Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini

Giacomo Puccini - 1908

Giacomo Puccini – 1908

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the finest Italian composer after Verdi. Fittingly, his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered the week before Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and it is Puccini who most nearly claimed the place in the hearts of the Italian people that had been held by Verdi, who is uniformly regarded as the greatest Italian composer.Puccini, born in Lucca, was brought up in less than financially secure circumstances, his father dying when the boy was just five years old; there were three sisters and a brother who was yet to be born when his father died. His mother brought up her children on her own by taking in washing and mending, assisted by her daughters while the boys, Giacomo and Michele, were educated as musicians. The Puccinis had been church musicians in Lucca for generations, and Puccini’s father was the music director at the cathedral, a position that would be kept open for Giacomo until he was old enough to take over. Luckily for posterity, Puccini’s mother set her sights on a wider career for her eldest son and managed to put together the money to send him to the Milan conservatory. His younger brother would also attend the same school.

Not the best student (it would later be discovered that Puccini suffered from diabetes), Puccini, nevertheless, composed well enough to attract the favorable attention of the Milanese press and music circles who upon his graduation encouraged him to compose an opera (Le Villi) that was produced primarily at the expense of the librettist, Ferdinando Fontana. This was enough of a success that Ricordi, the preeminent Italian publishing house, published the score and La Scala produced the opera after it was revised; La Scala commissioned two additional operas. Over the next eleven years Puccini composed three more operas, Edgar (not a success), La bohème, and Tosca (wildly successful). The next opera was to be Madama Butterfly.

It might come as a surprise to learn of a direct connection between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in Milan in 1904, and 1870s San José, California. A continent and an ocean separate these cities, and in the 19th century that was considerably farther than it is today. However, after a bit of looking into the life of David Belasco, one finds the beginning of his story in the Bay Area, and a significant part of it took place in the Auditorium Theatre, 140 W. San Fernando Street. Belasco became a brilliant theatrical impresario who wrote and produced the play from which Puccini derived the opera. Born in San Francisco, he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in a number of plays just a few blocks from the California Theatre.

Belasco left the Bay Area for New York City in 1882, where he became America’s most successful theatrical impresario, and for thirty years was the most influential theatrical producer in the nation. He wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, two of which were made into operas by Puccini: The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and Madama Butterfly. The latter opened as a play in New York’s Harold Square Theatre in 1900 where it was a Broadway sensation.

Belasco adapted Madama Butterfly from John Luther Long’s short story of the same name. Long was told the basic narrative by his sister who lived for many years in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary. In Nagasaki, she learned of Cio-Cio-san and the American naval officer who married and abandoned her.

Belasco’s play was presented in New York as part of a double bill to prop up his failing Naughty Anthony, but Butterfly became the main attraction, not because of the effectiveness of the drama, but due to a technological scenic advance; it was the first play to utilize electric lighting. In the play, as in the opera, Cio-Cio-san, Suzuki, and Trouble wait from afternoon, through the night, and into dawn for Pinkerton’s arrival from Nagasaki harbor. Belasco abandoned footlights and used electric light and its color change and image projection capabilities to represent the changing light as day blazed into sunset, darkened to a night sky with stars, that, in turn, faded into the gray light of dawn. This was a marvel, and Madama Butterfly left New York for the sophisticated audiences of London, where it continued to impress at the Duke of York Theatre. As it would turn out, this uninterrupted lighting effect would not work in the opera.

The stage manager at the Duke of York knew Puccini, and telegrammed, urging him to see the play, suggesting it was very much suited to Puccini’s unique style. Having just opened the enormously popular Tosca in Rome, following tremendous successes with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, Puccini was looking for a subject that would be at least as effective as these. He came to London.

The suitability of the play was immediately obvious to Puccini, despite his inability understand English, and by 1902 Ricordi had negotiated the rights and Puccini’s favorite librettist, Luigi Illica (La bohème, Tosca), was studying both the play and Long’s short story. Though Ricordi was not enthusiastic and expressed his misgivings, the project continued and the opera was completed in two years. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala 110 years ago on February 17, 1904. It was a disaster. By all reports little of the opera was heard over the laughter, whistles, shouts, and catcalls. On February 18 Ricordi withdrew the opera.

