Thursday, January 30, 2014

Opera Is About People: Andrew Sinclair Talks (Part Deux)

By Erica Miner 

In part one of my recent interview with Director Andrew Sinclair, he shared his insights and experiences directing San Diego Opera, from Aida to the 2014 opening of the powerful verismo opera Pagliacci. In part two, Sinclair delves further into the subject of character in opera.

EM: In Pagliacci you gave a whole new spin to the ending when, instead of Canio, Tonio declares, “La Commedia è finita.”

AS: Opera is about people. It’s not about how it looks. These days, not all, but for a lot of contemporary directors, it’s a very visual concept. Once in Europe, at the end of Tosca Act Two, I didn’t do crucifix and candles. Which I think probably caused a scandal with the public. I know Toscas who did not want to do crucifix and candles because they just don’t feel it. So I said to the soprano, “Are you absolutely wedded to the idea of doing crucifix and candles? Maybe there’s something else that works.” And she said, “Andrew, when I sing Turandot in Germany, I make my entrance as Turandot from the stomach of a giant teddy bear. There’s a huge mobile phone next to me on which Calàf answers the riddles. Why would I worry about crucifix and candles?” (Laughs.)

EM: I feel the same way. As you said, it’s about the characters, and it sounds like your approach was the best for the situation.

AS: I also like to think what happens when the opera’s over. What happens to Butterfly’s child, for instance. I think he has a terrible existence. Because Kate doesn’t really want him. There are a whole lot of ways you can do the end of Butterfly, too. There’s no doubt she kills herself, but there’s a production somewhere else where I think she kills Suzuki, kills the child… I don’t know, talk about Euro trash. And in certain operas like Butterfly, I prefer to run acts two and three together.

EM: We did that at the Met, too.

AS: A lot of sopranos say it’s hard. Butterfly’s a mighty “sing” for any soprano, but to have a break and then try and crank up the tension again in what is really a very short act - it’s much better to play it straight through.

EM: The music between the end of act two and the beginning of act three is seamless anyway. I think that kind of inexorable march to the end works for Butterfly.

AS: Exactly. It’s like you spend the night watching with Butterfly, Suzuki and the child. And it’s the same with Salome. It takes place in real time. You live through this bizarre evening and you really feel you’ve been through the wringer.

EM: As far as doing Pagliacci on its own, I think it works well, but I can’t imagine doing Cavalleria Rusticana on its own.

AS: Nor can I. Of course they’re paired with other pieces. Pagliacci is sometimes paired with Tabarro and Schicchi, but if you’re going to do two there’s no doubt Pagliacci and Cavalleria are going to stand very well together. But Pagliacci is the stronger piece.

EM: I do have a soft spot for Cavalleria.

AS: So do I. When I first started loving opera I preferred Cavalleria. But I think I didn’t understand the problem with it. The first time I did both “Cav and Pag” was in Singapore. I already I knew I was going to do a new production of them for Australian Opera. The difference between what I did in Singapore and what I did in Sydney was phenomenal because I started looking at the drama differently. The first was conducted by Karen Kamensek, who’s doing Ballo here, and we had a fantastic time.

EM: Speaking of Singapore, I know you’ve also worked in Hong Kong. Do you find differences working in Asia as opposed to in Europe, and if so, what would they be?

AS: In Asia they don’t plan ahead so much. It’s all done in a short period of time. As a director you have problems because singers don’t want to display affection on the stage. They don’t want to kiss on stage.

EM: That’s tough in opera. And what about committing murder?

