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!

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.”

The Last Waltz of the Gilded Age

“Perhaps he thinks I’m unfaithful; perhaps he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!” –  Rosalinde
Act I:  Die Fledermaus

“Hofball in Wien” by Gause

As illogical as it is, the Zeitgeist of Western culture seems to take a perverse cue from our passing from one century into the next. Of course, there is no logical reason for this. The moon spins around the earth and the earth around the sun and the sun spins around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way spins around… you get it.  It’s all in one long series of circles with only our ever-changing view of the stars to mark the passage, but Europeans seem to make a change, and a radical change, just because a page is to be torn from a calendar.In the last decade of the 1400s Columbus sailed for India and changed the future of several continents forever, and at the same time Michelangelo changed sculpture and painting forever. In the last decade of the 1500s, a group of men in Florence created opera and changed the course of music forever; at the same time, Shakespeare was creating a new direction for drama and Caravaggio was turning perspective painting inside out; they changed theatre and art forever. By the end of the 1600s Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu unified France and established an absolute monarchy inherited by Louis XIV. In the last decade of the 1700s the French executed their king and queen and reversed the relationship between the governed and the government, changing all of Europe forever. And in the last decades of the 1800s there was one last sigh of the two-thousand-year-old idle class. It sighed to a waltz and died in a war.

The 20th century seems to have been predominantly occupied by a series of wars and financial disasters and that, unfortunately, didn’t change with the passing into the 21st century. However, the Internet did make its presence felt in the last decade of the 20th century and one might accurately predict that it changed the world forever. Today, at least from my perspective, it is difficult to conceive the lifestyle of the 19th-century upper crust, brittle with elegance, rife naughtiness, and numbed by ennui. While reading A Picture of Dorian Gray, I can’t imagine myself living that life, where the day began by pulling a cord to summon a valet who would arrive with tea and the morning’s invitations to dinners and balls, when afternoons were spent accepting the most promising of those invitations, and evenings were spent, if nothing else was on, dining at private clubs with intimate friends, attending the second act of an opera or play, and meeting friends for supper at midnight, before going home with one’s mistress(or dancer from the second act), only to begin it all again the next afternoon. There is no alarm clock to shatter the early morning, no traffic to suffer through on the way to the office, no office…  Truly, I can’t imagine it (or can’t admit to imagining it).

It is said that Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow were the very last gasp of that idle class, a last hurrah before catastrophe. Both are very fine examples of the lightness of this existence and of its bold extravagance that supported by investments, rents, or ruinous loans and lines of credit. But it was a house that would not stand. It was called a house of mirth by Edith Wharton (“The hearts of the wise are in the house of mourning; but the hearts of fools are in the house of mirth.” Ecclesiastes 7:4).

Composer Johann Strauss II

Baron von Eisenstein and his lovely young wife live in a house of mirth in Vienna, but no one would have guessed that at the time.It seemed that the dancing would go on forever. Die Fledermaus is entirely concerned with happy music and comic timing. Their lives kept in motion by the waltz and ruled by a new king, “Long live Champagne the First!”The Gilded Age was a giddy world for the robber barons, given over to pleasure. By the time Die Fledermaus was on the boards (1874) in Vienna, the conventions of marriage had become even less respected than they were in the 18th century. However, in the 19th century the Queen Victoria cast a long shadow and the conventions of matrimony were strictly observed, socially, and ignored privately, but only as long as the secret was closely kept. A husband or wife who was discovered on the wrong side of these conventions was cast out of society along with the children, and only enormous wealth could redeem their descendents. Marriage was in a display case, and on a marble and gilt pedestal that was just tall enough to put marital fidelity a bit out of reach in this rarefied world of dinner parties, grand balls, and midnight suppers. Courtesans and brothels were thriving.

We live in a different world. After the swinging 1960s, some of us are challenged by even the idea of adultery. This was not the case in 1870s Vienna, where the grand façade of Marriage stood as proudly as a bank on Wall Street today. In 1870s Vienna, the few who were banking on marital fidelity were thought naive. Thus Die Fledermaus, a comedy based on attempted adulteries, could and did have its world premiere on Easter Sunday. Rosalinde expresses a different worldview from ours when she remarks about her old lover: “Maybe he thinks I’ve been untrue; maybe he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!”

