Wednesday, July 8, 2015

David Bennett, Part 2: New Seasons, New Concepts



By Erica Miner

EM: You don’t strike me as a person who is easily daunted.

DB: Thanks [Laughs].

EM: There’s always a lot to do. Getting everything solidified is one piece of the puzzle, but then you’re constantly trying to push the envelope. And that’s always a work in progress.

DB: Absolutely. There are so many things we haven’t started - so many things I feel are imperative, the conversation we need to begin having. I had a meeting in New York City with the Consul General of Mexico, who introduced me to the Mexican Consul General here, a very powerful presence. There’s a lot of energy about co-producing and collaborating in many ways, between cultural leaders across the board. A cultural leaders group that meets once a month, and I’m interested in starting quickly meetings with other cultural groups. Trying to make the opera company more responsive to needs of all the communities in San Diego, for instance the military community. A couple of operas have been commissioned about soldiers returning from Iraq, the Middle East, dealing with post-traumatic stress. One is going to appear at Long Beach Opera next season, and one is premiering at Saratoga in New York next month. The possibility of bringing something like that here, if appropriate, is amazing.

EM: Amazing how many composers are bringing these subjects to the opera stage. 

DB: Reaching out to the Latino communities, African-American community, LGBT community, trying to find ways we can address all of those needs. So there’s a lot to be done still. But very exciting. There’s a chamber opera, Champion, that St. Louis Opera commissioned a couple of years ago that Washington National Opera is going to do in a couple of years, about an African-American boxer and his experience in the 50s and 60s, a true story, very interesting. It’s also LGBT because he was a gay closeted boxer, Spanish-American. Someone called him a Spanish derogatory name while his opponent was weighing in and he wound up killing him in the ring. He comes out of the closet later. A lot of racial and LGBT issues and also beautiful music, written by Terrence Blanchard, a wonderful jazz musician. 

EM: It doesn’t get much more controversial than that. 

DB: Right. But also they’re good operatic works, well written, intense, taut, well-constructed libretti, a lot of good dramaturgy, dealing with all those prime issues. I’ve already started a conversation with Fort Worth Opera and Arizona Opera, about commissioning a new opera about Frida Kahlo, which I would love to bring here. It’s smaller scale, three principal singers, a chorus of 16-20. Bringing secondary roles out of the chorus and featuring our own wonderful opera chorus is another thing we have to do here. I think we could have an actual concert with them. And aside from the Symphony, partnerships with a theatre company. I’ve had baby step conversations with La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. The art museum is interested in finding ways to collaborate. It could be as simple as a Frida Kahlo opera and a Kahlo exhibit at the same time. Or it could be producing something at the museum, finding ways to enliven galleries with actual operas as opposed to doing them in a theatre space at a museum. I’d love to stage an opera in their sculpture garden courtyard. There have got to be a million pockets inside Balboa Park we haven’t even looked at. 

EM: The Old Globe is right there. 

DB: Exactly. That’s burned into my brain, producing a Shakespearean opera, probably a chamber opera, in the Old Globe. I would love to do that. Christopher Beach said, “What about the Salk Institute, it’s such a gorgeous location, the Symphony does a concert there every year, why not stage something there?” These all are opportunities for enlivening spaces with opera that haven’t happened yet. 

EM: Are you thinking about a collaboration with L.A. Opera? 

DB: We will have a partnership with them to some degree. They have already extended their generosity to help us in any way they can. Houston in effect gave Nixon in China to us with no cost - we just had to pay the shipping here and back. Don Giovanni was given to us by Cincinnati at no cost. The opera community overall is helping us stabilize. Speaking opportunities are coming up, this fall in the La Jolla Community Center distinguished lecture series, and the Rotary Club. Perhaps an event together with Martha that involves press, a round table talking about partnerships.



EM: Getting the word out. 

