Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pick Up your Q: Marcy Stonikas

Marcy Stonikas has performed Turandot three times, and each time she is able to breathe new life into a truly challenging role. We chatted with her about the complexities of Turandot, what makes the character relevant today, and her favorite musical moments.

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

I grew up in Elmhurst, IL, which is a suburb of Chicago. I was singing as soon as I could make noise, I'm fairly certain. I started piano lessons with my next-door neighbor at five, and was singing in church choir around the age of six or so.  I started community theatre in middle school, and did musicals, choir, madrigals and jazz choir throughout high school (all while also in band and orchestra), which is all what lead me to audition for various music programs for college.

Who or what are your greatest influences?

I would say that my greatest influences are a diverse bunch, ranging from my family to my favorite singers of the past, present and future (and from all genres of music). I find my performances are greatly informed by the love I have for my husband, and more recently, for my son. Being a mother has changed the way I view the world and how I interpret music, hopefully for the better.

What drew you to opera?

I started studying classical voice privately around the age of 15 or 16, and I was singing art songs and the occasional aria, but had never actually seen one until I auditioned for colleges. Symphonic music was probably a major gateway to opera, however, and I had been going to the symphony throughout high school with my friends, which probably seems strange to some people, but it was such a wonderful experience! I got to take the train from our little quiet suburb to the city, and then go hear phenomenally talented musicians (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is still amazing!) play the music of Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Mahler, etc. - I couldn't get enough! Then my senior year I saw a double bill of The Old Maid and the Thief (Menotti) and the RARELY seen/performed Slow Dusk (Floyd) at Oberlin College's Conservatory of Music, which is where I ended up attending. It was a perfect juxtaposition for me because I got to see one very charming, comical story and one very dramatic, lyrical one and they both struck a major chord with me. It probably didn't hurt that I also related very much to the soprano lead of Slow Dusk; she became a very early operatic idol/mentor to me later on in school. I think the combination of my beloved classical music with singing was the lynch pin for me, and everything finally made sense!

What is challenging about the role of Turandot?

The biggest challenge I faced before first performing the role of Turandot was how to make her someone that I didn't hate. I have always made it a top priority to find a way to make every character that I play 3-dimensional, sympathetic and unavoidably, a bit of me. This was something that continued to plague me as I walked into my first day of rehearsal with Renaud Doucet. After a relatively short conversation with him, I nearly started crying out of relief because his objective of turning her into a real person, and not the typical "black widow spider princess," was so in line with my own thinking. That collaboration made my process so much easier because our end goals were the same.

What are some of your favorite musical moments?

One of my absolute favorite moments in ALL opera is the Act I finale (which I don't get to sing, lol!). It has amazing orchestration and everyone is wailing away on their own individual lines; so cool, so beautiful. Another favorite moment is actually the Ping/Pang/Pong trio at the beginning of Act II. I never tire of the charm of these characters, and I love when I can watch the fun choreography from the wings and in rehearsal! And to not seem strange to exclude any of Turandot's music, I absolutely adore the end of Act 2 as well on many levels. Again, it's such an amazing moment in music with the chorus singing loudly and together; I always feel enveloped by their sound and it's such a cool experience. And then to get to "break free" from their demands by soaring above them all on a couple of high C's - that's pretty darn fun!

Having performed Turandot before, has anything changed or evolved in your interpretation?

My interpretation of the role of Turandot after performing as her several times now, has absolutely evolved. I think one of the most fundamental changes that has occurred is that I am more comfortable in my role as a princess. I initially found it difficult to play someone of such a position, as it's so foreign to anything that I know, really in any way. We don't have a royal family in this country at all, and I wasn't even sure how to move, let alone how to get around in the costumes on the challenging stage design. The other thing that's probably evolved over the years has been that I am more comfortable letting the music guide me, motivate me, inform me. It's all there: Puccini was the master of putting every little nuance into the score.

Do you see yourself, or women in general, in her?

So, hearkening back to a couple of questions ago, this was something that I needed to imbue into my first Turandot - a real person, a woman, MYSELF. My goal is to break down the perception of the commoners (chorus) so that the audience doesn't just see me as a merciless princess but a woman who carries a lot of baggage. She has major shoes to fill, a lot of obligations to live up to, and she simply doesn't feel that she needs a man in order to do her job well. These are all things to which I, along with other modern women, can relate. She doesn't lure any men to come and court her - the suitors that perish have done so completely of their own volition, knowing full well of the danger in their failure.