Still, the book and lyrics are widely recognized as absolutely masterful, and so much so as to be crowned the epitome of the genre. In this salon farce, neither husband nor wife are truly blameless; both are up to their ears in sexual temptation and cover-up lies, rather like Lucy and Ricky, but with infidelity rather than an appearance at the Copacabana in the balance.

Opera San José’s 2004 production of Die Fledermaus at the Montgomery Theater. Photo by Bob Shomler.

It has been eight years since Opera San José last produced Die Fledermaus. We bid our farewell to the Montgomery Theater with those sentimental waltzes and bouncing polkas and all’s-well-that-end’s-well finale. Thinking that it’s high time to create a new production of Die Fledermaus for San José, we assembled a brilliant team to do just that. David Rohrbaugh, our music director, who has conducted dozens of Fledermaus productions, will be on the podium, keeping the myriad waltzes sparkling and lively.

Our stage director, Marc Jacobs, is making his OSJ debut with this production. He is widely experienced in musical theatre and is adept at both subtle and broad comedy, both of which weave through the entire texture of Die Fledermaus. There is not a single serious moment in this operetta, and Marc understands sight gags, high-kicking dances, and the surprising use of Mylar to add that sparkle unique to musical comedy. His approach to this project has been to please the audience, nothing more or less, and his first request was that we commission a new English version of the book. He wanted to go back to the German text of the world premiere, which he found engaging, comical, and never silly. That commission was given to David Scott Marley, who has previously created two modernized versions of Die Fledermaus in English, and who knows the original German book all but by heart. His English version of the original dialogue is crisp, dramatically well structured, and strips some of the accretions that have barnacled this timeless comedy over the past century. It is also efficient and to the point, which modern audiences will appreciate.

OSJ crew painting the Die Fledermaus show drop, designed by Charlie Smith.

Beginning in the von Eisenstein home then moving to a great Vienna ballroom, and ending in jail, this production traces Baron Gabriel von Eisenstein and his lovely wife from lovebirds to jailbirds by the end of the performance. And it’s all in good fun. The scenic design by Charlie Smith, who recently located to Sonoma from New York, and who is designing three productions for OSJ this season, was inspired by the great iron-and-glass flower conservatories of the 19th century. Furniture and ornament in the settings were inspired by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, with its swirling art nouveau decoration, which will be most evident in the ballroom scene.

Jacobs finds that Rosalinde, who recently retired from the stage to marry the baron, a well-to-do banker, is a bird in a gilded cage, thus the golden bars of the conservatory. He also believes that Rosalinde misses the creativity and adventure of her old life (and maybe her old lover, too), so that when the opportunity arises to get into a costume and perform a part, she instantly joins the fun. Unfortunately for her, she accepted the part without having read the “script”. Rosalinde is certainly in for an adventure; she is snared by this practical joke every bit as much as her husband.

Cathleen Edwards’s costume sketches for Die Fledermaus.

The joke is played out at a fabulous party in the Vienna home of a Russian, Prince Orlofsky, an enormously wealthy nineteen-year-old suffering from that malady particular to teenagers: I’ve-already-seen-it-all syndrome. This 19th century party scene is greatly dependent on summer ball gowns, and Cathleen Edwards has designed some really lovely things to float over the ballroom floor. Her costumes have been derived directly from art of the period and will shimmer when they need to, then bring us back to earth for the final scene, at least until Orlofsky and his entire party invades the jail for a bit of spontaneous fun and the final salute to champagne.

What 19th-century ball would be complete without waltzing? Not one. Choreographer Robyn Tribuzi will be working with dancers and chorus to create the beauty of the waltz as well as the vitality of the Thunder and Lightning Polka. Of course, some of these dancers will be a bit tipsy, but don’t blame them, blame it on too much champagne.

Of course, lighting will play an enormous part in creating the atmosphere that will support the lively, sparkling music, and Pamila Gray, with years of experience at lighting opera, musical comedy, and legitimate theatre ensure that you will always be aware of the emotional content as well as the dramatic direction as it develops during the course of each scene.

We have assembled a brilliant team of veteran theater-bloods who have been putting together this new production of Die Fledermaus for the past year, and as it begins to come together we are all very much looking forward to seeing this new production on stage, breathing fresh life into this classic musical comedy.

Why is that girl on stage dressed like a boy?

