The winners of the 2008 Irene Dalis Vocal Competition: where are they now?

Irene Dalis and Scott Bearden; photo by Bob Shomler, 2008

Opera San José subscribers cheered as Scott Bearden (baritone) took both 1st place and the Audience Choice award in the 2008 vocal competition. A former resident artist (2000-02), Mr. Bearden was also the Audience Choice in the inaugural 2007 competition. Following his departure from Opera San José in 2002, Mr. Bearden went on to sing lead roles with companies throughout the world, from Connecticut and Tennessee to Peru and Tel Aviv. Mr. Bearden’s 2012 engagements include Iago in Knoxville Opera’s production of Otello (April), and a return to Caramoor as Zambri in Ciro in Babilonia (July). Mr. Bearden can be heard as the Vicar in the Vox Classics recording of Britten’s Albert Herring, and he has recently released a solo recording of songs entitled A Piece of Art.

Arthur Espiritu (tenor), 2nd place winner in the 2008 competition, has since performed around the world with the Accademia of Teatro alla Scala, Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Opera Fuoco, Theatre St. Gallen in Switzerland, Théâtre Champs-Élisées in Paris, France, the Learners Chorus in Hong Kong, and the Oulu Sinfonia of Finland. His recent and upcoming projects in the 2010-2012 season include making his role debut as Elvino (La sonnambula) and Oronte (Alcina) with St. Gallen, a company debut with the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, and reprising roles for Ashlawn Opera, Opera North (NH), Austin Lyric Opera and Washington Concert Opera.

While we are gathered at the California Theatre on May 19th for this year’s competition, 2008 3rd place winner Eugene Chan (tenor) will be singing Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Yakima Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Other 2012 engagements for Mr. Chan include Slook (La cambiale di matrimonio) for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and Figaro for Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of The Barber of Seville. He recently made his role debut as Hajny (Rusalka) with Theater Basel (Switzerland) and sang Dandini for Teatro Comunale di Bologna (Italy). He was a finalist in the Francisco Viñas International Competition in Barcelona (2012), the Geneva International Competition (2011) and the Elena Obraztsova International Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia (2011).

Scott Six (tenor) was the recipient of an award from the Wagner Society of Northern California in the 2008 competition. In 2010, he took first place in the Wagner Division of the Liederkranz Vocal Competition in NYC. He has been a part of the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singer Program, under the auspices of the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C. since 2010. Recent appearances include Opera in the Heights in Houston, TX, and the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra in Virginia. In January, Mr. Six returned to the west coast to sing Pagliacci in Stockton, CA, before performing his first Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos with Winter Opera St. Louis.

The winners of the 2007 Irene Dalis Vocal Competition: where are they now?

Irene Dalis Vocal Competition 2007
NaGuanda Nobles, First place winner at the Inaugural Irene Dalis Vocal Competition; photo by Bob Shomler, 2007

Following her first place win at the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition in 2007, NaGuanda Nobles (soprano) went on to also win first place at the Ninth Annual Jensen Foundation Voice Competition in 2008, taking home another $15,000 and a contract with Opera Carolina. In 2008, she was a guest soloist for the Fremont Symphony in an evening of George Gershwin music; that same year, Mrs. Nobles performed as Liu in Turandot for Dayton Opera, and also covered the role of Clara in Porgy & Bess for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Mrs. Nobles appeared as Mimì in La bohème for Sacramento Opera in 2009. She sang the role of Clara in Porgy & Bess for Dayton Opera in 2010 and for Atlanta Opera in 2011. In 2011, she reprised her roles as Liu (Turandot) for Pittsburgh Opera, and Mimì (La bohème) for Dayton Opera. This fall, she will be singing the High Priestess in Dallas Opera’s production of Aïda.

In 2007, 2nd place winner Kristin Rothfuss (mezzo-soprano) made her debut with Sacramento Opera, singing Dorabella in a new production of Così fan tutte directed by John de Lancie, as well as singing Lola for Virginia Opera’s production of Cavalleria rusticana. After singing professionally for a few years, Kristin had a career change, becoming a new mother to a baby girl, which she calls her “best role yet”! Today, she runs a thriving private voice studio with 35 students, mostly high school students, and is passing on her joy, passion and knowledge for singing to the next generation. She proudly reported that some have moved on to major in vocal performance in college and have received large scholarships.

Oksana Sitnitska (mezzo-soprano), 3rd place winner of the inaugural Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, sang Olga in Virginia Opera’s 2008 production of Eugene Onegin, where she shared the stage with former OSJ resident Jason Detweiler as Onegin! In recent years, she has done a number of special performances of traditional Russian and Ukranian music at venues throughout the Bay Area with Sacramento Opera.

