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Blog entries posted during August 2012

Opera Camp Through the Eyes of A Summer Camper

LAO Opera Camp 2012

I'll be completely honest. On the first day of Opera Camp, I was terrified.
I have no singing experience besides school choir several years back—in fact, I was deathly afraid of singing in public. I wished to join Opera Camp solely because I love the art form and wanted to gain a deeper understanding of it.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

The first day of camp started out with the parent-student orientation. The orientation gave an overview of the camp schedule and briefed us on The White Bird of Poston, the opera we're going to perform: set during World War II, the opera focuses on Akiko, a Japanese American girl sent to an internment camp. Also, we watched a video about the Japanese Internment, which included accounts of survivors and activists. Most importantly, though, we were assured that it doesn't matter if you're brand new to singing.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

After the orientation was a movement session which warmed up our bodies. Next, we had the Chorus Rehearsal, during which we went over the Finale of the opera. Actually singing is what I had been anxious about all along. Somehow, though, when we all opened our mouths, the notes came out so easily and naturally. It was almost a let-down. I had spent over six years with an awful fright of singing and here I was, suddenly singing comfortably with the rest of the chorus. Where was the attack of muteness and silent sweating? Singing was actually...fun. I knew it then and there—camp would be absolutely awesome.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

The day only got better. While some of the principals remained behind for coaching, the LA Opera stage manager treated the rest of us to a wonderful backstage tour of the Dorothy Chandler. She explained how productions are set up and how props are moved back and forth. We got the chance to ask about the stage, about theater in general, and about specific moments in LA Opera productions. I'm happy to say that I got one burning questions answered. (No, Plácido Domingo did not have any hidden padding or protection during his terrifying Boccanegra death fall.)  Afterwards, she gave us a demonstration of stage managing, calling out corresponding cues for lights and props as we watched an archival clip from Hansel and Gretel. A lot of us really didn't realize how complex the backstage world is, and it was fascinating to witness the interplay between onstage and off.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

After our lunch break, we learned more about the Japanese Internment and about Poston Camp, where our opera takes place. Then, we began choreographing the finale. It was a bit challenging for the uncoordinated (*cough* me *cough*), but we had a blast!

The second day followed a similar schedule as the first. We reviewed yesterday's work and forged ahead to a new scene—a riot in Poston. Even though it was our first time working on it, the scene was absolutely incredible. With the high energy and intensity, all the kicking, fist-waving, and ad lib shouting, it was impossible not to believe what we were singing. We also had most of the set assembled, with the barbed wire fence and all, so we really got into the mindset of caged, infuriated prisoners.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

A highlight of Day Two was the tech workshop, during which an expert taught us about props and stage tricks. He talked about effects ranging from fog to fire to snow, and spoke at length about fake weapons. He had a lot to demonstrate with, too—one of the children got to smash a bottle over his head. It was a breakaway bottle, so it shattered easily and without those lethal edges. I think everyone's favorite (and least favorite) part was when he flourished a stage knife, told us it wasn't real, and to prove it, dragged it down his arm. Blood slashed through his skin. Everyone screamed. He laughed and revealed that there was a pipette of red liquid hidden in the weapon. I wish I could say that I knew he was faking, but I swear, my heart refused to calm down for another minute or so.

LAO Opera Camp 2012

Today, Day Three, was equally exciting and intriguing. Other than the usual movement, singing, and staging work, we also had a special guest, a member of the Blackfeet tribe. He guided us through a movement class based on traditional dances. We imitated elements of nature, including tumbleweeds, wind, and desert animals. In The White Bird of Poston, Akiko runs into the desert and encounters the creatures of the wilderness, as well as a Mojave boy, so the lesson with him was a perfect supplement to what we're doing. After lunch, we walked to the Japanese American National Museum, where we delved deeper into the history of Japanese Americans. The guide of my group actually lived through the internment. During the tour, we got to see the remnants of an internment camp barrack and artifacts from various points in Japanese American history.  

LAO Opera Camp 2012

Tomorrow will only be the fourth day, and I can already declare that I'm in love with this camp. And I'm not the only one! It's incredible how deeply we're going into all aspects of opera production: we're learning about the story's time period, about sets and props, about stage movement, and of course, about singing...now is that epic or what?

To see more photos from LA Opera's 2012 Summer Camp, click here!


Opera Camp: "Like A Constant Sugar Rush..."