DB: Yes. Showing an evolving model of how a company that’s been doing only traditional opera reinvents itself - that’s where we’re going to be headed. There are some “best practice” examples. Philadelphia, Fort Worth Opera - companies that have tried and succeeded in reinventing themselves, basically facing the same issues we had here, declining sales, over- reliance on smaller and smaller pool of donors. Trying to find a way to broaden the experience and make the civic impact of the company bigger. We’re trying to make sure that community engagement increasingly is not just about engaging those that already come - though that’s an important part of it - but to get those people interested who are not yet opera attendees. We do that in our own community conversations. We’re having one with Nic (Reveles) in September. Sometimes we think all we need to do is tell people we’re doing Tosca and Butterfly and there’s nothing else we need to say because everybody knows them - not true. Even those who do, want to be reminded how fabulous those are. We can sometimes be guilty of saying, “We need to do all this work on Great Scott because it’s a new production,” when we actually need to make the case for why Tosca and Butterfly work and why they’re so engaging.

EM: People have asked me why you’re doing two Puccini operas this year.

DB: I don't know if there’s actually a reason, other than the fact that Puccini sells. They’re all new productions. We bought Tosca from Fort Worth for nothing, so we have a nice, traditional new Tosca that was almost given to us. We’re getting Montreal’s Butterfly, which is a beautiful traditional gorgeous production. The decision might have been that the writing on the wall was terrifying and we had to have some surefire bets. But it also is a little peculiar to do two Puccini in one year [Laughs].

EM: It’s a great opportunity for new singers to make their impact. 

DB: These are all people that were booked before I came into the picture. Latonia Moore has a huge career as Aida. I haven’t heard her sing Butterfly, so it should be interesting. The Tosca, Alexia Voulgaridou, is Greek, sings all over Europe, and I’ve listened to clips on line. I’m sure she’ll be great. If you look at her biography, she sang Butterfly everywhere, then she added Tosca to her rep and did it everywhere. So she’s does a role for a while - I think we’re in her Tosca era now - but she’s sung in major opera houses and gotten great reviews, so I’m sure she’ll be very compelling. Greer Grimsley is coming back as Scarpia. That should be fabulous. 

EM: He must be. Have you seen that Facebook page, “Greer Grimsley is an Opera God”? 

DB: [Laughs] 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. 

EM: It’s all so new and exciting, and I can’t wait for September. Thank you for spending so much time with me

DB: My pleasure.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

David Bennett Starts His SDO Journey, Part 1



By Erica Miner

On June 15, 2015, David Bennett officially assumed his post as San Diego Opera’s new General Director. The Vice-Chair of Opera America’s Board of Directors, a former performing baritone, comes to SDO directly from his astoundingly successful stint as Managing Director of New York City’s Gotham Chamber Opera. After only two weeks at the job, Bennett already had an abundance of experience to share. 

EM: How have you fared thus far in your first few weeks with the company? 

DB: A lot of the work has been preparing for the (June 29) Annual Membership meeting, making sure that clearly we were closing the fiscal year as soundly as possible, doing everything we could to continually raise money and solidify some gifts that were still outstanding. But also trying to clarify what we know we can communicate now - what’s definitive, versus what we think things are going to look like down the pike. 

EM: Concrete information instead of theoretical. 

DB: Exactly. We were able to tell people what next year looks like, which was already contracted and announced, and that the following year we’re going to be doing three productions in a split season. 

EM: Split in what way? 

DB: Instead of just having opera in the spring and symphony mostly in the fall, we will move our seasons around a bit. Starting the 2016-17 season, we will have an October main stage production, a January-February production, and late April production. Three main productions, as opposed to back-to-back. Those are already booked with the Civic Theatre and fit into the schedule of San Diego Symphony. It’s better for them, because they can spread out their Masterworks series. We will intersperse those with more than just recitals. We’re already in conversations with a Chamber Opera company that’s going to be on tour to present a production here. We’re trying to have a co-production with the Symphony that season, a concert opera at Copley Hall, produced together. Still figuring out what that business model will be, but we’d both sell it, share the expenses and the revenue - a true co-production. 

EM: A concert version of an opera on stage? 

DB: Staged to some extent, not standing and singing with stands and tails, but having some kind of interesting visual element, probably costumed. Something family friendly that might happen in December, which might be part of their holiday programming and creative enough that other orchestras might be interested in doing, so we might try to license it. 2016 is also the 100th anniversary of the San Diego Zoo. So we’re in conversations with Chicago Lyric Opera about a production they’ve commissioned that’s written for a zoo and meant to be performed in a zoo. We want to see if that’s how our zoo might want to celebrate that anniversary. 