Comments on the set designs for Faust

The basic premise of the Renaissance paintings was to create an environment that acknowledges itself as being fake- something conjured by Méphistophélès. The kermesse* drop in Act I is based on a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called The Wedding Dance. We wanted the characters to seem to pop right out of the paintings, so we used costumes that match very closely to the kermesse; the characters start the scene in that frozen pose, and come to life as the lights pop on.

Evan Brummel as Valentin; Image by Pat Kirk Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The garden drop in Act II is a collage of Bruegel paintings—we wanted something that could give the beauty of the vista of the countryside, yet still feel intimate to satisfy the emotions of the multiple scenes in which we wanted to use it. The scale, as well as surreal ideas such as the door, helps to establish the paintings as a conjured environment, poetically establishing the world.

Alexander Boyer as Faust, and Krassen Karagiozov as Valentin; Image by Pat Kirk Photography

The church drop is based on a panel from a Hans Memling triptych, The Last Judgment. The historical context of the idea of the painting adds to the theatricality of the events: in that scene, Méphistophélès controls the chorus and ties to the manifestation of looming hell in the theatrical lighting booms, as on-lookers lurk in the darkened wings.

Jasmina Halimic as Marguerite; Image by Pat Kirk Photography

By comparison, the equations drop for Faust’s study in Act I is a collage of medieval equations done as chalkboard drawings, and even though it conjures a similarly heightened reality by being oversized, the intention was for it to feel the most real.

Michael Dailey as Faust; Image by Pat Kirk Photography

The drop in the finale (Marguerite and Faust’s redemption) is based on a manuscript illumination, Dante and Beatrice Ascend to the Heaven of the Sun, by Giovanni di Paolo.

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste as Marguerite and Michael Dailey as Faust (with Jesigga Sigurdardottir as Marguerite’s deceased sister); Image by Pat Kirk Photography

[Editor’s note: if you enjoyed reading about the goals and context of these stage designs, we hope that you will join us next season, for our series of free lunchtime previews at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San Jose. In addition to a selection of arias performed by OSJ resident artists, we are often able to host a panel of distinguished speakers (such as the stage director, set or costume designers, academics, and more!) to discuss the production and answer questions. To keep informed about the Tuesday previews and similar events, sign up to receive OSJ Enews today!]

*A kermess is a Dutch mass and celebration of the church, accompanied by feasting, dancing and sports.

An Interview With Michael Dailey

Michael Dailey

Michael Dailey and Betany Coffland take a break from their royal duties in the 2009 production of La Cenerentola, surrounded by new friends from the Girl Scouts.


“A teacher once told me that a person doesn’t pick music, music picks the person. And in my case, that’s been true.”

Despite possessing a voice that Opera News has described as “blessed with freshness,” Michael Dailey’s career as an opera singer occasionally surprises even himself. “I am not from a musical family, and extroverted behavior was not encouraged. Children were to be polite and quiet. Opera is quite the opposite — it is all about expressing yourself.” In fact, when Dailey experienced his first symphony performance on an elementary school field trip, he asked his teacher whether the musicians were playing the instruments or playing tapes!

As a teenager, Dailey had to fulfill a fine arts requirement at Tallwood High School in Virginia, and on a whim he chose theater. “In my sophomore year they were doing the musical Pippin. I auditioned with a jazzy/soul interpretation of ‘Happy Birthday,’ and was cast as the lead.” Based on that performance, he was invited to sing with the Madrigals, “a small, prestigious group that sang classical pieces, not Broadway show tunes.” Dailey also competed for a place in the District Choir, and sang in the All-State Chorus his senior year. While still in high school, a friend invited him to see his first opera, a Virginia Opera performance of Rigoletto. He remembers getting dressed up in his Madrigals tuxedo for the occasion, and that by the end of the opera, he had been moved to tears by the drama and music.

When Dailey was a senior, his high school choral director Claudia Griffin encouraged him to sing for David Clayton, the choral director at Virginia Wesleyan College. A successful audition later, Dailey’s life had been given a new direction: “I was the first male in my family to go to college, and it was while I was an undergrad that I first studied with a voice teacher.”

