Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Construction Begins on Arizona Opera's New Home

We are excited to announce that construction has begun at Arizona Opera’s new home on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road in Downtown Phoenix. This is a huge stepping stone in the development of our new administrative and performance facility, so make sure to drive by and check it out! Many thanks to the City of Phoenix and all of our supporters for helping us achieve this milestone. For more information on our new facility, visit http://bit.ly/khoJDD.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Why You Must See "Orfeo & Euridice"

 "A must-see, don't miss this!"

Orfeo's  Katharine Goeldner
You know, every opera company says that about every production they put on. And every singer says it about whatever their current role is. So what is different about this one? Why should you, Dear Audience, come see Orfeo ed Euridice? It's not "grand opera" or as familiar as, say, Carmen, Aida, or Boheme. So why bother?

I'll tell you why.  It's because Orfeo isn't like any other operatic experience you will have. There's no spectacle (but this really is an incredibly lovely production!) and this isn't some outdated re-telling of a boring, ancient myth. This is an intimate, incredibly moving musical and theatrical experience. The reason this opera has been so popular for over 200 years is because it tells the universal story of human pain, loss and the redemptive power of love.

Take the show's hit tune, "Che faro senza Euridice." You may think, "Yeah, yeah, I know that song. Heard it a million times." Let me tell you: you haven't. When you hear this deceptively simple tune in the context of the opera, it takes on a whole new meaning. Gluck has managed to create a timeless expression of what everyone of us who has experienced the death of someone close to us knows. The simple text  ("What shall I do without Euridice? Where shall I go without my love?") becomes the heart-wrenching outpouring of Orfeo's grief: first disbelief, then anger at the gods who let this happen, then sad acceptance and the desire to kill himself to be reunited in death with his beloved. It's amazing to me how Gluck uses the same words and the same tune for three different verses and yet the result has so many unexpected facets to it. (And, by the way, we are doing Gluck's original version, which is much quieter and more introspective than the more familiar, flashy Berlioz re-working of this piece.) 

I keep coming back to the word "intimate" to describe this piece, and it truly is. There are only three charactersthe Goddess of Love Amore, Euridice and me, Orfeo. Well, four, really, because the chorus and our two wonderful dancers make up the important fourth element of Furies/Souls of the Heroes and the Virtuous. (The chorus, by the way, gets some of the best music in the opera. So gorgeous!) 

My goal in my portrayal of Orfeo, is to take you, the Audience, along with me on this emotional journey. I want to give you more than just a pleasant evening of lovely music. I want to make you feel what Orfeo feels, to remind you of your own love and, yes, loss. And most importantly, to remind you that Love truly does bear all things, hope all things, endure all things.  Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner (Orfeo)

Friday, April 6, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Shrew or Doe?

Arizona Opera's Euridice, soprano Christine Brandes
One of the more daunting challenges with the role of Euridice is finding a way to convey the profound disorientation and fear she experiences at Orfeo's silence without tipping over into the realm of the nagging wife. While the myth can be read in such a way as to conclude she has mercilessly hounded poor Orfeo into looking at her and unwittingly causing her death, we have opted for a more nuanced approach.

What must it be like to die so suddenly? To be transported to the sweet oblivion of Elysium only to be retrieved by your beloved who refuses to look at you as he drags you back to the upper world through the harrowing realm of the underworld? As a Greek friend of mine would say, "I was like a deer without headlights!" Hence, our doe-like Euridice initially speaks from a place of bewilderment that is nonetheless infused with her innate sweetness, love and faith in Orfeo's love for her. After asking so many times and in so many ways for Orfeo to simply look at her, her faith is crushed by his brusque demand for her to shut up and follow him. Sweet bewilderment is replaced by frustration, fear and anguish. Ultimately, her life force begins to weaken, and we discover she will die of a broken heart before Orfeo can reach the surface. To a degree, it is Orfeo's desperation at hearing the fading of her spirit that provokes his look back in an ill-fated attempt to save her. It is not the relentless kvetching of Euridice the Shrew but the rapid heart beat and labored breath of the dying doe
. Soprano Christine Brandes (Euridice) 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Learning from the Best

