Othalie Graham in Opera Canada

I wanted to share my conversation with the Ontario-born, US-based dramatic soprano Othalie Graham that just came out in Winter 2015-16 issue of Opera Canada. Some highlights:

Is operatic career only attainable to the well-off:

The cost of ongoing lessons, coaching, language instruction, travel to auditions, the accompanists, the formalwear, the hotel stays during rehearsals and runs—all require deep pockets as soon the singer leaves school or a young-artist program. “It’s very difficult, but it’s certainly attainable,” says Graham. “I’m not sure how a lot of us do it. You can afford to prepare new roles only if in between the coaching and studying you’re continuing to perform in other engagements.” The number of capable singers coming out of schools is also growing each year and auditions are getting more competitive. Most singers cross borders in search of work, but visa regulations remain inflexible. This Canadian in the U.S. moved from student visa to work visas until she acquired dual citizenship.

Graham confirms that the period after school is the most difficult. “You still don’t have a team in place, you have to do all on your own, and that is the time when a lot of people give up. They see how emotionally and financially difficult it is, and they don’t see a way to make it work for them. But sometimes, it’s the people who don’t give up who end up having a career, even if they’re not as talented as some others.”

On the lovability of Turandot

“I like to keep her young,” she says of her Turandot. “I don’t play her as this screamy, icy princess because you lose something in your voice if you do that. I like to keep her as youthful and beautiful as possible. Which is why I still sing Verdi Requiems, Aidas, things that require pianissimos, which for a big voice is difficult. You can’t hide in that kind of rep.”

There is humanity in Turandot, Graham continues, she is not a mythical figure or a caricature. “When she’s begging her father not to give her away, there are moments where you can float and use pianissimos to show some of her softness and vulnerability. She has to be seductive… even if it’s just underlined. This beauty is the soft underbelly of Turandot.”

Wagner the tender?

Graham is already singing quite a lot of Wagner in concert, and projecting in front of a Wagner orchestra rather than above it on stage presents its own set of challenges. “I just remind myself to sing with my own voice, and again to find the beauty—and Wagner, too, wrote some beautiful, tender things.”

Or even better, read the whole thing here [downloads the PDF file].

Othalie Graham - Turandot - Photo by Reed Hummel
Othalie Graham as Turandot at Nashville Opera. Photo by Reed Hummel

Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre

LooseTEA2Is Gounod’s Faust salvageable in any way and should we bother? Alaina Viau and Markus Kopp with the latest Loose TEA production Dissociative Me make the case that we should, and keep the score while rewriting the libretto, originally by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Goethe. Gone is the religion from the text (yay), gone are all female roles but Marguerite (no yay; no trouser role of Siébel and no contralto Marthe). We are in the present time and Faust is a recent PhD in astrophysics (tenor Kijong Wi), lonely and unemployed, neither a job nor a date on the horizon. In comes Mephistopheles (baritone Michael York) and promises the world if Faust agrees to “stop taking his medication”.

So instead of the discourse on sin, we are within the discourse of mental health, and in this way Viau’s update is very much of its—our–time. Today we prefer talking about criminal responsibility instead of ‘evil’, which to us smacks of Catholic Hell. We find it difficult to analyze (still no better word->) evil acts committed by the perfectly sane, well-educated and comfortable people. Our secular age lacks a discourse on evil, because we’re all too happy to chuck it with the rest of the Christian mythology. This doesn’t solve the problem, alas. And evil as an applicable concept, to echo Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, survives well into our secular age, whether we have the framework for it or not.

Viau could argue of course that in their adaptation, Faust is not evil as much as a nasty date; seducing a woman from a very patriarchal family, impregnating her and abandoning her perhaps isn’t evil, perhaps it’s a bad love practice, perhaps he is just being an unethical slut. Yes, I can go with that. But in the course of Dissociative Me, Faust also lands a spectacular job and acquires charisma. Those are the worldly goods he was promised—and he is finally enjoying them. Marguerite, on her part, ends up being devastated by the abandonment and single-motherhood to the point of killing her newborn and herself. Would that really happen today, or is Mephistopheles again pulling some underworldly strings? The Catholic bits of the original libretto return to Dissociative Me to undermine the mental illness paradigm. The eerie prerecorded sounds heard in some scenes also flirt with the supernatural, but remain ambiguous enough to work (is it the supernatural or is Faust hallucinating, or is it atmospheric music like a film score). Viau and Kopp have approached the rework of the Gounod with seriousness, and for that kudos. They could have, however, gone much further, particularly with the character of Marguerite. The poor soul still gets seduced via a box of jewels.