If I had to describe the feeling of being an Opera Camper, I'd liken it to a constant sugar rush. Just when I think that camp can't get any better, it does. So many awesome things have happened just in the last three days.

LA Opera Summer Camp 2012 Singing

On Day 4 of camp, we had our morning movement session as usual, followed by the vocal rehearsal. During this one, we learned one of the main chorus sections of the opera. It's the song of the desert animals, who gather and speak of the unity of living creatures. My friend and I had to miss part of the rehearsal: we campers get called a few at a time to costume fittings, and it was our turn. The dress they chose for me, reminiscent of a lime-green picnic blanket, is something I wouldn't be caught dead wearing at school. In context of the opera, though, it's absolutely perfect. What I love about this camp is that they let us chorus members develop individual identities. We're not just members of a large blob. Now that I've seen what I'm going to wear, I feel like I have a defined part to play. I can't wait to rehearse with costumes--I know that it'll bring us to a whole new level of focus, intensity, and most of all, belief in what we're singing.

LA Opera Summer Camp 2012 Masks

The mask making workshop came after our fitting. Along with playing an internee, each chorus member also plays a desert creature. We all chose which desert animals we wished to represent. Then, we got the corresponding mask templates, along with decorative fabrics, feathers, and other ornaments. Unfortunately, some of us chorus members didn't participate in the mask creation. A few campers, including me and my aforementioned friend, had volunteered to be "waves.” We manipulate the river, which is made of two blue strips. We waves joined a coaching session with the principals to learn what we were to do. By the end, our arms ached like crazy from making river ripples. It was awesome to see the coaching session, though. We watched the principals rehearse a key scene in the opera. It was like getting a sneak preview.

LAO Summer Camp 2012

Day 4 ended with the staging rehearsal of the desert animals scene. Through most of it, we stand either in a half-lunge or a sumo wrestler position. It set our legs on fire. The scene has countless action cues, with animals constantly dashing on, off, or across the stage, as well as shifting into various positions—yes, all while singing. Other than being complex staging-wise, the scene also is pretty complicated musically. The scene features strange rhythms such as 11/8 and 5/8, reflecting the nonconforming, almost lawless nature of the wilderness. Thus, I had some trouble counting beats and figuring out when to start and stop singing. The scene altogether went brilliantly, though, even though it was confusing and tedious to put together. I wish I could watch this scene as an audience member. I've only seen the action from a corner of the stage. I can only imagine what it looks like as a whole!

The day after that—I don't know how to begin talking about the day after that. I have an urge to skip ahead and write all about what happened after lunch, but I'll start from the beginning. Of course, there was a movement session and a choral rehearsal, as usual. We learned one of the opera's early scenes, in which the internees attempt to cope with their awful situation. I'm beginning to feel more and more comfortable with hearing my own voice, and I'm learning all sorts of ways to improve my technique, which is making me really happy.

What followed the rehearsal was just epic. It was a timed scavenger hunt at the Music Center. A scavenger hunt. At. The. Music Center. Our group leaders received sheets with riddle-like “I am...” questions. Each group's mission was to find the object or location each question described and to take a picture of it as proof. The prize for the winning team? LA Opera tote bags that transform into backpacks. That did it. My group decided then and there that we had to win. We raced through the plaza, snapping photos as we went, and then flew into the Dorothy Chandler. Really, as I ran up those stairs, I felt like I was soaring—we were in my favorite place in the world, and we had it all to ourselves. Pure bliss.

Our happiness was short-lived. Unfortunately, though we correctly answered all the questions, another group completed the hunt quicker than we had. The youngest kids snagged the prizes. I'm glad that the little ones won—it tears my heart when children cry over games. Plus, if the other teenage group had beaten us, we never would have lived it down.

LAO Summer Camp 2012

We returned to Colburn School, our rehearsal building, and ate lunch. When we came back from the break, we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz. She herself had lived through the internment, and her chronicle of those times, the illustrated book Camp Days, served as an inspiration for the very opera we're performing. She played us a documentary that displayed her vivid, striking watercolors, accompanied with her narration of her experiences. She then spoke about her life in the camps and of how her family coped after liberation. Then, she took questions from us. When it came time for her to leave, we thanked her by performing the opera's finale, the Bon Odori dance. Knowing that it actually linked to her family history, we were anxious to execute the scene perfectly. It was a matter of respect. Sure enough, we performed it better than ever before. I think she liked it—she was smiling broadly and clapping. What a relief!

