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!   

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: mingle-mangle

Stephen Key
There’s one intermission in our Seraglio. I discovered where this takes place last Friday in the rehearsal hall, when we ran through the opera in front of an invited audience. A theatrical production with an intermission-- opera or theatre, tragedy or comedy--has to end the first part with enough dramatic intensity to compel the audience back for part two.

Imagine my surprise, to realize the end of Act I - before the curtain crashes down and the music pounds to a finish--is actually Sarah and me alone onstage as Konstanze and Pasha Selim. The audience let out a big sound, a shouted “Oh my God!”, Brian August, our stage manager, called, “Fifteen minute break!” and I exercised what self control I had left just to walk to my backpack, put on my shoes and get some water. 

All of us were experiencing what our director, Chris Alexander, set us up for on the first day of rehearsal: mingle-mangle. It’s the nature of Mozart, Shakespeare, and, most importantly, life itself. It’s the relationship of opposites: shadow/light, silence/sound, fear/love. Friday, Chris affirmed we were succeeding with the mingle-mangle. He noted we instantly swerved between the serious and the comic, the dark and the light, even death and life.

On stage with world class singers, driven by Mozart, guided by a master director of opera and theatre, I realize that the more we embrace life as tragedy at the end of Act I, the better we can know life as a divine comedy by opera’s end. Isn’t that what we want to know of life itself? For anyone seeking hope in the mingle-mangle of humanity October, 2016, The Abduction from the Seraglio should be required viewing.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 'why' behind Seraglio and Mozart's stew of Turks, sex and farce

Photo Credit: Michael Rollands

By Noel Morris

Islam, kidnapping, sex, and slavery — these are risky conversation topics for holiday gatherings. But not in 1782. Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio places the action outside a Turkish harem. It isn’t a probing exploration of religion or human rights, however, it’s farce. Based on Belmont und Constanze by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, the Turkish palace is but a backdrop to the drama of two women, their lovers, and the powerful Muslim men who seek the women’s affections. It’s worth considering why Mozart chose this story.

For nearly 500 years, the Ottoman Empire had expanded its range, conquering and plundering whole civilizations. Twice, Turkish forces attempted (and failed) to take Vienna — the second siege lasted two months and ended in September 1683. Mozart’s father would have known people who lived through it.

Even as European slavers were shipping Africans to the Americas, North African pirates were selling Europeans to the Turks. Mozart knew of charities that paid ransoms to bring people home.

One might expect Mozart’s Vienna, then, to despise the empire to the south — but no—all things Turkish were in vogue. Tales of European ladies serving as sex slaves in exotic lands became popular fiction. People commissioned portraits of themselves clothed in fabrics from Istanbul. And merchants opened establishments serving a beverage called coffee. (Legend has it that the Viennese coffee craze began after the siege of 1683 when the fleeing army left behind bags of strange-smelling beans.) Mozart’s nod to Turquerie offers a lovesick Pasha and an extraordinary act of mercy.

Ears in the 21st century might strain to hear exotic sounds in Mozart’s score. In 1782, the Viennese recognized echoes of the Ottoman Empire. The bass drum and the jingling of cymbals, triangles and piccolos conjured the military bands that had terrorized their city in 1683. In Abduction, they spin a musical costume around Turkish characters.

Turning travel into music

Composing The Abduction came at a major intersection in Mozart’s life. At 25, the former child prodigy had just left home for good.

His father, Leopold, was a stage parent. A respected musician, he cultivated his son’s genius from an early age and touted him in courts across Europe. British scholar Daines Barrington presented an eyewitness account of meeting with the 8-year-old Wolfgang in 1764. Barrington selected a complex score in five parts and presented it to the boy seated at the harpsichord. Barrington wrote:

“The score was no sooner put upon his desk, than he began to play the symphony in a most masterly manner, as well as in the time and style which corresponded with the intention of the composer.”

Barrington’s account reveals something elemental about Mozart: He could instantly comprehend and master new musical styles. From his travels, he absorbed everything from Italian opera to the sacred music of J.S. Bach. As we see in The Abduction From the Seraglio and the operas to come, he throws that experience into his scores, giving opposing characters opposing musical styles.