In any case, the two-sides-of-the-same-person idea works well overall. Viau and Kopp keep the two characters fairly independent until the key scene at the end when Faust’s suicide also kills Mephistopheles, his other face. This is very effective as the final act. I suspect this dual protagonist idea would have worked even without the mental illness: a sane, unmedicalized Faust could have met his darker self and decided to give it full reign. Or perhaps Mephistopheles could stand for or supply some mood- and concentration-enhancing drug to which Faust becomes addicted.  It is to Viau and Kopp’s credit that I found myself long after the show thinking about this and Gounod’s Faust in general, an opera I don’t usually rush to contemplate. And this in spite—or perhaps because—of the blind spots in the adaptation. This take on Faust will get opera lovers thinking and talking, even if the execution leaves a thing or two to be desired.

There was probably no money for the set or the props, so the director (Viau) makes the best of the location—the night club RED in the Liberty Village—and some dark curtains. For example, Act 2 happens at the bar, and moves to a coffee shop where Marguerite works. Among the bits of the opera that were cut out is unfortunately also “King of Thule”, Marguerite’s melancholy aria. Her jewellery aria is still there and still as unflattering for the character as in the original libretto (selfies are involved). Soprano Beth Hagerman did her utmost in the ungrateful role, sang movingly and acted credibly. She was innocent when innocence was called for and believably broken in the latter parts.

Michael York was a compelling Mephistopheles who goes by the innocuous name of Lee. The devil’s emissary is usually the meatiest role in any production of Faust, no exception here. York exercised the greatest range of emotions, including forays into comedy. Kijong Wi’s Faust was somewhat single-note dramatically; vocally, however, he was reliably good, with a full-bloodied top and the evenness of tone.

Jennifer Tung at the piano kept the motor running and the vehicle moving. Somebody should write a long piece on the music directors who act as one-person orchestras—where would the Toronto indie opera be without you. Hat tip from us all.

One performance left to go: August 22.

LooseTEA1Left: Beth Hagerman as Marguerite. Top photo: l-r Michael York and Kijong Wi as Lee and John Faustus. Both photos by Rachel McCaig Photography.

Getting to know you

Getting to know you

Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, directed by Robert Lepage, revival director Francois Racine, conductor Johannes Debus. A Canadian Opera Company production, the 2015 revival.

Erwartung-Photo by Michael CooperAfter twenty-odd years, this production still got it.

It helps, of course, that the COC orchestra under Johannes Debus was in top form last night. (A draggy orchestra can drag this sombre two-acter down.) Bartok’s music was clear, precisely shaped and so alive that there were moments where you could detect its inner dance. I have never heard the Bluebeard played so…full-bodied. And while it’s easy to spot the influence of Debussy in the score, the other often-cited influence, Bartok’s research into folk, wasn’t so easy to detect for me until now. As Bluebeard in his final monologue lists the wives and their respective domains, the music despite its complexity acquires a ballad-like quality, and is touching in a very familiar way.

The images contained in the score are drawn out attentively. Music is called upon to depict what’s behind each door, and the creep of the blood on to the scenery. Lots of glorious there: sparkling treasures, the murmur of water, large vistas, a secret garden, a torture chamber all get a different palette. The minor seconds and the dissonance come cutting in. It’s a tremendously dramatic score.

Schoenberg’s Ewartung, too, kept me engaged and listening, for those quick-silver changes of emotion, and the moments of poetry in unexpected places. Whereas Bluebeard too decades later is an okay staging, the Erwartung is more than okay, it’s remarkable. The music and the visual field merge extremely well and in ways that are still inventive and original to this day. Its symbolism is occasionally heavy-handed (the straitjacket!) and the narrative it gives to The Woman extremely specific (she killed her lover, whom she caught in flagrante with another woman), but even so—its eerie atmosphere, the smart use of the Traumwerk (body parts appear out of unexpected places or merge with inanimate objects, what’s up turns sideways, what’s down turns up, a corpse might have been a branch all along) and the way it weds the visual with the aural remain outstanding.

Krisztina Szabo’s Woman was expressive, shifty, cinematic, and always vocally solid. The two singers of Bluebeard did not disappoint either: John Relyea found a perfect tone for Bluebeard. Of a dark voice and an even darker demeanour, his Bluebeard is more desperate and anguished than fairytale evil. He is recognizable, as are his emotional states. Ekaterina Gubanova was a surprisingly tough, even fierce Judith. With a strong Judith, who demands, scolds, mistrusts and is obsessively set on her own path we get a very different couple and the opera becomes a wrestling match between two fantasies, rather than the gradual subordination and punishment of Judith. While Bluebeard begs her to kiss him, care for him and leave parts of him in shade, she desires the total transparency, archaeological, emotional, financial, whatever there is, she wants it scrutinized. ‘Are you not afraid’ is a recurring question, but Judith, admirably, is not, and Gubanova makes an excellent case for her. Is she a figure of the Enlightenment set against feudal rigidities, or a misguided bride determined to save, fix, liberate and complete (only those four) her beloved? Gubanova will have you guessing—and leave *that* door open for you.

Photo by Michael Cooper. More good photos here.

Bluebeard/Erwartung returns May 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 23.

The Barber who shaved off too much

The Barber who shaved off too much

In a word: Meh.

