Artist Profile: Jennifer Forni

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Jennifer Forni with Fellowship sponsors Mary and Clinton Gilliland.

“I was introduced to opera and a very early age,” Opera San José’s new resident Jennifer Forni said. “My parents bought an old house in Puyallup, Washington, where we moved from Seattle when I was three years old. While Dad was remodeling the house, he played opera and always encouraged me to sing along.”

Her voice first came to the attention of her first grade music teacher, Ms. Jones, who told Jennifer’s parents “your child doesn’t sing like the other children. You should encourage her to keep singing!” When she was ten, she heard the American soprano Nancy Gustafson on a Pavarotti and Friends video. Unaware of the difficulty in classical singing, Jennifer commented, “Anyone can do that,” and sang right along with the recording, astonishing her parents. “When I was young, I thought anyone could sing, you just had to ‘pretend’ to be an opera singer.” At the same time, she began taking voice lessons, but not for long. “I loved to sing when I was young, but it was for fun and I wanted to keep it that way. I don’t think it’s very productive to have young kids in voice lessons. Music lessons are fine, but the voice really needs to develop and mature before starting strenuous lessons. Sometimes lessons can do more harm than good,” she said. In addition to singing, she grew up playing French horn and trumpet.

Jennifer, a full lyric soprano, began serious voice lessons when she was fifteen, performed in West Side Story in high school, but at that time did not plan to be an opera singer. Rather, she thought she might go to medical school and become a doctor. But when graduation time came, she only applied to one college, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio. “It is a remarkable school,” she said “Undergraduates perform in fully staged productions, in full costumes, with full sets and with a full orchestra, often led by guest conductors. It was fantastic training!”

Upon graduation from Oberlin, Jennifer applied for and was accepted in the masters program at the University of Maryland. “I chose Maryland because their degree program emphasizes performing. Oberlin taught me how to be a professional, to be precise, and to stay on top of things. Maryland taught me how to be an artist. After I went to Maryland I stopped being a student and started being an artist.”

After she earned her Master of Arts degree, Jennifer went to Portland (Oregon) Opera for two years as a resident soprano. She left Portland to join the roster at the New York City Opera, where she understudied the role of Rita Clayton in the world premier of Séance on a Wet Afternoon. She was invited back the following season to understudy Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. This past January Jennifer took her first bow on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Parsifal. “I was so overcome with emotion and excitement that my knees were trembling when I took my bow. I had set a goal to sing at the Met before I was thirty, and I made it!” said Jennifer. Not only did she make her Met debut this year, she performed two concerts this past spring at Carnegie Hall, singing the Faure Requiem, Rutter Requiem, and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony with the New York Choral Society.

Jennifer participated in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program in 2008-09. She was asked to step in at the last minute to sing the role of Nannetta in Falstaff there. “Falstaff is the last opera Verdi wrote. It is extremely demanding because it has difficult rhythms, challenging text, and complex harmonies,” she said. The performance was a triumph, and she was asked to finish out the run of the show.

Along with Madama Butterfly, Jennifer considers Eugene Onegin, La bohème, and the Strauss operas to be among her favorites. She especially admires soprano Mirella Freni and the late Maria Callas. She met Freni when she was with the Oberlin in Italy Program as an undergraduate. The now deceased Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Corelli are still at the top of her list of favorite male opera singers.

While she was in New York, Opera San José called Jennifer and ultimately offered her a residency. She will sing a different role in OSJ’s Falstaff than she sang in Santa Fe, the role of Alice Ford. Later in the season she will sing Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. She will depart briefly in October to sing in Die Frau ohne Schatten with the Met.

Jennifer says, “Opera San José provides singers a marvelous opportunity. We can sing in up to four great operas a year without having to travel all over the globe to do so. Opera San José feels like a European fest contract. Also, the company strives to put forth the highest level of artistic quality in their productions, and they have a wonderful theater to do it in, too. The California Theatre has excellent acoustics and is just a down right spectacular venue!”

Jennifer also appreciates the living arrangement OSJ provides for its residents. “Everyone is so congenial, outgoing, friendly, and helpful. Being housed in the same apartment complex almost reminds me of my college days,” she laughs. Already we’ve had many late nights listening to clips on YouTube and old records by opera’s great legends.” She notes, however, that there is lots of sunshine in San Jose, and as a person from the Northwest she misses the occasional rainy day.