Although Mozart remained deeply devoted to his father, he defied him twice in the year or so surrounding this opera’s composition. In 1773, Leopold had procured for Wolfgang a position in the court of his own employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. While Leopold knew his place in the world, Wolfgang resented it. As a low-ranking servant, Mozart suffered many humiliations at the hands of his boss. By spring 1781, he begged for release. He succeeded in June, getting himself booted out of Salzburg — literally “with a kick in the arse.” He left for Vienna, seeking fame and fortune.

Creating a ‘singspiel’

By July, Mozart had secured a commission for an opera. Vienna’s Burgtheater, sponsored by Emperor Joseph II, offered him Bretzner’s libretto to The Abduction From the Seraglio, reworked by Gottlieb Stephanie.

The new opera was to be a “singspiel,” taken from the German words singen (to sing) and spiel (play). Singspiel juxtaposes dialogue and music, similar to the Broadway musical. Treating the job like an audition, Mozart wrote to his father:

“As we have given the part of Osmin to Herr Fischer, who certainly has an excellent bass voice (in spite of the fact that the Archbishop told me that he sang too low for a bass and that I assured him he would sing higher next time), we must take advantage of it, particularly as he has the whole Viennese public on his side. But in the original libretto Osmin has only this short song and nothing else to sing.”

Mozart changed the story to fit the singer. The Turkish overseer became a major comic character: stupid, surly, malicious. And the music fits the character, lacking the elegance and harmonic complexity of his European captives — which is not to say it’s easier to sing. Osmin’s Act 3 aria "O, wie will ich triumphieren” is famously difficult and showcases Fischer’s ability to sing a low D.

While composing Abduction, Mozart ponders the conundrum of writing beautiful music about anger.

“Passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situation, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener.”

Mozart’s solution is to give the singer more notes. When his noble heroine Konstanze is confronted by a fate worse than death, she lets it fly, singing a flurry of runs, trills and leaps. Her feisty servant, Blonde, defies Osmin in similar virtuosic fashion, singing, I am an Englishwoman, born for freedom.” (It’s interesting that Mozart’s egalitarian-minded servant is English, a safe distance from Austria, given that he was composing at the command of the Austrian Emperor).

The Abduction From the Seraglio, which opened July 16, 1782, was a hit. Profits poured into the Burgtheater, from which Mozart received a modest flat fee.

Less than a month later Mozart defied his father once more and married Constanza Weber. That he courted Constanza while creating the operatic heroine Konstanze was purely coincidence; that he delighted in the irony was pure Mozart.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: letting go

Stephen Key, 2016
In week two, Tom dives deeper into his role as the Pasha, and experiences rehearsals a little differently than what he's used to. Illustrations provided by his son, Stephen Key.

OK, one week in to rehearsal for The Abduction from the Seraglio, and the attitude of “Just-do-it!”, “Go-for-it”, “Grow-or-go!” is absolutely necessary. It’s like preparation for a sporting event. We have now been guided through Mozart’s entire opera by our Director, Chris Alexander, and we cover seduction, betrayal, capture, escape, exile, love offered, love refused, love embraced - with life or death consequences – to mention a few plot points – and it’s a comedy!

Without trying to give any spoilers, I will just say that we did have to spend about ten minutes figuring out a bedroom scene gone really badly so that there’s a dagger on the ready from a part of my costume that is something I’ve never worn before onstage. This all has to be exact to the underscore of the orchestra, clear to the audience what’s happening, positioned in such a way that the singers can breathe and project, and, most importantly, very passionate. Of all the things opera
Stephen Key, 2016
singers may have to suffer, boredom is not one of them.  

"If acting in this musically charged world is a sport, it's probably more like diving - the art of letting go in a beautiful way to forces much greater than self."

The music empowers the actor with a quick and immediate understanding of character, plot, objective and action. When I make my first entrance in this opera, about 30 people are singing for cool breezes to blow my way and I’m being followed by a boy waving a palm frond to make sure that I’m cool (evidently things go badly for the people if the Pasha gets overheated), and when I raise my hand, they rush out backward to leave me alone with the beautiful Konstanze. It doesn’t take much discussion around the rehearsal table to understand who’s got the power in this palace. If acting in this musically charged world is a sport, it’s probably more like diving – the art of letting go in a beautiful way to forces much greater than self. -Tom Key

Stephen Key, 2016