EM: That is indeed creative. 

DB: In addition to three main stage productions at the Civic Theatre, we would do three other things. This year it’s recitals. We might do a chamber opera and a concert opera and a recital. That’s how things are going to look for a while. A split season, then as we solidify our financial position and stabilize a little more, perhaps adding a fourth production back, but if not then interspersing with a lot of other things, perhaps in the 2016-17 season a chamber opera at the Balboa, also run outs, possibly to North County or Palm Springs - trying to find ways to engage in needy neighborhoods, underserved populations. 

EM: Utilizing the relationship with the Symphony as much as possible. 

DB: Without a doubt. We’re in the process of renegotiating our contract in ways that are really favorable to both companies. We had a good meeting last week. Martha (Gilmer, SDS CEO) is a great ally, very smart and creative. Clearly it benefits both of us to be team players and think of ways we can creatively work together as producers. Just negotiating a contract to engage the Symphony as our orchestra in the pit is not as interesting to her as finding ways to actually collaborate as creative partners. I think in two more months we’ll have finalized a new contract with them.

EM: Sounds like you’ve done an awful lot in two weeks. 

DB: I have. I’ve met a lot of people, talked to a lot of Press, met with public officials and spoken to the Arts Commission, which along with the State Arts Council has increased its funding. The Mayor had passed a budget that significantly increased arts funding. We were approved for a much larger gift for next year, reinstated to our funding from the commission, our highest since 2009. A real vote of confidence. Starting this month I have individual meetings with commissioners, hopefully eventually meet the mayor. And of course a lot of meetings with opera staff. We have weekly all-staff meetings, department head meetings, production meetings, artistic planning meetings, bargaining meetings, development meetings. 

EM: You must have 36 hours in every day. 

DB: It’s been busy. The staff here is very good. I want to make sure I’m saying that to the public, that in absence of a General Director last year they did an amazing job. Keith (Fisher, COO) jumped in and led the company in a beautiful way. Keith has been working with the entire staff to find ways to build a creative environment for them. They have learned to feel a sense of empowerment in what they’re doing, and feel creatively engaged. Which is really nice. So I walked into an environment that had a lot of positive energy. That’s been great. People weren’t sitting around waiting for me - “We have to do nothing until we have a vision.” [Laughs] Clearly there was work being done. Voluntarily taking reductions, making the decision to move to this smaller suite of offices, making decisions about how to reduce the budget down to what we need. We announced at the meeting that we closed the books yesterday on a year that looks like we will have a surplus. And without touching a penny of the Kroc reserve fund. The argument was made before that there wasn’t a way to raise enough money during the course of a year to pay the operating expenses for that year. They had borrowed or filled their losses with a fund, that wonderful gift from Joan Kroc. With that gone was the impression we can’t have an opera company in San Diego. That’s been demonstrated not to be true. Finding the way to right size an opera company, appropriate for this community and sustained by donors is the challenge, but we’re closing the books on a year that shows it can be done.



EM: “Right size,” the perfect phrase. I remember you mentioned that in our previous interview  (http://www.laopus.com/2015/04/new-sdo-general-director-cannot-curb.html). 

DB: Next year’s budget is almost identical to this year’s, so if we were able to do it last year - we did have some extraordinary gifts from people who wanted to save the company - I think we should be able to do it again this year. We do have one very expensive production, Great Scott, and some large obligations, one production in particular, but not nearly as expensive as our obligations with Great Scott

EM: A commission is always expensive. 

DB: Exactly. It’s going to be beautiful but there’s some complicated stagecraft, so it’s expensive. Commissioning, of course, carries its own set of expenses. But if we stay around the budget level I think we’ll have more opportunity to either add a fourth production back, or do more of the other things without significantly increasing our budget. We may even have an opportunity to save some money on production and perhaps reinstate some of the salaries we’ve reduced, which would be wonderful. 

EM: They deserve to be rewarded for their Herculean efforts. This endless energy they somehow managed to dredge up. I’m so impressed. Plus they found you. What’s not to love about that? 