AS: Well, I was very interested when the Chairman of Singapore Opera said, “I want to do Salome.” And I went, “Really?” And he said they have to get used to the fact there are other popular operas, not just Bohème, Traviata, and Carmen. So they asked me to do Salome. Then they asked if I knew anyone who might sing the role. “We don’t have anyone in Asia.” I wasn’t sure whether they meant vocally or just someone who would be prepared to do that sort of part. We were very lucky because we had a wonderful Salome. Very experienced soprano. Then they asked if I knew someone who would sing Herod. And maybe Jochanaan. So I ended up casting the four main roles which was quite interesting. Then they said that sort of opera was not done by Asian conductors unless they conduct in Europe all the time. So I found them a conductor as well. It was all very interesting. But I was very nervous about doing this piece. I remember having dinner with someone from Management, about six months before we did it and I said, “I think you’re very brave, it’s wonderful you’re doing it.” And he said, “Yes, do you think you could maybe wrap up the head?” I said, “No. If you need the head wrapped you’re talking to the wrong director.” The Jochanaan was coming from London, so the people who made the head for Covent Garden were able to send the same head. We got to the final scene, and Salome said, “Andrew, I have to have more blood.” I mean, the thing was just gushing with blood by the end. Nobody batted an eyelid about it in the opera house. But there was a moment in the dance where she pushed Herod back on the steps of the cistern and put her foot in the middle of his chest. And the audience just gasped (laughs). Dominatrix.

EM: Totally her character.

AS: Absolutely. I had the most wonderful time doing Salome. She’s a very interesting person. You can’t play a murderess without showing why she does what she does, and what kind of background she comes from. A very dysfunctional family, the debauchery of the court. She’s had no proper childhood. And someone kills himself over her. I had her just step over Narraboth’s body like she didn’t even notice. She doesn’t understand what Jochanaan says but he’s an escape, a life away from here. She makes advances to him, she reminds him of what desire is.

EM: He stirs up everything in her. And there’s nothing she can do about it.

AS: Exactly. He gives her a sexual feeling which makes her feel vulnerable. And she doesn’t want to feel vulnerable.

EM: Her ego can’t take it either.

AS: That’s when she decides to have revenge. She doesn't know how, but she thinks, “If I silence that voice, I regain power.”

EM: A pretty powerful and unexpected emotion from a fifteen year old.

AS: At the end, she says, “Why don’t you look at me, Jochanaan?” The lips are not moving and suddenly she realizes she’s killed the one person that provided her with escape. And when Herod says to the guards, “Kill that woman,” she says, “Yes. I have nothing to live for.” And she becomes a sympathetic figure. A very confused teenager.

EM: It’s shocking to think young girls can be capable of that. No wonder Salome closed after one performance at the Met In 1907. It’s not real but you still get caught up in it.

AS: Speaking of real, I worked with one singer in Lucia, and she was worried about something I was doing. “But if I do that, well…” she said, “The public thought I had a wonderful marriage and in fact my husband was quite violent with me. I’m afraid if I do that somehow they’ll know.” And I said, “I’m not going to tell them unless you tell them.” I didn't push it and she came the next day and said, “You’re right. We have to go all the way.” And she found it cathartic.

EM: There’s no other way in opera. Even in the pit, I felt the same way. You can’t help but be drawn in by the characters and their pain.

AS: Yes. It’s all about the people.


Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

Sunday, January 26, 2014

San Diego Opera’s Pagliacci Stands On Its Own

By Erica Miner

This season’s San Diego Opera Opening Night incited passion, drama, and nonstop thrills for the audience. The festive atmosphere at the Civic Theatre provided the perfect complement for the exciting intensity of one of opera’s grittiest dramas, Pagliacci.

The first opera to be written in nineteenth century verismo style, Pagliacci reflected an actual incident in the childhood of its composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo. The boy’s magistrate father adjudicated the case of an actor who killed his wife while they performed on stage. The event touched the composer deeply enough to inspire him to write what became his best known opera. Usually paired with another one-act opera such as Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, this Pagliacci worked beautifully on its own.

Director Andrew Sinclair, a favorite at SDO since his debut in 2000 and veteran of productions from Tosca to Aida (see my interview with him), delivered a rendering that was true to this opera’s stark, graphically violent nature. He probed the depths of his characters’ neuroses and weaknesses in this grim tale without resorting to melodrama or excess, intensifying the intrigue with creative techniques. Staging a pantomime between Nedda and Beppe during the Intermezzo and giving the final shocking line, “La Commedia è finita,” to baritone Tonio instead of the tenor protagonist Canio, were among the devices used to add poignancy and edginess to the already violent plot line. All of the lead singers managed to cut through the massive, almost Wagnerian orchestration with impressive robustness and energy.