Puccini was not discouraged, writing “I feel calm enough in the face of the shame of this commotion, because I feel I have written a living and sincere work that will surely rise again. I have that conviction.” Puccini, one of the more careful opera composers of his time, did recognize the work’s shortcomings. One of the principal problems was the division of the opera into only two acts, preserving Cio-Cio-san’s long wait through the night. This was too long for the La Scala audience.

Puccini, addressing dramatic problems he identified at the premieres of all of his operas except Turandot, revised often and with the objectivity of a surgeon. He immediately went back to work on Butterfly, expanding the tenor part, inserting a second intermission, and at Toscanini’s urging eliminating some of the most exotic harmonic and melodic constructions. In three months the opera was ready for a second production, which took place at Teatro Grande at Brescia, this time with Toscanini conducting, but this was not the last version. Puccini revised again for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, softening and sentimentalizing the drama for a French audience. That version became the standard, was published by Ricordi, and is the version most often used today. In this form it has become one of the most successful operas of all time.

Puccini would go on to compose, in addition to The Golden Girl of the West mentioned above, La rondine, Il trittico (consisting of three one-act operas, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), and Turandot (unfinished). Today, Puccini is a mainstay of American opera production, as La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, make up much of the repertoire that audiences are most incline to attend.

Opera San José first produced Madama Butterfly in 1985 when Eilana Lappalainen performed the title role. Since then OSJ has produced Butterfly in 1996, 2002, and 2007, making the 2014 production the fifth time Madama Butterfly has appeared on our stage in thirty years. We are very pleased to revive our 2007 production with the same stage director, Brad Dalton, which we hold to be on of the highlights of our history of producing opera in San José.

Artist Profile: Marc Schreiner

Marc SchreinerResident tenor Marc Schreiner, who recently delighted Opera San José audiences as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, came to Opera San José from Minnesota, via Iowa, New York and Texas. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Music Education from Simpson College in Iowa and a Masters Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Houston. In addition to his vocal career, Marc has taught piano and guitar, conducted a college choir, and he is also a leather craftsman, a portrait photographer, and a furniture maker. He grew up in Rollingstone, Minnesota. “It is a beautiful place with green hills and valleys and many of the people are of Luxembourg descent,” Marc said” His parents thought piano lessons at an early age important, “and driving. I could drive when I was ten. Lots of freedom back there!”

Marc stated that public education in Minnesota was excellent and he had a broad exposure to different kinds of music when he went to high school. “From an early age I loved music and singing,” Marc said. “I listened avidly to my parents’ record collection.” At fifteen he sang in the high school choir. “We had excellent directors,” he said. “I always liked groups that sang in harmony, like the Beach boys and the Mills Brothers.”

In high school, Marc auditioned and was selected for the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun.  The director started introducing him to classical music and did some recordings with him.

When he completed high school, Marc thought it would be “cool” to teach music. His parents and his sister were educators, so it seemed a natural path to follow. He went to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, majoring in Music Education. Simpson is notable for being the only college in the United States with an entirely student-cast undergraduate opera program that is supported by a largely professional orchestra. They do two full productions a year and have an excellent young artists program run by the Des Moines Opera. Marc did two leading roles each year he was at Simpson.

By the time he graduated in 1994, however, Marc knew the wanted to be a performer. He also knew he needed a good voice teacher so he enrolled in the MA program at the University of Houston and studied there with W. Stephen Smith, all the while singing where he could, like in the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera. After completing the requirements for a Masters in Vocal Performance, he sang at the Salzburg Festival and for many regional opera companies around the country. He met Khori Dastoor, the Artistic Advisor to the General Director of Opera San José and a former resident soprano with OSJ, while singing in Opera Saratoga Springs, NY. She let him know that OSJ was looking for a tenor and that he should audition.