Resident Artist Rebecca Sjöwall (Amore)
One of the best things about being a Resident Artist here at Arizona Opera is the mainstage experience the Company offers each of us. Not only does a mainstage role give me the chance to perform and add a line to my resume (which is very crucial in a young singer's career!), but it also allows me to observe first-class, seasoned professionals. Since joining the Program, I have watchedand been blown away bythe guest artists as they work through the rehearsal and performance process. In an up close and personal way, I have been able to witness how these performers take direction, handle stage business, recover from mistakes, deal with costuming issues, protect their voices, create a character that is uniquely their own, etc. I could go on and on. But my point is: no amount of training in a university nor preparing a role (at home or with my teacher or coach) could provide the same amount of knowledge or know-how as working side by side with these singers.

The same is true of the production teams. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with several different conductors, directors and choreographers, all of whom have had their own styles and approaches to the rehearsal process and offer their own individual perspectives. For me, as someone whose strength lies much more in performing than in auditioning, the chance to show these influential people who I am and what I can do not to mention learning from themis priceless.

Some guest artists have gone even further, "above and beyond" their purely professional duties, and taken me under their wings outside of rehearsal. Remember the beautiful Kelly Kaduce, AZO's Nedda in Pagliacci? She worked with me, completely of her own volition, outside of rehearsal and refused to let me pay her. As did Jill Gardner. And Peter Volpe. And Greer Grimsley and Luretta Bybee. What an awe-inspiring tag team! Again, I could go on and on, but I will stop the name dropping! To be able to hone my craft with artists of this caliber, along with the many others who have shared their precious time off with me, is invaluable. It has helped me to grow tremendously as an artist and has enabled me to get to know these fantastic people and their journeys.

I am thrilled and humbled that my Orfeo and Euridice are just as generous and encouraging as previous guests. Both Katharine and Christine are not only supportive colleagues in the rehearsal room but have also offered their time and expertise when they have been "off the clock" as well. I just read Ryan Taylor's latest blog entry, and he hit the nail on the head. It is a gift of immeasurable value to work with the artists. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to share the stage with these two brilliant, warm-hearted, fiercely talented women! — Soprano Rebecca Sj
öwall (Amore)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Choreographing "the Best of All Worlds"

"Orfeo" Choreographer Keturah Stickann
A little about me: I was trained as a ballet dancer but much of my performing background was in modern dance. My degree is in choreography, but I choreographed mostly for modern concert dance until I found opera about twelve years ago.

Choreographing for opera, unlike concert dance, is all about diversity.  The more operas I became involved with, the more I found myself researching and studying different styles in order to deliver the most authentic choreography I could for the opera at hand. The first opera I choreographed was The Good Soldier Schweik, and I had to make a polka and Czech folk dance for an ensemble of ten singers. I studied Czech dance for months before and then had to learn how to teach these movements to a group of people who were NOT used to dancing on stage.

After twelve years, I’ve found that much of what I am hired to choreograph doesn’t involve professional dancers. From putting a minuet on the Duke and Countess Ceprano for
Rigoletto, to making a maypole dance for the entire chorus in Don Giovanni to my most recent endeavor of putting together six simultaneous folk dances with chorus and principals in Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, I’ve given a lot of singers the skill and confidence to take the storytelling beyond what their voices can do.

When I choreograph professional dancers in opera, it’s a treat to be in the room with a group of people who all speak a very specific, movement-based language. There’s a euphoria that comes from being able to experiment with people who have been trained in movement. Even if my dancers have only been hired to do the can-can in Merry Widow, or the galliarde in Rom
éo et Juliette, their background allows us to play around a bit and add in intricacies that cannot exist with non-dancers.