Having debuted at SDO as the Duke in Rigoletto, tenor Frank Porretta gave an aggressive and multidimensional performance as the beleaguered clown Canio, alternating between dominance over his consort Nedda, abject self-pity, and helpless surrender to his inevitable fate. Vocally powerful, Porretta proved himself capable of mastering roles such as Radames, Otello and Calàf, which he has performed in major opera houses throughout the world.

Internationally recognized soprano Adina Nitescu is known for her impressive interpretations of such opera heroines as Tosca and Cio-Cio San. In her SDO debut, she created the perfect foil for Porretta’s Canio. Her temperamental, fiery rendering of Nedda convincingly portrayed her inner conflict, torn as she was between her duty to Canio and her inexplicable desire to take flight like the birds winging through the skies. Her imposing voice seemed a bit heavy for this role, but was a worthy match for Porretta’s powerful instrument.

Stephen Powell (see interview), who debuted in SDO’s Turandot in 1997 and has also performed here in the world premiere of The Conquistador, has sung at the Met Opera and other major houses in this hemisphere, and later this season will appear with Los Angeles Opera. In his first ever appearance in the role of Tonio, he captured the audience’s attention with his vocal beauty and brilliance from the opening note of the difficult Prologue - a tour-de-force for any baritone - to his final, “La Commedia è finita!” His highly nuanced rendering of the tormented hunchback vividly presented the dark, conflicted character’s desires for love and revenge, toying with the audience’s sympathies, or lack thereof, depending on the circumstances.

Familiar to San Diego audiences from his appearances in Romeo et Juliette, David Adam Moore was appropriately steamy as Nedda’s lover, Silvio. The young, multitalented Moore, who has appeared with major companies across the US, has a great love for art songs, and also composes, used his lush baritone to perform with persuasive passion and lust, equally adept at expressing his love for Nedda and his frustration at being powerless to help her.

Joel Sorensen’s Beppe added much-needed innocence to a cast of unforgivingly tough characters. Last seen in the past season’s Murder in the Cathedral, his light, pleasing tenor meshed seamlessly with the voices of whichever other singers he was supporting. His Intermezzo pantomime with Nedda gave new depth to Beppe, who often is depicted as a background character.

Yves Abel, who debuted here last season conducting The Daughter of the Regiment, handled the switch from romantic comedy to harsh realism without a hitch. His San Diego Symphony musicians proved more than capable of keeping up with the maestro’s extraordinarily lively tempi, especially in the opening Prelude. So, too, did Charles Prestinari’s choristers, who as usual excelled vocally as well as dramatically in both of their highly active scenes.

John Coyne did a fine job of creating the impression of an Italian village with a vast countryside in the background. His sets meshed beautifully with Ed Kotanen’s attractive costumes, which were simple for the townsfolk and boldly colored for the “play within a play” performers. Michael Whitfield’s lighting effectively portrayed the transition from a golden, peaceful sunlit day into evocative twilight and threatening evening darkness.

With such an exciting, passionate opening to this season, one must make sure to catch at least one of the remaining three performances of Pagliacci. After that, we look forward to SDO’s next offering, Donizetti’s enchanting comedy, The Elixir of Love.

But for now, La Commedia è finita.


LA Master Chorale Masters Bach's B-minor Mass

By Douglas Neslund

There is nothing small or insignificant about Johann Sebastian Bach. He is measurable only in the gigantic: his music, his appetite, his physical size, his ego, his family, his ambition and finally, his place in the pantheon of musical genius. "It is Bach," John Eliot Gardiner declares, "making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form." People make pilgrimages to Leipzig to hear his music performed, as it is daily in Thomaskirke. and to weep in gratitude over his grave for his enormous gifts left to us. Somehow, it is not impossible to believe that, were he to return from the grave, Bach would be immensely pleased.