Now a first year resident, and the recipient of a Howard Golub fellowship, Marc says he likes many things about OSJ. “I like the long rehearsal periods, and I love the California Theatre and working with this group of singers.”

Marc Schreiner as the Witch in Hansel and Gretel

He also loves singing. “Whatever I’m doing right now is my favorite role,” he says. “I enjoyed singing Fenton in Falstaff, had fun being the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Marc believes each singer brings something special to singing. “I get on a kick where I listen to one singer, really study someone. There’s a broad sense of history when singing a role, listening to all the past singers of BF Pinkerton, for example. It interests me that a man in, say, Japan, and a kid in Minnesota, get the same chill when they listen to 18th century music and opera.”

Marc continues, “If it sounds good, it is good. A good singer has something to sing about and is a storyteller. Singing to an audience can be a stressful, vulnerable situation and one can’t be thrown by criticism. You must be true to your style and self, and be in the moment. One of the few things that angers me is when someone who doesn’t know the process criticizes in a nasty, discouraging way.”

Marc prepares for a role by researching the composer’s process. He thinks about the character, what he wants, what his goals are. He records himself and constantly tries to refine his singing. “The source of energy for me used to be coffee, but I gave it up. Now it’s love, what is good, what is positive. I’m not so interested in the human condition as I am in the human potential. I believe that historically artists have always shown us a better way.”

 

 

What was I thinking?! Thoughts from Hansel and Gretel set designer Larry Hancock

Hansel's candy-cane cage

Hansel’s candy-cane cage

Often, I am asked, “Who came up with that design?” Of course, when we’re talking about the set or costumes or lighting, the expected answer is the set or costume or lighting designer, and it is. But at the same time, it isn’t, as opera is an enormously collaborative art form, and such ideas seldom come from just one mind. In the case of Opera San José, we first establish with the stage director, before we even negotiate a contract, the kind of opera we’re looking for, what period it should be set in (and it isn’t always the period indicated in the score, even at OSJ), what we can spend (the budget is not to be taken lightly), and how many weeks can be scheduled for the build and when the build must start.

Then, for both sets and costumes, the designer, using information (research) and requests from the stage director, begins making sketches. When the sketches have the nod from the stage director, work begins in earnest, measurements are made, color is applied, fabric swatches are found for costumes and for sets a scale model is created. Of course there’s a lot of back and forth in this process, technical problems are solved, materials are explored, lumber and steel are ordered, construction drawings are made, fabrics are found and purchased, and patterns are cut. A great many people are involved in the production of an opera, and we are not addressing the performers in this article. That would make an army.

In this article, I have been asked to share a little about the creation of the set, as for Hansel and Gretel, I designed the scenery, which is unusual (this is my 6th set design for OSJ over the past eight years) and I suppose has raised a little interest, probably because I’ve had such fun doing it, and have been so very impressed with the work of the entire scene shop. Our shop always does wonderful work, but when it’s your own design being realized, I have to admit, it’s a bit of a thrill, every time.

It was about a year ago when Hansel and Gretel stage director Layna Chianakas and I first sat down to talk through the opera. We were in the scene shop and hadn’t even discussed which edition of the score we would use, but both of us had images in our heads. The chief image in my head was a forest of enormous trees executed in watercolor. Layna could see a great deal more. She’s brilliant.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

We both did a fair amount of research, and Layna found some wonderful images. One of them, a forest in Ireland, came to life as a huge watercolor forest. From there the first step was a matter of creating a cottage in that forest, which I originally painted as if built of timbers. Layna immediately recognized a lost opportunity to show the longtime poverty of this family and asked if the timbers could be large branches. The cottage was made of materials found in the forest and transformed into a hut with a sod roof. Renee Jankowski, our scenic charge artist, volunteered to repaint this piece for the set model, and she also repainted the model piece for gingerbread house the next week. So these two large pieces became a group effort, and are the better for it. Everything retained the quality of watercolor illustrations. From there it was a short step to make a peppermint stick cage, and the most amazing of all ovens.