Orfeo is the best of all worlds as an opera choreographer. I get to put a rousing folk dance on the chorus. I get to make a classic minuet on my dancers, I get to do movement work with the goddess of love Amore to help her find a particular style and grace within her character. And I get to go a little nuts and create a modern piece that is performed by both my dancers AND the chorus. Greater than all of this is the fact that none of the dance in this piece is treated as a diversion. Every bit of the dance advances the story in some way, and that is rare and wonderful for the performers, who are all distinct characters within the piece. Orfeo is all of my choreographic skills rolled into one fantastic opera, and that is deeply satisfying. — Keturah Stickann, Associate Director / Choreographer

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Giving Back

Orfeo is an opera that at its best imitates life—there are ups and downs, turns and twists and plenty of push and pull! The musical underpinnings of the piece are beautifully structured to highlight the emotional journey of an epic love story. I sneaked into the rehearsal room this afternoon to enjoy a work-through of Act III featuring Katharine Goeldner and Christine Brandes, our production’s dynamic duo of Orfeo and Euridice. 

I’m moved by the respect these two have for their colleagues, and the rehearsal process itself. Their work ethic is to be envied. It’s a bit warm in the rehearsal hall today—owing to the fact that having the air conditioning turned on in this rehearsal facility creates so much noise that meaningful musical work is rendered obsolete by the comforting, cooling whirr of the fan motor. They are a remarkably impressive pair, and watching them rehearse is a lesson in dedication in and of itself. They are focused and fully immersed in the storytelling. Together with Maestro Revzen and Director Groag, the score is plumbed for fuller understanding and constantly used as a reference guide for the creative evolution of these characters. 

Their work doesn’t look effortless (as I’m sure it will in performance) but it does look to be joyful, thoughtful and rewarding for them both. Even more impressive (from my perspective) is that both of them are sharing their knowledge and love of this art form with our Resident Artists in a variety of ways. Just about a week ago, Katharine offered an open master class to them, and followed that class up with a few hours of private sessions with two of the singers. Tonight, Christine is working privately with the Resident Artists in Baroque, Classical, and Modern repertoires. These ladies even showed up (on their day off, I might add!) to support these same Resident Artists in rehearsals for their upcoming season-finale showcase production, offering insight into performance practice and helping to shape the musical understanding of our developing talent. It’s a real gift to work with artists at this level of caliber and commitment.

This production is sure to satisfy our audiences, and I’m grateful that the artistic footprint left behind by these two extraordinary performers will have a multitude of positive ramifications well into the foreseeable future! —Ryan Taylor, Director of Artistic Administration

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Time Off with Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the added bonuses to this remarkable life as an opera singer is the opportunity to take in the landmarks, museums, cuisines and natural wonders of cities across the globe.

Yesterday, Katharine and I took advantage of our day off by steeping ourselves in the brilliance of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both of us have spent a great deal of time in Chicago and are familiar with his home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, as well as his many magnificent buildings in the greater Chicago area. 

The leads of "Orfeo ed Euridice," soprano Christine Brandes and mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner, at Taliesin West
Nothing could have prepared us for the uniqueness of Taliesin West. It really is as though it has arisen out of the desert as any other natural formation and when viewed at a distance seems to melt into the surrounding landscape. One of the great surprises for us was to discover Wright played the piano, had many Steinways of various sizes and hosted "Taliesin Evenings." One of the guests at such an evening was Aaron Copland.

There is a space somewhat like an auditorium dedicated to entertainments and concerts as well as a subterranean cabaret zone modeled after a cabaret he attended in Berlin in the 1920s. Of course, our first thought was: We have GOT to come back and do an opera fundraiser here!

We then went to the sumptuous Biltmore Hotel for lunch, which was capped off by a dessert of S’mores made with a wee charcoal burner at our table.

