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.

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 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: The week of "wow"

As an actor, Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key has appeared in over 100
productions from off-Broadway to Los Angeles. He also co-authored the hit off-Broadway musical, Cotton Patch Gospel, with the late Harry Chapin. Suffice to say, it seems like he's done and seen it all...except opera!

Every week, Tom will share his inner monologue as he experiences the process of rehearsing and performing in an opera for the first time, as Pasha Selim in The Abduction from the Seraglio

Week #1

Wow.  My first day of rehearsal, for my first role in an opera, and the word of the day is “wow." 
"I have a blinding flash of the obvious: I’m going from the audience into the very same room with these artists who make the 'wow' art form."
The first opera I ever saw was in NYC when I was 14-years-old and it was Aida in the old Metropolitan Opera House. When I realized that those were real elephants on the stage and when I heard the first voices fill, not only the auditorium, but my very soul, that was a “wow” day too.  Now, today, in a brightly lit Atlanta Opera rehearsal hall at 11 a.m.
Key at a fitting for his Pasha costume
when we are assembling for the first time in a “meet and greet” with the staff and one another, I have a blinding flash of the obvious: I’m going from the audience into the very same room with these artists who make the “wow” art form. There won’t be a football field’s distance and an orchestra between us. We’ll all be wearing contemporary clothes.  

Then, it begins and I’m actually face to face meeting opera singers, our opera director, Chris Alexander, shaking their hands, and talking with them. There’s my friend and colleague, Tomer Zvulun, who wildly invited me to this party, and there’s an absolutely fascinating presentation by Chris of his vision for this Mozart comedy, and I have to keep checking to make sure that my jaw is not dropped and that my eyes aren’t open four centimeters wider like they probably were at Aida. My running inner dialogue is something like, “this is so great— I can’t believe I’m here—when they start to sing right next to me will I explode?” Three things anchor me into behaving like a reasonably cohesive professional: Tomer’s welcoming joy for all of us, Chris’s absolute mastery for storytelling, and the fact that the refreshments for this first day morning reception included chocolate cake. Opera people have great priorities. Wow.

Read Tom's bio

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Pick Up Your Q: Soprano Sarah Coburn

Before heading to Atlanta to perform in The Abduction from the Seraglio, soprano Sarah Coburn took some time out of her busy singing schedule to chat with us about her life as a singer and learning the difficult role of Konstanze.
THE ATLANTA OPERA: Did you grow up in a musical family?
SARAH COBURN: Yes, my mother’s side of the family is very musical. My grandmother was a jazz singer and my aunt is a fabulous pianist. My sisters have amazing voices. Every holiday we sang and played. It was mostly barbershop quartets or country music, like the Judds or Vince Gill. Not a bit of opera, though!
AO: Who or what influenced you to become a singer?
SB: I didn’t plan on becoming a singer, although I always planned on majoring in music in college. I studied music education and was encouraged by my voice teachers to think about pursuing performance instead of teaching.
AO: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that Konstanze is one of your favorite roles to sing. What is it about this part that interests you? 
SB: I have? I have never sung this role, so that comes as a shock to me! This is my role debut and it is quite daunting. Konstanze is a role that commands great respect and even fear! Ha! Seriously, it is a great challenge, and one I am thrilled to accept. The role requires a great deal of stamina and virtuosity. I have sung Blondchen in the past, and I always hoped I would have the opportunity to sing Konstanze.
AO: Indeed! This is considered by some to be Mozart’s most vocally challenging music for soprano. Where do the challenges lie in this role, and how do you deal with them? 
SB: The challenges lie in the lengthy arias, and the fact the two of them are back to back. The arias are exercises in breath control, dynamic control, and support in a difficult tessitura. I love them, though.
AO: What’s your regimen for staying healthy when you’re on the road?
SB: Sleep, water, exercise, and I must warm up properly every day before singing. I am not too stressed about everything being in perfect condition in order to sing well; I can’t be — I have three little kids! 
AO: Is this your first time in Atlanta? Do you have any plans to explore the city while you’re here?
SB: I have never spent time in Atlanta. Right now, my goal is to sing the role well and take care of my kids. Exploring the city will come after opening night!  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Pick Up Your Q: High School Opera Institute Student (And all-around awesome kid) Khamary Grant

Khamary Grant is probably more put together than most adults. The young actor and singer is working hard at the Atlanta Opera's High School Opera Institute, a one week intensive for rising 10th-12th graders at Emory University. Find out how he became interested in opera, and what he's got planned for an exciting summer.

What grade are you in and where do you got to school?

I'm a rising senior, and I go to Veritas Classical School. It's part home schooling, part public school so that we can interact with other kids. 

How did you get interested in voice?

I came out of the womb singing, let's just say that. I've always been singing. When I was 14 years old, I was exposed to musical theater at Atlanta Workshop Players. Since then, I've just been going on this journey, discovering new things, now classical music. I've been performing musical theater for about three years now. I didn't have a lot of training, but I did just sing and have fun doing different shows like In the Heights and Hairspray. I was Seaweed, which is easily my favorite role to this day. But that's how I got into voice, just being exposed to the musical theater world.