Layna asked if the oven might look like a deep-sea fish with enormous, bared teeth. After a quick image search the perfect fish flashed on my screen. From that I made a paper model, and our props master, Lori Scheper-Kesel, used it to fashion a model from clay. Perfection! This is an oven with a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man. It has glowing eyes. Smoke rises from its chimney. Fearsome!

gingerbreadAThe gingerbread children, in this case a fence of them, were first made of plywood that was then upholstered and finally decorated with glistening candies and frosting. At this writing, the gingerbread house is being painted. I dropped in today as it was getting its first coat of color. It, too, will be glistening with gumdrops, cookies, and candy. A dentist’s nightmare!

bedOf all the props, the oven is the most astonishing, but the one everyone wants to take home, including me, is the bunk bed. All the furniture in the hut, the stools, bench, table, everything, was constructed to look as if made from things the family could find in the forest. Their whole lives depend on the forest. They make brooms from sticks and switches for a living. It isn’t much of a living. They go hungry much of the time, and even then berries from the forest stave off starvation.

It won’t do to look for symbolism in Hansel and Gretel, or a moral, or a message. It just isn’t that kind of tale. It’s about two children who get in trouble, mostly because the family is so poor and their mother feels so guilty that there is so little food, and tonight, no food at all. They are not sent into the forest to be gotten rid of, as in the Grimm tale, rather, they are sent to find berries. It comes as a complete shock to the mother that there’s a witch living in that forest. It’s a surprise for the children, too.

mother natureAWhen they realize they are lost and bed down for the night, they are protected by 14 angels, but these angels are rather like woodland sprites and one of them is Mother Nature. The costumes were brilliantly designed by Elizabeth Poindexter, and I stood for quite a few minutes today watching her execute the elaborate hand work these forest costumes require. But the great surprise is in the last scene, when the gingerbread house is revealed and the witch comes out.

The witch is always a wild combination, both comic and terrifying. Few things are as frightening as an insane person who intends to eat you, and this witch does not disappoint. In glamorous 18th-century paniers and a magnificent wig, this witch begins in such a charming way, so pleasant, until she claps Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to fattening him up. And this witch grows less attractive over time, and when she goes on her wild ride, she does it on a pink Segway (loaned by Segway Santa Cruz), paniers swinging in the breeze!

By the way, I haven’t the mentioned lighting designs by Pamila Gray, as we won’t see this work for a couple of weeks yet. We begin moving into the theatre on October 30, but I do expect to see some lighting magic, as we’ve been talking about what glows in a forest at night…

While we’ve been having weeks of fun building sets, props, and costumes, the conductor, stage director, and singers have been working like Trojans, but they seem all smiles every time I drop in on rehearsals. There is something wonderful about working on very good music; it makes everything worthwhile. We’ve had two treats this fall, with Falstaff, which is a brilliant score, and now with the most performed opera by a German composer, Hansel and Gretel.

Now, we can only hope you will enjoy our realization of this wonderful adventure in the forest as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to the stage. I do believe children will certainly love it, and what better way to show a child how a story can spring to life through music and acting and all the elements of theatre? I encourage you to bring a few children with you to see these two clever children get themselves out of a pretty hot predicament.

Don’t go into the woods at night!

