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 and this isn't some outdated re-telling of a boring, ancient myth.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)