Former resident mezzo-soprano, Betany Coffland, as Idamante in Opera San José’s Idomeneo, photo credit: Pat Kirk, 2011

Opera San José: If you happened to see Opera San José’s productions of Idomeneo or Faust last season you might be pondering this very question, so we asked General Manager Larry Hancock to offer his insights on the evolution of trouser roles, roles that refer to any male character that is sung by a female singer, most often a mezzo soprano.  Opera audiences are asked to suspend disbelief and accept the character as male even if the singer is not, but how did the practice begin? According to Larry, we have to go back a few hundred years…

Hancock: Sexual ambiguity was rampant in opera for its first two hundred years. Opera began its history when Catholic churches were maintaining choirs with men who had been surgically altered to preserve their treble voices (women were not allowed to sing at mass, and it must have seemed a shame to lose closely trained and gifted boy sopranos just because they were turning into teenagers.) At any rate, Italy was entirely at ease with male sopranos and altos. It was then no stretch for these beautifully trained singers to make the short step from cathedrals to theatres and take on the roles of adolescent males as well as females of all ages. Except in France, where mutilating boys was thought horrific, castrati became the rock stars of the Baroque all over Europe. Even Baroque heroes sang in the treble range, from Orlando to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great to Nero.

In modern times, Marilyn Horne and other important mezzo-sopranos brought these roles originally sung by castrati back to the stage.

(Marilyn Horne sings the title role in Vivaldi’s Orlando furiouso, San Franciso Opera, 1989)

Today we have a large number of countertenors (falsettists, not castrati), such as David Daniels, Brian Asawa, Terry Barber and many others, who are popular in the Baroque repertoire.

This practice of trouser roles has come down to modern audiences not only in Baroque operas but in many 19th-century French operas, and some others, as well. To mention a few, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro features a mezzo-soprano in the role of fourteen-year-old Cherubino, while Gounod’s Faust features a mezzo-soprano as the adolescent Siébel.

(Frederica von Stade as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, The Glyndebourne Festival in 1973)

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as “Octavian”

The same is true of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which features a mezzo-soprano as Octavian.

Opera San José’s upcoming production of Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, features a mezzo-soprano in the role of the oh-too-bored teenager, Prince Orlofsky. I have a suspicion that the reason for the 19th-century pants roles was more about seeing a woman’s legs than the quality of her voice… but that’s just an opinion.

Opera San José: And what about contemporary opera companies like Opera San José continuing the tradition of casting female singers in male roles?

According to writer Karen Finch of Suite101.com the reasons are largely historical:

Where the role was originally played by a castrato, the options are to cast a woman dressed in male costume, use a countertenor, or to drop the pitch of the role by an octave and cast a male tenor. Using the latter choice means that the dynamic and color of the role changes considerably. Countertenors are comparatively rare, so casting them is not a common solution. Using a woman offers the most authentic sound that is closest to the castrati of the time.

A second practice dates to the mid 1800s, when it was common to write leading male roles for high voices. This was after the decline of the castrati in the early 1800s, so it is thought that these parts were always intended as pants roles.

The other common tradition, which continues into contemporary operatic composition, is the casting of women as children and young adolescents, so again these parts were always intended to be played by women.

Regardless of tradition, trouser roles continue to be both a wonderful opportunity and challenge for female opera singers.  We hope you will suspend disbelief and join us for Die Fledermaus opening November 10th as resident mezzo-soprano, Nicole Birkland, and affiliate artist, Rebecca Krouner, alternate in one of the most famous trouser roles, Prince Orlofsky.

 

Interview with Cecilia Violetta López

 

Soprano Cecilia Violetta López

Cecilia Violetta López with Fellowship sponsors Profs. John Heineke and Catherine Montfort

“My parents worked as laborers in the fields near Rupert, Idaho. We kids worked alongside them. Mom would sing as she worked, so I guess you could say I was brought up to sing.” – Cecilia Violetta LópezBorn and raised in Idaho to Mexican parents, Opera San José’s new resident soprano Cecilia Violetta López discovered her passion for music as a young child when she was first introduced to mariachi music by her mother.  Her parents still live in the south central Idaho town where her mother now runs her own restaurant. Cecilia started teaching herself to play the piano as a young child and formal piano instruction began at the age of ten.  She became accomplished enough as a pianist to play in her church, and while in high school, she sang with local mariachi bands.

