It’s been tough eliminating of a lot of interesting material to fit the Xtra! piece on Alcina into 500 words. So for true Alcina aficionados, here is the longer, Q&A version of our conversation.
How did you decide who will sing Morgana and who Alcina?
Maureen Batt: Our voice types decided that for us. It was immediately obvious that I would sing Morgana and Erin Alcina.
Erin Bardua: When we did our first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, she was obviously Susanna and I the Countess. Those relationships are kind of the same vocally. The older and younger sister type roles.
Do lighter, coloratura voices go more for Morgana? What is the difference between the two types of sopranos?
M There are a lot of light and coloratura sopranos who sing Morgana, but that is not what I am. The role doesn’t sit as high as people hear it. Those singers are using ornaments the way they want their voice to work. I am a light lyric soprano, and the role sits quite comfortably. Mine will be a different take on Morgana.
E Both of us will be doing sort of sympathetic, lyrical version of these roles than the fireworks coloratura versions that you sometimes hear. The more I look at the music, the more I think that maybe that’s Handel wanted all along.
Did you write the ornaments in advance with the music director?
E Depends on the singer. Somebody like Vicki, for example, who’s sung all of the early music for years and years, might find themselves perfectly able to say, I feel really good about this aria and I’m going to sing what comes to me in the moment. You sort of have a catalogue in your head of all the ornaments that make sense and that work in a given style of piece, and a lot of people improvise their own ornaments. And you have other singers with little less experience who feel it’s better and safer to have something pre-composed. I do half and half; for this I’m mostly pre-composing and writing myself hints; I may change it on the night, but I make sure to have it written, “do a thing here”…
M Go up or go down…
E Do a wiggle, whatever’s gonna work. Since our rehearsal period is teenie, I want to have as few variables out of control as possible and ornaments is the variable that I’m putting under control in advance.
M I’m a very visual person and a visual learner, plus I don’t have that much experience singing Handel opera, so I like to write it all down. I may not do it, but I like to have it written. I’ve rewritten and tried different things and worked with our music director, and now that it’s there I’d like to learn it this way. I may change it, but at least it’s something to go from.
E I usually scribble dots in among things, or write a note “do more with that”…
M If you’re filling in a melody, that’s easy to do, I’m singing in thirds and I add little tiny noteheads here, but if I’m doing a cadenza, I must have it separately and see what it looks like. I must.
E It’s funny though, we still all go back to basically medieval numes when we’re writing our ornaments. They’re just dots.
M Here I do. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, especially within a phrase, I’ll write very specifically… This edition of the score is tiny and there’s not enough room to put in what you want; there are editions with more room. But everybody has their own system.
Do you like doing da capos?
E In this Alcina we’re doing a mix of da capo and not da capo in this show. It’s a long opera; people are sitting in pews; we don’t have shiny sets for people to look at. We boil it down to just what you actually need to show the drama and to keep it snappy and exciting and to keep the relationships cooking along. We’re doing the da capi that are required for the drama, where there’s a large dramatic change for the character between the A and the B section. You’re never just saying the same thing in the second A anyway, the second A comes with a new attitude that comes out of what you’ve said with the B section. Most of these arias are: A1- I have a thought about a thing and a feeling about that thing, B- Here is a whole new topic, A2- and now I feel a new way about the first thing. For some of them, we’ve turned it down, maybe the instruments are going to go back to the A for just a moment to give us that feel. For others we’re doing the wholeABA because there’s a lot happening during that da capo. I’m doing half and half. For Morgana, I think we left most da capos?
M I think so. I have four arias with one of the da capo cut, Ruggiero/Vilma Vitols is doing some shortened versions of her da capos and we shortened a couple of mine, so we are going back but only for long enough to give that new moment of drama – and some ornaments! — and that’s good, I think we all get it. It’s going to be a reasonable length Alcina.
How many duos are there?
E Just one trio, but no duos. Final chorus at the end, in the cast that we have it’s going to be a sextet, so that will be a nice way to wrap up.
How did you cast?
E We had an audition. We also asked around among our colleagues. But most people came in to a classroom at UoT where we held our audition and wowed us. I worked with Vilma on a couple of things before, she gave a lovely audition. We both know Julie [Ludwig] but we haven’t sung with her much; she gave a phenomenal audition. James Levesque worked with us before and sang great so we had to cast the crap out of him.