Divine music, great colleagues and Frank Lloyd Wright
what more can a girl ask for?
Except perhaps a trip to a spring training ballgame. Stay tuned.  — Soprano Christine Brandes (Euridice)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": The Maestro speaks

In my opinion, there are many compositions in classical music that mark a turning point in a composer's musical direction. Some that immediately come to mind are Haydn's The Creation, where we leave the powdered wigs behind and the opening sounds more like Star Wars. Then there's Beethoven, in his Grosse Fuge and Missa Solemnis shaking his fists at the heavens and looking forward to the Romantic period.

With Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck leads us inextricably from the late Baroque period toward Mozart and eventually, I believe, toward the verismo operas of Puccini and Verdi. He dispenses with unaccompanied recitation and instead has the orchestra accompany all of the recitatives. It's for this reason that instead of standing on the podium to conduct, I have chosen to lead from the harpsichord. If all my digits are in working order, I hope this will make the entire opera experience feel more intimate, more like "chamber music." 

The singers and chorus for this production are wonderful, not only vocally and dramatically, but fully immersed in the musical style of the late Baroque. In addition, we have two fabulous dancers that should add immeasurably to the visual experience of the audience.

Every day of rehearsing this masterpiece has been a joy for me; the music is filled with such pathos and longing.  Furthermore, in how many other operas does a character die not once but TWICE?....and still come back to life?
This may turn out to be the "surprise hit" of the season.  — Joel Revzen, conductor

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Understanding the Trouser Role

Goeldner as Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier"

I guess it could be a bit confusing for an opera "newbie" to see me up there dressed as a man when I play Orfeo. "Honey, is that supposed to be a man or a woman? I don't get it!" It's an interesting opera tradition, for sure, this "gender-bending." And playing male roles is the bulk of most mezzos' careers, so I've done a lot of them.

The tradition stems from the 16th/17th centuries, when papal edicts forbade women to appear on stage. Instead, male castrati took on those roles. A brief explanation of this rather odd phenomenon: back in the day, in order to preserve a young boy's treble voice, he might be castrated before the onset of puberty, thus preventing his voice from changing. These "castrati" took on femaleand later high maleroles in opera and became the rock stars of their day.  But understandably the fashion died out (thank goodness for the boys!), paving the way for women to take over these roles. Now, think of women's fashions at the timecorsets, layers of petticoats, heavy skirts. The female body was pretty much hidden. So a woman appearing as a man, in form-fitting breeches, revealing the shape of her legs andahemposterior, definitely added an air of scandal to the show.

Mozart, Händel, Donizetti, even Verdithey all continued to write male roles intended to be performed by women. The lower, warmer quality of the mezzo voice is well-suited to the adolescent/young man roles. Why not just use a boy or a young man then, you might ask? It's been done, e.g., Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. But you never know when a pre-teen boy's voice is going to change, so the houses that have tried this, like the Vienna State Opera, actually had a mezzo on standby every night, just in case. And because vocal cords aren't fully developed until well into your 20's or even later, a young man is simply not going to have the vocal strength to withstand the demands of an opera role.

You might be wondering by now how a woman like me goes about becoming a man on stage. Men of course have a different center of balance, different musculature, different method and speed of movingall of which I take into account. I think of standing tall, with a lower, broader center of gravity, strong across the back and shoulders and "collecting" the body when I move. Of course, we're not really fooling anyone herewe do have to rely on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief! It's all part of the magic of an evening at the opera. Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner (Orfeo)

Monday, March 26, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Putting It Together

Don’t look now…

But we’re Orfeo to the races! As of today, I’ve been with Arizona Opera for exactly one month. At that time, I was dropped into the middle of Aida, which I was happy to revisit after having been in the chorus of the piece with the Atlanta Opera in 1996. Aida is exciting for all of its beauty and excess, but I’ll admit that I have a penchant for works that are a bit more classical in nature.