However, he might have wished to be born earlier in the Baroque period, as that style was waning in popularity as he aged in favor of the newer Classical period. And by the time of his death, Baroque performance was virtually extinct. Nevertheless, the aging Bach managed to piece together a major work that we know as the B-minor Mass (BVW 232). Bach had written four other mass fragments in the Lutheran format (Kyrie and Gloria), but the evangelist composer had not written a mass in the form of the Roman Catholic Ordinary.

In semi-retirement, Bach had more time to compile and compose than in his earlier years, when new Cantatas and other liturgical-oriented music must be written, each with its own deadline to be met. Among the hundreds of choral items already in his oeuvre were works that met his needs for the new Mass. He found an early Kyrie and Gloria that he had once referred to as “unworthy” in an introductory letter to Augustus III, the new sovereign of Saxony.   In this setting, those movements are anything but “unworthy.”

In the pre-concert lecture, Maestro Grant Gershon, clearly explained how it is that Bach stands so large in the musical landscape: he could calculate (if that is the correct term) the horizontal counterpoint concurrently with the vertical chordal structure, where most other composers were one-directional.

So how did the music sound, you ask? By far and away, it was a most satisfying performance. One could quibble about a tempo here, the use of hiccups in places Bach did not indicate in the score, but in the main, a really well worked-out approach. If one may make a prediction here, it will be fascinating to hear the next iteration of the B-minor Mass in seasons to come. Maestro Gershon has spent, as has the Master Chorale, a lot of time thinking through the piece, and rehearsing it to a polished state of resolution superior to most other extant performances and recordings. But one has a feeling that he and they will present us with even fresher and more distinctive ideas as time ripens the work in their collective minds.

The opening chord - “Kyrie” - almost took the audience by surprise. The Master Chorale was ready for it, as was Steve Scharf’s excellent Master Chorale Orchestra. At this point, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the melody, broken as it was, into two-note hiccups (not indicated at the outset in the original score, but to be found later in the orchestral parts), the result of which was more reverential than penitential, but the gorgeous altos’ tone melted even the stoniest ear. The “Christe” duet was sung by soprano Suzanne Anderson and mezzo Adriana Manfredi; for those sitting further away from the stage than the immediate orchestra section, their contribution was unfortunately virtually inaudible. When the second “Kyrie” arrived, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the hiccup (Ky/ri/e) as each choral section introduced the main musical theme, but upon reiteration of the theme, had the Master Chorale revert to legato, allowing the melody to coalesce into place.

“Gloria in excelsis” was joyously sung with all pistons firing. All the rehearsing paid off in clarity, with successive thematic entrances highlighted but not driven. The result is a revelation especially of the inner workings of the choral lines. But “Et in terra pax” became another string of broken two-note phraselets when first sung by each section in turn, which is indicated in the score for the strings, but not for the chorus. “Laudamus te” belonged to mezzo Callista Hoffman-Campbell, who sang it with satisfying strength and musicality, brilliantly accompanied by Concertmaster Joel Pargman. “Gratias agimus tibi” was again a total choral effort that was right in so many aspects: involvement in the emotional value of the text as well as beautiful choral landscaping and phrase shaping.

Soprano Elissa Johnston (aka the Maestro’s life partner) and tenor Jon Lee Keenan shared the “Domine Deus” duet. Both singers are consummate musicians and handled the sometimes low tessitura with a reliance on textual delivery. Mr. Keenan’s otherwise musical voice tended to thin out on a certain vowel sound. “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brought the full chorus of 110 singers back into play, with the same beautiful results as before. “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” was mezzo Niké St. Clair’s assignment, and she did not fail to deliver a rich, beautiful tone. “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” employs an accompaniment played by Steve Becknell on the double French horn together with a pair of bassoons accompanying the normally stentorian singing of Steve Pence, whose voice sounded at less than normal strength. “Cum Sancto Spiritu” revived the joy of the “Gloria” chorus, although the speed taken meant the sopranos couldn’t quite manage a couple of their high notes as they flew by. Nevertheless, this provided a good place for an intermission (in spite of the official programme’s advisory that there would not be one).

