Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Aldrich and von Stade Part 2: Great Scott’s Characters



By Erica Miner

EM: Can you talk about the interaction between your two characters?

FVS: We just have one adorable duet, kind of a trip down memory lane. Just dear.

EM: Like the Countess-Susanna letter duet in Figaro. That’s as sweet as it gets, even with the undercurrent of what’s going on.

FVS: Yes. Basically my character is a singer but not professional, who never went there and had the goods. But mainly I’m just in awe of this kid, what she’s done and accomplished, and care about her and want her to succeed but be happy too. The way Jake has written it, my character is very happy. She’s married a rich man who’s devoted to her and she’s found a wonderful life. In Dallas there was a woman who’s very much like Winnie. She was the wife of the guy who owns the football team.

KA: Oh my gosh.

EM: Did Jake base your character on her?

FVS: No, he didn’t, but it was fun because she had artwork installed in the big new stadium in Dallas so the people going to these games can enjoy beautiful art at the same time. She wants the best. As an older opera singer I want the best for these kids. I know the pitfalls, I’ve done it. You want to save them if you possibly can.

EM: What do you two most look forward to about this west coast premiere?

FVS: I’m looking forward to hearing Kate, and this wonderful gal (Joyce El-Khoury) who sings the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. She’s hysterical.

KA: She’s so funny.

EM: What a great role.

FVS: Wonderful role. And this marvelous countertenor role. Really there’s not a bad role in the whole thing. I’m looking forward to a triumph for Jake. Not because I think he needs it (Laughs). 

EM: Kate, what role have you not done yet that you would like to do? True confessions.



KA: That’s one of those questions that gets asked a lot. I would have my list and then I’ve started to check them off (Laughs). I had Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena and now I’ve done it. Then Rosenkavalier, La Favorite. I’d love to do La Favorite again. Then a French Don Carlo in a couple of years. I would love to get back to Werther. I think it’s my best role but I’ve only done it twice.

EM: I think Flicka can relate to that.

KA: The other night we were talking about repertoire, Rosenkavalier. I have her recording with…

FVS: Evelyn Lear. Oh my goodness.

KA: It’s a great recording. I love it so much.

FVS: Thank you!

KA: I listened to that so much when I was preparing my first Rosenkavalier. It means a lot to me.

FVS: That was one I learned in 10 days and suffered ever since. You know that (Sings) “Wass heisst du, wass du…” I thought, is it three, is it two, is it one?

FVS, KA: (Sing in unison in German, laughing.)

FVS: That’s just where I thought, “Please let me get it right.”

EM: I sat in the first fiddle section right by the (Met) pit wall and got to watch it. I can’t tell you how much fun we used to have.

FVS: Did you ever go on tour?

EM: Oh yeah.

FVS: Weren’t they crazy, those tours? And they would just wine and dine you to death. I always got in trouble because I was really skinny then and looked like one of the ballerinas and they would be like, “We didn’t invite the ballet.”

EM: As Cherubino you sure looked like a boy.

FVS: (Laughs) That was fun.

KA: I’ve been meaning to tell you this. My husband was mad for you in Cenerentola when he was like a little boy.

FVS: Really!

KA: It’s one of the things that got him into classical music. You rocked his world.

FVS: That is so cute. Thank you.

EM: Flicka, you’ve done it all. Is there anything else you want to do?

FVS: No, I love if I’m asked to be part of it. I told Jake, “Listen, if there’s a certain amount of decay (Laughs), you’re not going to hurt my feelings. Just don’t worry about it.” I did this piece of Ricky Ian Gordon’s last year, which I really had fun, I played a 92-year-old woman, so it was a little closer to home. I had a ball doing it. Now my basic goal is to get money for these young kids. This wonderful organization called YMCO, Young Musicians Choral Orchestra in Berkeley, a youth program to get kids into college. We help 80 kids, all low income. It makes me sad that so many kids of color and Latino kids don’t get a chance. Not for lack of ability, they just never have had the exposure to anything. Music solves so many problems in their lives. It’s just extraordinary.

EM: Music as an outlet is such a creative force for kids.

FVS: If you go to a lot of the performances of the youth orchestras you’ll see six African-American kids. You have to go after them in the communities. The success rates are incredible. Whether they end up in music or not doesn’t matter. They just get so much from what they’re doing.

EM: They can discover something about themselves, find something they never knew existed.

FVS: Yes.

EM: Will you be singing any recitals?

FVS: I have a couple with Jake, here and there. That’s fine. Even now I feel like I’ve abandoned my husband. It’s not that much fun for him to come and sit around in a different city.

EM: Kate, what’s next for you after this?

KA: I’m doing a rarely performed work, L’Olympie by Spontini, at Théâtre Champs Elysées in Paris, then Carmen in Poland, in Naples and Verbier Festival.

EM: Do you still enjoy doing Carmen after having done so many?

KA: I go through periods where it’ll fall into a lull but it has less to do with me and more to do with a production that’s ordinary and non-thought provoking. The way these guys wrote opera…every phrase is dense with information about the character and plot. Even the way words are set - a single word gives you all the information you need. So I love to play around with that. You can do that in a role like Carmen I’ve done so many times.

EM: So your comfort level is pretty high at this point.

KA: There are moments, of course. Like the fact that the hardest aria is the very first thing you sing, the Habanera.

EM: It also must have a lot to do with your Don José.

KA: Yes. Last summer I sang with Jonas Kaufmann. I’m loving it right now, but… 

FVS: (Laughs.)

