - New York, Chicago, San Francisco - than cities of a lesser size. A lot of cities are strong in one art form and not necessarily in another. So it gave me a chance, not only to look at how opera was received, was placed, in this city, but actually the arts in general. Also to get to know the company without the burden of office quite yet, which was really useful, and give our donors a gentle easing from one general director to the next. So it was a very amicable handover, which isn’t always the case. I’m not going to name names, but as we all know… (Laughs). Speight and I would go to things together. We felt it was very important to have a smooth transition for audiences, donors, staff, as we go off in a slightly different direction, that they have seen a logical progression - an advancement rather than it being a change for change’s sake. So that was really our secret, that Speight and I worked beautifully together in that time. It allowed him a really graceful retirement, which was very important to me. It could have felt awkward, but actually felt really nice, that really smooth handover, rather than it be, okay, now we’re going to do it differently. Inevitably things change, but I want it to evolve and develop. 

EM: It’s a testament to the great characters of you and Speight, that it was such a smooth transition. 

AL: I think we all felt it was important, but I think we all wanted it. It seemed like the most logical way to do it, a lovely thing to do. It met both our needs rather than it being “imposed.” It worked really well. 

EM: It makes perfect sense. And by the way, I loved Pearl Fishers. I never got to play it at the Met, because as you know it’s been a hundred years since they’ve done it. 

AL: The last person who sang Nadir at the Met was Caruso (Laughs). 

EM: That’s astonishing. 

AL: Isn’t it just? (Laughs.) 

EM: I know it’s early in the season, but things are going well so far? 

AL: They are. I like a season to be varied, not only in terms of repertoire but in terms of style. I hate it when the audience know what they’re going to see before the curtain goes up. For me it is about varying style, finding the right visual style for each individual piece. The needs of one piece are very different from the needs of another. We’re doing the arts, not commercial entertainment, where things are focus-grouped to death, where there’s no risk. One needs that element of risk. If you make an artistic statement about a piece, you’re not going to appeal to 100% of the audience. It’s the nature of the beast. Not being frightened about it. As long as what we do has a clarity and integrity, people will respect that even if they disagree with what the solution or interpretation is, the fact it’s been properly thought out and considered. For me that’s what it’s about. But also giving people a varied feel to each piece, so that even if they didn’t particularly like the way we did Pearl Fishers they’ll come back to Figaro knowing that we haven’t adopted a house style, that it’s going to be different. It takes time, you need to get some runs on the board in order to develop that trust. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. For the arts it’s developing your audience so you can put on the telephone book in Chinese and people will come, because you’ve got a reputation of being interesting (Laughs). You can’t do that in your first year. You don’t get there in your first year. 

EM: No, but I imagine Seattle audiences will be open to just about anything. 

AL: I think I’m very lucky having Seattle. I think with other cities it would take much longer to get there, and again it’s a legacy of what the company has done in the past - create a very inquisitive audience. That’s what I really like. They can be eager to discover things. We’ve always put in new pieces - next year we’ve got two pieces new to Seattle. With Speight there was always at least one piece Seattle had never seen before. So you cultivate an inquisitive audience. We have our talk back after the show. We get 150 people. They want to talk about what they’ve seen immediately after the show rather than go back to their homes (Laughs). They’re great. I’m really lucky to inherit that. 

EM: They’re very lucky to have you. In your most recent experience at New Zealand, you collaborated with other companies such as Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera. Do you have plans to seek similar partnerships eventually? 

AL: Absolutely. More than eventually, like next season (Laughs). I arrived in New Zealand in 2006. It was very much considered a kind of poor cousin to Australia. I thought, there’s actually a full time big company producing a lot of work, and three state companies who were all basically putting on shows created for that company. I thought, we have an advantage in New Zealand to actually set up a workshop and make new productions rather than renting all the time. I would then find partners, because I knew each of the state companies - Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide - all wanted to do different things but didn’t really have a resource to make shows themselves. Labor rates were very high, and they didn’t do workshops. So I set up a workshop and began to create a number of new productions, for which I found partners, first of all in one company, then the others. It worked on both sides. Here in Seattle we didn’t really have a reputation of collaborating that much. We’d rent-in shows but not do new shows in co-production. That’s what I’ve gone about addressing. We have two new shows next year. Interestingly, on one of them which we haven’t finished the designs yet, a company has just come in and said, “I’m quite interested in co-producing, is it too late?” I said, “No, it’s not.” The following season we already have two new co-productions in place. By 2017-18 we’re up and running. But also next season, 2016-17, I’m bringing a show from Glyndebourne. In other words not just out of the American pool. And I’m bringing a show from London and Graz -Traviata, very successful production. So I want to show some interesting but not over-the-top controversial European works, which really have fantastic pedigree and deserve to be seen by our audience, because I know they’re going to like them. 