I think I’m instinctively drawn to the work of Gluck because I’m a complete devotee of Mozart’s work, and Gluck must have surely provided some musical influence for our good buddy Wolfgang. I’ve listened to Orfeo with libretto in hand several times in the last couple of weeks, and I was interested to see how our production would take shape! I was happy to discover how much life and emotion Gluck has packed into this scoreand how deftly he passes musical ideas back and forth between the vocal and instrumental lines. I’m enough of a nerd to find it sooooo cool!

As one who started his musical life in the chorus, I was pleased to see that the fine AZO chorus is used to maximum advantage from the get-go, expertly telling the story with buckets of glorious sound and champion musicality. As rehearsals began this week, this smart group is being challenged physically and dramatically to activate this show, and they are responding beautifully to the vision of the director, Lillian Groag.

This week, I’m determined to spend more time in rehearsal watching our crack team of soloists attack this piece from the ground up. It’s always fun to watch artists at the top of their game peel away the layers in a piece this rich, and then put them back together in a fresh, cohesive way. Even though I know how the story ends, I can’t wait to see what happens next! 
— Ryan Taylor, Director of Artistic Administration

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"The 'Orfeo' Diaries": Day One Rehearsal

Wednesday was the first day of rehearsals for Arizona Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice.  For me, the first rehearsal day for a show feels similar to the first day of school.  Some faces might be familiar, and perhaps I may have even worked with some of the artists in the past; but it is the "getting to know" you stage of the process.  Can you imagine having a first day of school every month or two?!  Strangely enough, it is one of the reasons I love my job.

We started the day by "running the music," which meant that the three principal characters (Orfeo, Euridice, and yours truly) sat down with our conductor and a pianist to sing through the entire opera.  It was a working session, so we stopped and started often, settling on tempi, figuring out transitions from scene to scene, and getting to know each others' voices, styles, and personalities.  Orfeo ed Euridice also has a lot of recitative (speech-like singing), so we had plenty to discuss regarding the flow of those sections.  Emotions can run high at times, and there was some heated debate about the interpretation of certain moments.  But it is natural, and inspiring to me, when people come to the table with opinions and ideas.  After all, everyone involved has been studying this opera for weeks, months, and even years before walking into the door for the first rehearsal! 

Another one of the reasons that I dedicated my life to opera, though, is the collaborative effort it requires.  All of the people involved (the ones you see on stage as well as all the folks who are toiling away behind the scenes) come together to create an experience that will, hopefully, move each audience member who witnesses a performance.  And Orfeo ed Euridice is about a reality that every single person will experience at some point in his or her life: the death of someone you love.

Next up, getting up from the chairs and "staging" the show…   Rebecca Sjöwall (Amore)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Director Lillian Groag brings her vision of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"—"this most tranquil and optimistic of operas"—to Arizona Opera

Whenever I prepare a new production, I ask myself, “Why do this opera/play today?”  CDs abound if one wants a pleasant listen, glass of sherry in hand.  But what does it have to say to us now?  What’s it about, other than an opportunity to make “innovative” production choices?  And in this particular case, how do we communicate this most tranquil and optimistic of operas—composed almost 250 years ago and, most eminently, a product of its age—to an audience bombarded by media, three-second sound bites, deafening sound effects and daily news of terrorism and war?

There are four main characters in Gluck’s opera: Orfeo, Euridice, Love … and the chorus, or the community. The story tells us how they are affected by the loss of one among them, the grieving process, ensuing solace and a return to life. It’s about a community and its artist(s) dealing with the unimaginable: Death and, in the Calzabigi-Gluck version (as opposed to the traditional myth), humans actually coming out winners.