KA: I know. It was so difficult to work with him. And we had to kiss, even.

FVS: Oh, right, really tough.

KA: And I had to listen to him sing, “La Fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” That was also difficult.

FVS: Is he nice, too?

KA: Oh, he’s heaven. I adore that man. He’s a decent, good person who defends himself when he needs to, his personal space and musical choices. Very smart, very instinctive actor, which I love. We didn’t necessarily do the same thing from night to night, and he was all about that, just let’s make it real as it comes. So that was fun. He’s such a great Don José.

EM: You guys are amazing. I cannot wait to hear you sing this opera.

FVS: We can’t wait for you to hear it. I think that’s how everyone feels about it. “Wait till you hear this, you’re gonna love it.”

KA: And that scene…

FVS: And then that scene.

KA: When my brother came with my kid and his wife and two kids to see a rehearsal and they left after my first scene and I said, “No, no, you have to stay because there’s that scene, and that scene is really funny and that scene is touching and the thing that happens when the thing falls.”

EM: I’m sure the audience will be pumped. Also because it’s in English. So accessible.

FVS: Jake’s music is easy on the ears, much easier than with piano. When you hear it with the orchestra, it’s… (Sighs). 

EM: Kate and Flicka, I’m so thrilled to meet you both. Toi, toi for Saturday. 

KA, FVS: Thank you!

(Great Scott is performed May 7, 10, 13, 15, 2016, at the San Diego Civic Theatre.)



Photos used with permission of the artists
Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Von Stade, Aldrich Sing Out on Heggie’s ‘Great Scott’



By Erica Miner

Excitement reigns at San Diego Opera this week in anticipation of the May 7 west coast premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott (http://www.sdopera.org/season/2015-16-season/great-scott), directed by Jack O’Brien. I caught up with stars Kate Aldrich and Frederica von Stade (as Arden Scott and Winnie Flato, respectively) during a rehearsal break at the SDO offices downtown. 

EM: Flicka, I feel so honored and privileged to have performed with you in all of those amazing roles at the Met, from Cherubino to Melisande. 

FVS: It was so much fun. It’s great now, too, but back in the good old days it was different. It wasn’t all bulletproof. It’s changed. I was very lucky to be a part of it. I just treasure it. Mr. Bing. He was something else (Laughs). 

EM: Kate, I left the Met before you sang there. I’m totally psyched to see and hear you in Great Scott. Would either of you like to venture a description of the opera? 

KA: It’s so elusive, because you think you know what the story is about. Then the next day after a staging rehearsal you realize, no, it’s more about this theme. I think it isn’t really about any one thing. It’s about a lot of things in the life of an artist but also of people. 

FVS: It’s very “person” oriented. About getting older… 

KA: Yes, within the context of what an opera singer’s life is, but it’s not restricted to opera. 

FVS: Right. It could be anybody. 

EM: So it’s universal. 

FVS: Yes, in the types of people. The baritone doesn’t really represent baritones - he represents a man. 

EM: Sounds fascinating and complex. 

FVS: It is. What's marvelous about it, too, is that every character is portrayed with an enormous amount of affection. There’s nothing damning, sarcastic. It doesn’t have to go as far as forgiveness. It’s great understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make up this particular world. Our world but also the world of the stage. 

KA: Also love and admiration for human frailty and vulnerability. How when you allow yourself to go to that place, which in this opera happens to my character. She’s pushed to her limits to the point of coming unraveled. She lets herself go inward to find out what’s happening and rises out of the ashes as a result, which again is not exclusively for musicians or opera singers. It’s life and we are all capable of going down to the dark place if pushed. 

FVS: It also doesn’t give you solutions. The piece is not like Law & Order, with a wrap-up at the end and you’re either convicted or not. It’s open ended. That’s really how life is anyway. There’s no resolution. 




EM: That’s very unique for an opera. 

FVS: Yes. It’s the resolution of, this might happen, that might happen. That’s not the point. 

KA: Right. It’s irrelevant whether or not the baritone, Sid Taylor, and Arden end up together. That’s not really what it’s about but a means to tell the story. 

EM: How do you think the audience will react to something without a clear-cut resolution? 

FVS: They absolutely adored it (in Dallas). I don’t think they were expecting to have such a good time. It’s a lot of fun. They’ll talk about it. Like when you go to certain movies - what did you think? What was that all about? You talk about it and even then you don’t really come up with a period on the end of a sentence. 

KA: But you’ve felt something you can’t put words to. It’s moving and touching and real. Jake as a composer is addicted to reality and portrays it beautifully, symphonically as well. Jack (O’Brien), the director, is the same. 

EM: And Terrence McNally’s words - a great deal of the structure comes from him. 

FVS: Very much Terrence. He has incredible passion for opera, way before Master Class. Opera speaks to him. It seems to speak to men in a way it doesn’t to women - in a very specific way, which I don’t understand. I don’t know whether it’s the sport part of it. 

KA: We’re more comfortable with talking about emotion. In opera…the words are the words, but the music is the emotion underneath it. In a way it’s visceral for men. Larger than life. Usually exaggerated. 

FVS: Exactly. My husband and stepsons never talk about anything except, we need to put five screws in that and it will hold. It all comes down to some sort of mechanical thing they put together that isn’t really what they want to talk about. 

EM: That’s how their brains are wired. Men need action. 

FVS: And events. And that’s opera. This opera is different from anything we’ve experienced. 

KA: From anything I ever sang. 