EM: That does sound exciting. 

AL: That’s what I mean about learning about how the arts sit. Getting a sense of taste, where they’re at now, where they can be in five years’ time. Planning what the audience sees over a long term, to lead their taste, as it were. 

EM: You’re wearing two hats with Figaro. How do you make the tricky transition from your administrative offices to directing an opera? 

AL: I did Figaro In New Zealand - we rehearsed it during the summer holidays. There’s a difference when you’re creating a thing from new, you really are living it 24 hours a day. When you are reviving it, although with two completely new casts, you’ve got the framework for it already, so it’s not quite the all-embracing task it is when you’re creating it. And secondly, we’ve done it over Christmas holiday and New Year, so everyone was only really back yesterday, and we’re on stage on Friday, so all the main rehearsal was done when everyone else was toasting their muffins over Christmas. It turned out that it wasn’t such a bad time to do it. 

EM: Sounds like the stars aligned. 

AL: Yes. But it’s not my intention to do more of this. I put this production in because the search committee when I was being appointed spent a lot of time - a lot of it online - looking at my productions as examples. They looked very carefully at the aesthetic and style of opera I believe in. When I saw that Figaro was already planned and there was no production in place, the obvious thing was to bring the New Zealand production over - it fits perfectly on our stage - and kill two birds with one stone. It’ll be evidence of what I believe opera should be, because it’s a fun production. But it was not really my intention to direct a lot of stuff. I’ve got three years planned out and I haven’t got any plans to direct. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe in five years’ time I might do one, but it’s not my purpose. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

Next: Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera, Part 2

Photos used by permission of: Rick Dahms, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at:

Monday, December 28, 2015

Salute to Vienna Coming to Disney Hall This Sunday

Salute to Vienna dancers. Attila Glatz Productions. Photo by William Denk
By Rodney Punt

After a full season of holiday observances and partying, you may be tempted at the beginning of 2016 to succumb to the blues. To chase them away, my prescription is to take in the Music Center's 'Salute to Vienna' this Sunday afternoon, January 3, at Disney Hall. It’s a live action celebration of Viennese singers, dancers, and orchestra that recreates in our city the famous New Year’s Concert of Vienna.

Musical selections on the program will include Strauss waltzes (of course also the beautiful Blue Danube), polkas, gallops, and operetta melodies. All will evoke the romance -- and a smidgeon of the naughty intrigue -- of Mitteleuropa.

Featured on the program are a glittering cast of singers, beautifully costumed dancers, and the Strauss Symphony of America. Viennese soprano Patricia Nessy (winner of the Berlin Artist Prize and operetta star in Germany) and Canadian tenor Adam Luther (rising star of Canadian opera) will perform with members of the exquisite Kiev-Aniko Ballet of Ukraine and the International Champion Ballroom Dancers.

Leading it all is Maestro Bernhard Schneider, whose authentic Viennese credentials have been honed with engagements at the Vienna State Opera, the Graz Opera, and the Salzburg Festival.

Salute to Vienna is an enchanting way to celebrate the New Year with the entire family (or possibly provide you some needed respite from the family). Celebrate like it’s 1899 all over again with the ageless beauty of music from Alt Wien.


WHAT: Salute to Vienna celebrates 21 years of New Year’s tradition and returns for the 14th year to The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Web page:

WHERE: The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012

WHEN: Sunday, January 3 at 2:30 pm

TICKET PRICES: $35.00 - $115.00

PURCHASE TICKETS: Call (800) 745-3000. 
Or order on-line and enter in "Salute to Vienna":