Jennifer’s residency is made possible by the Mary and Clinton Gilliland Fellowship.

Artist Profile: James Callon

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James Callon with Fellowship sponsor Catherine Bullock.

“All good singing begins with the voice,” says second year resident James Callon,” but, in any real opera performance, good singing and effective acting are always intertwined.”

A Catherine Bullock Fellow, James hails from Southern California and from a musical family that lived in a home filled with music. “My dad played trumpet in high school and my grandfather sang barbershop,” he said. All through elementary school James sang in the school choir, and, while in the fourth grade, participated in a televised singing tribute to the then recently-late Danny Thomas. Only days before this event, James surprised his parents by climbing high in their avocado tree for a little practice. As he sang the lyrics to “O Danny Boy” in his young soprano, both parents turned to each other in wonder and plainly asked the other, “Where did that come from?” From that moment on, it was plain to see that music and performance would play a big part in James’ life.

As a freshman in high school he played the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, wearing a hot, furry costume and carrying a cardboard grin.“I liked being on the stage, performing. I was a theater geek, as well as a jock in high school. I played football, baseball, ran track, and even took karate my sophomore year. I had good roles in the school productions. I played a Russian dance instructor in You Can’t Take It With You, and Juror No.8 in a touring show of Twelve Angry Men. In the spring musicals, I played Doody in Grease and the title role in Bye, Bye Birdie. Eventually, my friends from the football team came out to support me. Some of them even started participating onstage. In my senior year, our team’s quarterback was one of the leads and almost all the cheerleaders took part, as well. It was a lot of fun! Playing sports has definitely benefitted my acting in the opera roles that are a bit more physical. Those are fun roles,” he said.

James attended U.C. Irvine, majoring in Vocal Performance. “When you begin to study music, especially singing, you learn a lot by ‘mimicry.’ Although it’s not necessary to share the same voice-type as one’s teacher, I find that I learn best from tenors.” He added, “Incidentally, I believe that tenors have the most fickle instruments. That is to say, because of the nature of their voices, theirs’ seem to be some of the least predictable. But, with the right teacher, hard work, and a healthy imagination, most of us can do some really top-notch singing any day of the week.”

Following graduation, James sought opportunities to perform. He spent six seasons with Orange County Opera, an outreach group that condenses a show from the standard opera repetoire to half an hour, translates it into English, adds extra humor as necessary, and travels with its collapsible sets, giving performances to elementary schools as far north of Orange County as Pasadena and as far south as Dana Point. Then, from 2007 to 2010, he sang in the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, making his LA Opera debut as Giuseppe in La Traviata and Tenor Vassal in Göetterdäemmerung. During this time, James also was a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, singing as tenor soloist in Handel’s Messiah and the Mozart Requiem. In June of 2008, he made an audition DVD which he sent to Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma and, subsequently, joined their Studio Artists program from 2009-11.

James has taken part in singing competitions, as well. In 2004 he won First Place in the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s Young Artist Auditions, Apprentice Division and, in 2008, took second place in N.A.T.S.’ Career Division. In 2011, he was a grant recipient of the Los Angeles chapter of Opera Buffs and, most recently, was a finalist in the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition this past May, 2013.

In 2011 James auditioned in New York for Opera San José. Last season, as a first year resident, he sang the roles of Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Manrico in Il trovatore, and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. This season he sings the role of Fenton, a young lover, in Falstaff. “Tenors usually play young lovers, good guys, heroes,” he says. In Hansel and Gretel he will play the Witch, “a role usually sung by a mezzo soprano,” and in Madama Butterfly he will sing the role of Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. “I am very much looking forward to singing this role,” he says. “I sang excerpts of Butterfly for Los Angeles Opera and Tulsa Opera during the past few years. I can’t wait to put those past experiences to good use here at Opera San José.” In Don Giovanni James will sing Don Ottavio.

The process of rehearsals and shows gets him going. He loves what he’s doing and where he’s doing it. “What’s best about Opera San José is that it gives us residents the opportunity to sing major roles in a gorgeous space with good acoustics,” he says. “The California Theatre is an awesome venue.”