After graduating from high school, she moved to Las Vegas and began her work in the medical field.  She got a job as an orthopaedic assistant.  “I took out stitches, rolled casts, scheduled surgeries, that sort of thing.”  But music eventually called her.  On scholarship, she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, majoring in music education and vocal performance, but when she was student teaching she realized “teaching was not for me, singing was.”  Studying mainly under the tutelage of Dr. Tod Fitzpatrick, Cecilia matriculated from UNLV with a Bachelors of Music in Vocal Performance.

While at UNLV López performed in her first opera singing Nella in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  “I am excited to now get to sing Lauretta in that same opera,” she said.  During her years at UNLV, Cecilia performed roles including Pamina (The Magic Flute), Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea), Gasparina (La Canterina), Kate Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) and Micaëla (Carmen).

López chose to pursue a degree in vocal performance and she admits studying for her chosen field was intense. It included serious language preparation, mostly in Italian, French and German.  Ms. López’ additional training included traveling to Austria where she was a student in the American Institute of Musical Studies.  There she concentrated on vocal training, learning the German language and participated in master classes with Patricia Craig and Gabriele Lechner.  Ms. López furthered her training while attending the Hawai’i Performing Arts Festival working alongside mezzo-soprano, Juliana Gondek.  She continues lessons once a week with a teacher in San Francisco.

It was during her studies in the Hawai’i Performing Arts Festival in Kamuela, Hawai’i where López met former OSJ resident baritone Krassen Karagiozov.  Krassen later informed her that the company was auditioning for new artists and she should audition. López is now thrilled to be one of OSJ’s five new residents. She lives here in San José, while her husband and daughter remain in Las Vegas. “We Skype often, so that helps, and they visit me as often as they can.  My husband and daughter are both very supportive.” she said.

Her daughter Sara already has stage experience. She was in the Children’s Chorus in UNLV’s production of Carmen when she was six. “I took her to my rehearsals and finally asked her if she wanted to be in the chorus as soon as I saw that she expressed an interest in being with the other kids in the chorus, so I said okay. She showed remarkable stage presence. Soon she will start taking piano and violin lessons.”

When asked how she prepares for a role, López’s technique involves watching DVDs of the opera she is going to sing and listening to recordings.  She studies the plot and reads the background of the libretto, then reads her role in the language she will be singing and translates the words so it makes sense as a dialogue. She works with an accompanist an hour a day in addition to rehearsals, which are generally from 2:30 to 10:00 PM, with a dinner break.

Asked about her favorite singers, López sighed.  “It’s a toss-up for sopranos.  Leontyne Price or Renee Fleming.  I can’t chose. I favor Vittorio Grigolo, an Italian tenor, when it comes to male singers.”

No question about what makes a good singer as far as Cecilia Violetta López is concerned.  “Genuine passion and love for the music.  A singer who goes through the sacrifice and dedication to learn a role should eventually be able to genuinely communicate the emotions the composer is trying to portray.  Music is very powerful and has the ability to move people with beautiful melodies and harmonies.  Making music and a character personal can take it one step further and really create an illusion for the listener–pretty soon, language barriers dissappear.  If one didn’t have a personal connection with the character, it would just be pretty music, and, as we say in the field, it would be considered a ‘park and bark’ moment.”

“Music should uplift the listener, even “gloomy” music. As a listener I want to be transported to the world the composer or performer take themselves to when they are musically inspired. …when I sing, it’s like all of my emotions come out.  What I’m expressing, what I’m feeling, I want everyone, including those in the very back row, to feel.”

López, a Heineke/Montfort Fellow, loves the way the other resident artists are genuinely nice, kind, and welcoming. Preparing a different role for every opera is a challenge she looks forward to. “I am honored to be here.”

Ms. López’s professional accomplishments include the title role in Suor Angelica with Opera San Luis Obispo, a role she will be reprising this season for Opera San José and Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Opera Las Vegas.

Don’t miss Cecilia Violetta López in her debut with Opera San José as Leïla in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, opening September 8 at the California Theatre in downtown San José.