My heart is speeding up because I'm getting to the highlight of the whole camp. When she left, we were visited by a group of a few more special guests. The group just happened to include Maestro James Conlon.

LA Opera Summer Campers with James Conlon

We were told the previous day that he would come, but still, I nearly screamed when I turned around and saw him there. After we took a group picture with the Maestro, we practiced the Poston riot scene with  our guests watching. Needless to say, being brand-new to singing and having James Conlon right in front of me was terrifying. I had an awful feeling that of all days, this would be the day I would sing at the wrong time or make some other glaring mistake. Everyone else was feeling the same. Just like a few minutes ago, we were determined to present a flawless, seamless performance. The scene started, and we plunged ourselves into the action and the music. We shouted louder than ever, our notes hot and raw, as if only born in that instant—THE James Conlon was watching. It's ironic that we did it all for him, and yet, we got so into it that we almost forgot that he was there. When it was time for the chorus to retreat offstage, I actually had to blink and look around. I realized that I was on the verge of tears--since I had thrown myself so fully into the action, I was starting to cry from real rage. I left camp that day a bit dazed, both from the Maestro's visit and from the riot scene we performed.

Though today is Saturday, we still had camp. I felt a bit dorky. It was the weekend, and there I was,  heading out the door with my backpack and sack lunch. Like our director said, though, this camp is supposed to make us feel dorky, so I'll embrace it.

We've finally gone through the entire chorus part of the opera. We learned the last bit today. Then, unlike any other day, we had three staging rehearsals, which pretty much constituted our whole schedule. We ran through the entire desert scene, perfecting our animal movements and memorizing our cues to shift, enter, or exit. All together, we rehearsed a scene that the principals had previously only practiced on their own. It's a pivotal moment in the opera, when Akiko encounters the spirit of her grandmother.  For us chorus members, it was the first time watching it and learning our roles in it. The production is really all coming together.

I've never been disappointed about having Sunday off before. I guess this is the camp of firsts for me: first time singing in an opera, first time singing at all, in fact...Of course, it's challenging and even scary, but that's why I love it. I'm already stoked for Monday—the constant sugar rush from Opera Camp shows no signs of stopping.


Tenor David Lomeli returns to LA and visits with LA Opera

Photo Credit: DavidLomeli.com

Tenor David Lomelì, a stellar alumnus of LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, has enjoyed break-out career success since his 2006 first-place finish in Operalia. The young singer returns to Los Angeles this Sunday, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto at the Hollywood Bowl, and found some time to catch us up on his latest news.

LA Opera’s General Director, Placido Domingo, was very influential in helping you get started with your operatic career – can you tell us a bit about how you met him and how his support has helped you?

It was a very lucky thing.  I was part of SIVAM, a program for young Mexican singers that Maestro Domingo supports very much. Some of the singers were auditioning for him in New York after his performance of Rigoletto at the MET where he conducted Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.  It was so quick that I had to ask for help from sponsors in Monterrey, Mexico, to get me a ticket.  When the Maestro heard me sing “Che gelida manina”, he immediately asked if I wanted to come with him to Los Angeles and then shortly after he helped get me a last minute invitation to participate in Operalia. I am blessed to have him as a mentor and a beautiful guide. He has been so kind, supportive and passionate about helping me.  I love and respect him and his family very much; they are so kind and passionate about helping people like me.

Los Angeles audiences know you well from your participation in the Company’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program.  Tell us how your experience here as a young artist has prepared you for the rigors of a professional opera career? 

 Participating in this program was a life-changing time for me. It was truly the time of my life.  When I first came, I really did not know how important this was.  I came with the arrogance of naiveté but perhaps that was good, because if I really did know how important it was and much it would change me, I would have been afraid.  With each new role I approach, I go back to things I learned in the program – it really gave me the push to get serious, to study, to get passionate about improving.  It was my first real lesson that singing was much more than going for my high notes.   I had to work to improve all my singing, to be persuasive as an actor and to really represent the music as a total performer.  I still keep all these lessons near to my heart. 

Photo Credit: DavidLomeli.com

You were the first person ever to win first prize in both the opera and zarzuela competitions in Domingo’s international opera competition, Operalia.  How has winning this competition opened doors in your life and career?

Well is such a prestigious title and I am so proud of being part of the Operalia winners group. Of course, winning the competition has opened many doors to auditions and jobs.  But because you are known as a winner, there is now always pressure because there are high expectations. 