The Barber of Seville co-production (COC, Opera Australia, Bordeaux, Houston) that opened last night at the COC is safe, milquetoast and aims to crowd-please while removing any possible edges (political, sexual) off the work. It was also slow in pace, its musical zest diluted too.

The piece itself flatters the then still most powerful layer of the society—via its protagonist the Count—and left to its own devices it’s a fairly reactionary tale in which the young, vital Count breaks through the barriers that the puritan and calculating older bourgeois man The Doctor put in place to keep The Girl in his possession. Els Comediants actually emphasized the opera’s aristocracy-loving ways by playing the Count as a total charmer, next to whom Figaro is a serviceable wingman. Alek Shrader’s comedic talent and vocal prowess here are the show: singers don’t often dare be funny through their voice, but Shrader went there without fear and made fun of the coloraturas and trills in his arias on several occasions. It was great fun trying to figure out when the runs are done seriously and when they’re a parody—and with Rossini the two are dangerously close. Shrader with the conductor Rory Macdonald explored this thin (non-existent?) border in a very productive way.

The director Joan Font leveled the social differences among the characters by dressing them all in similar costumes, a mix of commedia dell’arte and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The sets are in bright colours, and there are the usual oversized objects that people will go “Oh, how cute” over. What is more surprising is the lack of physicality in the production—movement is minimal, except for the Count, and the characters’ restricted gestures bring to mind paper dolls. I found myself pining after a traditionalist production of Barber; those tend to have freer movement and don’t shun the physical comedy.  If a production is making you think longingly of Ponnelle, that’s probably all you need to know about it.

As I mentioned, the tempi were on the ponderous side, so in this the staging and the music are a good match. There was the odd balance issue, too. In the Act One Finale for example, the musically most exciting moment of the opera, the protagonists were overpowered by the all-male chorus and the orchestra and might as well have not been singing—the only individual voice you could discern was Berta soaring (Aviva Fortunata) when the score called for it.

The singing actors who are not the Count (whose show this is) were all rather adequate. I’m sure a different production would make much more of each one of them, but this production was about the colours of the set, not about colourful personalities. Serena Malfi was a competent Rosina, Joshua Hopkins was an okay Figaro, Renato Girolami was an appropriately buffo Bartolo, Robert Gleadow was all right as Don Basilio.

A Teletubbies Rossini, alas.

A scene from Joan Font’s The Barber of Seville at the Canadian Opera Company: Renato Girolami, Clarence Frazer (the officer), the male chorus, Alek Shrader, Aviva Fortunata, Serena Malfi, Joshua Hopkins. Photo by Chris Hutcheson.

Barber-Chris Hutcheson

Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni live

14-15-03-MC-D-0502I wrote about this production a lot already, but I’ve now finally seen it live and here are a few additional impressions.

Russell Braun was extraordinary last night. He gave it his all in every scene, and if I had to choose the most intense one, it would be “Deh vieni alla finestra” in which he is dancing and singing by himself—perhaps about a whole new world he’s dreamt up? About a less lonely life? He was also perfection in the recit with Zerlina leading up to “La ci darem la mano” and in the duet itself. His attention to the text in the recits in general and how they’re delivered, every word and every pause and silence carefully crafted, I’ve rarely seen at the opera.

Sasha Djihanian’s Zerlina was another flawless delivery. She was just right in “La ci darem”, a jumpy little spark in the ensembles, devastating in “Vedrai carino” directed not at Masetto but Don Giovanni in absentia, and girlishly cruel to the dying Don Giovanni.

Kyle Ketelsen – equally remarkable, considerable star power in evidence there. He knows the role inside out, he is vocally super-confident in it, and his brat Leporello was tone-perfect. The many meanings of an obnoxious bro–he’z got them covered all.

Michael Schade was impressive in his solo arias—after all, he is one of the top Mozartian tenors working today–but overall I had the impression that he was a little bit in his own production, moving according to his own clock and tempi. In one or two cases it felt like he was singing ahead of the orchestra (orchestra?… oh right, hey, come along, gang).

We’re all by now used to nothing but brilliance from Jane Archibald, but I don’t think she particularly liked this Donna Anna or cared to defend her before the audience. The singing and acting were competent, but detached.

Michael Hofstetter’s tempi went a little slower than is my personal preference (for example, I like “Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor” to be more urgent). There are long breaks, but the production requires it, and the text requires careful delivery, so perhaps this overall pace rather makes sense. Michael Shannon at the harpsichord, and Alastair Eng, the cellist who improvised alongside him in the recits, were always a pleasure to notice.

The production itself possesses a remarkable inner logic and coherence, despite the odd inconsistency here and there (the return of Leporello in DG’s coat to the room where all the other characters are so that the ‘recognition scene’ can take place, for example). But these inconsistencies are a small price worth paying for the thoughtful, serious re-reads like Tcherniakov’s.

The performance dates and more background info, videos and photos on the production here.

Photo by Michael Cooper showing Jennifer Holloway (Elvira), Sasha Djihanian (Zerlina) and Russell Braun (Don Giovanni) in “La ci darem la mano”.

