Sunday, September 30, 2018

Soraya Mafi Shows Operatic Expertise Beyond her Years

Raphaelle Photography.

INTERVIEW: Soraya Mafi

McCaw Hall, Seattle   

Soprano Soraya Mafi makes her Seattle Opera debut this coming month as the deceivingly angelic young Flora in Benjamin Britten’s psychological drama, The Turn of the Screw. The young award-winning Manchester, UK, native already has several diverse roles under her belt, and her career is progressing at a rapid pace. 

I caught up with Soraya in the midst of her hectic rehearsal schedule in advance of the opening. 

Erica Miner: I enjoyed your performance here in Seattle Symphony’s rendition of Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges with Maestro Ludovic Morlot. Do you approach learning and performing an opera in concert version differently than staged? 

Soraya Mafi: The basic principles of learning are the same. I always start with the text—sometimes this means translating a foreign language into English, sometimes translating it into my own personal language. Once I have worked through this process, I turn to the score and all of its details. Why has the composer made these choices? How will I reflect them? I then work on musical style with coaches and my singing teacher. It is important to arrive to rehearsals with the same level of preparation for concert performances as fully-staged opera. 

Performing is a little more complicated. In opera, we can have weeks of rehearsals to figure out logistics/meaning/intention etc., whereas concert performances are generally rehearsed in a very short time period and often without a director. This can allow for somewhat more personal freedom in dramatic interpretation, but henceforth requires more responsibility for the performer to arrive with a fully formed characterization of their role. In opera we have scenery, costumes and lighting; this can be very limited in concert performances. Therefore, as a performer, you must work with your colleagues—singers, conductor and players alike— to ignite the imagination of the audience. We must create the scene for them with our dramatic and musical projection! 

EM: You have quite a diverse selection of roles in your operatic palette thus far in your young career: Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Suor Genoveva in Suor Angelica, Nanetta in Falstaff. Do you find Flora in The Turn of the Screw to be a large contrast from those? 

SM: There are both similarities and differences. The most notable difference is that Flora is a child. Whilst Nanetta is a young woman, and roles such as Suor Genoveva in Suor Angelica, or Soeur Constance (both nuns!) in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites are undeniably wide-eyed ingénues, Flora is much younger. She is still to reach puberty. She has also lived a sheltered, complicated life with no parents—notably, no mother. Musically, this means a slightly limited vocal range as her voice is yet to develop and find a variety of colors. However, the rhythmic writing can sometimes be more complex than expected: a reflection maybe of her complicated state of mind. 

Tytania, another Britten role, is a regal woman with command of the entire fairy kingdom. She enjoys a wide vocal range throughout the opera with greatly varied dynamics. She uses this to dominate Oberon and seduce Bottom. She also enjoys beautiful, lyrical vocal lines when preparing for bed in the forest: floating lines just above the staff in a form of musical hypnosis. When she meets Bottom and is aroused by his animal behavior, her vocal range climaxes along with her excitement. This reflection of dramatic intention in the music is also true in Flora's last scene in The Turn of The Screw. She is upset and angry—her rage directed toward the Governess. The vocal line reflects this as she reaches the height of her range—virtually screeching.

Photo: Philip Newton

EM: How would you describe the experience of being an adult playing the role of a young girl? 

SM: Tiring! Children are generally more physically active and uninhibited than adults. They also live in the present—rarely do they think, then act. Everything is on impulse which can be quite exhausting. I'm certainly reaching my step-target each day! 

It is easy to fall into the trap of 'playing' young, when actually you mustn't be so self-aware. Playful, instinctive, unencumbered rather than 'young.' Flora and Miles are not just young children, they have been exposed to something. What that is, we can't be entirely sure: I think it would be foolish to have a very strong opinion on this. We do know however, that whether it be ghostly spirits, neglect or abuse, it is a force that has gripped them and affects their relationship with the new Governess. I have been reading cases of children who experienced trauma growing up and how it affected their behavior: attachment/detachment, outbursts, agoraphobia, inability to maintain relationships. There's plenty of critical research into The Turn of The Screw and how Flora's relationship with women is complicated by the arrival of the Governess who is neither matron nor whore, but something in between. Growing up without a mother figure, this is a revelation to her. She is trying to find her role within this new situation whilst also witnessing the development of her brother's relationship with their new teacher. There's a lot going on in that little head of hers! 