Photo Credit: DavidLomeli.com

You recently made your debut at the storied summer opera festival in Glyndebourne, England.  What was your experience there?

It was fantastic.  Imagine – I sang the 100th performance of my career of Rodolfo there in that glorious setting with audiences that truly love opera. We were the last performers to sing in the magical David McVicar production of La Bohème.  I had so much fun with my partners on the stage and I love every moment in the castle and the gardens – there is so much history surrounding you on the estate.  It is not very often you get to sing with sheep singing with you in rehearsals and get to picnic in the intermission. The crowds were really nice and very enthusiastic. 

Your character in this Sunday’s Hollywood Bowl performance with the LA Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera’s season opening production of Rigoletto in September is not a very likable guy.  How do you transition from nice guys like Nemorino and Rodolfo to more nasty characters such as the Duke of Mantua.

 I normally I am more of a method actor. So usually I like to live a lot inside my characters. With the Duke of Mantua, I have to live a bit out of my comfort zone of method acting.  This role requires a lot of make believe, with grand panache! I have to find the animalistic side within myself to play this Don Giovanni-ish type man.  But I don’t mind playing such a bad man when I get to sing "La Donna e Mobile!"

This will be your second time working with Gustavo Dudamel, the first being a Verdi Requiem a few years ago.  What’s it like working with him?

It’s actually my third time with Maestro Dudamel as I worked with him in Monterrey with his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and then we had a Verdi Requiem with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Maestro Dudamel is a fantastic talent – full of passion and energy --  but also so humble and so nice and so generous with his time.  I have been looking forward to this week back in my second hometown all the year. 

Over the past few years, you’ve had some very big successes in your career. What stands out as the most memorable success and what has been the most significant challenge?

There have been so many wonderful times in the last few years.  I think two stand out perhaps in my mind.  Performing Nemorino at New York City Opera was truly magical – I felt the energy of the city and the audience behind me for those performances.  And then, working with the Berlin Philharmonic for the Verdi Requiem where we had a live recording and HD transmission.  For a kid from Mexico to be standing on the stage with one of the world’s greatest orchestras preparing for a worldwide broadcast was pretty humbling and pretty amazing.

Singing opera is such a great gift but there are challenging moments.  When you are waking up in a foreign city and you are checking your voice early in the morning to see how the day will go, that is sometimes lonely.  Audiences don’t really realize what the life is like.  Sometimes it can be sad, because in order to sing well, you have to take care of yourself with lots of rest and appropriate exercise.  You can be in a wonderful place like Glyndebourne or Los Angeles but really you have to be in your own bubble taking care for yourself and your art.  You are not a tourist.  I try and live life wherever I am but also my main focus has to be on my singing and performing.

What’s in store for you next season – are you bringing any new roles into your repertoire? 

This Rigoletto with Maestro Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl gives my season a great start.  I then get to work with Nicola Luisotti in San Francisco singing the same role in their season opening production – which is wonderful for me as I also participated in the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellowship.  So it is another homecoming. I have two new roles this season --Leicester in Maria Stuarda that I will do in Frankfurt and Percy in Anna Bolena that I will do in Cologne. I will sing a concert in New Orleans with Maestro Domingo and also the Verdi Requiem in Essen.  And I will close my opera year with a new production of Rigoletto in Berlin with my friend Pablo Heras Casado in the podium. One of the most exciting things I have this season is my first solo recital tour that I will start in the Bay Area in the beautiful hall on the campus of UC Davis and then also perform in Munich and Mexico. 

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

There have been some exciting events in your personal life recently - we read about your recent marriage to soprano Sara Gartland in the New York Times wedding section.   How do the two of you plan to combine your careers and personal life?

We are very blessed and she is quite a catch!  She is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous voice and a spectacular spirit.  I confess that I am a normal man – I just got married and I would like nothing more than to be a regular husband at home with my beautiful wife making dinner and sitting by the fire.  But, we are both performers and we know that separation will be a big part of our lives.  Just after the honeymoon, we spent 3 months apart.  Skype and Facetime are our friends – they should sign us up as sponsors!! 

When you’re NOT singing opera, what do you MOST like to do?

This is a complicated question.  When I am not singing opera, I most like to hang out with my beautiful new wife, eating tacos al pastor, and watching my team – Barcelona – play soccer.  This is perhaps the only area where Placido Domingo and I disagree – he supports Real Madrid not Barcelona!!!  But the reality is that I am studying and practicing at the same time as I am watching soccer and being with Sara.  In my relaxed time, I can enjoy being quiet and romantic and just being still in one place with Sara. This is a dream.