Hell, it’s the family

Hell, it’s the family
COC Don Giovanni--photo by Michael Cooper
Photo by Micheal Cooper. A scene from the dress reh for the COC-Aix-Madrid-Bolshoi Don Giovanni, to open at the COC this afternoon.

Though it would be easy to read the family as representative of capitalist success, and the outsider Don Giovanni as the criticism of its values, Tcherniakov is adamant that social criticism of this kind is the last thing on his mind. “I am of the opinion that even if overnight we all became equal and well-off in material goods, we would all remain equally unhappy.”

My article on Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni for the GlobeArts here.

This made me remember Richard Rorty: both Marx and Freud should inform the Left, he kept reminding, never Marx solely.

John’s Your Uncle

John’s Your Uncle

_MG_7833Against the Grain’s adapted Don Giovanni takes place in a wedding hall that’s seen better days. The party planning company is owned by il Commendatore, and his daughter Anna is on staff. Zerlina and Masetto are the couple to be wedded, Elvira is Zerlina’s friend who gets invited to the wedding. Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé, is a low-ranked policeman, though in an earlier version of Uncle John he was, more plausibly, a security guard at the venue. John and Leporello are besties. What brings them to this particular hall, other than a shared interest in breaking up other people’s monogamy contracts is anyone’s guess. Once Elvira shows up and John sets his eyes on Zerlina, they are reluctant to leave.

It can’t have been an easy task for Joel Ivany to adapt the Don Giovanni libretto in the course of the year that saw an unprecedented public debate on sexual consent and rape in Canada, but he did an honourable job. While navigating the countless pitfalls this work contains, he sometimes erred on the side of safety, but probably wisely. (How on earth do you transladapt Zerlina’s “Batti, batti”? Obviously not as “Punish me, slap me”, and probably not as “Discipline me, tame me”, so Ivany’s complete cleanup of the aria was, I’d wager, a wise decision.)

I don’t belong to the school of thought arguing that DG is a rapist: there would be no opera to unfold if this were the case. Donna Anna would not be obsessing about a rapist and would not be endlessly postponing her marriage; and although DG’s no stranger to using and abusing his aristocratic power differential, Zerlina and Elvira would not have been seduced by sexual blackmail or threats. The work would not be a dramma giocoso but a dramma thriller-ico in which the three women do their best to avoid a violent predator and to go on with their lives. I wonder if anybody ever tried doing a production with DG as a naked brute? I don’t think the staging would work, but I’m open to being surprised.

All this to say that Ivany avoided the pitfall in that other direction too: tranlsadapting DG into a very (to us, today) recognizable type, a high-powered sexual criminal who goes on unpunished thanks to the enabling infrastructure around him.

No: Ivany’s and Cameron McPhail’s DG is a charmer. A sleazeball, an ADD, a junkie-in-the-making, violent to other men, but a charmer to the laydeez. Ivany didn’t give him any special qualities that our age worships (celebrity, athletic prowess, wealth) so it’s all down to his personal seduction skills and muti-tasking. We never really find out what is it that he does in life; we do find out his number of LinkedIn endorsements, so he does have a career in some field it seems. A smart political point could have been scored by giving him some prestigious career in the background (Tech? Hedge funds? Hollywood? Media mogul-dom?). Without any of those crutches, McPhail’s job of convincing us of DG’s irresistible prestige is more difficult, but he carries it off, and plays the fairly young Uncle John with a certain wide-eyed “the world is here for my pleasure” boyishness. DG’s two solo aria come to us intriguingly devoid of any concern for women: the mandolin-accompanied “Deh, vieni alla finestra” is here turned into DG’s melancholy paean to his drugs and mood enhancers, and his later call to the party Finch’han dal vino” is delivered as the effect of taking a line of cocaine, the aria’s jittery beat gaining a new meaning.

Neil Craighead is perfectly convincing as Leporello, a dishevelled wingman who tries to keep track of John’s social entanglements chiefly out of loyalty, and much less so out of desire to get in on the action. “Madamina, il catalogo e questo”, probably the most successfully adapted aria of all in the production, starts as he opens an iPad for Elvira and begins reciting the number of followers and connections John has forged over various social networks. (“Ma in Ispagna son gia mille tre” becomes “But on Tinder, there are 14K.”) The tricky part of the opera in which Elvira goes to bed with Leporello thinking it’s Don Giovanni is here cleverly handled as an episode of sexting, Leporello texting on behalf of his friend.

_MG_8072Some of the loose ends of that episode remain untied and that is probably the weakest spot of the adaptation. Ivany dispenses with the change of the clothes sub-plot, and rightly so; I can’t see it working in modern adaptations. Leporello here does not dress as DG, and does not seduce Elvira, but later still gets caught by the group of the aggrieved principals and has to endure their anger caused by (supposedly) Don Giovanni. It’s a well-directed and well-sung scene that however does not make a whole lot of sense. I guess you could argue that all of them are now flat out angry at both men, at Leporello mainly because he’s enabling? Still, some questions linger on.

