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 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