Also, let’s ask the question…What’s the absolute best thing about being married to a soprano? 

Well, some of the greatest music in the world for lovers is written for soprano and tenor – so singing in the shower is perhaps more fun for us than others. 


Opera Camp: "The production is seriously almost there!"

When I think about where we were on Day 1, clumsily going through the Bon Odori motions, and in my case, cringing in fear at the prospect of singing—really, it's kind of hilarious. The production is seriously almost there.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp - Rehearsal

 On Day 7 of Opera Camp, Kalani, the Blackfeet tribe member, came to work with us again. His lesson was truly a gift: he explained that the tribal movements had long been passed down from teacher to student. His mentors had granted him special permission to impart his knowledge to us. At the beginning of the session, Kalani taught us a chant, and then organized us into concentric circles. As we strode around and around, with him singing one phrase and us singing the next, one camper asked what the words meant. Kalani replied that it didn't matter. We were creating our own intention.

 In my opinion, that was the main lesson he bestowed upon us. After the chant, Kalani went one by one to each group of desert animals, helping us develop more convincing portrayals. At that time, since we weren't even wearing masks, we felt that we had to try extra hard to make sure we were understood. Thus, we ended up creating caricatures of the animals: those playing winged creatures dramatically flailed their arms, and others, representing coyotes, made a big show of wrinkling their noses and snarling. Kalani noticed this, of course. He told us that we didn't have to behave as our animals. Instead, we had to really get inside the animal. Our actions should spring from that, not from an idea of how our chosen creature “should” look. The audience might not understand the meanings of our gestures and glances, but they will believe it because we believe it. Again, we have to create an intention.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp - Rehearsal

 We gave Kalani a huge thank you for the great lesson. The rest of Day 7 consisted of rigorous rehearsals. We didn't get as much staged as we would have liked. Our director, Eli Villanueva, then reminded us that this isn't really a “camp,” where children run free screaming. This is a professional production.

 We took this message to heart. Four rehearsal sessions later on Day 8, we had finished staging the entire opera. Sure, we were a bit shaky on cues and transitions, but as Eli said, we had all the puzzle pieces completed. Now, we had to fit the pieces together to form a tight, cohesive whole.

 That day, Day 8, was also our last day in our wonderful rehearsal space, the Colburn School. It was a bit sad to say goodbye. However, we were all excited to finally practice in the Barnsdall Gallery Theater the next day.

 Today, which is Day 9, everyone arrived at the theater a bit too early. I guess I wasn't the only one paranoid about getting lost and missing the upcoming field trip. (For the record, that didn't end up happening to anyone.) Around nine o'clock, we squeezed into the bus and headed off for the Autry National Center of the American West.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp - At the Autry Museum

 Unfortunately, when we arrived there, it hadn't opened yet, and the temperature was already climbing higher and higher. To pass the time, one of our counselors, Garrett, organized us in a circle, sat us all down on the grass, and announced that we were going to play a fun game: Duck, Duck, Goose. Luckily, we were saved by someone's decision to take a group photo.

 We waited a little while more after that then entered the museum. Our group was split up. The younger children went one way, and we older campers the other. First, my group's docents presented a demonstration of Native American instruments. They were mostly percussion, as the emphasis of Native American music is rhythm, not melody. There were drums, clapping sticks, and many, many rattles, including a turtle-shell one to be tied to one's waist. One of our campers had to demonstrate. He strapped on the shell, dancing and shaking his hips to coax out a noise. I have to say, it was wonderful entertainment. After the lecture was over, we made our own clapping sticks with two pieces of wood, cardboard, yarn, and beads. They don't look like much, but when tapped on one's palm, they make a surprisingly loud noise. Rhythmically slapping the sticks got so enjoyable that our creations almost had to be confiscated.