FVS: Absolutely. And you cannot label it a comedy. It’s not like Rossini. 

KA: They say dramatic actors are often the best comedic actors. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum, but in the end they’re kind of akin to each other. It’s similar with this opera. It’s so funny, so heartbreaking at moments. But really funny. 

EM: So you’ve go the gamut of emotions from one end of the spectrum to another. 

FVS: At one point Jack talked about it being too funny. There were too many jokes. They’ve actually taken some out (Laughs). 

EM: Since Dallas?

FVS: Yes. 

EM: Since you sang in Dallas, Flicka, does it feel really different to be performing it here? 

FVS: One of my favorite operas ever was Marriage of Figaro, because all the people in it were so real. Every time you did it, it had that large safety net of humanity around it. It was very different every time, but always as magical. I’m really happy to find that out about this piece. I’m happy for Jake. Because to me it means this has durability, lastability. It’s different but it feels great. It’s as magical, as full, as it was. We were all like going on vacation together in Dallas. It was the first time, and that’s a bit like a class reunion. It has that element. That was wonderful, but this feels like the essence of the work is there. Jake did it. I think for a composer to cut some of his lines is really hard. It takes as much work as creating them in the first place. 

EM: Yes. Writing is rewriting. Every word is like your baby. Every note, in Jake’s case. 

FVS: Exactly. 

EM: How is it for you, Kate, not having sung it in Dallas, and especially coming in virtually at the last moment, has it been a big adjustment, with people who’ve already done it? 

KA: No, because it’s such a warm, lovable cast. There’s not a lemon in the group. I don’t even mean vocally but personality wise. Everyone is just lovely to work with. There’s been none of the, “Last time we did this.” Some operas like Marriage of Figaro, you might experience this. I’ve done a lot of Carmens. Sometimes the tenor is like, “When I do Don José, this is how I do it.” Less ability to adjust and try, discover new things. There’s none of that in this group. There was occasionally, “This is how we did it in Dallas,” or, “We can try it this way.” But overall I’ve never had that feeling. 

EM: It sounds like a joyful experience - for you, Kate, being new to it, and for you, Flicka, having already done it. 

FVS: It’s really fun. And today with the orchestra (San Diego Symphony). Ooh. Jake’s orchestrations are incredible. His melodies, and how he moves from one place to the next. Pretty darn amazing. I think everybody is especially elated today, because we heard the orchestra. 

EM: We’re big fans of Jake’s here. It’s also interesting, you’ve done the opera before and Kate hasn’t, but Kate has sung here before and you haven’t. How does it feel, Kate, to be back? 

KA: I love it. I’m originally from Maine. To come to a place like this with this climate… 

FVS: (Chuckles.) 

KA: Sometimes you do these long rehearsal periods, like, I don’t want to be in Berlin for five weeks. But here it’s like, “We can have a longer rehearsal period, I’ll clear my schedule. I’ll stay as long as you need.” 

EM: Flicka, this is your debut with SDO. 

FVS: (Laughs) I know. 

EM: How does that feel, after everything you’ve done in your career? 

FVS: I’ve loved Jake’s stuff from the day I met him. I believe in him so much. I’m just thrilled that he and Terrence asked me to do it. I didn’t expect it. I thought, he does not owe me this - he’s written enough pieces for me that I’ve had the joy of doing. So when they asked me I was just thrilled. I don’t get much chance to be with all the young artists who are around. I’ll never stop loving it. It’s the most fun part. It’s almost sad when it opens and everybody goes back to their life. This is when it’s the jolliest. Just heaven. 

KA: Rehearsal period is so fun. 

FVS: Oh, I just love, love, love it. I get to hear these incredible young artists. My jaw dropped over Kate, how beautiful her voice is and how she has put this together in such a short time. It’s incredible. There’s not exactly nothing to do in this piece. It’s opening doors and putting on things and…I’m just so admiring. And I love the spirit. I went to Butterfly here, and was blown away by the performance. The orchestra is so good here, the chorus so fantastic. And that soprano, Latonia Moore! I thought, it’s like a Martina (Arroyo) voice, just exquisite. The performance was amazing. But the public - there were a lot of young people, all so excited to be part of it, and it was jammed. You don’t get that, you know? It’s just thrilling.

EM: When I interviewed Jake (http://www.laopus.com/2015/10/composer-jake-heggie-roots-for-home-team.html), he said something about you, Flicka. “Seeing her perform in Cenerentola at L.A. Opera when I was just starting out made a huge impression on me.” His songs written for you have become a key element in your repertoire, correct?

FVS: Oh, totally.

EM: What is it like to create this pivotal role in his new opera?

FVS: Jake’s operas are so well written, you really don’t have to do a whole bunch. I did the mother in Dead Man Walking. He had asked me to do Sister Helen and I said, “Jake, I’m too old. You’ve got Susie Graham. But I’d love to be in it, thank you.” Then he wanted me to play the mother of one of the kids who were murdered. I said no, I’d love to play the mother of the murderer. It enabled me to see a whole part of motherhood I hadn’t been aware of, choices you make for your children that aren’t always the best ones, that have cost them, especially when you throw poverty into the mix. So for me it was this extraordinary exploration of being a mom. In this one, too, it’s an exploration of being the “senior.” I love being the senior - a mother-like figure in the opera house that is not there because of her expertise in opera but her passion for it, who feels this extraordinary connection to this young, magnificent singer whom she has mentored and is so proud of. You’re proud of young singers the way you’re proud of your children. I mentor in that I help raise money for young kids. In one organization we have a girl, seventeen, who just got a full scholarship to Oberlin, $280,000. She’s been homeless for the last three years. You just want to burst, it’s so exciting.