 

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part III

Another Pearl Fishers challenge for a California audience is an absence of cultural awareness. Hindu thought and religious practice was a complete unknown for these Parisian librettists. Today, Indians chuckle throughout this opera at such a brilliant display of perfect ignorance. Clearly, their goal was not an accurate picture of a distant culture. The opera was modeled on Spontini’s La vestale (ancient Rome!) and Bellini’s Norma (ancient Gaul!!). The Pearl Fishers was not exactly a National Geographic special. The goal was to create an idealized exotic atmosphere, put the trouble in paradise, and invent an escape route, much like Hollywood films of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s (you get the drift). This approach is nothing new.

Now we come to the best-friends-forever relationship between Zurga and Nadir. In the 19th century, close, affectionate, friendships were highly prized, and especially so as friendships between the sexes were virtually impossible. During the course of the 20th century, especially in this country, such warm, platonic friendships have all but disappeared. We have a completely different perception of friendship, and our closest friends would more than likely appear as mere acquaintances to young adults of the 19th century. Their friendship, from our vantage point, displayed surprisingly effusive language and affection.

Last of all we come to Leïla: a woman with a past, a woman with a secret, a woman in love. What could be more intriguing than this lovely, veiled woman, the 19th-century equivalent of a vestal virgin? Every man in the village, and the women, too, must have been wondering what she looked like, where she came from, what made her special, and whether or not she could keep the dark forces of evil at bay while they were swimming with sharks. Members of the Jockey Club must have been wondering at least some of the same things from their box seats in the Théâtre Lyrique.

Leïla is listed in the score as a priestess. There are Hindu priests and priestesses, past and present, but I wonder if any of them tried to keep malevolent spirits at bay through song. However, in an idealized island paradise imagined by 19th-century Parisians, this couldn’t have been much of a stretch.

The trick to enjoy The Pearl Fishers is to enter into this lush tropical scene with the hope of hearing one of the most lavishly beautiful scores in the repertoire. Number after number is simply beautiful, deliciously beautiful, enchantingly beautiful. The choruses are in turn lively, dreamy, overwhelming, distant, and spectacular, with rich harmonies and effective rhythms. The duets are immortal, and the arias are stunning.

So, if you can forgive the cultural ignorance of the librettists and go with the flow of the plot, you might find that The Pearl Fishers is one of the most rewarding evenings you have ever spent in a theatre. We are doing all in our power to ensure that experience for you, and we do have quite a bit of experience at succeeding with The Pearl Fishers.

Thanks to Kirti Venkatasawmy (my French tutor) and Vijay Vaidyanathan (for his insightful comments).

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers – Part II

Place_du_Chatelet

The Théâtre Lyrique (centre right), Paris, where The Pearl Fishers received its first performance on September 30, 1863.

Opéra comique is a specific form of theatrical entertainment. It was firmly established during the 18th century, and by the time Bizet began composing it had deeply entrenched traditions and specific audience expectations. It was light entertainment (it was not Carmen). It consisted of consistently charming music, a bit of comedy, a little romance, a confusion or obstacle that threatened the romance, and a happy ending that indicated an impending fairy-tale marriage. American musical theatre had much the same expectations until West Side Story, which also did poorly at the box office in its initial run, though not nearly so bad as Carmen.Bizet was among those who thought opéra comique needed reform. In the opinions of these young librettists and composers, opéra comique had become calcified, predictable, boring. Carmen was meant to shake up that complaisant world, inject it with excitement, bring opéra comique into the 19th century. The 19th century wasn’t quite ready. The problems with The Pearl Fishers were subtler than those of Carmen, and there were mixed opinions about Pearl Fishers. All of Paris was unanimous in their abhorrence of Carmen, but for Pearl Fishers, audiences thought one thing, musicians another, and it seems that all but one reviewer disagreed with both of them. Berlioz was the dissenting voice; he praised Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.

The Pearl Fishers was first conceived as an opéra comique, which meant spoken dialogue, charming music, a chaste romance, and a happy ending. The thing that would set this opera apart was the exotic setting (ultimately Ceylon). Conceived as a perfumed island paradise where palm trees swayed beneath a starry sky surrounded by an azure sea, it was to be the very opposite of naturalism. The obstacle to the marriage of the soprano and tenor was supposed to be easily overcome: no undue suffering. A lot of this changed, perhaps because of the development of the libretto in Act III, when the librettists decided to set fire to the village. For any thinking person, this would result in the death of the baritone, who set the fire when the whole village was already thirsting for blood. This changed a lot, but not quite everything. There were still palm trees and starry skies, and a chaste romance, but now the music had to embody an execution and a rescue.