And that was the hard dramaturgical question: if Euridice comes back to life a second time, the iconic myth is dismantled and loses all meaning... at first sight. At the core of the problem is the puzzle of this Western theme about “not looking back.” It seems to be closely related to the “not seeking to know” dictum. Orfeo must not look back at Euridice after bringing her back to life; Lot’s wife must not look back to Gomorrah going up in smoke just as Psyche must not look at Eros after making love; Semele must not look at Jupiter; Elsa mustn’t ask Lohengrin’s name on their wedding night; the fairy Melusine’s husband must not look at her at night (well, she’s a Serpent during those hours, which might send the poor chap screaming into the night), etc. There are a myriad variations on this theme in our fairy tales and mythologies. But myths without profound meaning don’t take hold in cultures . What is the meaning of this one?

It seems to have to do with a failure of faith, the greatest sin in all theologies. Let us not forget that Socrates was condemned to death for impiety, lest we wax romantic about the Classical Greeks’ enlightened mindset. Calzabigi’s and Gluck’s worldview was Christian— most particularly, Catholic— and Catholic theology, unlike pagan theology, contains the possibility of redemption through suffering.  Hades, for the ancient Greeks, did not contain a heaven or a hell and so, by extension, no Purgatory. Hades was the Underworld, the world of the Shadows, from where “no voyager returned.” Yet the Furies’ words in this opera imply that they are expiating transgressions—as in the old Purgatory notion—which might be a first sign of the possibility of Euridice’s final resurrection through the appalling suffering of Orfeo. (It was his fault she died a second time.) Thus it reminds the audience of the hope on which Christianity is based and thrived in the Western world.

Performances of "Orfeo ed Euridice" are Apr. 13-15 in Phoenix, Apr. 21 & 22 in Tucson.  For tickets, go to  www.azopera.org or call 602.266.7464 or 520.293.4336.
I don’t hold spiritual beliefs of any kind, but I do see this as a profoundly Christian version of the pagan story. I think it incumbent for directors not to impose their personal views on a piece of theater if they contradict the original intent of its creators. I see Elysium as the 18th-century Enlightenment’s vision of a Good Life: all arts, sciences and crafts applied in a peaceful society where harmony was the goal. The world of the Furies is that place where the unquiet souls reside and who are comforted and solaced by Orfeo’s Music.  Music alone cannot relieve suffering but, in acknowledging it, can bring a degree of understanding—and so, comfort—to the suffering human heart. And isn’t that the function of all Art?  — Lillian Groag

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Q&A with "Aida"'s Lisa Daltirus

Soprano Lisa Daltirus has made Aida a signature role with performances at some of the world's top opera houses, as well as New York's Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.  From March 3-11, she and Mary Elizabeth Williams share the part of the captive Ethiopian princess at Arizona Opera.

Both Daltirus and Williams return to Arizona Opera after garnering critical acclaim in the Company’s 2009 production of Tosca.  As Daltirus explains in this interview, the role of Aida is among the most demandingand rewardingfor sopranos.
Q: What drew you to opera growing up?

A: While growing up in Plainfield, N.J., my life was centered around church choir, youth group and performing arts programs after school.  I studied dance for eight yearsballet, tap and jazz. I took piano lessons for the same.

Opera came more as an epiphany in my senior year of high school.  I always sang but was more interested in drama/acting.  When the "light bulb" came on, I knew I had a more classic-sounding voice and felt the marriage of my voice and acting would be opera.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus, Arizona Opera's Aida
Q: What do you enjoy most about performing Verdi?

A:  Verdi calls for a lot of versatility from the lead characters. He employs a large vocal range, dynamics, legato, coloratura and more in his composition.  It is very challenging and rewarding to accomplish.  His operas have many intimate moments as well as large choral scenes.  It's always a great musical experience.

Q:  What's the hardest part in portraying Aida?

A:  Portraying the role of Aida is challenging to convey both the slave that she is to Amneris while concealing the underlying fact that she is a princess.  I feel this fact is what keeps her intriguing to both Amneris and Radames.  It is interesting to portray her emotions and ultimate decision regarding pursuing love or loyalty to country. 

Q:  What do you think has made Aida such a popular opera?