EM: But difficult as well.

FVS: When you’re raising money you’re dealing with a lot of elements you have to get your head around to a certain extent. That’s a bit of who Winnie is. There’s a lovely scene where Winnie thanks the public, but it was so confusing because we went out in front of the curtain before the opera was over. I think the public thought the opera was over. There was no way to make it work. Jake said, “Do you mind if I cut it?” I said, “Oh, Jake, just to be here is my Christmas present. You can cut everything, it’s fine. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.” I believe in him as a composer. As a human being, he’s extraordinary, a most beautifully educated man, so dear. There’s no end to superlatives as far as Jake is concerned.

EM: Kate, I know Arden goes through a lot of changes. Can you describe her transformational arc?

KA: At the beginning of the opera she’s probably at the peak of her career. She’s agreed to do this opera she just discovered from the 1800s, to help raise money for her hometown opera company, where Winnie Flato is the artistic director, to keep the company afloat. Going home and rediscovering her turf. She was probably the most herself when she was making music, but there’s the part that’s the little girl, the simple life of her hometown, that shakes her up.

EM: Unexpectedly?

KA: Unexpectedly. She thinks she going to go in there, have a great time, be the hero, everyone’s going to love it because the audience that already loves her, an opera no one knows, so there’s no comparisons in terms of, “So-and-so sang it better,” but still her repertoire from the 1800s. She didn’t expect to be slapped across the face by seeing her ex-boyfriend from high school, the water tower where they had written their “Sid and Arden forever” little love note. It’s happening right at the crux of her career where she’s reached the top and wondering what’s next. She’s recently been divorced, has no children, like, “Okay, I’m here, I made it to the top. Now what?” It causes a slight downward spiral. That’s where she starts to question a lot of things. She’s under pressure to do this modern opera written for her and afraid to go into it because it’s too intense. So there’s this other story that she’s afraid to go artistically to the full depths of what she’s capable of, for fear of losing herself entirely. In the end that’s what makes her go mad. She sees the ghost of the composer of the opera she’s singing that night - for me, in her mind - telling her telling her to go for it, to do the modern opera, to take risks, take chances. And because she goes for it and throws herself into it 100% she actually comes out stronger and better. That’s where she becomes “Great Scott.”

EM: So she starts out not a risk taker.

KA: I think she’s a career machine. The sure, safe thing. But she’s attracted to the danger of the stage and theatre - you don’t know what’s going to happen from one night to the next - but never able to give herself fully over to her artistic capacity.

FVS: Anybody who’s a superstar the way she is, is taking risks all the time. Coming back and tapping into a part of you that you forgot about for so many years. The world out there when you’re at that level has got to be hard.

KA: You can’t do anything without scrutiny. We can all identify with themes in this opera. Even if I’m not Arden Scott, or my career is not at that same level as the character I’m playing, it’s kind of intimidating on some level.

EM: Art doesn’t always have to imitate life. You’re going through your own transformation, taking on this role, which is great. 

[Next, Part 2: Aldrich and von Stade Get Inside Great Scott’s Characters]

Photos used with permission of the artists
Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Greer Grimsley Plumbs Seattle Opera’s Depths



By Erica Miner

From king of the gods to wicked nobleman to villainous prison warden, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has impressed audiences worldwide with his astonishing vocal and dramatic range. On May 7 he reprises one of his signature roles with Seattle Opera: the tormented mythical mariner who finally finds redemption in a remarkable young woman obsessed with the legend surrounding him. Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

EM: Greer, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you again. I feel terribly spoiled, being able to interview you twice in as many months. How lucky am I? Have you started rehearsals?

GG: Yes, we’re about a week into rehearsal.

EM: Since your Seattle Opera debut in 1994 as Telramund in Lohengrin you’ve sung more Wagner roles with the company (Dutchman, Wotan, Kurwenal) than any other composer’s. Does this have more to do with your own choices, the company’s repertoire choices, or a combination of both?

GG: It’s a combination. I think when the repertoire is there, then the opportunity is there. There’s a Wagner clause in the company’s Mission Statement, which is to be on the forefront in this country of Wagner and The Ring and be ambassadors for that particular repertoire. That goes back to the founding of the company. Speight (Jenkins, former general director) took it and ran with it. In part Seattle has been my artistic home for seven years because of all the Wagner that was done, but also the other repertoire I was asked to do.

EM: Since you first performed the role of the Dutchman for Seattle Opera in 2007, has your view of the character and/or your approach to the role altered or evolved in any way?

GG: You know, Erica, you always have great questions. [Laughs.]

EM: And you always have great answers.

GG: [Laughs] I would like to think that the more you live with the music, with the character, there are lots of things that you see as you gaze deeper into the character and the music and what Wagner put together in his music theatre sense - that the music and words and drama and emotional life are all there. The more you live with those things, the more you hear the emotional life of the character differently. So with the text and through different productions you can delve deeper into the whole idea of predestination, how the Dutchman got there, what sort of character he is. It’s a fascinating and interesting journey. I think if you’re a committed craftsman and artist that you can’t help but look at it differently. The last time you and I talked I shared the little Zen axiom, “It’s the tree that does not bend in the wind that breaks.” I believe it’s the same thing with performing artists and musicians, that it’s being supple, not just in your body but also in your thinking about all kinds of ways to approach music and characters. They can’t help but grow in that sense, because you’re constantly adding things. Some things grow and others drop along the way.