It is often said that only one in 10,000 singers have a successful career in opera. Knowing early on that the odds were stacked against him, Dailey continued singing while pursuing a B.A. in Psychology at Virginia Wesleyan, and an M.S.Ed. in Counseling from Old Dominion University. All the while, he found himself thinking more about performances than his studies. “That is where music found me. I knew it had to be my life!” He finished his degrees and worked as a counselor for two years, while singing with the Virginia Chorale, in church choirs, and in the Virginia Opera chorus.

He was accepted to the resident artist-in-training program at Tri-Cities Opera (Binghamton, NY) with Opera Guild and Adele Bernstein Scholarships in 2006, and began singing opera full-time. In 2007 he toured Western Europe with New York Harlem Productions’ Porgy and Bess. “It’s an excellent company that only tours this one opera. It was my first time in Europe, too.”

Dailey joined the resident artist ensemble at Opera San José in 2008, on a partial fellowship from the W. Gibson Walters Memorial Fund. “The best thing about Opera San José is that it offers singers the opportunity to grow professionally, by doing so many leading roles. Many people don’t realize that it is the second largest opera company in the Bay Area, and that its productions are cast around the residents. Other professionals, usually former residents, are hired when other voices are needed.” In the past four years, Dailey has sung numerous roles for the company, including Alfredo (La traviata), Beppe (Pagliacci), Levin (Anna Karenina), Des Grieux (Manon), Prunier (La rondine), Don Ramiro (La Cenerentola), Don José (Carmen), Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Lensky (Eugene Onegin), Nemorino (The Elixir of Love), and Count Almaviva (The Barber of Seville) which is his current favorite.

Dailey prepares for a role by translating the score, listening to recordings in order to get the concept of the entire piece, and speaking the text in rhythm. For inspiration, Dailey’s favorite tenor is Nicolai Gedda, probably the most widely-recorded tenor in history. “He is a true lyric tenor, like me.” He also greatly admires Natalie Dessay and Joan Sutherland, because their voices are so unique. “They were never pushed to sound like anyone but themselves. Every note Sutherland sings is beautiful. ” Outside of opera, Dailey’s favorite musician is Prince. “’Around the World in a Day” was the first cassette tape I ever received — I would listen to it literally two or three times a day, and sing along.”

This season, Dailey concludes his fourth-year of residency with Opera San José. “Opera singing is a difficult occupation: a singer must have a beautiful voice, of course, but they must also be a good actor, able to draw in the audience, and able to accurately pronounce many languages. All of the resident artists at Opera San José hope to be better singers and performers when they leave, than when they arrived.”

The intersection of Dailey’s vocal talent and academic interests provide him with an array of interesting prospects for the future. “Music can hit me with its feeling and power,” Dailey says. “It has its own language. At one time I considered becoming a music therapist. Did you know some composers wrote pieces for their personal therapy, for instance, after suffering the loss of a loved one?”

In the meantime, Opera San José fans are not the only ones who see Dailey’s opera career taking off. In 2010, Dailey was invited back to Virginia Wesleyan to sing at the college’s 41st commencement ceremony, where he inspired graduates with performances of “Nessun dorma” (Turandot) and “Make Them Hear You” (Ragtime). Last summer, Dailey sang as an apprentice artist with Santa Fe Opera; he will be returning this summer as an understudy for the lead tenor in Maometto II, and sing an additional comprimario (supporting) role.

If you enjoyed Dailey’s recent performance as Alfredo in La traviata, be sure to catch him singing the title role in our upcoming production of Faust, April 21 — May 6, 2012.

Gounod’s Redemption of Faust

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust

“Well, doctor, what do you want of me? 
Let us see; speak! 
Do I frighten you?”

Méphistophélès needs no introduction, and no one need tell you that should you see him coming, it’s best to run the other way. Faust stood his ground and lived to regret it…at least in some versions of the story.

Johann Georg Faust, a graduate of Heidelberg University, lived in Germany between 1480 and 1540. He was famed for his claim to be Satan’s son-in-law. He was famous for many other things as well, most of which were rather unsavory. It wasn’t long before his exploits at fortune-telling, alchemy, and magic were chronicled by an anonymous author and immediately published as Historia, von D. Johann Faustus in 1587. Within five years, this book was translated into English by another anonymous writer known only as P.F., Gentleman.  In short order, the brilliant playwright Christopher Marlowe added his version, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and this seems to be the most widely received of the versions then available. The adaptation that captured the world’s attention, however, was the great theological and philosophical work, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced ger-tuh), which has held sway over readers since 1832, when Part Two (the final installment) was completed. This dense and far-ranging argument about the condition of mankind, our relationship with God, and the possibility and conditions of our salvation became almost holy writ in Germany, and has been studied in universities across the world for more than a century. In all these years, it has inspired innumerable other books, plays, films, and operas based on the imagined life of a Medieval necromancer.