A:   First, it is set in an exotic location.  It is always interesting to see the set design and for the audience to be able to "transport" themselves to ancient Egypt.  Secondly, the spectacle of the Triumphal Scene is always exciting as it incorporates a large chorus, dancers and, whenever possible, some animals.  Most importantly, there are arias and scenes for the lead characters that are well known to opera audiences. It creates anticipation as the opera unfolds.

Q:  What role have you not performed that you would like to?

A:  There are many but of the Verdi repertoire it would be Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Leonore in La Forza del Destino.

Q:  When you aren't on tour, where do you live? What do you enjoy in your free time?

A:  I live in suburban Philadelphia, Pa. and I spend most of my home time attending to the advancement and care of my children: Lea, who is 18, and Demetrius, who is 16.  

I am also very involved in my church. I am a good cook and I enjoy teaching voice when I get the opportunity.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Director John Hoomes believes that for all of its pomp and grandeur, "Aida" is really a chamber opera

Act II Triumphal March
In November 1869, Khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt (who three years later would contribute handsomely to the fund for Wagner's theater in Bayreuth), announced plans to open a new opera house in Cairo as part of the celebrations surrounding the opening of the Suez Canal. He asked Verdi to compose an "inaugural hymn" for its opening night, which was planned for November 1870. Verdi was not too happy with this idea, and declined. But he was enthusiastic when an alternative suggestion was proposed; he would compose an opera based on an ancient Egyptian subject. And Verdi’s Aida was a huge smash hit for everyone involved.

Just as Aida was becoming a worldwide success, Verdi created an official production book to show other producers how the opera should be done. This book detailed approved stage plans, scenic positioning, and instructions for every move and gesture, down to the placement of the chorus. The production book also included such practical tips as how to extinguish any gas flame jets that might set fire to Amneris when she entered in the last scene in her long mourning veil. By creating this production book, Verdi felt secure that when Aida was staged, he had laid out the ground plan for that production’s success. By Verdi’s insistence that someone follow every little detail, he helped create a position which was relatively new in opera at the time -- the Stage Director.

Arizona Opera presents "Aida" for the first time in over a decade
The opera Aida has now become synonymous with the term “Italian Grand Opera”. On the surface, that is certainly true, but it’s not really fair to the work, or what Verdi strove so lovingly to create. The opera may often be seen as a type of Cecil B. DeMille juggernaut that encompasses all of Egypt (and often a few rented camels). But at its heart, Aida is actually an intimate chamber opera about the intense love triangle between the three central characters. The opera just happens to have a giant parade running smack down the middle. 
For all the opera’s pomp and grandeur, the show really comes to life if the character relationships are clearly defined, and if the characters become…well…human. One of our goals in this production is to do just that. Love and passion have not changed over the centuries and opera, as an art form, offers long standing proof.  -- JOHN HOOMES
Performances are March 3 & 4 at Tucson Music Hall and March 9-11 at Phoenix Symphony Hall

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Five questions with mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak

In a recent New York Times review, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak was praised for her "superlative" portrayal of Suzuki in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly." Fortunately for us in Arizona, she performs the same role in Phoenix from Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 4 and 5 in Tucson.

Zifchak first became familiar to Arizona Opera listeners as Dorabella in the 2005 production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." One of the most well-respected opera singers performing today, Zifchak has sung a varied repertoire from Handel to Britten. She currently lives in New York City.

Q:  Your repertoire consists largely of supporting characters such as Suzuki. For you, where is the joy in playing this kind of role on the opera stage?

A:  I have had many opportunities to be a part of incredible productions with incredible casts. There is something very enjoyable about being able to be a part of things, without the pressure of carrying the show in a lead role. For me, it's the best of both worlds!

Q:  Suzuki is generally viewed as a loyal, dutiful servant – but not much more than that. Is there another dimension to her character that you try to bring out in your performances?

