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. San Jose businesses 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

Hansel and Gretel Ushers in the Holidays at OSJ

We hope that your winter holiday season has started off well, opera fans! To get into the spirit, join us for our special holiday edition of Hansel and Gretel on Sunday, December 11th at 3 p.m!

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel premiered at the Hoftheater in Weimar, Germany on December 23, 1893, directed by Richard Strauss; the first performance in England was at London’s Daly Theater on Boxing Day (December 26th), the following year. As a result, the opera quickly became associated with Christmas, despite the fact that the story does not take place at that time of year (In Act I, Mother sends the children out into the woods to pick strawberries). In fact, Hansel and Gretel was the Metropolitan Opera’s very first matinee radio broadcast, on Christmas Day in 1931!

Now, if you remember reading the original Brothers Grimm version, you may be wondering whether this opera is truly appropriate for children, and we can respond with a resounding “Yes!” Composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, originally wrote a play for children based on the Grimm fairy tale, and she asked her brother to set it to music. Humperdinck did not originally plan for Hansel and Gretel to become a full-length opera, but after finishing the songs for her play, he decided to extend his score. Their collaboration replaces the despair, famine and abandonment issues of the original tale, with a tired mother who sends her lazy and mischievous children out to gather fruit for supper; when Mother finally finds the lost children after their adventure with the witch, she embraces them with joy and relief. Our version has been edited for the in-school touring opera program, and clocks in at under an hour, including a Question & Answer session with the singers following the performance; the Holiday Edition will also include a special appearance by Santa!

If you and your children enjoy our holiday presentation of Hansel and Gretel, a few other fairy tale operas to watch for include Dvořák’s Rusalka, (based on Slavic versions of The Little Mermaid), Rossini’s La Cenerentolaand Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella), and Zémire et Azorby Belgian composer André Grétry, an operatic version of Beauty and the Beast.

An Interview with Alexander Boyer

Alexander Boyer as King Idomeneo in the 2011 company premiere; photo by Bob Shomler.

“From earliest childhood I remember my parents’ house filled with opera and other classical music,” says tenor Alexander Boyer. “When driving, my dad would have the radio on a classical music station.”

Boyer grew up on Long Island, New York. In elementary school he played the cello, an instrument he chose because it was large. He never really listened to popular music until he went to high school. His public school had an excellent music program, occasionally offering field trips to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, where Alexander saw his first opera, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. His school also offered a voice class and “I signed up to sing in the choir. The choir director was the music director of the student shows and I participated in the productions,” Boyer said. “They were my first on-stage experiences.”

The summer after his senior year of high school, Boyer attended Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute in western Massachusetts. That fall he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in music. “I wanted a university rather than a conservatory, so that I would have flexibility and choices in my education.” Boyer discovered that the music program at BU was so intense that it was very much like a conservatory. “I got a great technical foundation and some stage experience, such as when I carried a spear as a supernumerary in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Don Carlos.” He also sang in the chorus of Idomeneo at BU, making him the only member of Opera San José’s cast to have been in that opera prior to the 2011 company premiere.

Boyer next enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music for graduate study, staying a year after he earned his Master of Music degree in order to get a Professional Studies Certificate. While there, he had a coaching session with Luciano Pavarotti, one of his favorite tenors.

Boyer responded to Opera San José’s call for auditions at the Manhattan School of Music; he is now a fourth-year resident with the company, sponsored in part by a fellowship grant from Howard W. Golub. He has participated in the Merola and Santa Fe Opera programs, and is a winner of the Mario Lanza scholarship award.

Alexander Boyer sings as a lyric tenor. His first principal roles were in Lee Hoiby’s A Month in the Country and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.  In Opera San José’s 2009 production of Carmen, he sang the role of Don José–one of his favorites, along with Luigi in Puccini’s Il tabarro. This season, Boyer will sing principal roles in all four Opera San José productions, including Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (opening November 12th).  “I may be a younger Canio than is usually the case, and Canio is already a complicated and difficult character to play.” It is a new role for Boyer, intense and emotional, and he is prepared to bring a physicality and violence to the role if the director wants that kind of interpretation.

