Dear OSJ Supporter,
Please click on the “leave a comment link” to share any special memories you may have of Irene Dalis and/or comments you have for the Opera San José family.
Dear OSJ Supporter,
Please click on the “leave a comment link” to share any special memories you may have of Irene Dalis and/or comments you have for the Opera San José family.
Rossini is still the King of Good Times in an opera house. His infectious humor, sly, winking, direct, and hilarious, can only put a smile on your face. There are no complications, no dead bodies, nothing to worry about, but there is every reason to have a great time while listening to some of the most flamboyant vocal writing ever composed.
With this farce Rossini created a brilliant opera that took the world by storm right from its creation, but it’s tricky. It takes a conductor with a light touch and a sprightly baton to lead the company through this sparkling music, and a special kind of stage director to carry off Rossini’s shenanigans with seeming ease [few things are as difficult to pull off as good comedy]. It also takes gifted and very accomplished singers to deliver the goods. With Michael Shell directing and Ming Luke conducting, and our current company of singers supplemented by guest artists of remarkable ability, Opera San José has assembled all the elements to give you an evening of Rossini that is pure delight.
Rossini made his reputation very early when he delivered his first opera, The Marriage Contract, a one-act farce, at the age of 18(!). With his youthful confidence and native genius Rossini reformed comic opera, making it both solidly constructed and very funny. We should point out that he was a true genius who changed opera entirely. The Marriage Contract was such a revolutionary composition that his cast warned him of an unavoidable disaster. To their surprise the opera was a tremendous hit, and Rossini was commissioned to create new works continually for many years to come. His fame eclipsed that of Beethoven while Beethoven yet lived.
The two operas that tossed Rossini into international fame were the hit comedy The Italian Girl in Algiers and a surprisingly popular serious opera, Tancredi, but it was The Italian Girl that was first performed outside Italy, in Munich and then Paris. Since then it has been performed all over the world, and was constantly on the international circuit for decades after its premiere. It remained on the boards throughout the 19th century, despite Rossini’s waning reputation during Wagner and Verdi’s rise in popular taste.
Rossini’s manic tempos, outrageously fast, and his love of setting repetitive onomatopoeia, to the point of reducing the text to pure nonsense in his dizzying ensembles, have always fascinated audiences. But all this charming silliness would come to nothing without a stunning cast that revels in high-octane comedy. Opera San José is fortunate to have just such a charismatic constellation of singers for this production. The Italian Girl in Algiers is a rare and tempting treat, and it is rare because of Rossini’s vocal demands. This is the first time we have been able to bring this ambitious beast of a comedy to the stage, and that is because we have been able to secure a cast equal to the challenge.
The Italian girl, Lisa Chavez, is a mezzo-soprano whose rich, sonorous voice has been celebrated in the press since her first appearance in the California Theatre. Armed with formidable vocal gifts, she launches into the monkey business of freeing her Italian boyfriend from slavery in the court of the Bey of Algiers while she deftly avoids becoming a member of the Bey’s harem. Clever girl…
The Italian boyfriend, the tall, athletic tenor, Michael Dailey, has charmed OSJ audiences in past Rossini and Donizetti operas, among them La Cenerentola and The Elixir of Love. His rapid-fire accuracy, even in the high-flying stratosphere required of bel canto tenors, is eye opening. His dark good looks put the romantic back in romantic comedy.
The Bey of Algiers, bass Nathan Stark, has just had his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in Die Frau ohne Schatten, [The Woman Without a Shadow by Richard Strauss] and he recently performed with the Boston Symphony in Salome [needless to say he did not sing the title role], and he has performed Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Described by the Washington Post as having a voice of “unearthly power” Stark has also performed Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Don Profondo in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, so his comic sensibility is as sure as his dramatic command.
Taddeo, Isabella’s annoyingly ever-amorous traveling companion, baritone Matthew Hanscom, just made his OSJ debut as Rigoletto, where he cast a very long shadow. From his performances of that tragic anti-hero one would never think comedy would be so easy for him, but it is, and in this lyric repertoire his voice is meltingly beautiful.