The version of Faust that has had the widest audience, however, is not the revered play of Goethe’s pen (though that is still the most performed play in Germany), but a less philosophical and perhaps more entertaining opera based on Goethe’s Part One: Gounod’s Faust. In the 24 years between its first performance at the famed Palais Garnier in 1869 (ten years after the Théâtre Lyrique world premiere) and Gounod’s death in 1893, the opera had become the most performed work in that house. Faust was also the opera chosen to open the Metropolitan Opera in 1883, and has achieved well more than 700 performances there; it has more than a thousand in Paris.

Goethe’s great masterwork, which has held the world’s attention for so long, ends differently from Marlowe’s play, which ends with Faust going to Hell as a trophy for Méphistophélès. Goethe took the opposite direction: a forgiving Gretchen (Marguerite in the opera) prays on Faust’s behalf, and at the moment that he should be consigned to perdition, God forgives him. Except for the ruin of Gretchen, Faust used the power of Hell to do good works on earth, releasing him from his bargain with Méphistophélès; he was redeemed.

Gounod’s opera does not dabble in this controversy over damnation vs. salvation; rather, it does all it can to meet public expectations and be entertaining. He was not trying to make a reputation on philosophy or scandal, but still, Gounod was dealing in a subject that can spark all manner of reactions and responses. The age-old “deal with the devil” story takes on a particular aura, no matter how the author attempts to avoid controversy.

Marguerite's Garden
Marguerite’s garden in Act 3 of the opera Faust by Gounod as presented in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique on 19 March 1859. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry.

In truth, Faust is not a man of ill intention; he might be better described as foolish rather than evil, a hot-blooded teenager eager to have his pent-up desires satisfied rather than a calculating villain out to hurt others. Indeed, he does seduce an attractive and innocent young woman, and then he leaves her when his desire is sated. Once out looking for his next exploit, he does not think to inquire after her condition. He doesn’t think at all until she is brought to mind after all possible damage has been accomplished, other than her complete destruction. There is nothing admirable in that, but nothing malicious, either – just blind stupidity. Stupidity can do enormous damage, but is it evil? When Faust does sense (through divine inspiration) that all is not well, he insists on coming to the rescue and Méphistophélès is powerless to stop him. Once with Gretchen, seeing the disaster he has brought down upon her, he does his best to save her life. He fails, but not for lack of good intentions and real effort. So, is he beyond redemption? That becomes the question in every Faust, even in Gounod’s romantic 19th-century opera. Goethe posited that those of good intention, who strive to do good, are eligible for salvation; Gretchen forgave Faust, so why shouldn’t the creator of the universe forgive him, too? Much like the deathbed confession and true regret that saves the soul of a Roman Catholic, or the transforming moment of conversion when Jesus is recognized as the Christ, which saves the soul of a Baptist, Faust is forgiven in Goethe’s version. Is this divine justice? It may be, but this isn’t why Gounod’s operatic adaptation has been so popular for so very long. This popularity rests in the richly beautiful, sensuous music.

French opera of the mid to late 19th century is particularly blessed with stunning music. Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Roméo et Juliette, and so many others, are among the most pleasing to hear of all operas. Even those that don’t have librettos of the stature of Faust are still richly rewarding purely through the quality of the music. In Gounod’s Faust, the most moving music is, perhaps, the love duet between Faust and Marguerite at the midpoint of the work, but the most rousing is the Soldiers’ Chorus in Act III. That which is most transcendent is the final trio between Marguerite, Faust and Méphistophélès at the very end of the opera, which is undoubtedly among the most affecting ensembles in all opera.

The staging of Faust is being realized by director Brad Dalton, who brought you our most recent productions of Idomeneo, Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly, all of which were superior productions with surprisingly fresh interpretations that were both visually striking and dramatically powerful. Steven C. Kemp (Anna Karenina and Idomeneo) has aided Dalton in bringing this vision to the stage, and his designs are arresting. David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin) will design the lighting. Costumes will be provided by Malabar, and are based on clothes of the 16th century.

 

 

A new life for La traviata

There are advantages and disadvantages of co-productions. The biggest advantage is cost sharing; when two companies pool financial resources, much more can be accomplished. In the case of the Opera San José/Opera Santa Barbara co-production of Verdi’s La traviata, a level of grandeur was achieved that neither company could have afforded on its own. Co-production disadvantages are usually about artistic vision, and fortunately for this project, José Maria Condemi, who is directing La traviata for Opera San José, is the artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara. If there were arguments over artistic goals, José Maria had all of them with himself!