While I’m at the weak spots, let me smuggle in this one so I don’t end on that note: the quartet in charge of the music, the Cecilia String Quartet, was consistently underwhelming. They sounded disjointed and uninterested. Here’s hoping that the conductor at the piano, Milos Repicky, gets them inspired, unified and crisp in time for the remaining performances. A lively quintet of instruments can make you forget that you’re listening to a radically reduced score.

Back to the positives, my favourite voice of the night—amid some tough competition—was the big, bright and beautiful sound of Betty Allison. She opens the opera, effectively, and her voice is there full-on from the very first bar. Anna in this production is anything but glamourous—very working class, too sentimental and naive for her (not tender) age, and having to sport a uniform in colours of dish water for the whole of 2.5 hours. None of that manage to distract from Allison’s remarkable voice.

I’ll have to rush through a few other mentions as this is getting too long: the award for superb acting goes to Miriam Khalil (her Elvira is somebody who suffers profoundly, and makes us suffer with her) and Aaron Durand (who hilariously delivers to us, ladies and gents, and I think for the first time on any stage, Masetto as a jealous hipster). John Avey is also very good, vocally and dramatically, as the Commander who comes without the usual pseudo-Gothic accoutrements (pardon the green lights at the end). He scares the heck out of all with his rage even while donning the uniform of his catering company.

Uncle John continues Dec 13, 15, 17 and 19. This online promo video will give you a further idea of its tenor.

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Photos are by Darryl Block. Top photo: Cameron McPhail (Uncle John) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina) with Aaron Durand (Masetto) under the table. Middle photo: Sean Clark (Ottavio), Miriam Khalil (Elvira), Betty Allison (Anna), Neil Craighead (Leporello), Aaron Durand (Masetto) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina).

Q&A: Heather Flemming, Contralto

Q&A: Heather Flemming, Contralto

This is how I first heard of Heather Flemming: the Belgian public radio station has been live-commenting the Queen Elisabeth singing competition back in May (Camille de Rijck was behind the Musiq3 handle), and this popped up in my Twitter feed, followed by the exchange below:

HF TwitterThe rest is, as they say, browser history. I found Heather’s home page (impressive schooling, promising beginnings) and Twitter account and am looking forward to following this young artist as she builds her career.

How did you find your (contralto) voice in the course of your music education and after? My impression is there are never enough contraltos among singers of the younger generations in Canada, and I can’t remember seeing any in competitions and ensemble studios lately. (Is the situation better at McGill and in Quebec in general on this issue?)

Finding my contralto voice has been a journey in itself! I first began singing as a young girl attempting to sing soprano with a rather hefty voice with lack of top register…this was very limiting. It was during my undergraduate degree with a wonderful teacher Monette Gould (still one of my great mentors), that I began exploring the possibility of my voice deepening and adapting to a more natural mezzo-soprano quality. During my masters degree I gained access to my contralto register actually by accident. I was studying with soprano Joanne Kolomyjec when she discovered I had the ability to imitate a ‘false tenor’ voice, impressed with the color, she was able to help me turn this into something useful! At this point I still lacked a top voice and as we were developing the top, my bottom voice began to grow also. This is when we discovered I had the ability and the color to sing contralto repertoire. What often impressed people was that I was able to sing in the contralto register without the sound becoming brassy, edgy or harsh sounding. It maintained a warm quality which I am thankful for.

Yes, I too agree there are not enough of this voice type, especially in the younger generations. It is sometimes a mystery as to why this is. In my opinion, it is not that we have a lack of these voices (though they are indeed, and will always be, a rare breed), it is that there is a lack of opportunities in which to showcase this voice type. We are of the generation of ‘flashy, exciting, high note galore, stratospheric fireworks, which does not lend itself kindly to the contralto, or lower dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Apprenticeship programs rarely take chances on these voice types because they feel it limits their casting. These voice types tend to sing smaller roles, or in some cases, like mine, more Wagnerian or Verdi roles, which younger training programs tend not to program. I wouldn’t say the situation is better at McGill or in Quebec, I would say it is sadly, currently a global issue.

Your appearance at the Queen Elisabeth competition this year was an exciting exception.

Thank you! Yes, the Queen Elizabeth Competition is incredibly selective. I do think being a contralto was both a service as well as a disservice for me. I think being a Canadian contralto helped me in being selected, but it was also difficult for me to compete against the ‘firey’ sopranos and tenors and other voice types with ‘show stopping’ entertaining repertoire. I think biology does have a lot to do with voice type, especially in contraltos: aside the lack of roles/opportunities for this voice type, it is still not a common one.

heatherflemmingheadshot1

We did have a couple of star contraltos in Canada over the last few decades (of course– Lemieux and Forrester) and I hope they helped pave the way for other future contraltos…Were there any of import in the US, or do they tend to end up, due to larger career opportunities, promoting themselves as dramatic mezzos (I’m thinking Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Michelle de Young)?