A:   I have found that many times the role of Suzuki is not considered very much. Because she is one of few words, some consider her just as a servant, and there is not much development of her. But if you consider her involvement in the story, she is the only one who is with Cio-Cio-San from the beginning of the story to the end. Three years have passed between Acts 1 & 2 and no one knows what has happened in Cio-Cio-San's everyday life but Suzuki. She has lived through every moment with Cio-Cio-San.

In my opinion, if her character isn't developed as one who is invested in the lives of Cio-Cio-San and her son, the Flower Duet and her reaction to the events in Act 3 make no sense.

Q: What is your favorite moment in “Madama Butterfly”?

A: There are many! I love Butterfly's aria "Un Bel Di." This naive young girl has imagined every single moment of Pinkerton's return. It is so full of love and anticipation.

There's also the moment in Act 2 when Sorrow (or Trouble) is introduced. "E questo!" The music is unbelievable and makes me well up every time!

Q:  What advice do you have for young singers?

A:   To enjoy every moment of what your career offers you. It's a very competitive career, yet it is the most personal. Look out for yourself and don't worry about what everyone else is doing. Learn whom to trust, take what advice is useful to you and leave it at that. This career takes years to develop and dedication that at some times takes over your life. On a completely practical level, it is best for all singers to have outside interests. It is important, in my opinion, to remember that singing is a job. It is not the definition of who you are as a human being.

Q:  What do you most enjoy about Arizona?

A:   I cannot get over how absolutely beautiful it is. I have visited here three times before and love to soak in the scenery. The sky is immense and feels so close and is gorgeous.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In her first time directing Puccini's famous tearjerker, "Madama Butterfly" director Kristine McIntyre discusses the complexities of the opera's title role and why Butterfly isn't as fragile as you might think

It’s very common, and very tempting, to think of Cio-Cio-San, the title character of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly," as one of the great innocent victims in opera. She’s easily dismissed by the other characters in the piece and by commentators and audiences through the opera’s tumultuous history. Certainly Pinkerton sees her as a child, a doll to do with as he pleases.

Sharpless too completely underestimates Butterfly’s emotional intelligence and her resolve. He assumes, wrongly, that Butterfly continues to see herself as Pinkerton’s wife out of a misguided sense of loyalty.

Arizona Opera presents "Madama Butterfly" January 27-29 at Phoenix Symphony Hall and February 4 & 5 at Tucson Music Hall

In fact, Butterfly is in possession of a game-changing secret: there is a child – Pinkerton’s child – and Butterfly understands how this raises the stakes. For while Pinkerton might be capable of abandoning her and the sham marriage, he will not abandon his own flesh and blood. Of course, she is right. The knowledge that he has a son does in fact draw the errant husband once again to the little hillside house.

Butterfly acts less like a victim and more as a young woman searching to redefine her place in a society which offers her few choices. She surely knows that marriages between Japanese girls and American service men of the sort brokered by Goro did not last beyond the length of the foreign deployment. Yet Butterfly chooses to give herself over entirely to her new life, renouncing her traditional Japanese religious beliefs, throwing away the ottoke (the figurines which represent the spirits of her ancestors) and attempting to oversee a completely American household, long after Pinkerton has left. Is it for love? Yes, I think so. But it is also a way to stop living the geisha life which she finds so hateful, and to have some measure of control over her fate, even though she is then trapped between the two societies.

It’s true that Tosca takes matters into her own hands in an impressive, if impulsive, way, and that Manon always retains a firm belief that she can improve her lot. But I’m not sure that either would have the patience or moral fortitude to embark on Butterfly’s path: to willingly be ostracized by one’s family and society, to turn down a marriage that offers comfort and security, to live for years on a slim hope, and even in the end, to believe so strongly in one’s sense of self that suicide becomes the logical alternative. Rather than allow others to define her – as victim, as abandoned wife, as abandoning mother – Butterfly again chooses her own path. She may indeed be a tragic heroine – certainly we wish that her love and faith had been better placed – but we cannot ignore the strength of her character or the nobility of her struggle.