José Maria wanted to have a bit of a new look for La traviata, and in his research he discovered that the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 as part of an enormous exposition to demonstrate the great strides made by France since the overthrow of the monarchy, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution.

Eiffel Tower

Construction of the tower, October 14 1888 – March 31, 1889; La Tour Eiffel, by Roland Barthes

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It was the chief emblem of an age of unfettered optimism and it dominated the Paris skyline. To have this mighty symbol juxtaposed against the slow, inescapable destruction of one young woman, of her hopes, her most sacred longings, and finally her very life, creates a visual illustration of how the merrymakers continue their romp through the salons of Paris while she is left behind to die.

The tower, under construction, is visible through the window of Violetta’s salon in Act I and seen completed through Flora’s salon window in Act III. This also gives an indication of the passage of time and the impression that both of the women live on the butte of Montmartre, overlooking the city below. This area of Paris is still known for its liberal morality and was the home of many of the greatest artists, composers, writers, and thinkers of that time, the very people who would have populated Violetta’s salon.

The sets were designed by Erik Flatmo, who also designed Eugene Onegin, The Magic Flute, and Tosca for Opera San José in past seasons. Erik has given us a stylish, large, 19th-century-inspired residence with classic paneling and dull-mirrored surfaces. It readily adapts to the opera’s four scenes: Violetta’s Paris salon in Act I, the country house she shares with Alfredo in Act II, Flora’s elegant apartments in Act III, and finally in Act IV, Violetta’s Paris bedroom, where her belongings are being readied for auction. Elizabeth Poindexter, whose extensive list of productions for Opera San José most recently added the West Coast premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina, designed the luxurious costumes of the famous courtesan and her elegant entourage.

The Bridesmaid
The Bridesmaid by J. Tissot, 1883;

When I heard that José Maria wanted La traviata set in 1889, I was pleased to think that we would save costs by utilizing costumes from Anna Karenina, which is in the same period by the same designer; I was soon disabused of my foolish delusion. The fashions of 1889 were in a period of transition between the height of the bustle in 1883 and the slimmed down and daring silhouette of the “hourglass” that dominated the 1890s. The 1880s were a time of heavy brocades, lace, ribbon, false and real flowers, and richly draped fabrics. Going against tradition, Violetta will make her first appearance on our stage in yellow lace.

Chris Maravich, San Francisco Opera’s production lighting designer, will design lighting for La traviata. The only other time Chris has designed for Opera San José was for Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2008, when José Maria was the stage director. After many years working together on the direction staff of the San Francisco Opera, José Maria and Chris have become a great team.

In all, we have an enormously gifted, experienced and resourceful creative team for this co-production of La traviata, and I feel certain that these visual elements combined with the sure hand of Conductor David Rohrbaugh, Assistant Conductor Joseph Marcheso and Chorus Master Andrew Whitfield will bring to San José a very satisfying production of one of the great operas of all time, Verdi’s La traviata.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

The Lady of the Camellias

Rubra Plean camellia
Rubra Plena, illustrated by Carl and Napoléon Baumann

The inspiration for Verdi’s opera, La traviata, was the true story of Marie Duplessis, also known as la dame aux camélias—the lady of the camellias. In her Parisian residence, Marie is said to have had a room filled with vine-laden trellises and baskets of fresh flowers; from these, she would regularly choose a camellia to wear with her ensemble. An imported and exotic flower, this was easily the most expensive corsage that could be worn at that time, and was virtually synonymous with the young courtesan who died of tuberculosis in 1847.

Buff or Hume’s Blush Camellia: Myrtle Leaved Camellia, illustrated by Clara Maria Pope for “A monograph on the genus Camellia” by Samuel Curtis

Camellias are originally from Asia, where they were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were ever seen in Europe. In addition to producing delicately scented flowers in a variety of colors, the most famous member of their species is the tea plant, Camelia sinensis, whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce many types of tea including white green, oolong and black varieties.

The Europeans’ first exposure to camellias may have been through their representations inpaintings and wallpaper, where they were often shown growing in porcelain pots. Wealthy patrons of the British East India Company began to import varieties to satisfy their horticultural interests—the double-red camellia known as Rubra Plena was first imported by Sir Robert Preston in 1794, and in 1806 a pale pink variety was nicknamed “Lady Hume’s Blush” in honor of Amelia, the wife of Sir Abraham Hume.