EM: Do you feel you’re also approaching the role differently vocally as well as dramatically?

GG: Yes. From the first time I sang Dutchman years ago to this point, there’s a bit of water under the bridge. I’ve talked to other singers about this, that if you haven’t touched the role for a bit and have two or three years in between, it’s not that it’s more difficult. Certain things are easier, other things just need more attention as you progress through your career. I’m sure instrumentalists feel the same way about a piece that they haven’t touched. For example, this run in the (Dutchman) overture I know is really difficult to put together, especially the fingering. Having done it and struggled with it the next time you pick it up it’s a lot easier.

EM: It is and yet it isn’t. Certain passages in the Ring, for example.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: I talked about that in my recent lecture for the Wagner Society in New York, what it’s like to prepare a Wagner opera at the Met. At first it was overwhelming but as I got more familiar it didn’t become any less difficult. The stuff is just plain difficult to play. I imagine as a singer there must be some similarities for you.

GG: Yes, it is always a challenge. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tempo that maybe oddly enough could be just a little faster than the last time.

EM: Getting back to the Dutchman’s character, in our interview last February (http://www.laopus.com/2016/02/greer-grimsley-is-nicest-villain-in.html), we discussed your penchant for playing villainous roles to the hilt. Do you see the Dutchman as a hero - that is, a victim of his eternal curse - antihero, villain, or all three?

GG: He’s all three. If he can’t find this woman who will redeem him he’s calling for the end of the world, which he knows will be the end of humanity. That’s the conundrum - whether it’s greed, trying to get around the Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, with his cargo, or trying to get everyone safely back as well. I know just from being a Navy brat that most captains are also concerned with the men on their ship. That’s also an aspect of the Dutchman. It’s a very human thing - selfish and greedy but also responsible. He wants to get that cargo back and be paid for it as well as save the lives of his men. No one wants to be responsible for losing lives. It’s such a human condition, he was trying to do the best he could.

EM: And Senta?

GG: Even though he says to Senta as he meets her, “This is the face I’ve seen throughout this firmament,” he knows if she says yes as it’s happened all these years before, when he has explained to other women that they have to die, forsake their youth, to be his redemption, it hasn’t worked out. When Senta says all the right things to him in the midst of it he also wants to know if she really understands what is involved, because he can’t believe this is true, someone so willing to go with him. In essence that is the villainous part is that his character just wants to be released from being a person who’s damned every seven years to come ashore, who can’t die. Everything he’s been familiar with is gone. The heroic part, I believe, is that he’s trying to do the right thing, to get where he needs to go, much like the modern conditions you see people get mixed up in. The Coen Brothers are great with these characters that for one reason or another are trying to do the right thing. Like in Raising Arizona, the baby needs Pampers, and it turns into this police chase where the guy’s getting shot at (Laughs).

EM: Wagner meets the Coen Brothers. Brilliant.

GG: Wagner heard the Dutchman’s story as he was leaving Riga because the creditors were coming after him. At the same he was frustrated he couldn’t pay them, he was also indignant that they wouldn’t understand his genius and who he was as an artist, so that he had to flee. That’s very close to who he was at that time. So Wagner’s Dutchman is not a black or white personality, he’s very conflicted and mixed. As I said the last time we talked, Wagner is a perfect example of someone who created something artistically incredible, greater than himself, greater than his experiences.

EM: Well, they say to write what you know.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: The Dutchman’s choice to abandon Senta turns out badly for her. I see that as a parallel to Lohengrin’s choice to abandon Elsa, though for different reasons. Do you think these plot points are analogous?

GG: Once again, the minute you said that, I thought, that is somewhat of a parallel. He misinterprets what’s happening with Senta and Erik, but at the same time I know he will feel guilty seeing someone give up her life. I think there’s a huge conflict there. Not that he wouldn’t be angry - he would, but he also doesn’t want to cost anyone their life for his salvation. That’s how he got into this predicament in this first place. It’s such a Hobson’s Choice for him. I can’t say I’ll feel this way two years from now in thinking about it, but for her own good he’s saying, I’m going and I spare you the everlasting damnation. So there is a certain heroic quality. That’s also part of the hero myth that Joseph Campbell talks about, that the hero has to separate himself. A heroic nature that Wagner gives to the Dutchman that you hear in the music.

EM: That’s Wagner’s brilliance. To be able to say something without really saying it, just using the universality of music. You mentioned the word “human” - which brings up the fact that Wagner remains relevant, even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is a stretch, but do you feel that the Dutchman’s “undead” aspect makes him more relevant for 21st century audiences because of all the current interest in that kind of character?

GG: I think we’ve always been fascinated as humans, from the first time we were conscious of dying, wondering what it would be like not to die, and what cost it would have on you. I think it is a very potent and valid point because in our society - not to sound like an old fogey - we’re so disenfranchised from daily interactions because everyone’s retreated into social media. We’ve separated ourselves from personal interactions, to connect in that way. That’s why I think the whole “zombie” craze has taken hold, to wonder what that would be like. It’s some part of our psyche saying you have to reconnect to humanity and what that means. Sometimes by being fascinated by what it takes to become a zombie or fight against it, that is in essence our unconscious need to reconnect. We were much more connected to the life cycle, the earth cycle, in the 18th and 19th century.