DB: [Laughs]. 

EM: I read on the website about your current fundraising campaign for $2.1 million, “Stand for SD Opera,” which looked like it had reached around $1.7 million. 

DB: We’re trying to replicate in some ways what we did last year in that campaign - “We need to raise “x” number of dollars in this amount of time from whatever sources so we can move forward with confidence and say we can stay in business.” That included board gifts, city money to some extent, lots of gifts from individuals. Once the city budget has been formally approved, I think we can count on another $400,000 added to that, which I think will make us exceed that goal. We haven’t been able to make that announcement yet. So right now when you look at that thermometer it sits at a place that’s not as high as we’d hoped. But I think we’ll be able to say we’ve exceeded that goal. Carol (Lazier, board president) has given another million for next year, with another $250,000 gift from Darlene Shiley to support Great Scott

EM: They are both angels of the arts here in San Diego. 

DB: So a lot of terrific news. Altogether we’re in relatively good shape. We still have a lot of work to do, clearly, but I’m not daunted, which is a good way to begin.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Monday, June 22, 2015

Gunther Schuller: A Remembrance



By Erica Miner 

The loss of a respected musical icon, no matter at what age, is always a sad event. For those musicians among us who knew and worked with Gunther Schuller, the news of his passing at age 89 evokes more than respect; it evokes memories of wonderful performances, richly varied conversations, and a man whose influence in my early life as a young, aspiring musician still resides in my soul.

Schuller was iconic in more ways than most. In his almost nine decades, he was a performing classical and jazz French hornist, a composer of wide influence, a teacher of extraordinary insight, a brilliant writer (sadly, only the first volume of his autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty has been published), and more. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Schuller marveled at having enjoyed more full-time musical careers than Leonard Bernstein. It was no exaggeration.

Gunther never shrank from controversy and innovation in his work. Perhaps the height of his influence came from his linking the two so-called main streams of 20th century American music to create what he called the “Third Stream” in the 1950s - collaborating with jazz pianist John Lewis to compose works that reflected both classical and jazz musical genres. Classical and jazz musicians alike were quick to condemn the marriage of the two styles. Eventually the American Musical Inquisition relented, and the concept took hold.

The formerly energetic, vital composer and musician looked terribly frail when I spoke with him last April in the Green Room of Symphony Hall after a performance of his Dreamscape with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Yet he was as articulate as ever, and his recall of my past encounters with him in Boston and at Tanglewood was astonishingly clear. Leaning over his wheelchair, I could still perceive the sparkle in his expression that I remembered from my days as a Fellowship student at the Tanglewood Music Center (then the Berkshire Music Center). When I mentioned working with his violinist father in New York, Schuller’s expression positively lit up. “Your father made a great impression on me,” I told Gunther. “He told me he owed everything that came to him in life to this instrument, the violin. He was right. And I’ve never forgotten that.

When I first went to Tanglewood as a student in my teens, I was as impressionable as they come. I looked up to Gunther; he was a leader in so many ways: teacher, conductor, composer, mentor to young composers, and a fierce champion of contemporary music. Many of the avant garde compositions we young musicians were required to perform sailed right over our heads. Yet Schuller had a way of rehearsing as he was conducting us that was infinitely patient and instructive.

One particular composition by a young composer seemed uniquely problematic and incomprehensible, and the indomitable jokester of our small ensemble couldn’t resist a prank. At one point in the score, the composer specified that the conductor was to stop, take a sip of water from a glass on his podium, and then continue. Before the performance our prankster confided to us that he had replaced the water in Gunther’s glass with vodka. Hardly able to contain our conspiratorial glee, we all awaited the prescribed moment in the piece. When Gunther, his brow beaded with sweat from the summer Berkshire heat, stopped to take the sip of water, he gasped, practically dropping the glass. The expression on Gunther’s face was priceless. Afterwards he and the group all shared a hearty laugh over the incident.

Later, as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, I was proud of the fact that Gunther was our president, and impressed at his courage and forethought in instituting NEC’s degree-granting jazz program. I remember thinking at the time that the NEC powers-that-be could not have chosen more wisely or appropriately. I listened, enraptured, when the BSO performed his 7 Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Along with other pit musicians I sweated furiously, rehearsing his opera The Fisherman and his Wife, as new revisions came in on a daily basis right up until the last minute before the premiere in Boston.