What activities are you involved in at school?

They don't really have a lot of performing arts activities at school, so I spend a lot of time at Atlanta Workshop Players, where I'm part of their professional company, and the travel show they're about to do. I'll also be singing in a few upcoming events with them.

What are you most looking forward to learning at High School Opera Institute?

I want to learn about the different things I can do with my voice, like control and vowels. I just started my classical training, and one of our instructors told me that there's so much more to my voice that I just don't know yet. She told me I have a lot of potential. By adding classical music, there are so many possibilities for me now. That makes me super excited!

What are you favorite pieces to sing?

"The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. It was one of the first pieces I ever learned, and I fell in love with is the first time I heard it. I also like Per la gloria d'adorarvi -that's the song I'm learning right now.

Any other plans for the summer?

For the rest of the summer I'll be auditioning a lot. I do a lot of television and film acting. I have an agency here called People Store, and then one in New York called Clear Talent Group. I'll be a camp counselor for two weeks at an overnight camp at Oglethorpe with Atlanta Workshop Players. After that, I'll be traveling to Madrid with my family. 

What's your plan for the future?

I definitely want two Oscars. My acting coach gave me a goal I'm trying to achieve: by the time I'm 21 years old, I no longer want to be auditioning. I want to be having meetings with people. I want to walk into a room, and have everyone know my name, but for the right reason, like my work ethic. I also want to be able to have enough power and influence to use my music and talents to create change in the world. 

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.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

#Notachamberopera (Or Painting A Story On The Largest Canvas Possible)

By Tomer Zvulun 

One of the most fascinating aspects of opera is the variations of musical styles within the art form itself. From Baroque to modern music, the art form runs the gamut of flavors, each of them uniquely defined by a different language, period, composers style, orchestra size, color, etc. As an Artistic Director, choosing the operas for a season is a little bit like selecting the perfect ice cream combination. 

How do you choose the perfect mix? Do you go for the classic, always potent chocolate-vanilla or is it time to try an adventurous churro and brambleberry crisp? (Yes, that’s a flavor at Jeni’s Ice Cream and it is life-changing.)

We are closing a uniquely diverse season at The Atlanta Opera: from the modern and powerful chamber opera, Soldier Songs, to a fresh cinematic version of La bohème, a colorful audience-pleaser in The Pirates of Penzance, to a visually striking Winterreise (Winter Journey). We offered our audiences many flavors and tastes this year.

We chose to close the season with the grandest version of the epic love story: Romeo and Juliet.

The first question is why?

Why did theaters all over the world, in every conceivable language, adapt this play? Why were the greatest artists of every period so drawn to retelling this familiar story? Why are we presenting it this weekend at the magnificent Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center?

All around the world, the name “Romeo and Juliet” is synonymous with the idea of being young and in love. It captures the essence of romance, of discovering the powers of love, sex, danger, and the mysterious alchemy of an attraction to another person. It is desperately romantic. It deals with love and loss, power and social status; the stuff that makes us all dream.

The second question is also why. Why this version when so many other versions exist?

The answer is SCALE. Gounod’s version is unique in that it takes a story which is often remembered for its intimate chamber scenes (The famous balcony scene, the tomb scene) and expands it to an unapologetically grand opera in the most extravagant way.

The extreme feelings that the characters experience - the ecstasy of falling in love and lust, the intensity of violence and loss, revenge, and grief - are the perfect materials for operatic tales.

Gounod takes those ingredients and propels them forward in a romantic, melodic way. He enhances the SCALE of the story and emotions by writing sweeping music for large choruses and orchestra.

Our version at The Atlanta Opera strategically takes the idea of larger than life themes and finds the visual equivalent in the backdrop of the Shakespearean Globe Theatre. Through the use of multiple towers, staircases and levels, this grand canvas helps give this powerful story new life.

Producing an opera is a complicated, exciting adventure that involves hundreds of singers, musicians, and technicians. I personally find it addictive because it allows us to paint on the largest canvas available in the performing arts. Producing GRAND opera, like Romeo and Juliet, is even more intricate and exciting.

This grand opera version of the story not only brings together a thrilling cast of singers, designers, musicians and artists from all over the world, but it is also the perfect way to close our delicious, diverse season at The Atlanta Opera. Hope you will join us!

Have a great summer and see you at Jeni’s Ice Cream!

- Tomer Zvulun

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.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Pick up Your Q: Costume Designer/Coordinator Joanna Schmink

Atlanta Opera Costume Coordinator Joanna Schmink spends most of her time in the costume shop sourcing, curating, altering, and piecing together costumes from other designers and productions. 
For Romeo and Juliet, she designed and created everything from scratch for this spectacular grand opera with an equally grand cast. We talked to her about the joys and challenges of the job.

The Atlanta Opera: Who or what influenced you to get into costume design?
Joanna Schmink: Growing up, my parents involved all of my siblings in the arts (orchestra, choir, dance, theatre) not as a potential career choice but to enlighten us on the importance of art in all forms in our daily lives. I think it was a friend in college that convinced me to take an internship in the university costume shop. I changed majors a semester later from engineering to costume design and have her to thank or blame.