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Don’t go into the woods at night! But Hansel and Gretel didn’t get the warning, and as the sun sets the woods become pretty scary with enormous, looming trees, a thousand twisting branches, and no clear path out. Larry Hancock, set designer for Hansel and Gretel, got the inspiration for this set from a real forest in Ireland, filled with sycamore, ash, and hazel, growing so thick that no undergrowth could survive in the gloom. We painted it warm with fall colors and cool with twilight blues and grays. The muslin on which the color has been painted is translucent, allowing the lighting designer, Pamila Gray, to control the glow of the scenery from behind as well as on the front. Renee Jankowski, the scenic charge artist, created magic, and the carpenters also helped achieve these twisted, opaque branches. The children’s cottage will fly in/out, and all the furniture in the cottage was made from real branches by Lori and Chris Kesel, from the bunk bed to the stools around the table. The candy cane cage where Hansel is held captive and the enormous oven, with a personality all its own, add to the colorful yet sinister atmosphere. All this is leavened with wonderfully colorful, whimsical costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter. In such a setting, the singers can only be inspired to bring this classic opera to life in a very special way that should delight both the grownups and the many children we are expecting to see in the California Theatre. Who knew Hansel and Gretel would be so much fun to produce? Everyone is having a wonderful time creating just the perfect touch, from the angel crowns (very wood sprite inspired) to the gingerbread house and gingerbread children.

Artist Profile: Lisa Chavez

chaveznewA“I am so happy to be singing in a West Coast company!” mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez says. “I spent ten years in New York, which was wonderful, and a tremendous career experience, but I am a Bay Area girl, happy to be close to home.”

Born and raised in Hayward, CA, Lisa says, “I have always sung. Mom and I used to sing in the car, and I sang in choir starting in fourth grade.” Her high school had five different choirs and she sang in most of them. “We went on tours and entered competitions. The Show Choir won some of them, too. In my senior year we went to Hawaii and won a gold medal.”

Lisa went to Cal State East Bay for her undergraduate degree in music. It was while enrolled at East Bay she had her first personal voice lesson and her first experience singing opera. “Although I enjoyed performing in our “Broadway” shows, I quickly became focused on opera.” In addition to singing lessons, preparation for her singing career involved diction lessons in English and in other languages, chiefly Italian, German, and French. “I like doing many things. I sew, make jewelry for myself and for gifts, knit, crochet, make cards. Being creative at home centers me.”

Immediately after receiving her BA, Lisa continued her studies for two years at the Manhattan School of Music. She took master classes with Martin Katz and Lauren Flanagan. She continued to work in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast. She met her husband, tenor Michael Boley, when they were both singing in the same show.

IDVAC 2013 - Opera San Jose“Two years ago I heard about Opera San José’s auditions. I was interested because I wanted to get closer to my family, but I couldn’t stay for the competition.” In Spring 2013, Lisa was able to compete in the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, and was named Third Prize Winner.

“I am thrilled to be a first year resident. I had already sung in San Francisco. Last year I sang in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti for Opera Parallele. Her first OSJ role was Meg Page in Falstaff. “There is lots of interplay in Falstaff, which is fun. I am looking forward to singing Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,“  adding that mezzos often sing male parts.

“Opera San José is awesome,” Lisa says. “Being part of the residency program means a chance to bond with the other singers and make good friends. The entire group is fantastic. We have get-togethers and potlucks, go hiking. The productions are deluxe and we appreciate Irene Dalis’ dedication and involvement with rehearsals.”

“Opera can’t support itself without donations and other outside money. We also do outreach which often introduces people who had never experienced the art form to our work and our company. Earlier this year we went to the local Ebay campus and several employees subscribed after they heard us. People’s expectations change when they see how glorious opera is. We need to increase public commitment to opera that is accessible and educate young people to the wonder of the arts.”

Lisa’s favorite female singer is the late Tatiana Troyanos. Of the men, she admires Caruso and Corelli. “In earlier days there was less specialization,” Lisa says. “People sang a wide repertoire. Now, we have a narrower view of what people should sing. A good singer must communicate with the audience, no matter how small that audience is. In any live theater good communication is the whole point. A performance must leave the viewer with that ‘lingering something’ that you remember. The listener should feel touched, and a tug at his or her heart. If one doesn’t get that out of a performance, why not just buy a recording?” Lisa believes a person would not invest in singing lessons and coaching or singing professionally without a good voice, but the ability to touch the audience is just as important.

Lisa does not have to worry about language when preparing for Hansel, as the opera will be sung in English. “The role has some difficult passages, key changes, and tonal shifts that can be tricky to learn. The back story for this opera is dark and twisted, more typical of real life in those days than Disney’s portrayals.”