When studying a new role, Boyer usually does not listen to other recordings. Rather, he reads a translation of the opera and does a bit of historical research, before plunging into the music. He appreciates the stability and constant stage time that he gets at Opera San José, saying, “It allows me to refine a role and polish my performance and technique. I keep striving to be a better performer.” Boyer does not think a good singer must necessarily have the most fabulous voice; he feels that it is more important for the singer to understand the composer’s intentions and the drama of the piece, as well as its historical context. “A good singer has awareness. One must be aware of oneself, of the performers around you, of the audience, aware of how he or she projects this art form.” He further notes that many singers do not sing well in their native language.

“For opera to survive,” Boyer says, “it is important that it not be locked into tradition.  There must be new and creative productions. Of course, these new interpretations must be ‘aware’ and the singers and directors must always keep in mind that opera is entertainment.” As the end of his time with the company approaches, he plans to audition all over the country. Let’s hope that his travels bring him back to Northern California—he likes the Bay Area, despite his observation that “There are no good delis here.”

Editor’s note: Any former New Yorkers out there who can offer Alex some tips on a good deli in the Bay Area? I’ll admit that I like the pastrami reuben at Max’s Opera Café in Palo Alto, but I suspect that true deli aficionados will not approve… ;)


A Woman’s Voice: The Director’s Perspective on La voix humaine

Layna Chianakas as “elle” in OSJ’s 1996 production of La voix humaine. Photo by Scott Hinrichs

It has been almost 14 years since “elle” came into my life, and I can honestly say she has haunted me ever since. When I was asked to direct Poulenc’s La voix humaine for Opera San José, I was at once humbled and honored. Having sung the role all those years ago, and knowing its challenges, helped me to immediately say ‘yes,’ and in turn begin shaping my own ideas about the character, the play and the way in which the music highlights them.

La voix humaine is all about the text, with the music simply an enhancer of the drama.  Cocteau’s words and the emotions they conjure are just as real today as they were in 1930 when he wrote the play.  Of course, party lines no longer exist, but we all can certainly still attest to dropped calls and bad reception!  To modern women, the character (simply referred to as elle or “she” in the libretto synopsis) is a desperate and sometimes-infuriating woman, but one with whom we all relate, especially if we have ever been in a volatile and passionate relationship we felt didn’t need to end.  Her desperation to keep her lover is palpable, and we feel at once both frustrated by her and sad for her.

What makes La voix humaine so unique is the unsaid character of the voyeur, played by the audience: that feeling that we simply want to look away, but just can’t help but watch, that we are intruding on something severely private, and yet we take it in, make it our own, and talk about it afterwards.  I do hope the audience feels especially on edge watching the woman speak with her ex-lover, as she tries to come to terms with her loss and herself.

I have set this production in the 1950’s film noir style, where the telephone is as important to the plot as the character herself. I have always been fascinated with black and white film noir, as well as the acting, which to modern audiences seems so melodramatic and far-fetched: it is perfect for opera, where the audience is such a distance away from the singers and, often, facial expressions cannot be read! In our production, sometimes the telephone is her lover; sometimes it is, as she says, “a weapon that leaves no trace;” sometimes it is the listener; and sometimes, it is the frazzled tether of a failed relationship.  No matter how the telephone fits into the drama, it is intriguing because the fragility of hearing only another person’s voice leaves room for misinterpretation and disdain. If her lover had come to her apartment and spoken with her in person, perhaps the severity of her situation would have been lessened.

Caricature of Poulenc as drawn by Jean Cocteau (1899)

The line drawings of Jean Cocteau also inspired J.B. Wilson’s set design, and make for a wonderfully askew quality to the borders of the room. John has taken my black and white vision and realized it with bold edges and strong lines of the 1950s French modern style.