To date, his favorite roles are Manrico in Il trovatore, and Alfredo in La traviata, which he sang for Rogue Opera in Medford, Oregon. “Someday I would like to sing the Duke, in Rigoletto,” he says. “It is one of the few roles where the tenor is a villain. And I think we can all agree that every good story needs a villain.”

James’ favorite male singers are Jussi Böerling, Fritz Wunderlich, and Carlo Bergonzi, all tenors, now deceased, with the exception of Mr. Bergonzi who turns 89 years-old on July 13th. The sopranos he most admires are Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe. “Caballe did the best Norma. Her ‘Casta Diva’ is amazing. Great singers use their voices to emphasize the drama of what they are performing. However, it can be very difficult to keep the drama from taking over. It is an extraordinary balancing act for us onstage; singing and acting as beautifully as possible in order to draw in the audience for a truly spectacular, viscerally emotional experience. If the balance isn’t there the singer can be swept up in the emotion and he or she may lose the voice,” he said.
James Callon says nothing feels as good as singing well. ”It is a high without the guilt. I can feel when I’ve sung well and, when I hear the audience applauding, I know I’ve done my job. Excellent singing honors the audience, the composers, and everyone who supports us in our art. Every night onstage, we go on an emotional journey in the hopes that the audience will come along. If we all do our part, both onstage and out in the house, we will all truly have a night to remember.”

The Fat Knight Rides Again!

 

Sir John Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner (1846–1925)

Elizabeth I, the virgin queen of England, commissioned a play about the exploits of the lazy, drunken, good for nothing (but a laugh) Sir John Falstaff, also known as Plump Jack. She commissioned it from the rogue’s creator, William Shakespeare. John Falstaff was first heard of in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. This conniving, dishonorable old knight was attractive in Elizabethan England, when the formerly glorious concept of knighthood had tarnished its reputation during the Hundred Years’ War and chivalry had long been revealed for the quasi-religious sham it always was. John Falstaff was enormously attractive as a most engaging anti-hero, a knight whose irreverence for all things knightly set his audience reeling with laughter. Thus arrived this royal commission for a play featuring Falstaff, and Shakespeare satisfied his fun-loving queen with The Merry Wives of Windsor. No composer has had Verdi’s success at adapting Shakespeare for the opera stage. To recall a few, Otto Nicolai composed Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Gounod gave us a Roméo et Juliette, Ambroise Thomas composed a Hamlet, Benjamin Britten created A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Samuel Barber set Anthony and Cleopatra. There are many others, but none come to mind as readily as Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and the hilarious one, Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Combining Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to reveal our most cherished values and sensibilities through comedy (Joss Whedon’s recent film version of Much Ado About Nothing is a great example of slapstick comedy that makes you weep with sorrow; I recommend it) and the brilliance of the finest Italian librettist, Arrigo Boito, and Verdi’s astonishing skills as an opera composer makes Falstaff one of the touchstones of Western culture, and it’s hilarious. It’s like getting high culture in your ice cream.

There are more gems in Falstaff than attending a performance can reveal. There are highly sophisticated musical forms; it opens in sonata allegro form (seldom found outside purely instrumental music) and closes with a rollicking grand fugue (as masterful as those of J.S. Bach, and funny). Verdi has given us a comic opera bookended by the two most revered pillars of abstract music, and he did it brilliantly while telling a story salted and peppered with jokes, wisecracks, gags, frustrated love scenes, and unforgettable people. Falstaff is a treasure, but it’s difficult to perform.

When a company announces Falstaff, you can be sure that years of planning and auditioning have taken place. Not many operas require a full cast of singers who are also very highly skilled musicians, but Falstaff does. Verdi began music rehearsals with his singers in November before a February opening. Most of his other operas began music rehearsals only a few weeks before opening. Opera San José (OSJ) has successfully assembled two crack casts of fine actors with beautiful voices, who will fly through these complex, rapid-fire ensembles like shooting stars.

This is not an opera that comes along every few years. It has been 13 years since OSJ last assembled such a cast. I recommend that you not let this chance pass you by and order your Falstaff tickets today!