The greatest camellia scholar of the nineteenth century was the wealthy Italian priest, the Abbé Laurent Berlese (1784-1863), who conducted his studies in his private greenhouse in Paris. The popularity of this lovely and fragrant blossom quickly spread beyond the realm of the passionate gardener, and in the 1840s, the camellia became the height of fashion as the luxury flower for elegant women. The camellia was also a favorite of the late 20th century fashion icon Coco Chanel. After her passing in 1971, the flower has continued to be used as a signature for the House of Chanel collections by chief designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Chanel Fashion Show

Chanel’s Fall 2008 Paris fashion show; photo by Elisabeth Fourmont for Chicagomag.com

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

An Interview with Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste with her Fellowship Sponsor, Catherine Bullock; June 2011

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste knows that successful opera singers approach their craft with gusto.  Self-confidence is a must, particularly if the character one is singing is doomed to die a violent death. “Being stabbed to death on stage was a new way of dying for me,” Jean-Baptiste said, referring to her demise as Nedda in Pagliacci, “because usually in an opera, I die by suicide, or from disease.”

Jean-Baptiste brings enormous energy and spunk to her roles. Born in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Haiti, the family moved to Florida when she was still a child. At a very young age, she began ballet and piano lessons. “Music has always been part of my world, part of my culture,” she says. “Piano gave me a musical foundation, but soon I switched to violin, and played it all through high school, as well as dabbling in tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. I was a total music geek and I loved it. I still am very much that music geek!” she says, laughing.

Growing up, she sang in school and church choirs, but it was not until she was 20 that she decided to take voice lessons to improve her singing. From that point on, she was determined to study music full-time and make a career as an opera singer. Not only did she learn arias and art songs, she also studied language diction. She continues private vocal study with Oscar Diaz, Jr. in Florida. “Oscar is the best teacher I have had thus far. Without him I would not be anywhere near the level that I am at now vocally, and I continue to flourish under his tutelage.”

Jean-Baptiste’s voice is that of a lirico spinto, possessing both a lyric and dramatic quality in her voice. “My voice is ideal for Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss, in particular,” she says. In spring of 2009, she was hired to cover the title role in West Bay Opera’s Madama Butterfly. “I met Carlos Aguilar, at the time a resident artist with Opera San José, and he helped me set up an audition.” That audition resulted in an offer for her own residency, an opportunity for which she is undeniably grateful. “A performer is never created in the studio, we’re created in the theater. Opera San José provides a creative environment in which to develop.”

Jean-Baptiste’s favorite role at this point in her career is Anna Karenina, which she sang for Opera San José in 2010. “Many elements in that role were very personal and reflected my own life,” she said. Her favorite singers are Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Anna Moffo. “Moffo’s rendition of Violetta is inspiring,” she noted.

To prepare her own interpretation of Violetta, she read La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, on which La traviata is based. “It helped me really understand the character, and I like her. Verdi intended La traviata to be told from Alfredo’s point of view, as it was in the book. The opera is a flashback, as we hear with the Prelude. This is repeated in the final act when Violetta is only moments from death. So the entire opera is really Alfredo reminiscing about his time with Violetta.  We’re not sure of what happened from Violetta’s side, only what Alfredo tells us. Once we acknowledge this, we understand the opera better.”

To support herself while getting started in her career, along with temporary jobs, Jean-Baptiste sang with the Florida Grand Opera and Palm Beach Opera choruses.  “I learned how to sing with conductors, work with directors, and about costumes, makeup, and stagecraft.  All young singers should sing with an opera chorus for at least a couple years; it’s an invaluable learning and performing experience.” In her opinion, elements of a great performer include “excellent training, learning the music as written, professionalism in all things, humility, respect, and a positive disposition. And one must grow in every role, even if one has sung it before. These are what create strong professional singers.”

She admits that opera is a difficult profession. “This career is expensive before it is lucrative, if it ever gets to that point. And it can be emotionally trying at times, as well as lonely, because it takes you away from loved ones quite often. It can make it hard to form a lasting romantic relationship as well. So with the relationships you do have, you work even harder than most to keep those connections secure; they are so important to a traveling artist.”

Though one might see opera as being the only music in her life, Jean-Baptiste is quick to point out her love of other genres. The themes in rock and country music have many similarities to opera.”