I am surrounded by a talented production team and two strong actresses, and I look forward to a wonderful experience in my directorial debut!


Pagliacci: The darker side of betrayal

(Editor’s note: Following on the theme of lost love in Poulenc’s passionate La voix humaine, the second one-act opera in our November double-bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, will take us through an exploration of the darker side of betrayal.)

Leoncavallo and his dog, 1894

His life was surely eventful, and tended toward the extremes. Commissioned by kings, starved in the streets of Paris, hailed as the most promising composer of his generation, damned as shallow and litigious, Ruggiero Leoncavallo knew it all first hand, but all we know of him is Pagliacci.

Born in Calabria, in the far south of Italy to well-to-do and socially prominent parents, Leoncavallo had an excellent education and all the advantages that Naples could afford, which were many. His father was a judge and his mother, the namesake of Virginia Donizetti and the goddaughter of the famous composer, was a painter. Theirs was a cultured and well-educated family; Art was revered in their household.

As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples, where Donizetti had been the director, Leoncavallo was able to attend performances at the famed Teatro San Carlo as well as the three other opera houses in that ancient and wealthy royal capital. He began life with advantages that Verdi, Donizetti, and many other composers couldn’t dream of.

After completing his course requirements in Naples, Leoncavallo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied writing and literature. In Bologna, he was welcomed into the cream of society, not least because of his unusual accomplishment as a pianist. He composed for and performed at the most distinguished salons, and began (though never completed) a lifelong project inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle on significant moments and persons in Italian history. Only the first of the three operas was composed and performed, I Medici, which, well received for a time, soon disappeared. He also composed a La bohèmethat had initial success but was later eclipsed by Puccini’s brilliant work derived from the same material. Leoncavallo also wrote a number of popular operettas, which have disappeared from the repertoire over time, along with his numerous songs. The one opera that has remained, still one of the most performed operas in the standard repertoire, is Pagliacci.

Les buveurs d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, c.1881

In Paris, Leoncavallo became acquainted with Émile Zola, who, along with Honoré de Balzac and Prosper Mérimée, established a new form in French literature referred to as realism, in which the lives of the lower and middle classes were depicted, and in ways that seemed at the time grippingly, even shockingly true to life. Bizet’s Carmen was the very first opera derived from this literary genre, based upon Mérimée’s novella. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the first of this style written in Italian, where the genre was called verismo; Pagliacci was the second.

Pagliacci begins with a prologue, sung by a baritone who most often enters the stage in front of the main drape, during which an explanation of this radically different style of opera is explained; it serves as a warning to the audience.

When you look on us, dressed in costumes and tinsel,
Ours are human hearts, beating with passion,
We are men like you, for gladness or sorrow,
It is the same broad heaven above us,
The same wide, lonely world before us!

This is an invitation for the audience to enter into a world that is immediate and familiar, rather than a world of imagined fantasy. Instead of seeing knights such as Lohengrin or Parsifal, or troubadours such as Manrico or Blondel, you are forewarned that you will be seeing individuals much like yourself, individuals who bleed when they are pricked. The dramatic force of Pagliacci lies as much in its tenacious determination to give us a story about very human individuals as it is in its richly, powerfully expressive music.

Stage Director Cynthia Stokes (who makes her debut at OSJ with this production) feels very strongly that the story of Pagliacci is universal. This unfortunate situation is as old as humanity and happens in all cultures at all times. To help remove the distance, to take the action out of a specific time or local, she has asked for a very clean, spacious setting that includes nothing that will define place or time. Pearl-gray geometric shapes, a ramp, an altar-like platform, a curved wall, and a blue horizon to indicate the sea, is all there is until the addition of the backdrop for the commedia dell’arte play. The costumes, however, are true to the clothes of Calabria at the turn of the 20th century. In this nebulous world the clown’s heartbreak spans time, as it could be happening anywhere at any time.