Choosing a career in opera not only involves studying, auditioning, and relocating, but overcoming financial difficulties. Young singers must find jobs to pay off large student loans and bills, and their jobs must be flexible enough to allow performing. Lisa worked six months of the years in New York restaurants. At Opera San José, her residency is made possible by fellowship grants from Prof. John M. Heineke, Prof. Catherine R. Montfort, Phil Park, and Izzy Lewis.

Artist Profile: Jennifer Forni

forni_fellows

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

callon_fellows

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!

Into the Fire: Verdi’s Il trovatore

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Set model for Act 1, scene 1, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp.

Only coincidence caused Il trovatore to have its world premiere on the very site where Giordano Bruno was imprisoned, waiting to be burned alive a few blocks away in the Campo de’ Fiori. Teatro Apollo, a late 18th-century theatre, built where the pontifical prison Tor di Nona once stood, was the largest theatre in Rome, which made it the logical choice for a Verdi premiere, but the subject of Il trovatore makes this connection to Bruno all the more intriguing.

It has been said that Il trovatore has a confusing, even implausible plot, but I strongly disagree. I think the confusion rises because this is not a simple love story. A hundred years of Hollywood movies have caused us to expect most everything to be, at its heart, a simple love story, so all on our own, we give the passionate love between Manrico and Leonora the central place, but that’s the public’s idea or a stage director’s idea, not Verdi’s or García Gutiérrez’s idea. Had Verdi called the opera The Gypsy instead of The Troubadour (which he considered), some confusion might have been avoided, but he stuck with the title of the Gutiérrez play (from which the libretto was drawn); no doubt expecting the great fame of the play to assist his own box office receipts.

Clearly, Verdi made the right choice, as Il trovatore had 230 separate productions in its first three years (who knows how many performances that amounted to?), and this Romantic, poetic, violently passionate opera, set in the brutal world of Spain’s late Middle Ages, has never fallen from grace with the public. For many years, Il trovatore was the most popular opera of them all, but despite its long popularity, the opera has had its skeptics.

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ's production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

Set model for Act 1, scene 2, of OSJ’s production of Il trovatore. Design by Steven Kemp

When I hear someone proclaim Azucena’s horrifying, unthinkable mistake as an impossible mistake, I think this person lacks empathy or imagination, or both. So I challenge you to imagine what Azucena is experiencing when she makes this horrible error, what her mental state must be, how insane she must have become while standing in front of that raging bonfire in which her mother was being burned alive, screaming. Azucena’s is not an impossible mistake; it is an insane mistake. I am convinced that Azucena never recovers her sanity and never loses her humanity, though what she plans and calculates and carries out is utterly inhuman. In the face of this incomprehensible horror, sensibility fails us and we turn our attention to the love story. But the inexorable tragedy in Il trovatore is not that of the lovers Leonora and Manrico, but that of the antagonists Azucena and di Luna. Leonora, the innocent bystander, is collateral damage, and Manrico is used as a weapon in Azucena’s private war.Neither Gutiérrez nor Verdi were fools; they laced the brutality of the Middle Ages with a love relationship that we can see and hear and understand. Wisely, the horror is left twenty years in the past and only reported to us, and even then it is reported from opposing points of view. We are not forced to see the actual burning, we merely listen to the haunted words that describe it.

The opera begins with the love story, which is woven through the piece into the last act. From the first scene to the end of the opera, this powerful love is palpably present. This is 15th-century Spain, replete with knights and castles and ladies in waiting, when political rivalries were settled by hand-to-hand combat, when wealthy ladies were able to seek refuge in convents, and when a lord could satisfy his thwarted sexual desire by means of abduction. In Il trovatore, there is a contest for the throne of Aragon, and two leaders of these battles, Count di Luna and Manrico, are in combat not only on the battlefield but also on the field of love.