While patrons enjoy their halftime coffee etc., a note about how different contemporary conductors approach the end of a section or movement. Baroque performance practice has undergone an enormous change over the past 60-75 years. Back then, slow used to infer piety. In a sacred work, allegro (which actually means “lively” or “happy”) could not be taken literally, as it might infringe on the “holiness” of the performance. Or so it was thought. Starting with Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt and others in the late 1960s, Baroque performance practices begin to light up with speedier tempi and greater attention to the use of ancient instruments (or authentic copies thereof), and the use of emotion inherent in the texts. As it turned out, some conductors became addicted to the ever-faster speeds, resulting in chaos and lost textual meaning.

But in our own performance, Maestro Gershon chose to keep one of the cherished attributes of the clichéd mid 20th century performance practice: that of slowing, sometimes drastically, as a movement arrives at an “end station or cadence,” and then taking a page from the retro-revisionist book, making a separation between the penultimate note and the final chord. Except on this occasion, those separations became a feature of their own. In several such places at the cadence in question, not everyone on stage looked entirely sure where the final note would fall as the momentary space varied from time to time.

Opening bars of the "Credo"
The performance continued with “Credo in unum Deum.” Initial sectional entries were sung legato the first time, and then articulated in subsequent entries of the main theme. As to tempo, the Credo is indicated alla breve, but the note values are doubled in the score. One would think that Roger Wagner, whose inaugural Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance 49 years ago of the B-minor Mass in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was the inspiration for this weekend’s celebrations, might have opted to take the tempo a couple of metronomic ticks slower.

Soprano Suzanne Waters and mezzo Michele Hemmings duetted in “Et in unum Dominum” before the traditional emotional shift to the agonizing sorrow in “Et incarnatus est,” said to be Bach’s very last composition, and “Crucifixus,” both of which were sung by the Master Chorale with the most exquisite pianissimos of the performance while losing none of their incisive textual delivery. “Et resurrexit” bursts out and forward, leaving sorrow behind and proclaims the victory of life over death. Baritone Vincent Robles sang the “Et in spiritum Sanctum” that would likely benefit from a bass-baritone voice, given its occasional dip into the bass range. The “Confiteor” movement is a strange bird, seemingly written by another hand. But here, Maestro Gershon achieved a masterful touch in making the inherent cantus firmus sing out whenever it appeared. Suddenly, the movement makes musical sense. “Et expecto” burst forth with the three “Bach” trumpets blaring perhaps just a bit too enthusiastically.

Maestro Gershon allowed perhaps three or four seconds to elapse between the final notes of the “Et expecto” and a subito downbeat of “Sanctus.” The oceanic triplets washing across the stage and from side to side are marvelous invocations of angelic hosts singing “holy, holy, holy.” Clarity, together with holding back a bit on the opening waves allowed the Master Chorale to find ever-increasing power and joy before the music suddenly shifts into “Osanna in excelsis,” sung with precise diction and choral balance.

Pablo Cora employed his light tenor to good effect in the “Benedictus” before the “Osanna” returned with all the initial joy in place. No greater change of emotion could be envisioned than the transition from “Osanna” to “Agnus Dei” – one of the most iconic alto solos ever written, in which the soloist, on this occasion the excellent Janelle DeStefano, must negotiate awkward vocal leaps that take the singer from one tonality to the next, requiring a literal leap of faith that it will all work out. There are traps rhythmically as well: normal phrases are sometimes lengthened by a couple of measures. Calculating how much of a breath to take, and how to preserve it enough to achieve the phrase ending –a great challenge well met by Ms. DeStefano.

The wind section of the orchestra deserves high praise for various obbligato accompaniments in solo sections of the score. Lisa Edwards contributed continuo support on the smallish portative organ, which was difficult to hear.

All of which leads us to the grand finale: “Dona nobis pacem,” a soaring prayer for peace resting on the fugal phrase: sol-la-ti-do that again and again emerged from the choral tapestry, building, slowly and inevitably with the orchestra to a thrilling, sublime, spine-tingling finish.