And let me grind my ax for a moment: hurray, there will be no counter-tenors stealing mezzo roles.
E It’s not like we started off with a mandate to cast more women… but we see what happens in auditions. We heard about 70 singers. You hear dozens and dozens of sopranos, you hear maybe 20 wonderful mezzos, and we heard half a dozen great baritones, first time around we didn’t hear a single tenor but this time we heard quite a few and they were lovely. But we heard so many women, likely because there are more women in the performing arts. And yes there’s something about that that needs to be fixed but in the meantime, there they are and there’s no work for them.
[Vicki, who’s sitting further down working on her score, adds:] Ruggiero tessitura would be difficult to a counter-tenor anyway.
E It’s almost a soprano role. And Bradamante is a woman. And for Oberto [sung by Julie Ludwig], as you can imagine we have no access to a large pool of boy sopranos in this town.
Tell me a bit about Essential Opera.
M We started it two Augusts ago. Initially we wanted to put on one performance, The Marriage of Figaro. We began by saying, wouldn’t it be great to sing Figaro together, and then somehow we ended up with an opera company.
E Then we had to name it.
M And we couldn’t name it the Erin and Maureen Show. Because that would have been ridiculous.
E We did a little bit of branding work and then the questions started coming, So, what’s happening next season? We went, Hmm… Season… All right, I guess there’s the question of the next season. We then did a few more auditions, made sure we had a larger pool to draw from…
M But it’s not part of our mandate to perform works that are rarely performed in Toronto.
E No, it just happened with Chérubin and Alcina. But then we had The Marriage, which can’t get more standard rep.
Do you plan seasons in advance now?
E We held a bunch of auditions about a month ago, heard a bunch more amazing singers, and told them to sit tight until we finish this show and then over the summer we’re gonna plan our next season.
M So far we’re really going show by show, we are making plans, but we are not a company that announces a certain month a year what the season is… So we have the flexibility when we hear some new amazing singers in these auditions, we look at them and say, We want that person in something – let’s find something where we can showcase them.
E But as soon as we decided to do Handel, we knew we wanted to invite Vicki to be the music director.
M We would not have Alcina without Vicki.
E That is not an exaggeration. That is a serious comment.
How do you juggle Bradamante and conducting?
V I’m not going to be conducting. All of my work is coaching and prepping the band and ornaments.
M Other music directors we had, they weren’t conducting either, they were at the piano. Opera in concert is a whole lot of trust. Trust and preparation.
V The bonus to doing something like Alcina is that there’s not a lot of accompanied recitative – there’s one — so it’s only really difficult for one little area, other than that it’s really, really straightforward, hardly any tempo changes, some in the B sections of the da capo arias, but all of is well within the capabilities of a good first violinist and that’s who will be leading the band.
E And the harpsichordist [Lysiane Boulva], who’s been in with you in most of the coaching sessions. That ensemble will be solid as a rock; we just need to remember to sing.
M We just need to plan in out advance and stick to it.
E Massenet was scarier; amorphous, frothier…
How do you decide what instruments and how many instruments per section etc?
V You can have certain instruments doubling other instruments… If you really don’t have two flutes, you can have the oboes cover those parts, which is exactly what we’re going to do. Do you need to hire two flutes for two pieces unless you’re a big opera company – no, you don’t. As far as how big – two at a part or one at a part it doesn’t really make a big difference so it’s easier for us to go one at a part and the people we hired are really capable… Essentially you just need your four-part strings, you need your harpsichord… it would be nice to have had a larger continuo section to vary the character of the continuo, to have perhaps a theorbo or a lute with certain people… with some of the gentler people you would have that… it would have been really cool to have something like a regal to play with Alcina, something really meaty and grindy occasionally when she’s doing her spells, for instance…
E …or she’s pissed off…
V Or she’s pissed off… Or even with Morgana it would be nice. But reasonably: where am I going to find a regal player? Where am I going to find a regal? So, to be reasonable… a good continuo section can be harpsichord and cello (or gamba – but we’re going with cello). So it’s very chamber. Essential Opera is exactly that.
E The band is not in the pit, they’re right up on the stage, and for that you really want a chamber ensemble.
