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.