Photo credits: Various Wikipedia sources and David Johnston, used with permission

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Catharsis, Raw Emotion And Tears: San Diego Opera Director Andrew Sinclair Talks Opera (Part 1)

By Erica Miner

Veteran opera director Andrew Sinclair, director of this season’s opening San Diego Opera production, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, knows what makes opera tick. In this interview, he shares his wisdom about the true guts of opera: catharsis, raw emotion, and tears.

EM: What a delight to meet you. I’ve heard such great things about you from people who have worked with you at SDO. I know you’re a favorite here. I interviewed Zandra Rhodes last season. She spoke so highly of you. What fun to do Aida with her in that splendid production.

AS: She’s absolutely wonderful. And I love this company.

EM: They love you. Of all the many productions you’ve done here, do you have any favorites?

AS: That’s hard, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with this company. I think it says a lot about the company and the singers it employs. I particularly enjoyed doing Tosca, partly because it’s one of my absolutely favorite operas. The construction of the piece is really so perfect. The length of the acts, the way the drama is driven, and the music of course is fabulous. I’ve had a lot of association with Tosca in other parts of the world. It also was interesting for me to do Maria Stuarda, a piece I’m very fond of. The Pearl Fishers was a big challenge. It’s very beautiful music but it’s an extremely bad libretto. I had to really think of something to make that work. It wasn’t just me, it was Zandra and John Malashock as well, that made it into a dramatic piece. Of course we’ve done it thirteen times in various parts of the country. But as I said I’ve never had a bad experience here.

EM: Which opera has been the most difficult? Pearl Fishers had its challenges, but what about Lohengrin?

AS: Lohengrin was a production I already knew because it came from Covent Garden, and actually - this is going to really date me - I was the original stage manager when the production was new. Then I became assistant director and came back to the opera house freelance to assist on a revival. I’ve directed my own productions of Lohengrin elsewhere in the world. It’s hard because there are a lot of people involved. People said, well, they just come on stage and they stand. But they all have to react. And it’s actually that background which brings the whole picture to life, so in terms of numbers, that’s hard. Aida’s hard. I’ve done two different Aidas here, and again it’s the numbers of people. When I was asked to do it last year I said I’d done two before and didn’t want to do any more because it’s a lot of work with very little reward for a director.

EM: So, moving so many people about the stage…?

AS: Moving people about the stage is not in any way rewarding, I can tell you (laughs). It has its own sort of private hell. But Ian asked me to do it and because it was Ian and this company’s been very good to me, I agreed. And I’m really glad I did, actually, because I found something new about Aida. It’s basically a very intimate piece. And it’s a victim of that one big scene. Everyone says, “Oh, well, you can have horses, you can have camels…” Horses, elephants, camels, it’s about people. And my problem had always been with Aida herself.

EM: The character?

AS: Yes. Because we know what she is from what she tells you. She’s an Ethiopian princess who’s been captured, and the first time we see her is as a slave. Somehow for me that image never goes away. And the music (sings from the Prelude) is very beautiful but it’s very sad, very wistful. And I thought, I have to find a way to make Aida strong. We had a wonderful Aida in Latonia Moore, marvelous. So I decided I was going to put her in the Prelude. So that you saw this proud woman.

EM: Yes, I loved that.

AS: Then we discover she’s having an affair with a member of the enemy army. And you have a conflict. Then it becomes interesting. We had a great Amneris in Jill Grove. We’d done the boudoir scene one day, and I said, “How much do you think they confide in each other?” She said, “I don’t really think so. She’s a slave, a princess, she doesn’t want anything to be known about her.” I said, “Why don’t we look at it this way. Imagine you’re both princesses, which in its way brings a certain loneliness because of your rank. Your countries are at war with each other. So really the person you’ve become closest to, as Amneris, could be your own personal slave. Why don’t we just have a conversation as Aida and Amneris talking one day.” And so they started. Jill said, “Aida, do you have a boyfriend?” “Well, I did back in Ethiopia, but I don’t know if he’s around anymore. What about you, Amneris?” “Well, there’s somebody I like a lot and I think he likes me…” So this went on, and we established a relationship between Amneris and Aida, which makes apparent betrayal by Aida greater for Amneris. We did the scene again and it was totally different, it was amazing.