All of these memories came flooding back to me when I heard of his passing. He was an icon to many thousands of musicians, composers and scholars. To me he was an irreplaceable force of nature. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him professionally, and to speak with him personally just a few weeks before his passing: to have one last chance to take in that always inquisitive, highly intelligent expression.

We will miss him.

Photo: James Primosch

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Is Classical Music a Sport?


By Ewa Gorniak Morgan

Did Romeo and Juliet meet at a stadium?

Did they meet at a concert hall?

What if?

In this short video they do.... and.... there is a happy ending, or....a beginning of a new old story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsPqa6alNRg&feature=youtu.be

Apollo, the God of Music, was given his lyre by Hermes, the God of Sport!

Shakespeare wrote:

“If music be the food of love, then play on.” If music and sport are the source of well-being, then:

Play the game for the Love of Music!

Launching CultureALL association's project to link music and sport where young people meet for the better future. In collaboration with the United World Games, the biggest youth sporting event in Europe opening June 19th, 2015 with the official presentation of the "Sport is Music/Music is Sport" video featuring John Axelrod conducting the KSO Kärntner Symphony Orchestra at the Musikverein in Klagenfurt with music from Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Overture" and young athletes from the United World Games.

“Probably the two best known natural medicines for the body, mind, heart and soul are sport and music,” says conductor and CultureALL president, John Axelrod. “It is my belief that sport is music and music is sport. The physical and psychological demands require a unique and consistent level of virtuosity and technical brilliance. The parallels are obvious. We both stretch before we play. We both wear uniforms. We both celebrate a job well done. We both want to win by doing our best.”

”This is a wonderful opportunity for our Games to connect with an initiative with similar values. Both organizations want to make a difference in the world, reaching out to young people and getting them involved and connected through their common passion," says Franziskus Bertl, Secretary General of the United World Games.

The purpose is to encourage younger sport fans to take an interest in classical music and to increase support for the instrument of the orchestra. The campaign will include future games to fundraise for classical music education and collaborations with other sports organizations.

CultureALL, a non-profit association endorsed by the UNESCO and supported by private and institutional donations, creates projects and events to develop the musicians and audiences of tomorrow and provide access to cultural education and patrimony through classical music.

To make a difference in the lives of everyone, note by note!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dresden Music Festival Both Sizzles And Chills

Cellist Jan Vogler, head of the Dresden Music Festival, shares the stage with Anotnio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  (Photo by Oliver Killig)
Cellist Jan Vogler, head of the Dresden Music Festival, takes a bow with Antonio Pappano after playing Tchaikovsky.
(Dresden Music Festival photos by Oliver Killig)

by Rodney Punt
DRESDEN — Bobbing cheekily in the air above Dresden’s Neumarkt Square this week are portrait balloons of the G7 heads of state. Their finance ministers are convening here to tweak the world’s economic order. While the opaque G7s resolve to seek the best major accords in finance, however, more fun can be found a few doors away at the Dresden Music Festival, where G7 chords resolve to C majors in the Saxon capital’s splendid Baroque chambers. The two unrelated events are at this moment raising Dresden’s political and cultural profiles to more visible prominence in Germany and Europe.
Portrait balloons of G7 heads of state in Dresden.
Portrait balloons of G7 heads of state near the Frauenkirche. (Punt)
Music Festival intendant Jan Vogler has conferred the title “Fire Ice” as this year’s theme, referring to a mash-up of influences at the outer edges (and beyond) of the European continent. The idea is that music inspired by the Mediterranean’s sunny climate contrasts with that created in snowy terrains near the Arctic Circle. Dresden’s Mittel Europa position is then positioned to play bridge and broker between the received ideas of northern intellectualism and southern lyricism.
See full review in Classical Voice North America.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

San Diego Symphony Season Finale a Burst of Sunshine



By Erica Miner

The final offering of the 2014-15 San Diego Jacobs Masterworks series this weekend featured Music Director Jahja Ling conducting two weathered favorites and one lesser-known but appealing work. Beethoven’s somber, deeply introspective Piano Concerto No. 3, played with stunning virtuosity by Stephen Hough, was bookended by the otherworldly Musica Celestis for string orchestra by Aaron Jay Kernis and the earthly but radiant Brahms Symphony No. 2, thus closing the season on an optimistic, sunlit note. 