Maureen Forrester has most definitely helped to pave the way for contraltos, however during her ‘reign’ as the Canadian contralto, things were very different in the arts. There were more opportunities for concert work, Mahler symphonies, oratorios etc. It is noted that Forrester rarely performed operatic works, and to be honest, she did not really need to. She was kept very busy as a concert artist, which is much more difficult to do today. Why? Well it just seems that we are of the ‘operatic’ entertainment decade, or what sometimes feels, century! I would say that most contraltos in order to survive in the operatic repertoire, lend themselves to the dramatic mezzo soprano Fach. Yes, all of those mezzo-sopranos mentioned consider themselves dramatic mezzo-sopranos. If you want to be able to make a living you almost need to be able to spread yourself between the two fachs, at least to some degree.

Career paths for a contralto can be tricky. First and foremost, I would advise students to never limit themselves. Contraltos often tend to be placed in a box which can be very restricting, so I strongly advice students to continue to expand their horizons to gain the optimal amount of opportunity. This may mean some opera, some oratorio, passions, masses, concert work, contemporary work. Truthfully, for a career you may need to be a multiple trick pony, so to speak, and grab everything that is handed to you! Never underestimate high notes, though singing a high C may not be necessary for every low voice, contraltos do still need high notes. To me, it sometimes feels that we are the voice type that needs to be able to do it all.

Does the much more extensive and diverse baroque and early music scene in Europe make a huge difference for a contralto? Or maybe the fact that the Mahler lieder and other lieder rep in which a contralto can shine are also more frequently performed there than in N.A.?

It is somewhat true that the concert repertoire, symphonic repertoire and lieder repertoire are more frequently performed in Europe, but I feel that it is because there are so many smaller symphonies and venues in which to gain opportunities. However, though it seems very easy to just ‘cross the pond’ to sing, it is much more difficult than that. Making a name for yourself is very difficult, much more than people realize. Sometimes companies or agencies will only hear you based on your experience level, if you have not yet been engaged with a well recognized company than some will not even take the liberty to hear you. Like many people in multiple professions today, they simply want you to have experience first. However, sometimes it seems that no one will give you the experience…a two edged sword! I am still very much in the process of learning all of this myself and figuring out ways to help get my name out there and to be heard. You could have the best voice in the world, but if no one knows who you are it can be difficult to be recognized.

Heather Flemming Formal HeadshotCompetitions can help for some, but for different reasons, some voices do not compete well. No, not because they lack in ability or beauty of sound, but because winning competitions is hard to do! You must exude a certain level of flashiness; which with some voices, though they may be incredible, have trouble achieving this recognition. I have learned that in some competitions it is not always the best voice that wins, sometimes it is the most entertaining. But of course that is not the truth for all competitions. I continue to remind myself daily, there is not one road to the top and am often reminded of the famous words by Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”

Your top five works for contralto that you either performed or would love to perform?

This is a tough one! I am constantly discovering new works each day as I continue to grow in this field. However, if I must choose 5 I would say that my picks for where I am currently in my life would be the following. In no particular order:

  1. Mahler – Urlicht (Symphony No. 2 4th movement) I have not yet sung this piece but REALLY hope to soon! Listen to Maureen Forrester sing this (via the wonderful YouTube) with Glenn Gould conducting and try not shed a tear…I dare you.
  1. Wagner – Weiche Wotan, Weiche! also known as Erda’s aria from Das Rheingold. This is my go-to aria, the one I frequently use for auditions, the one that tends to turn heads or at least have panels look up from staring at my resume during an audition (hehe). It is by no means ‘flashy’ but it is definitely intense!! I have not yet performed this role, but look forward to that someday.
  1. Elgar – Sea Pictures. I have performed this cycle with piano, but hope to sing it with orchestra someday. It is beautiful, descriptive, picturesque and one of the most beautiful works for contralto/mezzo-soprano.
  1. Bach – Es ist Vollbracht (St. John Passion). I am currently working on this aria and am in love with it. I love Bach, my soul sings when I hear Bach. His works have taught me so much about breath support, line, flexibility and musicianship.
  1. Robert Fleming – The Confession Stone (Canadian Cycle). This cycle is dear to my heart, not only because of the text but also because it is some of the best Canadian writing ever written! The piece follows the journey of Mary, told from her perspective, from the birth of Jesus through to His resurrection. It is captivating, moving and chilling and I hope to continue to work on this cycle and perform it throughout my career. Singing in church is where I discovered my voice, as a believer and Christian, sacred works are first and for most my passion and will forever give me grounding and continue to give me reason to sing.

Christopher Alden talks about his new production Il Turco in Italia

How did you approach Il Turco in Italia, how do you understand it?

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

It’s the piece that I love, and once did years ago at the Long Beach Opera. I thought about it for years. It has this element running through the libretto about the cultural differences between two people who fall for each other. To me it’s about how brave they both are in this relationship that they begin– they break through the cultural barriers. In their relationship, they move out of their comfort zones. The ending is sad, because each goes back to their original partner, he to the woman from his culture, she to her husband.