EM: Going back to your roles: Scarpia, Pizarro, Telramund and Jack Rance, vs. Jochanaan and Kurwenal. Your “bad guy” portrayals seem to dominate. Is this by design, because of vocal concerns, or just the way things have evolved for you over the years?

GG: It is a combination of everything. There are a lot more roles written for my voice type in the bad guy realm. That seems to be from when opera was first set down, that you had the lower voices associated with the more sinister side of humanity and the more clarion voices, sopranos and tenors, seem to be a natural selection for heroes, for a good guy.

EM: Basically it proves that quip that if a baritone thinks he’s going to get the girl, he has another thing coming.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: Your wife Luretta (mezzo soprano Luretta Bybee) is singing with you in this production. It sounds like a lot of fun to keep it in the family, so to speak. Her role is a comprimario one, but are you enjoying having her on the set?

GG: Oh, yes. We’ve always worked really well together. We always were each other’s champion when it came to what we were doing, even when we’re not both in the show we’re each other’s eye and ear. That’s held us in good stead. It goes both ways for either one of us if we say, “You might want to think about how approach this a little better,” and it doesn’t turn into a scena. It’s been a boon to me as an artist.

EM: When you can find that balance and tell each other like it is and still be able to work and profit from it, that’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see the two of you in the production. What’s next for you after Dutchman?

GG: Once again, it’s Bybee-Grimsley combination at the Glimmerglass Festival singing Sweeney Todd together. She’s Mrs. Lovett and I’m Sweeney Todd.

EM: Quite a contrast from the Dutchman.

GG: Yes [Laughs].

EM: The characters’ conflicts are quite different, certainly vocally, but it must be a tremendous change for you to go from Wagner to singing a musical. Is that a big switch of gears, or does it fall easily for you?

GG: I wouldn’t say it’s an easily done transition. We debuted these roles last year in Vancouver together. I’ve always known this from the first time I saw Sweeney Todd - I was at Juilliard when it premiered in New York - but the thing I discovered, the thing that struck me is that Sondheim’s a musician to begin with and he loves words - oddly enough like someone else we’re talking about [Laughs]. It’s the same intent I believe, the use of words, and it just happens to manifest itself in Sondheim’s particular form. I so respect him as a musician. Musical theatre is not something you toss off, something that you just go, “Here I come.” It does require a great deal of thought and work. It’s fascinating. Sondheim doesn’t like to call his works operatic, and I don’t want to do that, but he does do some of the same things as Wagner. The style is the American musical, but with his signature. It’s unmistakably his music.

EM: It is indeed.

GG: There are so many musicals now that all start to sound the same. They’re dipping from the same well, whereas with Maestro Sondheim, it’s just like with Wagner. Once he found his musical voice, it’s definitely him. When you hear his music you say, “That’s Sondheim.”

EM: And they’re both geniuses. I’m so looking forward to seeing both you and Luretta in this Dutchman. And it’s always such a great opportunity to speak with you.

GG: Thank you. My pleasure.



Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman will set sail with Grimsley at the helm May 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 at McCaw Hall. (http://seattleopera.org/on-stage/the-flying-dutchman/)


Photo credits: Rozarii Lynch, Wah Lui, Gary Beechey

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

World's first-ever Performing Arts university rankings


LA Opus shares a press release received today from the QS Press Office. Lovers of the performing arts can celebrate new attention given to the field's university level training. While the rankings have the USA's Juilliard on top, notable is that half of the top ten universities are in the UK. The comparisons are categorical apples and oranges, in that music, theater, and dance are all lumped together under a general "performing arts" category. It would appear from the school names listed below, however, that music is the dominant field in the survey.

Further discussion, including a more inclusive worldwide spread among the top twenty honorees, follows in the narrative below.


London, March 22, 2016

The Juilliard School has been ranked as the world’s best university for the study of Performing Arts, in what is the first ever rankings for this subject. The ranking was reported in the sixth edition of the QS World University Rankings by Subject, released today on TopUniversities.com, which features a record-breaking 42 disciplines, making it the largest-ever ranking of its kind.

The expert opinion of 76,798 academics and 44,426 employers informed the results, alongside the analysis of 28.5 million research papers and over 113 million citations sourced from the Scopus/Elsevier bibliometric database. This led to QS considering for inclusion 1,008 institutions offering Performing Arts-related courses, nominally ranking 974, before finally publishing the top 100.

In second place for Performing Arts is University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, from Austria. Completing the top three is the Royal College of Music from the United Kingdom.

This year’s first ever ranking features the world’s top 100 places to study Performing Arts, ranking those institutions that offer courses with a practical focus in at least one of Music, Drama, and Dance. The most-featured country in the ranking is the United States which takes 6 top-20 places, and 26 places overall. It is followed by the United Kingdom, which is home to 24 of the world’s top 100 places to study the subject. The University of Oxford and the Royal Academy of Music are also in the top five.

However, though the United Kingdom and the United States dominate, QS recognise that institutions from nations across the globe are providing a world-class education for aspirant thespians, dancers, and musicians alike. The rankings feature institutions from 27 different nations, with Finland’s Sibelius Academy finishing 7th. Also in the top-20 are representatives from Sweden (Royal College of Music in Stockholm, 11th), France (Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, 12th), and Switzerland (Conservatoire de Musique de Geneve, 19th).

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) continue to take the lion’s share of top places in the overall rankings, leading in 24 subjects between them. Each takes twelve leading positions.