Kernis, whose String Quartet No. 2 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, based Celestis on the slow movement of his 1990 String Quartet No. 1. The 11-minute piece provided ample opportunity for the outstanding solo players within the SDS string sections to shine, both celestially and instrumentally. Using a spectrum of colors and effects in all ranges, the composer painted an atmosphere of tranquility in the initial and closing episodes, while adding streaks of lightning-quick virtuoso passages in the middle section. Shades of the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the always-brilliant key of A major during the opening, sprinkled with hints of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, metamorphosed into a unique work in which Kernis’ distinctive style predominated. In his first time conducting this work with SDS, Ling gently and expansively encouraged the SDS strings to generate their characteristic shimmering sound, thus enhancing the aural vision of heavenly loveliness. 

Beethoven likely was in the throes of working on his only opera Fidelio when he premiered his third piano concerto in C minor in 1803. Certain melodic and rhythmic patterns from the opera are hinted at during throughout the concerto, but most overwhelming are the similarities to Mozart’s C minor piano concerto No. 24, one of only two that Mozart wrote in a minor key (the other was his D minor concerto, No. 20).

Renowned pianist Stephen Hough’s performance brought to mind all of these elements and more. The directness of his precise technique cleared the way for the melodies and rhythms to emerge from the fiendishly difficult technical challenges to present a crystalline succession of musical patterns without overemphasizing the aggressive nature of either the key or the work as a whole. His command and knowledge of the work and of Beethovenian style, coupled with his versatile background as a performer, writer and composer, produced a rendering that was at once technically proficient and erudite. Ling provided a solid foundation for the soloist in his balanced, well-defined accompaniment. 

As Beethoven was inspired, and perhaps intimidated, by Mozart, Brahms had a hard act to follow in his symphonic giant of a predecessor. However, once Brahms had completed his elegiac C minor Symphony No. 1, he seemed to have freed himself of the burden he had felt from Beethoven’s presence by creating the sunlit, pastoral atmosphere of his Symphony No. 2 in D major. 

In his capacious rendering of the Brahms, Ling opened up the cloud covered atmosphere established by the melancholy Beethoven concerto to let in one after another ray of musical sunshine, and his orchestra responded with a performance that justifiably electrified the audience. One would never have known that this was the first time Ling was performing the work with his orchestra in a Masterworks series. His background and knowledge of European tradition in composition and performance were keenly in evidence as, conducting without a score, he built the magnificence of the piece layer by layer until the full power of the orchestral forces burst forth in a wave of ebullient virtuosity, allowing the optimism of the work to shine through. The outstanding French horn section was at the forefront of the stirring playing displayed by the orchestra as a whole. 

This lively, upbeat season finale paved the way for an upcoming season that promises more excitement on stage for Ling and his gifted ensemble, with works old and new, seasoned and lesser known but promising artists. After a performance such as was heard this weekend, there is much to look forward to in the fall. 

Tickets for the upcoming San Diego Symphony Masterworks season are available at: http://www.sandiegosymphony.org/tickets-events/2015-16-season/jacobs/subscription/.

Photos used by permission of: Brianna Houston/Christian Steiner
Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tenor René Barbera is in Love With Opera



By Erica Miner

Recipient of the Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation Prize by Opera Theater of St. Louis as well as three prizes in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition, and already one of the most beloved tenors on the contemporary operatic stage, René Barbera seems unstoppable. His star is not just rising; it already has found its place in the operatic firmament. 

With roots in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, he stands firmly in the bel canto tradition, but has dabbled in Verdi and Mozart and is poised to leap into Berlioz territory with his upcoming Les Troyens engagement with San Francisco Opera in June and July. I caught up with him shortly after his stunning debut in San Diego Opera’s recent 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert  (http://www.laopus.com/2015/04/sdo-again-proves-itself-worthy-of-must.html) brought audiences to their feet. 