Another special thing about the work is the character of the poet who wanders through the piece. At the beginning this writer appears, and says, I have to come up with a plot for a dramma buffa but I can’t think of any plot, and starts following what’s happening with the other characters. All the way through the opera, he pushes the characters in certain direction to do things which would be more exciting.

It’s an aspect reminiscent of Pirandello. The way the libretto’s written, it’s a bit more like the poet runs into these people and is inspired by what he sees happening with them. The way I am tending to do it here in this production is a little bit more in the Pirandello vein, like Six Characters In Search of an Author. Sort of a dreamier, less literal way of telling the story. You’re in this space which is like a rehearsal space, or a limbo where these people are sitting around waiting for this man, the poet, who is a writer but also perhaps in many ways like an opera director. They’re all waiting for him to tell them who they are and what their story is. The production veers between the cracks of reality and fantasy or creativity, so you’re not quite sure whether the events are real or not. 

Is the character of the Turk really from an Eastern country and Fiorilla a West European?

Weeeelll…it’s a funny aspect of doing these pieces from the past… this piece or the other Rossini opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, or Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, where you have the clash between East and West, and the Muslim side is portrayed in a sort of buffoonish way. Confronting those pieces now it’s always a tricky thing… What kind of context can you put that in? In this production we’re downplaying that aspect of it and definitely downplaying the buffoonishness of the Salim character. In fact he’s played rather like a very serious, sensitive, intelligent man with a damaged past. A man who comes to Italy to get away from his bruised past and to see a different life. And Fiorilla, this Italian woman, picks him up, basically. She goes to the part of (ostensively) Naples where Gypsies hang out, where people go to have assignations, and meets him there. The woman who has a strong sense of freedom, who wants to live her life the way she wants to and not play by the rules of her society, finds this attractive guy and is intrigued. She also plays a dangerous game with him, wants to possess him but also maybe wants to destroy him. And drives him crazy in that way. There’s a dark side to it–an s/m side to this relationship.

alden headshot
Christopher Alden

So she indeed lives in Naples, that hasn’t changed?

They talk about Naples in the text, so that remains of course. In this production, it’s sort of mid-twentieth century Italian-ish feel to it, but more like a drier, Pirandello aesthetic. They are sort of in a rehearsal room, all these men and women together. It’s a world of men, with only two female characters, Fiorilla and Zaida. A room filled with men obsessing about this one woman: how they desire her and they’re in love with her and put her up on a pedestal but they also fear her and hate her and want to push her off the pedestal. Which is exactly what happens in the denouement of the opera.

At the end she is made to show her vulnerability. Underneath the bravado she wants to have a strong man to take care of her etc. etc. It’s kind of like you couldn’t have a nineteenth century Italian opera with a strong female character without having her have some kind of a fall at the end. Opera was entertainment where men go to the theatre to watch a beautiful woman suffer and die or get pushed off the pedestal. So this is how this opera ends too.

And for the most part Fiorilla actually runs the show. It’s just wonderful to see a free female character like that on stage.

I know, I know. It’s exciting, that character. And I have this amazing lady playing it, Olga Peretyatko. She’s an extraordinary singer but also wonderful actress. And she’s great in this role. The way she is as a person, she’s a really strong, take-charge kind of a person and she’s doing some exciting work in this. One of those opera singers who really want to find it for themselves, and make it their own. I’ll feed her an idea and she’ll say, OK, great, don’t tell me any more! She wants to work on the character herself, which is fun.

Can you tell more about the Pirandello side of the production.

We observe the writer working out his ideas, his feelings about life and society, his issues about women, and you get an interesting perspective on the creative process and the writer’s relationship to a story or to the characters in his story. When you read about the families of writers, there’s often a lot of interesting tensions between a writer and people close to him that gets used as fodder for writer’s work. We read a lot about that. And our production also has that going on. People in this story often turn to him and they’re upset that he’s excited by what’s happening in their lives—he thinks they contain many dramaturgic possibilities. It was interesting to work through this piece always with the perspective of How does the writer feel about what’s happening in this scene? How does he feel about the end of this piece especially? When two people have the courage to break their cultural barriers and connect, how does the writer feel about backing away from it and writing this kind of ending? He created this strong female character but by the end her strength is traded off.

I gather you don’t really see Il Turco as a comedy?

I think it’s always interesting what serious things you can talk about through comedy. This piece is a good example of that. The clash of cultures, which is also a metaphor for the clash of cultures between men and women… this piece has a lot to say about that, but it’s all said  essentially through these comic situations.

But even in itself, the way the piece is written, there’s sort of a turning point two thirds of the way in the act two when Fiorilla realizes that there’s a threat of losing her husband—that there’s a chance that she will return to the lower class upbringing that she came from, with her parents in Sorrento. The tone perceptibly changes.