In Leonora’s first aria, we learn that before this war erupted, Leonora, lady in waiting to the Princess of Aragon, encountered a mysterious knight who displayed no crest on his shield at the joust; she fell in love with him, and he with her. They begin to meet at night, in secret. But Count di Luna is also in love with Leonora and his jealousy is magnified by enmity in war. How unfortunate for all of them that Manrico’s true identity is unknown, not only to di Luna and Leonora, but even to Manrico, himself.

Like the famous Richard the Lionheart, Manrico is a troubadour knight, and he sings to Leonora in the night, to let her know he has come. Rashly, the lovers meet inside the castle wall. Everything is in keeping with a medieval romance until we meet Azucena, Manrico’s mother, or at least the woman who tells him she is his mother. With this dramatic role, we enter the world of the 19th-century Gothic opera, where the turnings of the plot introduce the unanticipated.

Verdi was at the top of his form when he composed Il trovatore, his twelfth opera. He had just opened Rigoletto in Venice, and soon after opening Il trovatore in Rome he would open La traviata, again in Venice. He was 40 years old, and while he was not as famous as he would become after these three operas were in performance all over the world, he had become powerful enough to demand the quality of singer he required to realize his musical intentions (at least in Rome, this wouldn’t be true for Traviata in Venice). It has been said often, perhaps Caruso was the first to say it, that all one needs to have a successful production of Il trovatore is the four most accomplished singers in the world. Though I find this an exaggeration (I have experienced engrossing performances from singers who, while excellent, were not the finest in the world). What one needs are a conductor, stage director, and singers who are absolutely committed to the drama, for in this opera the drama is paramount, and the singing, however brilliant, is at the service of this fast-moving, emotional thrill ride. When this happens, when everything is at the service of this tumbling kaleidoscope of human emotion, Il trovatore is one of the most effective operas ever conceived.

Verdi selected Salvadore Cammarano to develop the libretto from the Gutierrez play. Cammarano had already written thirty-eight libretti, three of them for Verdi, but perhaps he is best known for Lucia di Lammermoor, which he authored for Donizetti. (Unfortunately, Cammarano didn’t quite complete Il trovatore, though it is reported that the opera could have been composed from the work Cammarano completed, a few revisions were made by the Neapolitan poet Leone Emanuele Bardare.)

What Cammarano brought to Il trovatore was a keen intelligence, vast experience, and real poetry. He also brought a complete understanding and trust in the accepted forms of Italian opera that had been current for fifty years. It was Verdi’s desire to break those forms and forge new ground, and he did. The resulting tension between the poetic forms used by Cammarano and the daring, raw emotions Verdi had begun to explore in Rigoletto result in a wonderfully dramatic tension that originates in the dual, conflicting goals of text and music. A lesser composer could not have succeeded where Verdi created a masterpiece.

Opera San José’s physical production of Il trovatore is under the dramatically sure hand of Brad Dalton (Madama Butterfly, Così fan tutte, Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust for OSJ), who for the past year has been working with the brilliant set designer Steven Kemp (Anna Karenina, Idomeneo, Faust) and the inspired costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter (Anna Karenina, La traviata, Tosca and many others). They have captured the essence of the late Middle Ages, rough stone, leather jerkins, armor of various kinds, and the necessity of anvils for the famous chorus. All this will be illuminated by David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Le nozze di Figaro, Faust, and others).

Opera San José Music Director David Rohrbaugh will conduct, assisted by Andrew Whtifield. Rohrbaugh has conducted more than 67 operas in more than 600 performances, ranging from Mozart to Menotti, and including Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini on route, most recently he conducted our very successful Die Fledermaus. Whitfield, OSJ’s chorus master, has conducted two-dozen operas in more than 200 performances. Most recently for Opera San José, he conducted La voix humaine, Pagliacci, and Les pêcheurs de perles.

You can expect to experience a very exciting production of Verdi’s towering Il trovatore in the California Theatre this February.