 Next, we went upstairs to tour a special exhibition: The Katsina in Hopi Life. Besides getting a glimpse of the Hopi daily life, learning about the Katsinam was also extraordinarily intriguing. (Yes, the plural is Katsinam.) The Hopi believe that the Katsinam are spirits who visit during a certain season, participate in festivals, educate the people, then return to their homes in the clouds, reverting to non-corporeal forms. Of course, we campers had many questions for the docents, mostly fed by skepticism. Our docent declined to answer some of our inquiries out of respect for the culture. I guess I'll have to wonder about the Katsinam for the rest of my life. I think we invoked some sort of spirit, though--when we returned to the bus to fetch our lunches, we found our belongings rearranged, with some bags even slightly open. It was probably just a staff member clearing up the space, or perhaps the bus driver, but I like to believe it was the Katsinam, angered that we doubted their existence.

I'll be honest: after the tour, a lot of us were wondering about the connections between our field trip and the opera. I thought about it a little, and I realized that there are many. First of all, learning about the purpose of Native American music pretty much explains the 5/8, 12/8, and 11/8 in the opera's score. The unusual meter draws equal focus to the rhythm as to the melody. The docents also told us that Native American songs often repeat the same musical phrase over and over again, as their purpose is not storytelling. Only now have I realized that the animals, which partially reflect Native American culture, pretty much sing a single line throughout the opera: “Everything breathes with the Great Spirit. We all breathe as one.” Come to think of it, I'm glad we've gotten the Native American perspective on the not only the music, but also the plot. Since the opera mostly follows Akiko and her experiences in the camp, we never really see the Mojave Boy's story. The Opera Camp staff members explained to us early on that Poston is essentially an internment camp in an internment camp. Situated in a Native American reserve, the camp was actually run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I feel like I've grasped that concept more, now that I've gotten a taste of Native American life. In the opera, the Native Americans no longer seem vague and elusive to me.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp

We ate lunch at the museum's picnic tables, and then rode the stuffy, sweltering bus back to the Barnsdall Gallery Theater. I swear, the cool air conditioning in the building felt like a gift from the gods. We went through the lobby and finally saw the space we'd perform in. I instantly loved it, from the mellow blue color scheme of the auditorium to the inviting stage, already housing the assembled set. 

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp - Rehearsal

As I stepped onto the stage and looked out, I already began to feel nervous. Nothing can prepare you for the sensation of being onstage singing for the first time. No matter how much you practice, you almost forget everything when you feel the shifting heat of the lights, or stare into the black hole of the auditorium. Also, the dimensions of the space disoriented me. While in Colburn's rehearsal room we could ooze all over the place once “offstage,” it wasn't so in Barnsdall. The wings are extremely small at Barnsdall, and they clog up very easily. We had to constantly remind ourselves to get out of the wings, pack together tightly, and retreat all the way into the dressing room. I'm glad I've pretty much figured it out. Though we didn't review the entire opera today, I at least feel like I've gotten to know the place.

The performance is only the day after tomorrow. The last puzzle pieces of the production are settling into place. It's time to review everything, quit speaking, and hope for the best.


Opera Camp: It's A Wrap!

Opera Camp 2012 - The White Bird of PostonPhoto by Taso Papadakis310.619.3563taso@tasophoto.com

I've been staring at a blank screen for the past ten minutes, trying to devise a clever opening sentence. It hasn't quite registered that Opera Camp is really over. So, for lack of a better introduction, I'll just start from Day 10.

First thing in the morning, we had special visitors who came to speak to us. Not one, not two, but ten Japanese-Americans came to speak to us about their internment camps experiences. Some of them even had been in Poston, the setting of our opera. We campers split up, the younger children going with five of our guests and the older campers going with the rest. Our guests took turns speaking, sharing their backstories and describing their lives in the camps. Their accounts really intrigued us. One of our guests explained how students took tests: they would go outside and write their answers in the sand. Another former internee had a father who fell ill. He had to be transported to another camp, so his family couldn't even visit him. He passed away among strangers. What struck me the most, though, is how one  former internee persisted in calling the camps “concentration camps.” Sometimes, history seems very cold and distant, with facts, dates, and statistics. When I heard the personal accounts, though, I kept wondering what I would do if I had been there with them, and how I would feel. That's how the Japanese Internment became real.