V There is no pit. We all had discussions about that, about the size of the orchestra, before we even started talking about who we’re gonna hire.
Vicki, how are you enjoying Bradamante?
V I love it, I love singing it a 415Hz.
She gets all the action whereas Ruggiero kind of languishes.
V That’s funny, I always end up singing her fast. I wanted to make the third aria a little bit slower and more grounded, more of a statement rather than pure anger, which pretty much is what my other ones are. (She is often found shaking people, saying “Listen! Listen!”). She’s interesting because she ends up on the island in drag essentially, and is dismayed and shocked when Morgana seems to fall in love with her/him at first sight. She’s a very interesting character, she goes through so many emotional changes with Ruggiero and has to decide what to tell him at what point, and when she finally tells him, he goes, “I don’t believe you, it has to be magic.” There’s a lot of emotional diversity in the role; truly the recits are so well written, it’s a lot of fun.
M Your character is the most soap-opera-y. You tell Ruggiero, “But I’m me”, and he says “No, you’re not”. “BUT I AM”, “Nah-huh”. So we even have a case of soap opera amnesia here.
V It’s a great role, good and low… The trio at the end, it’s so great to hear the voices finally together. And the writing, all of it is really good, it’s Handel I think at one of his best moments of melodic writing. There are some really interesting coloratura passages that don’t follow some of his regular moulds of coloraturas, they take twists and turns when you don’t expect them to…
E Everybody is out of their element in this show. Everybody is stuck on this enchanted island, most people are either in disguise or under a spell or some other kind mental turmoil and you can really see it in the writing that people have these really angular lines; I have all these crunchy tri-tones that I sing, and people have weird coloratura lines, lots of strange chromaticism. There isn’t a lot of “here I am doing scales” business, none of the coloraturas are normal. Really exciting music.
V I don’t know how much he recycled for this, it doesn’t feel very much at all.
[Maureen’s phone alarm goes off to remind her to begin her coaching session in the next room, so she leaves and we’ll see her a bit later at the rehearsal]
What to make of the character of Ruggiero? Kind of a passive character, but he gets all these arias…
V Because he has all of this emotional turmoil. His feelings are a sort of central point — yours and his — central point of the whole opera. To have him commenting emotionally on the magic is really important.
E If I can jump in from more of an artistic director perspective, first of all to make Ruggiero work you need a wonderful, expressive performer and we have that in Vilma. And to me Ruggiero is the canvass on which you can understand what’s actually going on with the other characters. Because everyone else is a little bit hard to pin down. Bradamante has come under false pretenses and in disguise. Alcina’s music is all loving and romantic and you can really be on her side, except that she’s doing something really terrible here and you can see how tormented Ruggiero is by it. “I don’t know what’s real any more — I’m miserable — I can’t go do my war guy stuff that I miss doing — I can’t be myself here — and yet I love her”, but that’s not love. You’re trapped. It’s kind of an awful abusive relationship that they’re in and you only see that through him.
V Ruggiero is sometimes played as wimpy, but that’s not how we’re leaning with this one.
E It’s not his fault that he doesn’t have agency.
V That’s exactly it.
E Some opera characters who don’t take agency can be very frustrating. There are a lot of operas where stuff happens and just like in a lot of romantic comedies, you just wish you could tell them, “If you people would just use your words, we wouldn’t have to be here for the show tonight, we could all go home and have a beer.” But Ruggiero has had all his agency taken away from him by magic.
V And in the end he does turn into a strong character who’s able to break through that because of love, so you see the strength and Vilma’s been playing it very, very well. It’ll come through.
Then there’s that strange, seemingly happy ending to Alcina…
E It’s a little bit like the end of Don Giovanni where you go…. Yey? Are you guys all OK? Are Bradamante and Ruggiero gonna be OK after this? How about Morgana and Oronte? They don’t really seem to get along as well as you would hope… Did we really want Alcina to get defeated quite that awfully? Couldn’t she just maybe have learned a lesson? So we sing like a Greek chorus at the end, Hurray, everything is all right, but I’m not sure that it is. We’ll leave it to the audience to make up its mind about that.
V It’s a fascinating ending, I like it. I like that it’s not Disney.
All photos by Katie Cross. Top photo: Bardua (l) and Batt (r)