How is the story of Turandot relevant today?

If you can strip away the title of princess and make Turandot's problems more basic, everyone can relate to her on some level. Additionally, the reoccurring theme of someone willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of another person (both Liù and Calaf do this) is still very current. Sure, it may not be a matter of life and death, but we all make sacrifices for our loved ones regularly and would do anything in our power to prevent them from harm.

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Don Pasquale Director's Notes: Chuck Hudson

Photo: Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera
With DON PASQUALE, Donizetti gives us champagne for music and so the comedic style in the acting must match this excellence or it would be like mixing bubbles with beer! I had the privilege of working with a master of comedy, Marcel Marceau. At his school in Paris, Marceau had us study the various styles of comedy from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte to his own comic inspirations: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and other actors of le Cinéma Muet. It was their virtuosity, their “musicality” in style that struck Marceau. Their comic dignity represented the champagne of Comedy as opposed to the stylistic beer of Slapstick or Vaudeville. Marceau also drilled us in the details of his own comic masterpieces, working the specificity, style, and that elusive skill, Comic Timing. Highlights of touring with Marceau came on the off-nights in a studio improvising together. He’d put me on stage and toss out a theme and I would “play.” He gave me specific stylistic directions: “make the same action tragic, now comic, now dark comedy, now Baroque comedy, now Melodrama….” To increase the subtlety he would say, “Now find the tragic in the comic” or “find the comic in the tragic.” I learned that I could change the context or even the meaning simply by changing where and when to “take” to the audience. These silent asides would make or break the comedy and could generate cascades of laughter. I love honoring his influence by inserting flowers from his bouquet into a show now and then, so we have inserted a few into this production—rifffing on Bip Commits Suicide, The Mask Maker, and The Pickpocket’s Nightmare.

We wanted to create an environment that would allow the comic virtuosity to work hand in hand with the vocal virtuosity of Opera. When the design team and I settled on SUNSET BOULEVARD as the inspiration for this production, the collaboration and creativity flowed. Having singers play Hollywood actors who are playing roles opened up a world of comic possibilities. I have always been amazed with the “theatre magic” of the costume changes during a Japanese Kabuki performance—a Samurai Warrior turns into a Fox right before your eyes, which is not only part of the fun, it is a playful way for us to portray in a theatre the special effects we expect in a movie. Like a Busby Berkeley chorus becoming a kaleidoscope of human action, even our set transforms one large element into a completely different object in another scene.

One of the trickiest things about this opera is that there is only one female character, Norina. When we meet her, we are not introduced to a girl but to a woman. She is neither innocent of the ways of men nor innocent of the ways of the world. In her introductory aria, Norina revisits the Fairy Tale Romance that she and all young girls are taught to believe, and she knows from experience that this is not what real love is. In our own Post-Romantic world where Disney Princesses have more chutzpah than their Barbie Doll predecessors, Norina is an intelligent and educated young woman who has experienced life, and yet is not so jaded by her experience that she no longer believes in love.

Similar to the relationship between Rosina and Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Dr. Malatesta never tells Norina what to do. Like Figaro, he is Socratic in his instruction. He values and supports the cleverness and intelligence of his protégée, leading Norina to discover her own solutions by thinking them out logically. He even trusts her to improvise her own text and actions disguised as the shrewish Sofronia.

If Norina is the Only Woman, she must therefore represent Every Woman. If the real Norina is in any way shrewish then she is not in disguise as the shrew Sofronia, and what a two-dimensional stereotype of women that would be. No, Norina is written as a three-dimensional woman possessing flaws as well as talents. We may not agree with some of her choices—restoring our faith in a woman who has just slapped an old man to the ground is quite a challenge! Perhaps Norina goes too far, and she must recognize this, too. Restoring the comedy from that dark situation is a pivotal moment in the show.
On the first day of rehearsal I presented the singers with Marceau’s Comic Timing Exercise—a specific and yet simple sequence of movements that allows comedy to flourish. Armed with this technique, we got to work! Although he is no longer with us, Marceau’s style and his love of style live on in those of us who worked with him directly. I am privileged to pass it along to the next generation of performers including actors, movement artists, and opera singers. As with all of them, so with you, I share the eulogy for Chuckles the Clown on The Mary Tyler Moore Show:

“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

Learn more about Chuck Hudson: http://chdirector.com/

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.

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/

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.

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.
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.