Haly, the Bey’s obedient and grumbling servant, will be sung by San José’s favorite bass, Silas Elash, who will carry out the insane orders of the Bey with the astonishing luck of situation comedy, when just the right Italian girl washes up on shore from a shipwreck, which just happens to take place where her Italian boyfriend has been captured. You can see, this is all just for fun!
Don’t miss it!
Opera San José’s dynamic new resident baritone, Matt Hanscom, hails from a small town in Minnesota. “My family isn’t particularly musical, but they have a strong work ethic, which I inherited. It gives me the perseverance to continue in my singing career. If an opera singer isn’t willing to work hard, he or she is not going to be successful,” Matt says.
Minnesota schools have good music programs. “Choir is emphasized,” he said, “and I had choir every day in elementary school. In high school voice teachers from nearby colleges would come to give private lessons. A good vocal coach can help you shape your technique.” He continued private voice lessons in college, and “at one point my voice changed into what would be my opera voice.”
Matt’s college work was at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, which offered a double degree in music and liberal arts, so Matt studied math and economics along with music. Northwestern provided him a full scholarship leading to a Masters’ degree, which he completed in 2007. Even as an undergraduate he did some professional singing, and in 2007 he was a Merola singer (San Francisco’s training program for new singers), an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera in 2008, where he sang in the chorus, did cover roles, and had lessons from well-known teachers. He spent six years with Sarasota Opera and also sang at Wolf Trap.
This year Matt will be singing the title role in Rigoletto; Taddeo (The Italian Girl in Algiers); Gino Carella (Where Angels Fear to Tread); and Papageno, (The Magic Flute). “Rigoletto is a multifaceted man. He is different when he is in court than when he is with his daughter. I think Rigoletto is my favorite role, although I like all operas where the baritone is the lead. I cannot imagine doing anything other than singing for a living. Other occupations would be more rewarding monetarily, but I can’t imagine having more pride in what I do than I have when I sing Rigoletto,” Matt said.
Matt is thrilled that he can be with his wife and young son while he is with OSJ. “And I love the rehearsal space because it’s huge.” He enjoys the opera’s outreach program. “At the concert we gave at San Jose State with Symphony Silicon Valley, two or three thousand people attended and the event was very successful.”
Please visit Matt’s website for additional information.
When Victor Hugo premiered his play Le roi s’amuse (The king takes his amusement) in 1832, one suspects he couldn’t have believed that it would find much of an audience. About the sexual rapaciousness of Francis I, one of the most beloved of all French kings, and perhaps hinting at the behavior of King Louis-Philippe (then in power), it would have been a controversial play at best. As the authorities closed the play after one performance, we will never know if Le roi s’amuse could have succeeded on the French stage at the time; however, the ensuing law suit that Hugo brought against the crown for freedom of speech (which he lost) made the play famous, and it became a best seller in printed form. Soon, a copy of the printed play found its way into Verdi’s hands.
What attracted Verdi to Hugo’s play was the character of the court jester, Triboulet, which Verdi thought to be an entirely original stage creature. Renamed Rigoletto and elevated to the title role in the opera that was moved from France to Mantua, Verdi fleshed out this court jester and made him as immortal as any character in opera can be. Rigoletto is much more than a tortured soul. Abused from childhood for his physical deformities, he is richly drawn and deeply human, passionate, willing to act, cunning, tortured, self-aware, and loving. He is a man of his time, when the rule of any Italian dukedom was taken by might, and when assassins offered their services to strangers in dark streets.
Today, Americans see vengeance at the scale depicted in this opera as an insane extreme. Most Americans, today, would view all acts of vengeance as yielding only evil fruit, injury upon injury, a never-ending cycle. This was not the view of Italians in the Renaissance, or in many other cultures in the world even today, where vengeance is ferocious and insatiable. The opera Rigoletto was, perhaps, one of the many influences that reshaped our perception of the dangers inherent in a hunger for vengeance, for Rigoletto will lose everything he holds dear in his vain attempt to get even.
What he loses is his daughter Gilda, his only child, the only creature on this earth who loves him, and the only thing he loves at all. Just home after a decade of convent training, barely sixteen, totally inexperienced, and infatuated with a student she met at mass, Gilda will sacrifice her life to save a seductive, hedonistic letch. Her winning presence, so perfectly drawn in a single duet and one, breath-taking aria (she has much more to sing in addition), has placed her among the most cherished of Verdi heroines.
Her self-sacrifice is hard for a 21st-century mind to accept, but when one realizes that she has been the duke’s mistress for several months before Rigoletto forces her to see the nature of her lover, and takes into account her youth, these make her action at least understandable, if heart breaking. But it is the heartbreak of Rigoletto that keeps this opera alive and in performance the world over.
Opera San José will offer six performances of a new production of Rigoletto, opening on September 6. It is advisable to order tickets earlier rather than later, as this Verdi favorite has always sold out in past opera San José productions.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the finest Italian composer after Verdi. Fittingly, his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered the week before Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and it is Puccini who most nearly claimed the place in the hearts of the Italian people that had been held by Verdi, who is uniformly regarded as the greatest Italian composer.Puccini, born in Lucca, was brought up in less than financially secure circumstances, his father dying when the boy was just five years old; there were three sisters and a brother who was yet to be born when his father died. His mother brought up her children on her own by taking in washing and mending, assisted by her daughters while the boys, Giacomo and Michele, were educated as musicians. The Puccinis had been church musicians in Lucca for generations, and Puccini’s father was the music director at the cathedral, a position that would be kept open for Giacomo until he was old enough to take over. Luckily for posterity, Puccini’s mother set her sights on a wider career for her eldest son and managed to put together the money to send him to the Milan conservatory. His younger brother would also attend the same school.
Not the best student (it would later be discovered that Puccini suffered from diabetes), Puccini, nevertheless, composed well enough to attract the favorable attention of the Milanese press and music circles who upon his graduation encouraged him to compose an opera (Le Villi) that was produced primarily at the expense of the librettist, Ferdinando Fontana. This was enough of a success that Ricordi, the preeminent Italian publishing house, published the score and La Scala produced the opera after it was revised; La Scala commissioned two additional operas. Over the next eleven years Puccini composed three more operas, Edgar (not a success), La bohème, and Tosca (wildly successful). The next opera was to be Madama Butterfly.
It might come as a surprise to learn of a direct connection between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in Milan in 1904, and 1870s San José, California. A continent and an ocean separate these cities, and in the 19th century that was considerably farther than it is today. However, after a bit of looking into the life of David Belasco, one finds the beginning of his story in the Bay Area, and a significant part of it took place in the Auditorium Theatre, 140 W. San Fernando Street. Belasco became a brilliant theatrical impresario who wrote and produced the play from which Puccini derived the opera. Born in San Francisco, he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in a number of plays just a few blocks from the California Theatre.
Belasco left the Bay Area for New York City in 1882, where he became America’s most successful theatrical impresario, and for thirty years was the most influential theatrical producer in the nation. He wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, two of which were made into operas by Puccini: The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and Madama Butterfly. The latter opened as a play in New York’s Harold Square Theatre in 1900 where it was a Broadway sensation.
Belasco adapted Madama Butterfly from John Luther Long’s short story of the same name. Long was told the basic narrative by his sister who lived for many years in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary. In Nagasaki, she learned of Cio-Cio-san and the American naval officer who married and abandoned her.
Belasco’s play was presented in New York as part of a double bill to prop up his failing Naughty Anthony, but Butterfly became the main attraction, not because of the effectiveness of the drama, but due to a technological scenic advance; it was the first play to utilize electric lighting. In the play, as in the opera, Cio-Cio-san, Suzuki, and Trouble wait from afternoon, through the night, and into dawn for Pinkerton’s arrival from Nagasaki harbor. Belasco abandoned footlights and used electric light and its color change and image projection capabilities to represent the changing light as day blazed into sunset, darkened to a night sky with stars, that, in turn, faded into the gray light of dawn. This was a marvel, and Madama Butterfly left New York for the sophisticated audiences of London, where it continued to impress at the Duke of York Theatre. As it would turn out, this uninterrupted lighting effect would not work in the opera.
The stage manager at the Duke of York knew Puccini, and telegrammed, urging him to see the play, suggesting it was very much suited to Puccini’s unique style. Having just opened the enormously popular Tosca in Rome, following tremendous successes with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, Puccini was looking for a subject that would be at least as effective as these. He came to London.
The suitability of the play was immediately obvious to Puccini, despite his inability understand English, and by 1902 Ricordi had negotiated the rights and Puccini’s favorite librettist, Luigi Illica (La bohème, Tosca), was studying both the play and Long’s short story. Though Ricordi was not enthusiastic and expressed his misgivings, the project continued and the opera was completed in two years. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala 110 years ago on February 17, 1904. It was a disaster. By all reports little of the opera was heard over the laughter, whistles, shouts, and catcalls. On February 18 Ricordi withdrew the opera.
Puccini was not discouraged, writing “I feel calm enough in the face of the shame of this commotion, because I feel I have written a living and sincere work that will surely rise again. I have that conviction.” Puccini, one of the more careful opera composers of his time, did recognize the work’s shortcomings. One of the principal problems was the division of the opera into only two acts, preserving Cio-Cio-san’s long wait through the night. This was too long for the La Scala audience.
Puccini, addressing dramatic problems he identified at the premieres of all of his operas except Turandot, revised often and with the objectivity of a surgeon. He immediately went back to work on Butterfly, expanding the tenor part, inserting a second intermission, and at Toscanini’s urging eliminating some of the most exotic harmonic and melodic constructions. In three months the opera was ready for a second production, which took place at Teatro Grande at Brescia, this time with Toscanini conducting, but this was not the last version. Puccini revised again for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, softening and sentimentalizing the drama for a French audience. That version became the standard, was published by Ricordi, and is the version most often used today. In this form it has become one of the most successful operas of all time.
Puccini would go on to compose, in addition to The Golden Girl of the West mentioned above, La rondine, Il trittico (consisting of three one-act operas, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), and Turandot (unfinished). Today, Puccini is a mainstay of American opera production, as La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, make up much of the repertoire that audiences are most incline to attend.
Opera San José first produced Madama Butterfly in 1985 when Eilana Lappalainen performed the title role. Since then OSJ has produced Butterfly in 1996, 2002, and 2007, making the 2014 production the fifth time Madama Butterfly has appeared on our stage in thirty years. We are very pleased to revive our 2007 production with the same stage director, Brad Dalton, which we hold to be on of the highlights of our history of producing opera in San José.
Resident tenor Marc Schreiner, who recently delighted Opera San José audiences as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, came to Opera San José from Minnesota, via Iowa, New York and Texas. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Music Education from Simpson College in Iowa and a Masters Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Houston. In addition to his vocal career, Marc has taught piano and guitar, conducted a college choir, and he is also a leather craftsman, a portrait photographer, and a furniture maker. He grew up in Rollingstone, Minnesota. “It is a beautiful place with green hills and valleys and many of the people are of Luxembourg descent,” Marc said” His parents thought piano lessons at an early age important, “and driving. I could drive when I was ten. Lots of freedom back there!”
Marc stated that public education in Minnesota was excellent and he had a broad exposure to different kinds of music when he went to high school. “From an early age I loved music and singing,” Marc said. “I listened avidly to my parents’ record collection.” At fifteen he sang in the high school choir. “We had excellent directors,” he said. “I always liked groups that sang in harmony, like the Beach boys and the Mills Brothers.”
In high school, Marc auditioned and was selected for the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun. The director started introducing him to classical music and did some recordings with him.
When he completed high school, Marc thought it would be “cool” to teach music. His parents and his sister were educators, so it seemed a natural path to follow. He went to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, majoring in Music Education. Simpson is notable for being the only college in the United States with an entirely student-cast undergraduate opera program that is supported by a largely professional orchestra. They do two full productions a year and have an excellent young artists program run by the Des Moines Opera. Marc did two leading roles each year he was at Simpson.
By the time he graduated in 1994, however, Marc knew the wanted to be a performer. He also knew he needed a good voice teacher so he enrolled in the MA program at the University of Houston and studied there with W. Stephen Smith, all the while singing where he could, like in the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera. After completing the requirements for a Masters in Vocal Performance, he sang at the Salzburg Festival and for many regional opera companies around the country. He met Khori Dastoor, the Artistic Advisor to the General Director of Opera San José and a former resident soprano with OSJ, while singing in Opera Saratoga Springs, NY. She let him know that OSJ was looking for a tenor and that he should audition.
Now a first year resident, and the recipient of a Howard Golub fellowship, Marc says he likes many things about OSJ. “I like the long rehearsal periods, and I love the California Theatre and working with this group of singers.”
He also loves singing. “Whatever I’m doing right now is my favorite role,” he says. “I enjoyed singing Fenton in Falstaff, had fun being the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
Marc believes each singer brings something special to singing. “I get on a kick where I listen to one singer, really study someone. There’s a broad sense of history when singing a role, listening to all the past singers of BF Pinkerton, for example. It interests me that a man in, say, Japan, and a kid in Minnesota, get the same chill when they listen to 18th century music and opera.”
Marc continues, “If it sounds good, it is good. A good singer has something to sing about and is a storyteller. Singing to an audience can be a stressful, vulnerable situation and one can’t be thrown by criticism. You must be true to your style and self, and be in the moment. One of the few things that angers me is when someone who doesn’t know the process criticizes in a nasty, discouraging way.”
Marc prepares for a role by researching the composer’s process. He thinks about the character, what he wants, what his goals are. He records himself and constantly tries to refine his singing. “The source of energy for me used to be coffee, but I gave it up. Now it’s love, what is good, what is positive. I’m not so interested in the human condition as I am in the human potential. I believe that historically artists have always shown us a better way.”
Often, I am asked, “Who came up with that design?” Of course, when we’re talking about the set or costumes or lighting, the expected answer is the set or costume or lighting designer, and it is. But at the same time, it isn’t, as opera is an enormously collaborative art form, and such ideas seldom come from just one mind. In the case of Opera San José, we first establish with the stage director, before we even negotiate a contract, the kind of opera we’re looking for, what period it should be set in (and it isn’t always the period indicated in the score, even at OSJ), what we can spend (the budget is not to be taken lightly), and how many weeks can be scheduled for the build and when the build must start.
Then, for both sets and costumes, the designer, using information (research) and requests from the stage director, begins making sketches. When the sketches have the nod from the stage director, work begins in earnest, measurements are made, color is applied, fabric swatches are found for costumes and for sets a scale model is created. Of course there’s a lot of back and forth in this process, technical problems are solved, materials are explored, lumber and steel are ordered, construction drawings are made, fabrics are found and purchased, and patterns are cut. A great many people are involved in the production of an opera, and we are not addressing the performers in this article. That would make an army.
In this article, I have been asked to share a little about the creation of the set, as for Hansel and Gretel, I designed the scenery, which is unusual (this is my 6th set design for OSJ over the past eight years) and I suppose has raised a little interest, probably because I’ve had such fun doing it, and have been so very impressed with the work of the entire scene shop. Our shop always does wonderful work, but when it’s your own design being realized, I have to admit, it’s a bit of a thrill, every time.
It was about a year ago when Hansel and Gretel stage director Layna Chianakas and I first sat down to talk through the opera. We were in the scene shop and hadn’t even discussed which edition of the score we would use, but both of us had images in our heads. The chief image in my head was a forest of enormous trees executed in watercolor. Layna could see a great deal more. She’s brilliant.
We both did a fair amount of research, and Layna found some wonderful images. One of them, a forest in Ireland, came to life as a huge watercolor forest. From there the first step was a matter of creating a cottage in that forest, which I originally painted as if built of timbers. Layna immediately recognized a lost opportunity to show the longtime poverty of this family and asked if the timbers could be large branches. The cottage was made of materials found in the forest and transformed into a hut with a sod roof. Renee Jankowski, our scenic charge artist, volunteered to repaint this piece for the set model, and she also repainted the model piece for gingerbread house the next week. So these two large pieces became a group effort, and are the better for it. Everything retained the quality of watercolor illustrations. From there it was a short step to make a peppermint stick cage, and the most amazing of all ovens.
Layna asked if the oven might look like a deep-sea fish with enormous, bared teeth. After a quick image search the perfect fish flashed on my screen. From that I made a paper model, and our props master, Lori Scheper-Kesel, used it to fashion a model from clay. Perfection! This is an oven with a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man. It has glowing eyes. Smoke rises from its chimney. Fearsome!
The gingerbread children, in this case a fence of them, were first made of plywood that was then upholstered and finally decorated with glistening candies and frosting. At this writing, the gingerbread house is being painted. I dropped in today as it was getting its first coat of color. It, too, will be glistening with gumdrops, cookies, and candy. A dentist’s nightmare!
Of all the props, the oven is the most astonishing, but the one everyone wants to take home, including me, is the bunk bed. All the furniture in the hut, the stools, bench, table, everything, was constructed to look as if made from things the family could find in the forest. Their whole lives depend on the forest. They make brooms from sticks and switches for a living. It isn’t much of a living. They go hungry much of the time, and even then berries from the forest stave off starvation.
It won’t do to look for symbolism in Hansel and Gretel, or a moral, or a message. It just isn’t that kind of tale. It’s about two children who get in trouble, mostly because the family is so poor and their mother feels so guilty that there is so little food, and tonight, no food at all. They are not sent into the forest to be gotten rid of, as in the Grimm tale, rather, they are sent to find berries. It comes as a complete shock to the mother that there’s a witch living in that forest. It’s a surprise for the children, too.
When they realize they are lost and bed down for the night, they are protected by 14 angels, but these angels are rather like woodland sprites and one of them is Mother Nature. The costumes were brilliantly designed by Elizabeth Poindexter, and I stood for quite a few minutes today watching her execute the elaborate hand work these forest costumes require. But the great surprise is in the last scene, when the gingerbread house is revealed and the witch comes out.
The witch is always a wild combination, both comic and terrifying. Few things are as frightening as an insane person who intends to eat you, and this witch does not disappoint. In glamorous 18th-century paniers and a magnificent wig, this witch begins in such a charming way, so pleasant, until she claps Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to fattening him up. And this witch grows less attractive over time, and when she goes on her wild ride, she does it on a pink Segway (loaned by Segway Santa Cruz), paniers swinging in the breeze!
By the way, I haven’t the mentioned lighting designs by Pamila Gray, as we won’t see this work for a couple of weeks yet. We begin moving into the theatre on October 30, but I do expect to see some lighting magic, as we’ve been talking about what glows in a forest at night…
While we’ve been having weeks of fun building sets, props, and costumes, the conductor, stage director, and singers have been working like Trojans, but they seem all smiles every time I drop in on rehearsals. There is something wonderful about working on very good music; it makes everything worthwhile. We’ve had two treats this fall, with Falstaff, which is a brilliant score, and now with the most performed opera by a German composer, Hansel and Gretel.
Now, we can only hope you will enjoy our realization of this wonderful adventure in the forest as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to the stage. I do believe children will certainly love it, and what better way to show a child how a story can spring to life through music and acting and all the elements of theatre? I encourage you to bring a few children with you to see these two clever children get themselves out of a pretty hot predicament.
Don’t go into the woods at night! But Hansel and Gretel didn’t get the warning, and as the sun sets the woods become pretty scary with enormous, looming trees, a thousand twisting branches, and no clear path out. Larry Hancock, set designer for Hansel and Gretel, got the inspiration for this set from a real forest in Ireland, filled with sycamore, ash, and hazel, growing so thick that no undergrowth could survive in the gloom. We painted it warm with fall colors and cool with twilight blues and grays. The muslin on which the color has been painted is translucent, allowing the lighting designer, Pamila Gray, to control the glow of the scenery from behind as well as on the front. Renee Jankowski, the scenic charge artist, created magic, and the carpenters also helped achieve these twisted, opaque branches. The children’s cottage will fly in/out, and all the furniture in the cottage was made from real branches by Lori and Chris Kesel, from the bunk bed to the stools around the table. The candy cane cage where Hansel is held captive and the enormous oven, with a personality all its own, add to the colorful yet sinister atmosphere. All this is leavened with wonderfully colorful, whimsical costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter. In such a setting, the singers can only be inspired to bring this classic opera to life in a very special way that should delight both the grownups and the many children we are expecting to see in the California Theatre. Who knew Hansel and Gretel would be so much fun to produce? Everyone is having a wonderful time creating just the perfect touch, from the angel crowns (very wood sprite inspired) to the gingerbread house and gingerbread children.
“I am so happy to be singing in a West Coast company!” mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez says. “I spent ten years in New York, which was wonderful, and a tremendous career experience, but I am a Bay Area girl, happy to be close to home.”
Born and raised in Hayward, CA, Lisa says, “I have always sung. Mom and I used to sing in the car, and I sang in choir starting in fourth grade.” Her high school had five different choirs and she sang in most of them. “We went on tours and entered competitions. The Show Choir won some of them, too. In my senior year we went to Hawaii and won a gold medal.”
Lisa went to Cal State East Bay for her undergraduate degree in music. It was while enrolled at East Bay she had her first personal voice lesson and her first experience singing opera. “Although I enjoyed performing in our “Broadway” shows, I quickly became focused on opera.” In addition to singing lessons, preparation for her singing career involved diction lessons in English and in other languages, chiefly Italian, German, and French. “I like doing many things. I sew, make jewelry for myself and for gifts, knit, crochet, make cards. Being creative at home centers me.”
Immediately after receiving her BA, Lisa continued her studies for two years at the Manhattan School of Music. She took master classes with Martin Katz and Lauren Flanagan. She continued to work in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast. She met her husband, tenor Michael Boley, when they were both singing in the same show.
“Two years ago I heard about Opera San José’s auditions. I was interested because I wanted to get closer to my family, but I couldn’t stay for the competition.” In Spring 2013, Lisa was able to compete in the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, and was named Third Prize Winner.
“I am thrilled to be a first year resident. I had already sung in San Francisco. Last year I sang in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti for Opera Parallele. Her first OSJ role was Meg Page in Falstaff. “There is lots of interplay in Falstaff, which is fun. I am looking forward to singing Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” adding that mezzos often sing male parts.
“Opera San José is awesome,” Lisa says. “Being part of the residency program means a chance to bond with the other singers and make good friends. The entire group is fantastic. We have get-togethers and potlucks, go hiking. The productions are deluxe and we appreciate Irene Dalis’ dedication and involvement with rehearsals.”
“Opera can’t support itself without donations and other outside money. We also do outreach which often introduces people who had never experienced the art form to our work and our company. Earlier this year we went to the local Ebay campus and several employees subscribed after they heard us. People’s expectations change when they see how glorious opera is. We need to increase public commitment to opera that is accessible and educate young people to the wonder of the arts.”
Lisa’s favorite female singer is the late Tatiana Troyanos. Of the men, she admires Caruso and Corelli. “In earlier days there was less specialization,” Lisa says. “People sang a wide repertoire. Now, we have a narrower view of what people should sing. A good singer must communicate with the audience, no matter how small that audience is. In any live theater good communication is the whole point. A performance must leave the viewer with that ‘lingering something’ that you remember. The listener should feel touched, and a tug at his or her heart. If one doesn’t get that out of a performance, why not just buy a recording?” Lisa believes a person would not invest in singing lessons and coaching or singing professionally without a good voice, but the ability to touch the audience is just as important.
Lisa does not have to worry about language when preparing for Hansel, as the opera will be sung in English. “The role has some difficult passages, key changes, and tonal shifts that can be tricky to learn. The back story for this opera is dark and twisted, more typical of real life in those days than Disney’s portrayals.”
Choosing a career in opera not only involves studying, auditioning, and relocating, but overcoming financial difficulties. Young singers must find jobs to pay off large student loans and bills, and their jobs must be flexible enough to allow performing. Lisa worked six months of the years in New York restaurants. At Opera San José, her residency is made possible by fellowship grants from Prof. John M. Heineke, Prof. Catherine R. Montfort, Phil Park, and Izzy Lewis.
“I was introduced to opera and a very early age,” Opera San José’s new resident Jennifer Forni said. “My parents bought an old house in Puyallup, Washington, where we moved from Seattle when I was three years old. While Dad was remodeling the house, he played opera and always encouraged me to sing along.”
Her voice first came to the attention of her first grade music teacher, Ms. Jones, who told Jennifer’s parents “your child doesn’t sing like the other children. You should encourage her to keep singing!” When she was ten, she heard the American soprano Nancy Gustafson on a Pavarotti and Friends video. Unaware of the difficulty in classical singing, Jennifer commented, “Anyone can do that,” and sang right along with the recording, astonishing her parents. “When I was young, I thought anyone could sing, you just had to ‘pretend’ to be an opera singer.” At the same time, she began taking voice lessons, but not for long. “I loved to sing when I was young, but it was for fun and I wanted to keep it that way. I don’t think it’s very productive to have young kids in voice lessons. Music lessons are fine, but the voice really needs to develop and mature before starting strenuous lessons. Sometimes lessons can do more harm than good,” she said. In addition to singing, she grew up playing French horn and trumpet.
Jennifer, a full lyric soprano, began serious voice lessons when she was fifteen, performed in West Side Story in high school, but at that time did not plan to be an opera singer. Rather, she thought she might go to medical school and become a doctor. But when graduation time came, she only applied to one college, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio. “It is a remarkable school,” she said “Undergraduates perform in fully staged productions, in full costumes, with full sets and with a full orchestra, often led by guest conductors. It was fantastic training!”
Upon graduation from Oberlin, Jennifer applied for and was accepted in the masters program at the University of Maryland. “I chose Maryland because their degree program emphasizes performing. Oberlin taught me how to be a professional, to be precise, and to stay on top of things. Maryland taught me how to be an artist. After I went to Maryland I stopped being a student and started being an artist.”
After she earned her Master of Arts degree, Jennifer went to Portland (Oregon) Opera for two years as a resident soprano. She left Portland to join the roster at the New York City Opera, where she understudied the role of Rita Clayton in the world premier of Séance on a Wet Afternoon. She was invited back the following season to understudy Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. This past January Jennifer took her first bow on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Parsifal. “I was so overcome with emotion and excitement that my knees were trembling when I took my bow. I had set a goal to sing at the Met before I was thirty, and I made it!” said Jennifer. Not only did she make her Met debut this year, she performed two concerts this past spring at Carnegie Hall, singing the Faure Requiem, Rutter Requiem, and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony with the New York Choral Society.
Jennifer participated in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program in 2008-09. She was asked to step in at the last minute to sing the role of Nannetta in Falstaff there. “Falstaff is the last opera Verdi wrote. It is extremely demanding because it has difficult rhythms, challenging text, and complex harmonies,” she said. The performance was a triumph, and she was asked to finish out the run of the show.
Along with Madama Butterfly, Jennifer considers Eugene Onegin, La bohème, and the Strauss operas to be among her favorites. She especially admires soprano Mirella Freni and the late Maria Callas. She met Freni when she was with the Oberlin in Italy Program as an undergraduate. The now deceased Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Corelli are still at the top of her list of favorite male opera singers.
While she was in New York, Opera San José called Jennifer and ultimately offered her a residency. She will sing a different role in OSJ’s Falstaff than she sang in Santa Fe, the role of Alice Ford. Later in the season she will sing Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. She will depart briefly in October to sing in Die Frau ohne Schatten with the Met.
Jennifer says, “Opera San José provides singers a marvelous opportunity. We can sing in up to four great operas a year without having to travel all over the globe to do so. Opera San José feels like a European fest contract. Also, the company strives to put forth the highest level of artistic quality in their productions, and they have a wonderful theater to do it in, too. The California Theatre has excellent acoustics and is just a down right spectacular venue!”
Jennifer also appreciates the living arrangement OSJ provides for its residents. “Everyone is so congenial, outgoing, friendly, and helpful. Being housed in the same apartment complex almost reminds me of my college days,” she laughs. Already we’ve had many late nights listening to clips on YouTube and old records by opera’s great legends.” She notes, however, that there is lots of sunshine in San Jose, and as a person from the Northwest she misses the occasional rainy day.
Jennifer’s residency is made possible by the Mary and Clinton Gilliland Fellowship.