EM: You’ve also sung the First Niece in Peter Grimes. Do you feel an affinity for the operas of Benjamin Britten? 

SM: The first opera I ever performed in was at high school: I was cast in a gorgeous role in Britten's opera for children Let's Make an Opera: The Little Sweep. My music teacher was great at exposing us to high quality classical music in addition to other genres, so you could say I was spoilt to be exposed to Britten's music so early in my musical education! During my years at music college, I studied a variety of Britten's song repertoire and even took part in the debut of Iain Burnside’s Journeying Boys, which explores Britten's setting of Arthur Rimbaud's Les Illuminations. This piece encouraged me to delve into the language of Britten in more detail and understand the context of his writing. 

Before my more recent role of Tytania in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I sang First Niece for Grange Park Opera while still a student at The Royal College of Music. This was a real eye- (and ear)-opener for me. The level of detail in Grimes is astounding, the story so harrowing and the sea symphonies so incredibly beautiful. To me, it is a true masterpiece. This experience allowed me to observe more seasoned Britten performers such as Rebecca de Pont Davies, Anne Marie-Owens and Clive Bayley approach the music and characters. It soon became evident to me that the relationship between the text and music in Britten's music is so intertwined and demands the performer to truly treat the work as a piece of theatre. 

EM: What was it like to work with much-respected film director Mike Leigh in The Pirates of Penzance

SM: Mike is a fellow Mancunian so we immediately connected. He is a patient, methodical and detailed director. He didn't let us get away with any operetta 'moves': everything was purposeful and unfussy. He allowed for Gilbert's wickedly brilliant text to shine through rather than be obstructed by slapstick action onstage. He taught me to trust the text rather than feel the need to 'sell' it. 

EM: Thank you, Soraya for your keen insights. I’m eagerly looking forward to your Seattle Opera debut!

Seattle Opera’s The Turn of the Screw runs from Oct. 13-27.


Photo credits: Raphaelle Photography, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Raising the Wind at the SBCMS


Los Angeles Wind Octet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Jacques Ibert.
Was there ever a composer who better than Jacques Ibert understood the virtue of leaving listeners wanting more? His Cinq pièces en trio, composed for oboe, clarinet and bassoon in 1935, are all over and done in less than 10 minutes, but overflow with variety and charm. After only one minute the opening chirpy march, shared equally between all three instruments, comes to a pensive close, giving way to a delicate weave of oboe-led Andantino melody to be succeeded in turn by a spry Allegro assai even briefer than the first pièce.

Ted Sugata.
A second slow movement follows, an Andante more spacious and light-filled than the Andantino though still diminutive by any normal expectations, and then the whole work – a quintessence of Gallic economy and delight – is rounded off by a playful finale Allegro quasi marziale, in the course of which the bassoon definitely gets his moment in the sun, melodically speaking. All this was immaculately delivered by Ted Sugata (oboe), Sérgio Coelho (clarinet), and Elliot Moreau (bassoon), who with their performance ushered in the first South Bay Chamber Music Society concert of incoming Artistic Director Robert Thies’s inaugural season.

Sérgio Coelho.
If I had to take just a handful of Mozart recordings to some remote location, I'm pretty sure that the Serenade No. 12 in C minor K388 for wind octet would be among them. It’s a profoundly rewarding masterpiece – really a four-movement symphony for wind band – and with none of the easy-going amiability normally associated with 18th century serenades for the Harmonie line-up (outlined in Dr. Boglárka Kiss’s excellent program note, sadly only available online).

Elliot Moreau.
As played by the entire Los Angeles Wind Octet (comprising, as well as those already noted, Jennifer Cullinan (oboe), Edgar David López (clarinet), Judith Farmer (bassoon), Amy Jo Rhine and Gregory Roosa (horns), with Steve Dress providing extra contrabass underpinning), just its opening four-note unison ascent had an almost shocking power.