Interview with Zachary Altman

Zachary Altman

Zachary appeared as Dr. Falke in OSJ’ recent production of Die Fledermaus; Melody King sang the role of Roselinde. Photo by P. Kirk

“Born into music” is how Zachary Altman, a first-year OSJ resident baritone, describes his childhood. The Philadelphia native knew all the words to Evita when he was nine. He performed in his high school’s musicals and at sixteen he was selected for Julliard’s weekend program for high school students. He sang an aria from Don Carlos for the audition, his first experience with opera. “Everything I’ve learned since– theory, diction, singing lessons, doing scenes from operas, all built on what I got in that program,” Altman says. “Julliard also taught me about rejection. When I was a graduating senior I applied to eleven conservatories and only Julliard turned me down.” He eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music where he earned his Bachelor of Music in 2007, and his Master of Music in 2009.

After graduation, Altman auditioned as much as he could and he sang with several companies. He first learned about OSJ from Alex Boyer, a fellow student at the Manhattan School, who was headed to San Jose for an audition. When Altman heard OSJ was auditioning baritones he applied, and was soon invited to join the resident ensemble. He holds the W. Gibson Walters Memorial Fellowship and the Don and Jan Schmidek Fellowship at Opera San José.

Although he had previously sung in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Altman says it’s really hard to adjust to California attitudes. “Everyone is so happy.” The roles he sings this season with OSJ make him happy, too. He recently appeared as Zurga in The Pearl Fishers and Dr. Falke in Die Fledermaus, and will soon perform the roles of Count de Luna in Il trovatore, and the title role in Gianni Schicchi.

When he prepares for a role, Altman gets coaching and sets himself deadlines. “Learning the music is comfortable for me, but singing, the technical part, is hard. Every day I spend time and energy learning how to sing,” he said. A perfectionist, “I do not meet my own standards for being a good singer. One must always strive to do better, be perfect. For me, it’s a process.”

Zachary Altman

L-R: James Callon as Nadir and Zachary Altman as Zurga in OSJ’s 2012 production of The Pearl Fishers. Photo by P. Kirk.

“This is true for all kinds of music. I take pop music seriously, too.” In addition to performing, he taught musical theater and pop singing in Manhattan to professional singers.  He continues to love pop singing as much as opera.  “Jennifer Hudson is probably the most vocally gifted pop singer I’ve ever heard. Beyonce and Adam Lambert are extraordinary,” he said.Altman’s favorite opera singers are Audra MacDonald and the late Leonard Warren, also a baritone, like him.  His favorite role so far is Don Giovanni. “Acting and performance are a big part of that role, which makes it fun,” he said. His dream roles are Macbeth and Sweeney Todd in those operas.  “Sondheim does not think Sweeney Todd is an opera, but I do,” he said.

“My favorite operas are Salome and Tosca.  I like loud singing, fat people in big costumes, smoke. I love both old school and American opera.”  He believes there is a middle ground between opera and musical theater.  Two examples are The Light in the Piazza and The Wild Party.

Altman spent a month in Germany perfecting his spoken (and sung) German for opera. “Roles in German are easier for me than Italian roles. All the people I seriously work with are in New York, and some of my lessons are on Skype. Marlena Malas, my teacher for eight years in New York, helped my professional growth enormously, and I benefited a great deal from Marilyn Horne’s program in Santa Barbara.  That was an eight-week intensive and selective workshop that I did for three years,” he said.

“Opera San José is so supportive of our careers! I was able to do a show with the Gotham Chamber Opera in Manhattan, for which I’m very grateful.  Opera is a great way to live!” Altman added.

He enjoys the outreach and community involvement which is part of the residents’ commitment to OSJ. He and Rebecca Krouner taught a master class at a local junior high school.  “The kids were doing Beauty and the Beast and we did some coaching,” he said.  

Ultimately, Altman hopes to run a company.  “This profession puts us in touch with people we would never meet otherwise, and some I’ve met might become involved.  The most difficult obstacle I would need to overcome is momentum, making every year more successful than the last. That is what makes a success.”