EM: That’s brilliant. There’s nothing like a little “improv” to get the juices flowing.

AS: Latonia’s done Aida a lot. But every time she comes to rehearsal she rehearses as if it’s her first, and gives the same energy. So I came away thinking, yes, I wouldn’t mind doing Aida again now because having gone down that road I don’t think I’ve quite finished with it.

EM: So there’s always a different approach.

AS: Yes, and that’s where we’re very lucky. Because often we get to do pieces more than once. I’ve done Lohengrin a lot, Lucia, Butterfly, Bohème. Now this will be my tenth Pagliacci. And it’s very different from the first time I did it. I think the way I’m doing it here is different from the way they’re used to singing it. People think of it as a sweet little troupe doing a sweet little show which goes wrong. We’re playing it about people who are at a stage in their lives where life is pretty grim. My own feeling about Canio is that possibly he was very talented and started to have a career and either the drink got to him first or it was the nerves that made him drink, but for whatever reason…

EM: Before he knew his wife was unfaithful?

AS: Absolutely. And I don’t necessarily think Nedda is his wife. He calls her “sposa” - if you look at the wonderful black and white Fellini film, La Strada, it tells the story of Canio and Nedda in a very different way. So Canio is now doing these traveling shows and the only money they earn is from when they perform. I think Canio is a very good man, he gave this hunchback Tonio a job when nobody else would. He says to Nedda, “I found you a starving orphan on the street and took you in and gave you a name. And my love.” Then there’s Beppe who I think possibly ran away from home to join the Circus. So if we try and think back about these characters and what their history might have been, it does tell us quite a lot of what’s going on. Canio is under tremendous pressure, I think. Which the others don’t realize necessarily. And clearly they’ve been here before in this village - the chorus sings, ‘Ritornanno’ - and they’re favorites. Also as in La Strada, gradually the female character starts to become the principal character everybody loves and everybody laughs at more than the star of the show. She’s very loved, men come up at the end of the performance, and women, and congratulate her. So perhaps Canio subconsciously is getting resentful about that, and becomes incredibly jealous.

EM: They’re both the stars of the show. Is it because she’s getting more attention?

AS: I don’t think he wants it anymore, he’s got too much on his mind. He has his drinking buddies in the village but he doesn’t want to be social with people, and I think the villagers clearly notice a big change in Canio this time from the last time. So gradually there’s getting to be a bigger divide. Also Tonio, I think he’s grateful to have the job initially, but sometimes just being laughed at and ridiculed all the time - it takes its toll. He sees the way Canio treats Nedda and he thinks, “I wouldn’t do that.” And when he finds himself alone with her it gives him the courage to declare his feelings for her.

EM: Which is a big leap for him. He’s outraged when he finds out what’s going on.

AS: Yes, enormous outrage. In this production, once the show starts, we do it so you see backstage as well, you see all the props being handled and things like that. When Canio comes back, clearly he’s had a lot to drink before the show, he goes on stage. Tonio loves it. This is going to be a disaster. He’s one of those characters who doesn’t think things through. The idea of revenge is great, but for how long. Then when Canio starts becoming violent with Nedda, it’s too good. So Tonio’s actually the one who puts a knife in Canio’s hand, and of course Canio kills Nedda, kills Silvio, and in this production - I want to tell you exactly what happens - it’s Tonio who has the last line, “La Commedia è finita.” I believe that’s the way it was originally written. Over the years it’s changed to Canio.

EM: It’s great when you can do something different that the audience doesn’t expect. People come in with certain fixed ideas. Nice to push the envelope now and then.

AS: I think so, because we’re not being unfaithful to Leoncavallo and the libretto at all. It’s just that we’re doing it slightly differently. It’s another way of seeing the characters. It’s not about how it looks. These days, for a lot of contemporary directors, particularly in Europe, it’s a very visual concept. Opera is about people.

EM: Amen to that. So you approach from backstory, but between Pagliacci, which is more intimate, as opposed to Aida, do you approach the staging differently?