(Editor’s note: If you are interested in exploring the world of verismo opera, the Naxos Music Library has an online playlist of arias in the genre; a site subscription is required.)

Betany Coffland Interview: Following a Dream Beyond the Rainbow

“I’m always impressed by how much work goes into putting an opera together and how much physical and emotional energy the singers invest in their voice lessons, coachings, outreach programs and rehearsals in order to make the magic that we finally see happen on stage.  They don’t do it for the money, and that is why the program at Opera San José and its network of supporters are so beneficial to budding professionals.”
Joseph Coffland
Mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland and her husband Joe make time in their busy schedules to go for hikes and spend time outdoors.

Talented singers like mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland frequently come from families that value music in all its forms. “Everyone in my family sings,” Coffland says, “though not professionally. Mom was an amateur opera singer and often sang famous soprano arias around the house.” Betany and her siblings sometimes entertained the family, performing as a quartet.

Born in a small Kansas town, Betany’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when she was four. At fifteen, she auditioned for Brigadoon and got the role of Fiona. “My parents began to participate in shows with me, since I was too young to drive myself to rehearsals.” As a teenager, Coffland also participated in the first year of the Missouri Fine Arts Academy.  Each high school could nominate one person, and she was selected from her school.  For 100 students, it was three weeks concentrating on song, dance, mask-making and other subjects. “It was the defining moment that convinced me I wanted a career as a singer,” Coffland said. Two summers ago she went back to the Academy, now internationally respected, and lectured on what the students there can expect as they move into their chosen careers.

Coffland’s undergraduate studies were at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, an institution she says is very protective of their singers.  She auditioned and was accepted for their Graduate School Opera Workshop Program, where she sang short pieces and learned how to develop her characters.  She then completed a Masters Degree at Julliard.  “It is a very demanding school,” she says, “I developed a backbone.” In addition to singing and acting classes, her conservatory training involved intensive language study.  Singers must take German, Italian and French, and they also take diction classes. After graduation, Betany moved to Italy to perfect her Italian, and she later lived in Prague so she could learn Czech. “At Julliard, we also had to take English diction classes.  English is the hardest language to sing in.”

Coffland, who keeps track of opportunities to sing and had seen the Opera San José website, was living with her husband in Boise, Idaho, when she met Jason and Michele Detwiler, former OSJ residents. The company was looking for a mezzo-soprano, and luckily for everyone, the Detwilers convinced her to audition. Now a fourth-year resident with Opera San José, she is a George and Susan Crow Fellow and a John M. Heineke and Catherine R. Montfort Fellow.

Coffland will sing the role of the Woman in OSJ’s upcoming production of La voix humaine. Typically, she likes non-standard musical works the best. Her favorite opera is Little Women by Mark Adamo, and she would love to sing the role of Jo in it.  She also likes Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy and The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. Her favorite singer is the now deceased recitalist Jan DeGaetani, perhaps because she too likes to do recitals.  “I also like to sing chamber music and art songs, and plan to do some of both after OSJ,” she said. “One of my favorite roles was Dorabella, in Così fan tutte.  It was all about being in an ensemble, and I like comic roles.”  All the roles she has sung for OSJ have been new ones for her.

Coffland believes that authentic, real characters are what make an opera great. When she sees a performance, she searches for honesty and wants to see a person’s soul on stage.  She watches to see how the story and the music come together. “A good singer has excellent technique, but that person must also be able to communicate with the audience.”  And a good artist is the product of research. He or she must learn about the characters and how they relate and must ask, “Who has done this role before?  How can I make it different?” In preparation for her role as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, for example, she read a translation of the play by Pierre Beaumarchais, upon which the opera was based.

She and her husband are considering settling permanently in the Bay Area after her residency, though she will continue auditioning for roles in New York and elsewhere. Her husband supports her career – “He promised to do so in our wedding vows.”

OSJ patron Carolle J. Carter was a professor emerita from Menlo College, and is a retired lecturer in history, San José State University.