EM: Before we get into your background, tell us all about the exciting new announcement you made recently. 

RB: I will be performing a recital in San Diego on September 19th at the Balboa Theater to kick off the San Diego Opera’s season!!

EM: How clever of SDO to grab you for the opening of next season. You must be thrilled.

RB: I’m so excited! This is my first professional American recital. 

EM: I for one can’t wait. Let’s go back in time a bit to your background. Where did you grow up? 

RB: I was born in Laredo, Texas, and lived there until I was 9. But I actually grew up in San Antonio.

EM: When and how did you become passionate about opera? 

RB: I recall being in my first opera, Hansel & Gretel (I was a rock on stage... literally), and what made me truly fall in love with Opera were the goings-on backstage. I really found myself enjoying the people who worked behind the scenes, and being captivated by what it took to keep the show going from the backstage point of view. The rest has come over time. The more I am a part of this art form, the more it becomes a part of me. 

EM: You’re about to venture into exciting new territory: Iopas in Les Troyens and Giannetto in La Gazza Ladra. After singing multiple roles typical of your fach, are you now being attracted to more unusual repertoire? 

RB: Honestly, I am not really “attracted” to unusual repertoire per se... There are definitely roles that I’m dying to sing at this point but, for the most part, I sing what I’m hired to sing that is appropriate for my voice. That said, I am always very excited to learn something new and to have the opportunity to explore new characters and new story lines. Iopas will be my first professional experience with Berlioz, and so far I can say that this is, hands down, some of the most gorgeous music I've ever heard. My fellow colleagues are all absolutely incredible singers and performers and we are all having a grand (pun intended) time. 

EM: Do you feel equally comfortable in Italian and French opera? 

RB: Italian is like home to me. French, however, is a little less comfortable. I LOVE singing in that language. It’s wonderful for the voice. The issue I have at this point with French is that I have to REALLY focus on what others are singing around me in order to understand what the individual words are... which makes acting rather difficult. In Italian I hear a word and I know where it begins, where it ends, and what it means. French, being such a new language for me, doesn’t come so easily. That said, I LOVE French music and look forward to singing more of it in the future! 

EM: As we look forward to hearing you. How would you compare performing in the States to performing in Europe?

RB: For me, atmosphere is everything. There is something magical about performing somewhere different. I guess, ultimately, the actual performing is not much different. Sometimes the rehearsal process is different… either more relaxed or more strict but mostly it’s just performing. The audiences are similar, though less predictable in Europe, but the actual experience of BEING in Europe, for me, is what makes the difference.
I will say, however, that after several months in Europe at a time, there is nothing like being back in the States. Nothing makes me feel that more than being sick in a country whose language you can, at best, butcher enough to order produce and having to try to explain your symptoms. 

EM: What roles have you not yet sung that you would like to perform? 

RB: Well the roles I haven’t yet sung that I have on my radar as dream roles are parts that I just SHOULDN’T sing yet and likely won’t for some time, if ever. There are roles I've performed that I’d LOVE to have a healthier dose of... Nemorino, Tonio, Elvino, Arturo, etc... The roles I shouldn’t yet sing, if ever, are: Rodolfo, Alfredo, Cavaradossi, Faust, Romeo, Nadir and such. 

EM: From what we heard at the SDO Celebration Concert, I personally would love to hear you sing Pearl Fishers. What are your plans, both immediate and future? 

RB: Well, as you’ve mentioned I will be singing in Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera and La Gazza Ladra at the Rossini Opera Festival. And of course my recital for the San Diego Opera on September 19th at the Balboa Theatre! After that I return to San Francisco for the Barber of Seville and that completes my 2015. 

EM: Will we also have the pleasure of seeing you perform in an operatic role for SDO? 

RB: I certainly hope so! I am quite fond of the San Diego audience, the city, the people, the views, and the folks at the opera. I was welcomed so wonderfully in April and fell in love with San Diego. Not sure when it will be or what opera… but I really hope it is soon! 

EM: As do we! Thanks so much for taking the time to give us your insights. 

RB: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!!

Photo used with permission of: San Diego Opera

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