AS: I approach it the same way. It’s still about people, first of all, and their relationships. It’s just that Aida has a lot more people in it, and so have the scenes. But you have to remember that Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci may be one-act operas, but they’re big pieces. They’re like a three-act opera condensed. They’re hard. 

EM: So that’s a particular challenge. What about doing Pagliacci on its own?

AS: It’s the first time I’ve done it on its own. Often it kills a piece to interrupt the action. Doing Pagliacci all in one without a break, interestingly, I think it stands very well. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were never intended to be paired. It just happens they were. And they were both by two young, talented composers. Cavalleria has fantastic music. But there’s no doubt Leoncavallo is the more mature composer and dramatist. Pagliacci is the stronger piece.

EM: The opera also feels more mature.

AS: Exactly. In Cavalleria, for instance, there’s this big duet between Santuzza and Turiddu. You get to where it’s going dramatically, and then it’s repeated. It’s like Mascagni didn’t know when to leave that bit alone and move forward with the drama.

EM: It took Verdi a while to figure that out, too.

AS: Absolutely. But Leoncavallo is remarkably mature in his sense of drama. We stage the Intermezzo in this production as well, and in fact when I do “Cav and Pag” we stage both Intermezzos. I think important things can be said and they don’t detract from the music. I know Maestro (Yves Abel) is absolutely happy with it.

EM: At the Met we always did the two together. I’m looking forward to seeing Pagliacci on its own.

AS: It’s a very short night, but it’s okay because of the content.

EM: Dramatically it’s so cathartic, so intense, you soak up every element of the drama that way.

AS: I agree. Now that I’m doing it on its own I think it strengthens the piece.

EM: Speaking of actors and backstory, you started out as an actor.

AS: Yes. I trained in Australia and started doing some small things. But I was getting too nervous. So this is much better - and much easier, of course (laughs).

EM: Do you feel a special empathy for your actors, since they not only have to act but sing, too?

AS: Absolutely. I think what singers do, and what we ask them to do these days, is extraordinary. Occasionally you come across singers who genuinely can’t act. They do their best, and I feel for them as well, really. But when it feels real to them, it’s cathartic.

EM: Also for the director, conductor, musicians. It’s not real but you can’t help being drawn in. You can’t imagine the things I would feel while I was playing. I’d be sitting there in tears.

AS: I love it when a production moves me that way. When we staged the Intermezzo the other day, Adina Nitescu and Joel Sorenson played it in such a way… (hesitates) that I cried. So did other people in the room. They just added a slightly different dimension to it.

EM: It’s magical when that happens. It means you’re doing something right.

AS: Yes. You think you don’t cry in your own production unless it’s so bad (laughs). But no, they really did touch some things.

EM: About genres, any you especially enjoy doing?

AS: To be very honest I don’t particularly care for the French repertoire. There are exceptions. Not Pearl Fishers, but it was very good that I did it. The exceptions are Dialogues of the Carmelites, Manon, which really can be wonderful, though it’s very difficult. Werther has wonderful moments. And Pelleas and Melisande. I’m afraid that’s it. I didn’t ever want to do Faust, though I’ve seen very good productions, or Romeo et Juliette, or Lakmé, or Carmen. For me the Italian rep is where I’m probably happiest. There’s German rep I want to do. Arabella is my biggest wish piece. When I first saw it at Covent Garden I remember being absolutely enthralled.

EM: Stunning piece. It’s one of my favorite Strauss operas as well.

AS: It has a kind of Rosenkavalier trio, a duet in the first act, and that fantastic final scene. I absolutely adore it. But nobody’s asked me to do it. I fear it will have to remain on the wish list.

EM: I’m going to try and channel the gods into making Arabella happen for you. Meanwhile, you’ve given me so much wonderful stuff today. It was delightful as I knew it would be. And I’m looking forward to seeing some of those changes you’ve told me about.

AS: I hope we don’t frighten the audiences away.

EM: From what you’ve told me I think they’ll react in a positive way.

AS: Thank you so much. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

EM: You’re very welcome. I’m certain I will.


Photos used with permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]