Jean-Baptiste will be returning to the East Coast after her time with Opera San José, lining up auditions and singing contracts as her career progresses. One day she may decide to study vocal pedagogy, emulating her beloved teacher.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

A Girl That Was Led Astray

La Dame aux camélias, by Édouard Viénot (b. 1804)

At the age of twenty-three, Rose Alphonsine Plessis was buried, under a slightly different name, in the Paris Cemetery of Montmartre, after a years-long battle with tuberculosis. By the age of twenty, she had reached the height of the Parisian demimonde and was absolutely famous in Paris; she is more widely known of today than she ever was in life, but she is not remembered because of literary, scientific, political, or academic achievements. She remains famous, worldwide, 165 years after her death, for gifts of a more transient nature. During her brief stay on earth she was noted for her beauty, intelligence, sensitivity, wild extravagance, and her ability to attract and hold the attentions and financial support of numbers of very wealthy men, and not necessarily one at a time.

Alphonsine Plessis is among the first of the 19th-century grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring the hopes of pretty shop girls. After her death, hosts of the Paris beau monde turned out for the auction of her worldly goods, necessitated by the staggering debts she left behind. Charles Dickens was in attendance and reported, “One could have believed that [she] was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”

Maria Callas as Violetta Valéry, 1955 (La Scala)

The woman buried at the base of Montmartre is listed among the notables there as Alphonsine Plessis, though she called herself Marie DuPlessis (affecting noblesse), but she became internationally famous under other names: Marguerite Gautier, in the novel La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Alexandre Dumas who gave us The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo); Camille, played by Greta Garbo, and many others, in the film of the same name; but most of all she is known as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s seemingly immortal opera, La traviata.

She was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. Her father was the son of a prostitute and a priest. He owned a draper’s shop, and was a gambler, a drunk and a brute. He married Marie-Louise Deshayes who came from more distinguished stock, but who made a bad marriage. They had two daughters, Rose and a younger sister, but eventually their mother left them with her cousin and fled the brutality of her husband. When Rose was eight years old her mother died and her father continued to leave the girls with various other relatives who had farms nearby. On one of these farms, when she was twelve years old, Rose was allegedly raped or seduced by a young farmhand. When this was discovered Rose was returned to her father.

Within the year, her father decided he was wasting resources sending Rose out as a laundress and he sold her outright to a bachelor of seventy who used her for a year then sent her back to her father. Not wishing to be responsible for her further, he sent Rose to live with relatives in Paris. Soon she would take cheap lodgings of her own in the Latin Quarter and make a meager living as a shop girl, but by the time she was sixteen, she discovered a more lucrative livelihood. She was unusually pretty with porcelain skin, black hair, enormous dark eyes, and was graced with a quick, intelligent wit and charming candor. She educated herself, improved her reading and writing skills, kept up with current events, and generally made herself more interesting for her clients. One of her greatest skills was to appear sincerely and blushingly innocent.

She began to use the name Marie and picked up a number of lovers who came from the highest ranks of French society. Among them were the duc de Guiche-Gramont, the comte Edouard de Perregaux, and at the end of her life, even Franz Liszt. When she was twenty, she was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy comte de Stackelberg, who had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris, but she remained in need of deeper emotional connection.

Boulevard de Madeleine, Winter by Edouard Cortes (1882-1969)

Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine (reference to Mary Magdalene to whom Marie was particularly devoted) was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Eugène Sue, Honore de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and of course, Alexandre Dumas, fils.

She met Dumas when they were both eighteen. The illegitimate son of one of the most beloved and famous French authors, he was not in the running to become one of her intimates until he was more established. It was two years before they established a more lasting liaison, which lasted just one year, as the struggling writer was unable to contribute sufficiently to her enormously expensive lifestyle. It is reported that her day-to-day living expenses were in excess of 100,000 francs annually, and this does not include clothes, carriages, servants, housing, or travel.

Necklace worn by Callas in La traviata; from the touring exhibition, Maria Callas & Swarovski: Jewels On Stage

While they were together her tuberculosis was growing obviously worse and he insisted that she leave her frantic life in Paris and live quietly with him in the countryside. She did this, but couldn’t be satisfied with such a quiet life and soon returned to Paris. As her illness continued to make itself evident, and she feared for her financial security, she accepted a proposal of marriage from her old beau, the comte de Perregaux. They were married in London, but it was a marriage in name only and soon she was back in Paris, where the marriage was not legal, as Perregaux had not published the banns. Their last transaction would occur after her death when he had her body moved to a more fitting gravesite.

Just five months after her passing, Dumas published La Dame aux camélias, which was published in a press run of 12,000 copies, all of which sold, but it was not until Dumas adapted the book into a drama that the work found its audience.  In that audience was Giuseppe Verdi and his then mistress Giuseppina Strepponi. La traviata would premiere in Venice just two years later.