Jennifer Cullinan.
With the important exposition repeat observed, the Octet’s playing kept a focused trenchancy throughout the lengthy openingAllegro, and moved on to a spacious account of the E-flat major Andante that maintained the sense of weight. Mozart continues not to relax in the ingenious Menuetto in Canone, nor in its equally canon-wrought Trio, where Ms. Cullinan’s and Mr. Sugata’s duetting oboes led off with raw-toned distinctiveness. Only at the end of the Allegro finale, after eight highly contrasted variations (all in C minor), does Mozart at last turn, with wonderful ambivalence, into the major-key concluding page. What a work, and how well its depth and power were brought out by the LA Wind Quintet!

Daniel Wood.
The interval followed, and then, to open the second half…? Think Symphonia Domestica, but in place of more than 100 players taking some 45 minutes to portray a single day in the life of a household (Strauss’s), imagine instead just two French horns encapsulating the key events not of 24 hours but of several years in a relationship. This was the scenario for Space Available by the British-born, West Coast-resident hornist and composer Daniel Wood (b. 1974). 

Gregory Roosa & Amy Jo Rhine.
The performance was memorable not only for being played by its dedicatees and subjects of the narrative, wife-and-husband Amy Jo Rhine and Gregory Roosa (two members of the horn quartet Quadre founded by Mr. Wood), but also for Ms. Rhine’s detailed and loving introduction. She led the audience step by step through the work, first illustrating the rather spiky, unpredictable theme that represented herself, followed by Mr. Roosa playing his own more lyrical one. 

A “dating waltz” followed, and then a warm and closely-harmonized passage illustrative of marriage and the wedding-day, but after increasingly frenetic joyousness a sudden dissonant blast on both instruments heralded family tragedy (left discreetly unspecified by Ms. Rhine in her narrative). Two final sections limned first a gradual “return to life”, with some recapitulatory elements including the “dating waltz”, and then a moving on within which, she noted, there is in a relationship always the titular “space available” for renewal, however tragic circumstances may have been. 

Edgar David López.
After such a comprehensive, and indeed moving, narrative, it was a bit of a surprise that the entire work lasted only around 12 minutes. I confess that it left me somewhat ambivalent, partly wanting to have had more development of its motifs but also admiring its concision, and also wondering how well it would stand up without the narrative scaffolding. But then, why should it have to?

So was the warmth in the applause more for the touching story of the commission and its subject, rather than for the music itself? Maybe, but there was no gainsaying the fervor, skill and commitment of the players in what must be a pretty difficult piece, bar a few passing insecurities that I imagine were down to the heat and humidity in the room.

Judith Farmer.
After one of the greatest masterpieces of the woodwind ensemble repertoire, and such a uniquely personal contemporary work, it was fitting that the final piece should embody some relaxation, and indeed Beethoven’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op.103, did just that, being a product of the composer’s early years and, though in the same “standard” four-movement layout, in truth much more serenade-like than Mozart’s mature masterpiece.

Steve Dress.
Nonetheless, even in 1792 Beethoven's was already an individual voice to be reckoned with. There’s the propulsive energy from the first, oboe-led measure, the piquant relish and mastery of the instruments’ individual tone-colors, together with witty and rather Haydnesque tonal feints. 

After the tender but slightly over-long Andante and a Menuetto that’s really a scherzo, all this comes to a head in the Presto finale where the playfulness really bursts out, mostly instigated by the first clarinet, and all capped by some crazy horn fan-faring in the coda. The Los Angeles Wind Octet clearly had a great time with this, as did the audience. 

This was a fine start to the 2018-19 season: check out the South Bay Chamber Music Society website for the highly varied goodies that Robert Thies has programmed for the remaining six concerts, or download the complete schedule in .pdf form here


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, September 23, 2018.
Photos: Los Angeles Wind Octet: Courtesy SBCMS; Jacques Ibert: Wikimedia Commons; Jennifer Cullinan: Twitter/Gernot Wolfgang; Ted Sugata: Courtesy Pacific Symphony; Sérgio Coelho: takelessons; Edgar David López: MundoFosbo; Judith Farmer: Pasadena Symphony; Daniel Wood: Courtesy Swirly Music; Amy Jo Rhine/Gregory Roosa: the author; Elliot Moreau: flickr.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

ACEing it in the South Bay


ACE Trio, “The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Cal State Northridge alums Ryan Glass (clarinet), Shannon Canchola (flute), and Jason Stoll (piano) (left, l-r) came together around a year ago to form ACE Trio, which “derives its name from the common triad in Western music and is considered consonant, stable, never requiring resolution.”