AO: Who is your favorite artist or designer, living or dead?
JS: Léon Samoilovitch Bakst (1866-1924). He was a Russian painter, set, and costume designer known for his rich, exotic use of color, pattern, and texture. His work for Diaghilev Ballet Russes is some of his best work - a visual kaleidoscope of color brought to life on stage. Bakst’s brilliant control of color and line spilled over into fashion and interior design giving a new richness and looser flow to the drab look of the time. 

AO: Are there any misconceptions about costume designers that you’d like to clear up?
JS: I don't think people quite understand what costume designers do on the job. For starters, it’s not as glamorous as people would like to think. It’s a lot of long hours and hard work. You have to love research, working with fabric, collaborating with other creative people such as designers, directors, producers, and performers. The payoff is definitely not notoriety, but rather the satisfaction of creating part of a wonderful theatrical experience. 

AO: What does a typical day look like for you?
JS: There are no typical days, thank goodness. There are some non-negotiables that I always keep on the early morning daily roster like running, biking, or swimming. I like to start every day off on an active foot to help keep me in a great frame of mind and provide an additional bump of energy. There is nothing like a sun rise to inspire creativity. A work day is usually a 7:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. start with a 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. finish. All kinds of things could occupy a work day from organizational office work and fabric shopping to costume fittings and production meetings. There is a mix of practical and creative aspects to every day.

AO: What kind of preparation went into the period costumes for Romeo and Juliet?
JS: A large part of the development and preparation for this production is in research and creative problem solving. The body of the show is being set in the 1830’s, historically noted as part of “The Romantic Era” (1820’s-1840’s), or early Victorian. It is complemented by aspects and costume elements of the Elizabethan Era (1550’s-1600’s) which works well in the presentation of a Shakespearean story line. The challenge is to make the periods connect seamlessly so the costumes enhance the storytelling.

AO: Were there specific challenges to creating these costumes for such a large cast?
JS: This production is incorporating brand new built costumes, pre-existing costume stock, and rented costumes. It’s challenging to have all of these elements in place and create a cohesive design that will present a beautiful visual for the audience. The work involved to move the design forward takes additional creative thought and design flexibility so the best choices are made.

AO: Are there any productions (opera or other) for which you have always wanted to design the costumes?

JS: I would love to design a Die Fledermaus or a Tristan und Isolde. Both have great opera design elements that would challenge me as a designer. I would love to do research on both shows and have a great adventure seeing them come to life. They both have grand opera story appeal with love, drama, and suspense well crafted into their plots.

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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes: Curt Olds as Major-General Stanley

Bass Curt Olds is a world-renown singer and performer. He's covered many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan's greatest works, most recently in our mounting of The Pirates of Penzance. We went backstage with Curt to watch his transformation into the Major-General and to learn more about his process, pre-performance rituals and tips for getting into character.

I always hate the process of putting on heavy wigs and makeup for a production, but I love the look afterwards. The adhesive, spirit gum or mastix, is sticky like syrup and burns a bit upon application. I performed for a couple of years in the Broadway musical CATS, which was probably the heaviest make-up/wig show I've ever done. One trick I use as Major-General is to split the mustache into two pieces so it will allow my mouth to move without trouble. 

The Major-General is unique because your biggest song is both your first moment on stage and extremely well known. When arias like this come right out of the gate for a character (like Figaro in The Barber of Seville) the performer has one shot to get things right. Patter songs (I do many of them in the repertoire I perform) are always demanding, but the Major-General's song is extra hard due to it's fame and it's location in the show. 

No matter what role I am performing, I like to take a little time in my dressing room before I get into costume and makeup and go through the whole show at a quick pace. I usually keep all my notes together that I have been given by directors, conductors, and coaches, and I go through that list, as well. With the Major General, I usually have time to run the lyrics to the song one more time before my entrance, which I always think is a smart idea. No matter how many times I do a role, I still review using this method to make sure I am not taking anything for granted. Every time I review, there is something that I catch that might have been missed in performance.

I'm a big coffee drinker, so I usually will grab a cup of coffee as I head to the theatre. I also like to stay social, so when time allows, I like to prop my dressing room door open so I can keep in the vibe of the show, visit with colleagues and wish them well. I started out as many performers do, working in cramped-quarter theatres and I like to keep in the group frame of mind with Gilbert & Sullivan, which requires a connection from the largest role to every ensemble member for success.

This is my 15th production of Pirates (8 Pirate Kings and 7 Major Generals). Next up I will do my 24th production of Ko-Ko in Mikado, which is my favorite role of all. I love this rep so much and I am happy to see opera and theatre companies include it in standard rep. Despite it being viewed as a guilty pleasure by so many opera patrons, it usually sells out and many times companies add performances because of demand. That speaks volumes. 

It's been such a pleasure to perform with Atlanta Opera and I have had a great time in this city. This cast includes some of my very close friends and I think Tomer Zvulun has assembled a brilliant group of singing actors perfectly suited for this type of show. I look forward to see what exciting things are coming for Atlanta Opera audiences and I hope I have the opportunity to return again soon.

All photos by Vicky Legaspi. 

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.