And, thinking about this piece, I realized that were many parallels with the life of Maria Callas. A woman with a wealthy husband, like Callas’s husband Meneghini, but then this exciting stranger on a yacht shows up and she leaves the comfort of that life to be with Onassis. And how that parallel is played out in this production is that Fiorilla is in a way the diva of the company. It’s very much about this woman’s relationships with all of these men in the room, with the poet who is like a writer or director like Visconti, or Zeffirelli, or Pasolini. There’s also her relationship with the husband who’s like one of those husbands of sopranos who sits in the rehearsal room reading a newspaper because he’s afraid to leave his wife alone because she’ll have a thing with the leading man, which is exactly what happens in this piece. Then there’s also the character of the tenor, written to be one of her lovers or ex-lovers but in this production we’re playing him a bit more like a sort of stalker/fan who’s always following her around. A dodgy guy in a raincoat who, as the piece goes on, takes a more and more dangerous and threatening aspect.

Toi toi toi for the opening night! The production is going to be seen also in Dijon and in Poland?

It’ll be Dijon, Warsaw, Torino and Bahrain, those are the four co-producers. It’s a fitting mish-mash of cultures.

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Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) IL TURCO IN ITALIA. Dramma buffo in two acts on a libretto by Felice Romani. World premiere on 14 August 1814 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

The new Aix-en-Provence production to open (if the strike action by the intermittents du spectacle does not take place) on July 4 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Stage direction: Christopher Alden, musical direction Marc Minkowski. Full cast & creative

Il Turco in CD artwork:

Callas-Il Turco CDIl Turco-Caballe-Ramey

 

Il Turco-Sumi Jo

What Women Want, or AtG’s Pélleas & Mélisande

What Women Want, or AtG’s Pélleas & Mélisande

Pelleas2Certain stagings expand the meaning of an operatic work, and I think the Against the Grain’s Pélleas managed to accomplish that and with very few resources at its disposal. The ‘set’–an inner courtyard in a downtown red brick building covered in ivy—contained an intimate, claustrophobic family drama reminiscent of Ibsen, who was after all Debussy’s and Maeterlinck’s contemporary. The costumes hinted at that epoch as well—the family members all wore stylized Victoriana outfits in many hues of blue, apart from Mélisande who, being a freer, woodland creature before being taken in, wore a looser, water-waves-like dress. There have been some interesting stagings of P&M in Europe lately, some involving Hitchcock and psychoanalysis, but they tend to add stuff to the piece, whereas AtG shed and distilled as much as possible. The simplicity of the text stood out, and its applicability across eras and cultures. P&M, then, could indeed be about the everyday-existential: how to communicate your love; how to break free from one’s family and communal narrative; how to accept the always wanting designation of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ without going raving crazy.

And that is what a lot of Ibsen and Strindberg are about too. Many of the great dramas, including P&M, respond to the above questions this way: always deficiently; you can’t; good luck with that. The close-quarters and the no exit feel of this production adds tension to all this—when nothing in the set ever changes, there is nowhere new to look at but the two individuals at an impasse talking but not being able to say much. (Je ne suis pas heureuse, Mélisande keeps saying, and nobody hears her. I’m the only person here who has this family’s best interests at heart, yells Golaud but people carry on. Why are all these young people so weird, this isn’t gonna finish well, moans Arkel and nobody pays attention. *Smiling benevolently, reconciled to her powerless role*, Geneviève.) Much is made of the many silences and the pauses between the words. Director Joel Ivany also uses the found constraints of the courtyard ground productively: the characters can only move along the limited flagstone pathways, since the lawn stands in for water, but also a sphere of the uncontrolled and the uncharted. The crossing into a freer territory, as we see at the end, tends to come too late. [edited to add: The pathways were created by the production designer Camellia Koo]

The singing and the acting were uniformly good. Miriam Khalil found the right tone for Mélisande, who remains an anguished enigma till the end. Why does she drop the ring—is she an unreliable, trivial creature, or was that an act of resistance, however feeble? Why is Golaud irrationally attached to the ring? (Which rules of family comportment and kinship are *not* arbitrary and *not* benefiting the men?) Etienne Dupuis’s Pélleas was pitch-perfect as the young Romantic hero, sensitive, emotional, the second-born in the primogeniture society, the recurring character in opera—the-patriarchy-eats-its-sons-too figure. Gregory Dahl was an excellent Golaud, the character with most agency (and even most personality), but least self-knowledge, and therefore inviting our compassion against our better judgement. The young mezzo Andrea Núñez was a great choice for Yniold—beside the bell-like bright-timbred voice, her acting really made us believe we’re looking at a boy, a deferring, frightened one but also playful and irreverent when he dares. At the piano, Julien LeBlanc, guest music director, made sure we didn’t miss the orchestra too much.

The remaining performances: June 21, 23, 25. TICKETS ETC Have a look at the courtyard in daylight.

Photography by Darryl Block. Top: Miriam Khalil and Gregory Dahl. Bottom: Dahl and Etienne Dupuis

Pelleas1