Grave site of Alphonsine Plessis, 15th January 1824 – 3rd February 1847

Today, though there have been a large number of films based on the life of Rose Alphonsine Plessis, it is as Violetta Valery that this young woman is known and celebrated. Obviously, this isn’t because of her charms, but the many charms of this masterful score, which takes full advantage of the allure of its heroine and the finest examples of vocal expression of the nineteenth century.

We are pleased to present this new production of La traviata for our 28th Season. It was among the first operas that our company produced in the 1980s, and with each reincarnation, audiences continue to embrace La traviata as one of the most cherished evenings in an opera theatre.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation

Interview with Baritone Evan Brummel

Sometimes a person chooses a career in the arts because parents and teachers encourage them to develop their talent; sometimes it is because of an unusual event. Both of these were the experience of Opera San José’s new resident baritone, Evan Brummel.

Born and raised in La Quinta, California, three-year-old Evan wanted to “solo” when the family sang Christmas carols. “We were a sports-oriented family.  No one was musical,” he said, “but my mother, who teaches dance at the high school, encouraged me, and when I was nine she enrolled me in a local children’s choir.” As part of its program, the choir made a recording of 50s and 60s songs, which included Evan’s solo of “Rockin’ Robin.”

At Palm Desert High School he joined a choir, which performed show tunes around the community. He enjoyed that outreach, and likes OSJ’s outreach, too. Brummel also did musical theater at the local junior college while still in high school. “There was no classical music at all in the Palm Springs area,” he notes. When he was a sophomore, he heard The Three Tenors on PBS and was amazed at their sound and expressiveness. “I knew I had singing talent,” he says, “but hearing them made me want to perfect my voice and sing professionally.”

At sixteen Brummel enrolled in a classical music program in Irvine, where he met his first voice teacher, Patrick Goeser, an instructor from Chapman University. After high school, he applied to and was accepted at The Julliard School in New York. While there, he attended performances at the Metropolitan Opera and sat in at a Master Class taught by Luciano Pavarotti, one of his favorite singers. After a year at Julliard he returned to Chapman University to finish his degree, then headed back to New York where he auditioned as often as he could. Sarasota (Florida) Opera hired him and, “While I was there, Joseph Marcheso, an assistant conductor with Opera San José, visited and encouraged me to audition for Opera San José.” He was accepted for the 2011–2012 season, and also placed second in the 2011 Irene Dalis Vocal Competition.

“The famous prologue [Si puo, Signore e Signori- “A word, ladies and gentlemen”] was vigorously sung by Evan Brummel, a sirloin-voiced baritone, as Tonio, the hunchback clown.”
–Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News

A first-year resident and a Jeanne McCann Fellow, Brummel made his debut with Opera San José in November, in the role of Tonio in Pagliacci; he will be singing Germont in La traviata, and Valentin in Faust later in the season. Each is a new role for him, and to prepare, he must translate the libretto into English, then focus on integrating the character’s words and emotions into the musical score. He believes that a good singer starts with good vocal quality, but also must communicate the text and accurately depict the character. “When I see an opera, I ‘study’ the singers and the production because I want to learn and improve,” he said. “Much of my singing is instinctive. I like to focus on how a character is communicating, and develop him.” To date, his favorite roles have been Tonio in Pagliacci, which he loves for the beauty of the music, and the title role in Rigoletto. “I like the vocal difficulty of the latter and the character has lots of emotion.”

Brummel’s favorite opera singers are the now-deceased American baritone Robert Merrill, and the late Italian baritone Piero Cappuccilli, a singer known for his breath control and smooth legato. “Music is a way for singers and musicians to express their emotions, and for the audience to do the same,” he says. “Each person’s life is different and the singer brings those experiences to the characters he or she will be portraying.”

This past summer, Brummel participated in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program, along with fellow OSJ resident tenor Michael Dailey. He was pleased that his voice teacher from Chapman University came to Santa Fe Opera while he was performing. Earlier, he took first place in the Career Division of the Gwendolyn Roberts Young Artist Auditions of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. He also received an Encouragement Award at the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions.

Evan Brummel is happy to be back in California where he has many family connections, and he is delighted to be affiliated with Opera San José. He loves that Opera San José residents are given the opportunity to sing many lead roles and perform in the beautiful California Theatre, without having to constantly move from company to company. “It is an opportunity to gain experience and learn my capabilities. I expect to be an opera singer forever.”

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation