Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pick up Your Q: Catalina Cuervo

Soprano Catalina Cuervo knows Maria de Buenos Aires well. She has performed the role of Maria more than anyone else, and continues to perform it yearly to critical acclaim. We sat down with the "Fiery Soprano" to chat about the music, words, and tango influence of Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires


Where did you grow up, and when did you first start singing?

I was born in Medellín, Colombia. I grew up there and moved to Miami when I was 18. I've been a musician all my life. I started playing piano at age 5 and electric guitar at 13, but I didn't start singing until the age of 18, when I had my first voice lesson with Eileen Duffy Brown at Miami Dade College. 

You're on record for doing the most performances of Maria de Buenos Aires as Maria. Has anything changed with your interpretation of the role since your first performance?

Definitely. Maria is a very complex character and can be played in many different ways depending on the interpretation the director is giving to the story and the setting. Her relationship with the baritone role in every production is different, too, from one production to the other. Since my first Maria de Buenos Aires I had a pretty good idea of who she was for me. Her personalities, the way she acts, talks, walks, her energy, it was all pretty clear to me; I could say that from my first Maria I had a pretty strong interpretation of it and I've played it over and over. 

Had you ever heard Piazzolla's music before auditioning for Maria?

Yes! Tango music and the tango classical music of Piazzolla is very important and known for us in Medellín. Orchestras there play his music often and his tangos are well known, too.

Tell us about Maria's journey in the piece.

Maria starts the opera being born, then as a little girl she is raped by someone she loves, then as a teenager she decides to leave the small town and go to Buenos Aires. When Maria is in Buenos Aires she becomes the queen of the streets and the city, until she gets killed. 

In the second half she is a spirit wandering the streets of Buenos Aires and at the end her spirit is reborn into a new Maria.

The story is not linear, which can make it difficult to understand. Another way of thinking about it is that Maria represents tango in the cycle of life. 

What is the significance of tango in Maria de Buenos Aires, and how is it incorporated into the production? 

Maria de Buenos Aires is a "Tango Operita". It is composed and sung in the Tango style, and performed with tango instruments, like the bandoneon. 

Did you have to learn the tango for this role?

Yes, and I am still learning!

What is your favorite moment in Maria de Buenos Aires?

Ah! I have a lot of favorite parts in this opera, but if I have to choose one, then it is for sure when I sing "Yo soy Maria" - it's the hit song! It's a powerful, "caliente" moment for the character. That aria just gets everyone on the edge of their seats and there is always a huge applause at the end of it, even yelling and shouting!

There is so much beautiful, abstract poetry in Ferrer's libretto - do you have any favorite lines?

-"Maria nacio un dia que estaba borracho Dios" - "Maria was born on a day when God was drunken."

-"Soy rosa de un no te quiero" - "I am a rose of I don't love you"

-"Entre mis brazos dare de mamar a un botin" - "Between my arms I will breastfeed a soccer cleat."

Any plans to explore the city while you're here?

Yes! It will be my first time in Atlanta and I am very excited to be there, explore the city, get to know the people, see the beuaty and the fun that everyone talks about. Super excited!


Maria de Buenos Aires opens February 2, 2017 at Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce. 
Read more about Catalina Cuervo: http://catalinacuervo.com/en/






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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Director's Notes: Seeking Humanity in WAR

By Tomer Zvulun


From the first moment that I listened to Silent Night, it deeply touched a personal side in me. Kevin Puts’ music along with Mark Campbell’s libretto uniquely captures the dichotomy of love and WAR and creates a world that is both specific and universal at once. It captures the humanity of the characters and the comforts that friendship and music bring to the bloodiest and most inexplicable of all human experiences — WAR.

WAR, whether today in Iraq, Israel, or a century ago all over Europe, evokes a chaotic, surreal world. The characters that inhabit this world are completely lost in it. As often is the case in WAR. Our production was conceived as an entangled nightmare that progresses vertically. The structure of the opera is extremely intricate and complicated.  The space is the key to the concept: It allows for the fluidity that the storytelling requires. Frequently, the vertical nature of the set allows for simultaneous action on different levels.  
As an Israeli, I know WAR very intimately. From the Lebanon WAR in my childhood in the 1980s through the intifada and the suicide bombings in the streets of Tel Aviv in the 1990s to the endless battle at the Gaza Strip, WAR is a state of being in Israel.
In the early ‘90s, I entered the most surreal situation possible for a carefree teenager: I served in the army for three years as a medic in a combat infantry unit. 
As a young 18 year old, I learned a thing or two about violence, fear, loss, and the constant brush with death. I learned to shoot, fight, run, hide — not only physically, but also emotionally. Hide the fear of dying young. 
What got me through that time and stayed with me forever was the humanity that I found in every daily situation with the members of my unit. I remember the strong friendships we formed, the coffee we would share on endless nights, the music we listened to in sentry, and the stories I heard from my comrades about their girlfriends, mothers, loves, lives, homes ... most of all, we were recognizing that we all hid the same fear: that we may never see them again.
That is the most fundamental aspect of being a soldier: missing the ones you love, your family, your home, your innocence, your youth. Those may be lost forever as soon as you put on uniforms and walk out the door.
That’s why I found the story of Silent Night so moving, personal, and yet universal at the same time. Each one of the characters is acutely aware of his mortality, fears, and loves. In the midst of this unimaginable time of terror, the music, friendship, and humanity emerge to provide a momentary solace from the horrors of that futile WAR.

Tomer Zvulun Dedicates this production in memory of Avi Maimov who was killed in action on the hills of Jerusalem on September 26, 1996



Saturday, October 22, 2016

They thought they'd be home by Christmas

Photo: Clive Barker
By Noel Morris

“Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Those words were written by Wilfred Owen in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” Owen, an English poet and World War I soldier, was killed in action Nov. 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice.


World War I

They thought they’d be home by Christmas. In August 1914, young men from Austria-Hungary, the United Kingdom, Russia, the German Empire, France, and other nations flooded recruitment offices. By December, hundreds of thousands lay dead.
In four years’ time, the First World War (1914-1918) snuffed out the lives of some 17 million people, brought down four empires, and sowed the seeds of World War II. It was a pivotal chapter. At the beginning of the 20th century, war’s architects deployed cavalry and rifles with bayonets. By 1918, they used tanks and weapons of mass destruction.
People emerged feeling betrayed by the values of their fathers. Disillusionment displaced romantic notions of valor and patriotism, hence Hemingway’s epigraph (via Gertrude Stein) calling them the “Lost Generation.”
Silent Night represents an ensemble of these reluctant functionaries, men trapped by the roles assigned to them by birth and opportunity — cogs in the engine of Europe’s destruction, and their own.

The trenches
In September 1914, some 30 miles from Paris, Allied forces repelled German invaders, pushing them northward. There, both sides cut trenches into the earth, forming a matched pair of impenetrable lines. In a series of semicircular maneuvers, each side scrambled to outflank the other. One would sweep northward, then the other — each time digging in.
Known to history as “the race to the sea,” the trenches grew like cracks in the ice until they extended more than 400 miles between the Swiss border and the North Sea (comparable to the distance between Atlanta and St. Louis). Locked in a stalemate, the military brass formulated plans for victory by attrition.
The rat-infested trenches were incubators for disease. Under the stench of gunpowder and decaying bodies, soldiers stood for days in putrid water. Hospital wards swelled with cases of foot infections, lice-borne “trench fever,” and venereal disease (more than 400,000 cases in the British army, alone). The space between the trenches was even more deadly. A tangle of barbed wire, corpses, and upended earth, No Man’s Land, as it was called, offered a shooting range for enemy snipers.
There was, however, a phenomenon known as “live and let live.” Between episodes of horrific violence came periods of boredom. Men noticed a precipitous drop in gunfire during mealtime. Troops became proactive, with an “if we allow the other guys to eat in peace, they will return the favor” philosophy.
In this way, the two sides brokered slightly less belligerent positions. Similar rules applied to latrines and even chance encounters in No Man’s Land. Holding up signs, throwing stones with messages attached, calling out, and in-person meetings became viable methods for negotiating terms of engagement.
Confusion
World War I alliances, as they existed in August 1914, belied the tangle of relationships between peoples. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Russian Czar Nicholas II, and Britain’s George V were all first cousins, grandsons of Queen Victoria.
Cross-border interactions between French, German, and British citizens had been common in peacetime; in wartime, antipathy between French and British soldiers — allies — was widespread. To further confuse matters, civilian populations were bombarded with wartime propaganda.
One British soldier wrote: “At home one abuses the enemy and draws insulting caricatures. How tired I am of grotesque Kaisers. Out here, one can respect a brave, skillful, and resourceful enemy. They have people they love at home, they too have to endure mud, rain, and steel.”
Silent Night throws a cross-section of society into the trenches: a general’s son, a singer, farm boys, and members of the working class. It’s the people we cannot see, the heads of state, the “fat old men … swigging their champagne,” according to the character named Nikolas Sprink, who are the real villains.
Sprink, a professional opera singer, is the first to show symptoms of Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation.” He sings:
“My Anna,
I cannot go back
to my life before.
I cannot.
I have seen too much.
I know too much. Everything is useless. All of it:
Opera, singing, useless.”

The Christmas Truce
Silent Night, which won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Kevin Puts’ music, is based on real-life accounts of spontaneous ceasefires along the front lines at Christmastime 1914.
The story, commissioned by the Minnesota Opera, came to librettist Mark Campbell via Christian Carion’s Academy Award-nominated film Joyeux Noël. In the opera, composer Puts uses the relationship between dissonance and tonality as an allegory for war and peace.
In the opening scenes, the armies sing their national songs at one another, creating a cacophony that advances the fighting where stage combat leaves off. In Act 2, as the enemies begin to come together, so does their music.
Silent Night’s story pivots around an act of pure madness: Sprink climbs upon the parapet to sing Christmas carols with the enemy. A laying down of arms follows, with soldiers exchanging cigars, whiskey, champagne, and chocolate. Together, they share family photos, kneel in worship, and bury their dead side-by-side.
Like Amadeus or Romeo and Juliet, Silent Night is a tale that teases the audience with hope. We look for a different outcome, even though we know better. The generous spirit that silences guns on Christmas Eve cannot overcome the weight of history. By opera’s end, the “fat old men” restore order among the ranks, and the warriors fight on.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pick Up Your Q: Craig Irvin

Baritone Craig Irvin comes to the Atlanta Opera to revive his role in Silent Night as Lt. Horstmayer. We chatted with him about the complex character, his favorite moments in the music, and cold brew coffee.

ATLANTA OPERA: Tell us about your role, Lt. Horstmayer.

CRAIG IRVIN: Lt. Horstmayer is a man. He's the German lieutenant. He's a husband. I don't think he's a father, but I think he wants to be. He's a Jew. He wants to be a good man. He wants to serve his country and do what he thinks is right. He wants to protect his soldiers. He wants to keep them alive. He wants to go home to his wife. He's a man.

AO: You're reviving this role after performing it at several companies, including the premiere at Minnesota Opera. What have you discovered about this character?

CI: I have loved every time I've worked on this piece. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I feel it's the most beautiful and important work of art that I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of. I'm always trying to refine the character and improve my performance of him, but if I had to pick the most important thing, it's making sure the character has an arc. Horstmayer is the last major character that's introduced in the show. He comes in angry and yelling. I've realized that I want the audience to think he's the villain. It's almost 30 minutes into the show when Horstmayer enters, and there hasn't been a villain yet. He's angry, he's yelling, and he's German, so it doesn't take much to make the audience think he's the bad guy. And if I can get the audience to think he's the villain and then have them some to the realization that he's just a man who is trying to serve his country and keep his soldiers alive, that just a few months earlier he would have happily sat down and had a beer with the other lieutenants, that he has so much in common with the men on the other side of no-man's land, then I think the impact of the show is more powerful. 

AO: What are your favorite musical moments in Silent Night?

CI: I would say the sunrise after the men's chorus in the first act. I remember the first time I heard it played by an orchestra. I was at the orchestral workshop and everything sounded so great. There was a beautiful men's chorus that drifted into a short solo by Sprink. As Sprink ended his lines, the orchestra took over. You can hear the rays of the sun breaking through the night and stretching over the frost covered grass. You can hear the birds chirping as they wake to a new day to take flight. I literally just stared at the orchestra and my jaw dropped. Then, as the sunrise orchestration ended a fugue began. A wave of terror came over me as I realized my first line in the show was coming up in about 10 measures and I had no idea where we were in the music! 

AO: Where do the challenges lie in this piece, both in the music and drama?

CI: It takes a lot of energy to express the frustration, fear, and anger that Horstmayer is experiencing. it's even harder to do that and not let it negatively interfere with the singing. Vocally, the character has a large range and often has to sing over some of the larger orchestration in the show.

AO: What do you think is the most powerful message in this story?

CI: Enemies are often more alike than they are different. We may not be able to fix all problems with just talking and time, but we solve even fewer with violence. 

AO: Where did you grow up, and when did you start singing?

CI: I grew up in Waukee, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. I guess I would say I started singing in elementary school. You can tell I loved it, because I chose to give up one recess a week to be in a special choir. Outside of school, I started singing in my church choir when I was around 13 or so. I was easily the youngest person in the choir by about 30 years.

AO: You travel a lot. What do you listen to when you're on the road?

CI: I mostly listen to podcasts, really. "Nerdist," "The Moth," "Risk," "Fresh Air," "More Perfect," "Radio Lab," "This American Life," "Hidden Brain," "Serial," "Filmspotting," "Star Talk," "Invisibilia," "A Way with Words," "Snap Jugment," "You Made it Weird," "WTF," "Planet Money," "Hardcore History," Girl on Guy," "Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men." That covers most of them.

AO: What is your next dream role?

CI: It's hard, but if I have to pick just one, it's Scarpia in Tosca.

AO: Any advice for young singers?

CI: Work your languages. Make sure you know the character you're performing, not just the notes and words. Enjoy the process, not just the performance. Be prepared. Go to a coach at least two more times than you think you need to. Know your music well enough that you can make little mistakes while exploring the character. It's hard to get hired for the first time at a company; it's even harder to get hired back. Be a good colleague. You didn't build the set, make the costumes, apply the makeup, hang the lights, call the show, or play in the pit; even when you are along onstage it's not just you. Be honest with yourself and what you want out of life. This career is hard, it's amazing, fulfilling, draining, painful, joyous, and it's constant even when you have no work. Be aware of all the good and all the bad, because you get to experience both.

AO: Finally, cold brew coffee: underrated or overrated?

CI: We finally get to an important question. I love coffee. I have three kids (A 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins), so I'm not sure I could make it through the day without coffee. I also love the taste of good coffee. There is a big difference between iced coffee and real cold brew coffee, so I will take cold brew any day. However, it needs to be coffee. Cold brew can get a bit bitter, so I can allow just a touch of cream in it to smooth out some of the bitterness, but that's it. I want coffee, not a candy bar in a cup.


 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: immersion

Photo: Jeff Roffman
In my first blog post in this series, I referred to the Opera as “The Wow Art Form."  We opened The Abduction from the Seraglio on Saturday night, and now I realize I need a word stronger than “Wow." “The Boom Art Form?" “The Nuclear Art Form?" “The OMG Art Form?"  Or, maybe the word “immersive” gets best at what being in an opera does. 

That’s the word my son, Stephen (who is illustrating these posts) used last Saturday night in an excited phone conversation we had after opening. Watching from the front row, he said, “I’ve never seen you so immersed in a role.” 

Part of the reason for that “immersion” may be that after Melanie Steele’s crack staff applies wig, make-up, tattoos and a lot of Pasha-bling, I return to my dressing room and look in the mirror and I can no longer see myself. This means something important for the actor’s process and for the audience’s catharsis. 
 
Photo: Jeff Roffman
I first encountered this kind of phenomenon early in my career when at auditions, I would often hear the director say, “That was great, you can sing, you can act, but this time do it again and just be yourself.” 

This really drove me crazy. At that time, I believed that the entire purpose of an actor was to portray someone I’m not.  But, I also knew that every time I took the director’s advice and just did the character as myself, it worked. 

Later, when I went for a Masters in Theatre at the University of Tennessee, a visiting professor, Bernie Engles, helped enormously with this paradox by offering the following theory of acting: revealing who you are as appropriate to the character and script. It worked. It ignited an energy of performance that, decades later, still sustains and propels. 

Maybe it is the sheer imaginative ambition of opera, super exceeding the natural self, the realistic self, the self recognizable in the mirror, that presents the actor and the audience, the surest way to discover what we most want to know about ourselves--immersion in the unknown. Who knew there was a way to find our inner Pasha? Wow!