QS World University Rankings by Subject for 2016: Top 10 (Performing Arts Institution, Country)

1   Juilliard School, United States
2   University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, Austria
3= Royal College of Music, United Kingdom
3= University of Oxford, United Kingdom
5   Royal Academy of Music, United Kingdom
6   Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Formerly Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama), UK
7   Sibelius Academy, Finland
8   University of California, Berkeley (UCB), United States
9   Guildhall School of Music and Drama, United Kingdom
10 Indiana University Bloomington, United States

© QS Quacquarelli Symonds 2004-2016 http://www.TopUniversities.com/

Ben Sowter, Head of the QS Intelligence Unit, said: “Though the US and UK remain dominant, our most inclusive rankings ever show that excellence can be found in an ever-increasing number of places. Nations like Austria, South Africa, Finland, Brazil, China, and Sweden can be found in the top ten of our tables. Our new top 100 for Performing Arts acknowledges academic excellence in 27 different countries, with institutions from 8 different countries in the top 20.”

QS Quacquarelli Symonds have been providing expert insight and analysis for both the higher education and the business sector since 1990. Their QS World University Rankings are the world’s most popular based on Alexa data and other social media metrics. Their annual World University Rankings by Subject provide employers, students, parents, and academics with the most comprehensive insight into global university performance at the subject level. They can be found in their entirety here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

J'nai Bridges Morphs from Sports to Suzuki in 'Butterfly'


By Erica Miner

When it comes to rising stars in the opera world, J’nai Bridges is one to watch. Since participating in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s esteemed Ryan Opera Center, the award-winning young mezzo-soprano already has become recognized for her multi-varied sound ranging from rich and impassioned to delicate and sensitive, and has has proved her vocal versatility in repertoire that includes operas of Verdi, Rossini, Dvorak, Bellini, Mozart and Bizet. She makes her San Diego Opera debut as Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on Sat., Apr. 16. 

EM: J’nai, welcome to SDO! I’m fascinated by your name. What is the story behind it? 

JB: The story behind my name is fun. My parents loved the music of soul singer Freddie Jackson. One of their favorite songs is called “Janay.” It’s a love song so they always called me their love child because I was named after this song. They were very creative with the spelling. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jackson a couple years ago and when I told him the background of my name, he hugged me and didn’t let go. 

EM: Your musical and educational background is amazing: Curtis Institute, Manhattan School, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s prestigious Ryan Opera Center training program. What was your journey getting there? 

JB: I am extremely grateful for my musical and educational background. It came about in a very unusual way. I was an athlete in high school with my sports being Track & Field and basketball. I had a few scholarships to play in college, but I turned them down when I discovered and fell in love with classical vocal music. I have played the piano since the age of five, so classical music was always a love of mine. However I had not been exposed to opera. My junior year in high school I needed to take an art elective, so I decided to join the choir. My choir teacher immediately identified a natural gift in my voice and suggested I take private lessons. I did and instantly fell in love with singing classically. I didn’t have much time to get and audition pre-screening package together, but nevertheless I did! I quickly learned and recorded songs in Italian, French, German, and English per the undergraduate audition requirements. I was granted a live audition at Manhattan School of Music and was quite nervous but I sang my heart out. The next thing I knew, I was admitted into MSM in the spring! From that point on I worked extremely hard and graduated with the highest honors, one of them being admitted into The Curtis Institute of Music. Curtis is a special place. We got to sing a large amount of roles long with a ton of stage experience. We also auditioned for opera companies, orchestras, and management almost weekly. Given the opera studio is extremely small and selective, we basically got one-on-one attention at all times. This is what sets Curtis apart from other conservatories. At Curtis, the Lyric Opera of Chicago came for auditions. They heard me and immediately accepted me into their young artist program. I always say that I didn’t choose opera but it chose me. I have just been listening to my heart, gut, and God. It was also helpful that my parents and family supported me 100% through this decision, and they still do! I do give credit to my athletic background because I have gotten great discipline from it. 

EM: What happened after Ryan Opera Center? 

JB: After my graduation from the Ryan Opera Center I immediately took a vacation. The Ryan Center was an incredible three years of almost working non-stop, so it was due time to grant my mind and body some rest. My next engagements included performing at CSO with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and preparing for the “Cardiff Singer of the World” competition. Both were extremely exciting experiences! Following Cardiff I sang my first Suzuki at the Wolftrap Opera Festival. 

EM: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses with Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO. How exciting was that? 

JB: Performing with Yo-Yo Ma was absolutely life changing. The first time he saw me he said, “Wow, you’re so beautiful and it’s an honor to make music with you.” I honestly thought he was talking to someone else. (Laughs.) He is one of the warmest human beings I have ever encountered. His energy and connection to the piece made me dig extremely deep into myself onstage. We made beautiful music and I am still on a high from that day.



EM: Who have been some of the most influential singers you’ve studied and worked with? 

JB: Simon Estes without a doubt has been influential. We haven’t worked with each other on vocal repertoire, but he gives me wonderful advice and encouragement. Not to mention he is an absolute legend. It means a lot to me as an African American who had many struggles so I could be where I am today. Renee Fleming has also been quite influential. We worked many times together while I was in the Ryan Center. She is an excellent teacher and gave some great career advice. 

EM: What are some of your favorite operatic roles? 

JB: Carmen, Charlotte, Idamante, Amneris, Adalgisa to mention a few. 

EM: What roles are you most looking forward to performing for the first time? 