This seemed to hint a mission statement, and indeed the program they presented to the season’s first “Interludes” program at First Lutheran Church consisted entirely of “their own innovative arrangements and accessible contemporary music from living composers from around the world”, all cheerily introduced by Ms. Canchola and Mr. Glass. 

The first item, Doppler Effect, by Adrienne Albert (b.1941) was indeed an arrangement, but her own – one of over a dozen (as listed on her website) of the 1998 original for flute, viola and harp. Given that the “Doppler effect” is of changes in wave frequency (i.e. rise or fall in pitch in the case of sound) as source and observer move toward or away from each other, I was anticipating maybe some microtonal shifting, but instead Ms. Albert’s piece proved not to stray far from the blithe, somewhat Gallic, woodwind melody over a piano ostinato with which it opens. 
Adrienne Albert.

In due course tendrils of dissonance do insinuate themselves into the flow, and around the mid-way point the piece tilts sideways into a tango before getting back on track with some swapping around of the melody and ostinato. All in all it was for me an engaging introduction to a previously unknown American composer, and a fine initial showcase for ACE Trio’s skills. 

The program had gone through some changes on its way to the First Lutheran platform. The initially announced City Boy by Judd Greenstein had, by leaflet printing time, given way to Armando Ghidoni’s L’étoile Inconnue, but this also was dropped due to excessive running time, so we went straight onto Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), of which Mr. Glass introduced his own new arrangement for flute, clarinet, and piano. 

It’s worth noting that Piazzolla wrote the movements as separate compositions between 1965 and 1970 and only then decided to assemble them into a suite, so its unity is not a given. Any one of these Estaciones is pleasant enough, but for me the work as a whole yielded diminishing returns. I've no particular memory of the one previous live performance I'd heard (in the arrangement by Desyatnikov for violin and strings), but this time around after 25 minutes I was pretty much tangoed out, and no amount of enthusiastic advocacy by the trio could shake my continuing suspicion that Piazzolla is a one-trick pony. 

The downward spiral of interest continued with the first two of the three movements of Dance by Oliver Davis (b.1972), again arranged by Mr. Glass, in this case from a violin/strings/piano original. As Davis is a fellow Brit it’s painful to say that this vapidly pretty piece, each movement seemingly tailored to the three-minute pop music attention span, had (for me) about as much substance as a Hallmark greetings-card. Apparently he is a big hit over there *sigh*. 

Russell Peterson.
Fortunately interest perked up, and indeed peaked, with the Trio for flute, alto saxophone, and piano (sax part duly recast for clarinet by Mr. Glass) by American saxophonist Russell Peterson (b. 1969). 

From a coolly Ravelian unison opening on all three instruments, the Andante first movement gained textural complexity and propulsiveness before returning to stasis, while the ensuing Adagio comparably moved seamlessly from a bleak melody of somewhat Oriental cast on flute followed by clarinet against deep piano octaves, to a whirling central section, and then back. The final Allegro was a moto perpetuo requiring exceptional ensemble work at high speed and spectacularly virtuosic individual flights from all three players. It got both in spades from the trio. 

Guillaume Connesson.
Last on the program came Techno-Parade by the Frenchman Guillaume Connesson (b. 1970), a pulsing squib of a piece featuring flute overblowing above the piano pounding out rhythms that threatened to turn into the “Mission Impossible” theme. Everyone including the audience had a great time but it was a relief that it didn’t go on longer than four minutes. After this, the encore couldn’t have been more contrasted – the tender Interlude (entr'acte) before Act 3 of Bizet’s Carmen, which apparently had special significance for the players. 

Despite reservations about some of the repertoire, this was a vivid debut performance by ACE Trio, and I certainly hope South Bay music-lovers can look forward to hearing them again. In the meantime, if Mr. Glass is looking to arrange other works for the flute/clarinet/piano medium, I wonder whether he knows Arnold Bax’s exquisite Elegiac trio for flute, viola and harp


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, September 15, 2018.
Photos: ACE Trio: Courtesy; Adrienne Albert: Composer website; Russell Peterson: Composer website; Guillaume Connesson: © Jean-Baptiste Millot (composer website).

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