Bizet rose to the challenge with choral music of vengeful menace, fury heightened by frenzy. This was not an ending that anyone at the time would have expected, and Bizet prepared this last chorus with a gradually increasing sense of anger and peril. Thus the critics’ accusation of being under the influence of Verdi, whose operas were seen as too violent, too tragic. Also unwelcome was the new music of Wagner, which was too thick, too complex, too powerful, not cheerful, too long. Tannhäuser caused a riot at its Paris premiere in 1861, and Bizet had just gone on public record as lauding Wagner as a composer whose work should be known and understood.

Before The Pearl Fishers opened, Bizet decided (I haven’t found his reason yet) to replace the expected spoken dialogue with sung recitative. This gave the opera a sense of through-composed music and blurred the edges of discrete musical numbers, which may have led some to think of Wagner; however, more than anything Bizet composed in The Pearl Fishers, I suspect his praise for the despised Wagner is what garnered so much sharp criticism. Still, despite the fact that the opera was no longer an opéra comique, it still retained much of that scent and atmosphere, and perhaps threw the reviewers into confusion. The public was not confused; they approved enthusiastically and called Bizet to the stage for a bow (which the critics didn’t approve of at all). The opera ran for eighteen performances (perfectly respectable), alternating with The Marriage of Figaro.

So much for the opening, now on to a social consideration…

Stay tuned for the final installment of Larry’s thoughts on Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers

Some Thoughts on The Pearl Fishers: Part I

Georges BizetThis might seem a bit random, but as I have been reading about the life of Bizet and the creation, premiere, and reception of his first full-length opera, it has occurred to me that there are a few stumbling blocks that could compromise the modern viewer’s full enjoyment of this opera. If some of these confusions could be untangled in advance, they might allow audience members to enter more fully into the 19th-century esthetic, action, and music of The Pearl Fishersand enhance the enjoyment of that experience.

Bizet’s musical legacy hinges on one opera: Carmen. Composers will tell you that Carmen is expertly, even brilliantly constructed, and musicologists will point out that it is the very first of a new kind of opera (referred to as naturalism, which was spawned by literary realism in France, and called verismo in Italy), and it led to Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, La bohème, Louise, and many, many others, arguably even Tosca. This approach began in 1840s France as a literary movement that championed the depiction of life as led by ordinary people. It accepted and illustrated the idea that heredity and social conditions, such as material and emotional want, have real impact on character and the decisions one makes because life itself limits and directs one’s choices. Balzac, Zola, Murger, and Mérimée (Mérimée wrote the 1845 novella on which Bizet based his 1875 Carmen) pioneered this new way of looking at society and individuals. They turned their attention away from palaces, castles, and knights in shining armor toward slums, brothels, and even Spanish Gypsies. That Bizet’s reputation entered the 20th century based on only one opera is due to the very constraints that were illustrated in the novels that began this movement.

Bizet lived in Paris during the mid 19th century. France was still experiencing sporadic, even violent, political unrest that had been unleashed by the French revolution. He would fight in the Franco-Prussian War, when the Prussians laid siege, shelled, starved, and occupied Paris. He would gather up his new wife, Geneviève Halévy, and retreat to the countryside during the Paris Commune, when angry dissidents took over the seat of French government and set fire to major parts of the city. Art does not thrive in times like these, times of financial collapse and general upheaval. In these conditions, costly art forms flounder and opera companies die.

Bizet began something in the neighborhood of thirty operas during the course of his 36 years (he composed his first staged work at age 18 and his last at age 35), but almost all of them were abandoned. Most were thwarted by the financial problems of the companies that had begun these projects. Several of the operas that were completed did not make it to an opening because of the financial insecurity of the producing companies. The Théâtre Lyrique, the one opera company in Paris that produced the work of up-and-coming composers, closed forever in these years, and the Opéra-Comique was shut down immediately after Carmen. In truth, it was the enormous box office failure of Carmen that brought about the demise of the Opéra-Comique, and the reasons for this failure also apply, to some extent, to the poor reception of The Pearl Fishers by the French press.

Stay tuned for Part II, where Larry discusses the specific form of theatrical entertainment known as Opéra-Comique and how it affected opera audience expectations during Bizet’s time.