JB: I’m very much looking forward to performing Lucretia this summer at Wolftrap. It’s a role that I have always wanted to sing. I love the dark emotion she portrays. I’m also looking forward to performing Bersi in Andrea Chenier in San Francisco and again in Munich! I love Verismo opera. Lastly, I am very much looking forward to playing the role of Nefertiti in Akhnaten at L.A. Opera. I have always had a love for that Queen and I find Glass’s music incredibly mesmerizing. 

EM: Do you have a preference between performing opera and symphony, or do you love them equally? 

JB: I love them equally! I hope my career always brings me a combination of both every year that I sing. With opera, I enjoy completely transforming into another character and collaborating with other singers in that operatic manner. The costumes, makeup, sets, and rehearsal process are all so magical. Being a mezzo, we have a plethora of symphonic and orchestral works to delve into. I enjoy the intimacy of singing this repertoire and collaborating closely with the conductor and orchestra. Both opera and symphonic/orchestral work are very close to my heart. 

EM: What are you most looking forward to in SDO’s Madama Butterfly

JB: Besides the fact that I will be in an incredible city with gorgeous weather for a month, I am looking forward to collaborating with all of the amazingly gifted artists of this production. It’s always interesting to experience the different dynamics that make a show. I cannot wait to sing alongside Latonia. When I went to Curtis she graduated from AVA a few years before, and I have always admired her. Now I get to sing with her! Lucky me! I already feel so welcomes at SDO so I am looking forward to the whole process!

Photos used by permission of: Kristin Hoebermann

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Furlanetto Shows Mastery in San Diego Concert



By Erica Miner

To witness the American debut concert of a renowned, distinguished, much beloved opera star is truly a unique opportunity. That this established world-class musical celebrity has long been one of San Diego Opera’s most cherished stage luminaries makes the event even sweeter. 

On Mar. 5, Ferruccio Furlanetto celebrated the 31st anniversary of the singer’s debut with SDO by presenting a concert featuring excerpts from some of the singer’s most favored arias. Making his debut on the podium, young maestro Emanuele Andrizzi conducted the full forces of the San Diego Symphony. 

Consistently praised by critics, Furlanetto carried the heavy, difficult program with unflagging confidence, astonishing consistency in his range from highest to lowest notes, and a stage presence that remains as imposing as ever.

The packed audience at the Jacobs Music Center at Copley Symphony Hall confirmed Furlanetto’s local fandom with their unqualified enthusiastic response, both to his appearance and to his passionate renderings of his chosen repertoire: a veritable feast of operatic favorites, coupled with a few unexpected treats.

Furlanetto opened with two crowd pleasers, starting with Don Basilio’s delightful La Calunnia from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In this aria, Furlanetto exhibited the deft humor that has become characteristic of his renderings in comic roles. He had no qualms about exaggerating the character’s buffo qualities, while still maintaining the musical deftness that the composer had in mind.

On a comedic roll, he launched into Leporello’s familiar “Catalogue” aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Furlanetto tossed off the aria with ease, demonstrating the vocal impressiveness of his early years. As in the Rossini, he played up the humor with unabashed delight, as the audience reacted in kind. In another Don Giovanni favorite, Finch’ han dal vino, Furlanetto showed his versatility in switching from comic to bold and daring. Massenet’s Don Quichotte (http://www.laopus.com/2014/03/ferruccio-furlanetto-filtering-emotion.html), and Mussorsgky’s Boris Godunov (http://www.laopus.com/2014/03/furlanetto-russian-soul.html) are two of Furlanetto’s most memorable roles, and his rendering of both of these massive death scenes has become iconic. His mastery and longtime experience were in full evidence in his carefully crafted performances: both were poignant and moving, yet bold and powerful. Furlanetto’s Quichotte died with dignity; his Boris with stubborn passion. Performing both of their deaths in one program amounted to a feat of astonishing scope and accomplishment.

In a different vein, Furlanetto channeled Ezio Pinza with three Broadway musical excerpts: “Ol’ Man River” from Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat, and “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly was Mine” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Most striking was Furlanetto’s interpretation of “Ol’ Man River,” which came straight from the heart. His low notes were astonishing, and his “American” English was impeccable.

A surprise pleasure was the aria “I am He Whom You Called” from Anton Rubinstein’s rarely performed The Demon. A more recognizable pleasure was the Méphistophélès aria Vous qui faites l’endormie from Gounod’s Faust. Both were performed with gusto and assuredness.

Without question the evening’s most anticipated work was King Phillip’s aria, Ella giammai m’amò, from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Furlanetto has expressed his reverence for the role, and especially for this exquisite piece, and his facial expressions and affecting rendering demonstrated the depth of that veneration. Each wrenching note, each subtly nuanced phrase, built unwaveringly toward the heartbreaking conclusion. The audience was mesmerized by the sheer beauty and power of Furlanetto’s performance.

Though he didn’t always follow Furlanetto precisely, the youthful Andrizzi showed keen understanding of the Italian operatic style. The overture from Verdi’s Nabucco, which opened the concert, was impressive in its rhythmic intensity, and the Intermezzo from Puccini’s was lovingly phrased. One would have liked to hear more Verdi, and Furlanetto delivered on this desire with his encore, Mentre Gonfiarsi l'anima...Oltre quel limite from Verdi’s Attila. Notwithstanding the relative infrequency with which the opera is performed, Furlanetto performed the piece as if Verdi himself had coached him: with great aplomb, virtuosity and keen understanding of the style.

It was a fitting close to a thoroughly engaging performance by a venerated international opera icon, who, to our delight, chose San Diego as the setting for his American concert debut.



Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com