After all five of our guests had spoken, they took questions from us. We had so much to ask that a few campers skipped break time to talk to them personally.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp

They then stayed to watch part of our rehearsal. Our instructors had to stop us multiple times to backtrack and redo. I started feeling nervous, knowing that the performance was only the next day. After that bump-through rehearsal, we ate lunch on the grass outside the theater. Unfortunately, some people got only around ten minutes to devour their food: they were calling us in group by group to get into costumes. My group, the White Group, got called last. We got the entire lunch period to eat. Cue evil chuckle.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp

Somehow, after lunch, we fit in time to run through the entire opera twice. For the first time, the full orchestra accompanied us, not just the piano. Some musical cues sounded different on the added instruments, throwing us off. Also, it was our first time running with costumes. We had no idea how rapid some of the changes are. During the riot scene, only about eight people emerged from the quick-change on time. Since the set movers hadn't arrived, a whole piece of the fence was missing. Still backstage struggling into costumes, none of the soldiers rushed to shove them back, so the small group of internees stood there awkwardly rocking back and forth, waving fists at nonexistent barbed wire and looking altogether quite ridiculous. Luckily, we sorted it out by the second run-through, and almost nobody missed cues.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp

We got to sleep in the next morning, as the call-time was a little after noon. Still, I woke up earlier than I would have. I had to sort out my hair. They had given us guidelines about 1940s styles, accompanied with example pictures. After looking through them, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that I'd have to curl my hair. I nearly screamed when I saw the result in the mirror, but I reminded myself that I was playing a part. Nobody cared what I really thought about my hair. Deciding that I would survive, I headed for the Barnsdall Gallery Theater.

As a group of us walked into the building, my heart jarred in my chest. That day was the invited dress rehearsal and the opening night performance. Remembering the previous day's mishaps, I began going into worst-case scenario mode. When we did our routine stretches and vocal warm-up, I started to calm down. Soon, our audience arrived. All went quiet backstage. Before I knew it, we launched into the performance.

LA Opera 2012 Summer Camp

We had rehearsed so many times that everything just flowed. The lines and the actions had become instinct. We hardly noticed the opera going by because it was all so natural.

There's nothing like the curtain call after a performance. We gave the audience our energy and they replied with focus and investment. The applause is when the silent communication, the unspoken dialogue, becomes physical.

An exhausting performance inevitably leaves one hungry. We all headed off to lunch at the loading dock, where they served us pizza and drinks. While we ate, our instructors gave us notes on things to improve. Performance #1 commenced afterward: the Opening Night performance. It grew even more fluid and intense than before. The audience rewarded us with a rush of applause.

It all ended around eight thirty. By the time we returned home, we pretty much straggled to our beds and collapsed. Besides, we had to rest well for the following two performances.

Opera Camp 2012 - The White Bird of PostonPhoto by Taso Papadakis310.619.3563taso@tasophoto.com

The next day followed a similar pattern as the first. It's funny how quickly it settled into a routine: curl hair, go to Barnsdall, warm up body, warm up voice, review some scenes, start performance. We poured out all the energy and emotion that we could. During lunch afterward, our director Eli told us that the opera was beginning to touch excellence. He explained that there is no such thing as perfection—there must always be something we can improve, a new aspect we can explore. Our final performance was approaching, and we had to make the leap to excellence.

I daresay, we did.

Opera Camp 2012 - The White Bird of PostonPhoto by Taso Papadakis310.619.3563taso@tasophoto.com

You know, I'll admit—because there are young children participating in the program, I thought that The White Bird of Poston was a kiddy show. Also, because of my lack of musical experience, I was so afraid of somehow “failing” Opera Camp that I listened to the recording literally three times a day. Well, it goes without saying that it was pretty much impossible for me to get a fresh perspective on the piece. Even throughout the program, though I admired the opera, and though we put so much work into it, I still kept on believing that everyone would see it as a children's piece. After the performances, though, I heard people marveling at the complexity of the music and the staging. Audience members enthusiastically praised the performance, pronouncing that all aspects of it were so professional that it could actually make profit. I'm definitely not an expert, so I don't know about that. What I do know, though, is that it's certainly not a kiddy show. Opera Camp has surprised me until the end.

After the last performance, when I hung up my costume for good, I felt surprisingly calm. It just wouldn't sink in that Opera Camp was over and that we had performed White Bird for the last time. I headed out to the loading dock with my friends. As a farewell present, each camper received a mounted group photograph and a copy of Camp Days by Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, signed by the author and illustrator herself. A while later, we all went out to the grass, munching on cake and cookies and chatting. Of course, the inevitable time came, and we all said our goodbyes.

Opera Camp 2012 - The White Bird of PostonPhoto by Taso Papadakis310.619.3563taso@tasophoto.com

Twelve days. Opera Camp was only twelve days total—less than two weeks. Somehow, the first day of Opera Camp, when I couldn't sing to save my life, seems geologic eons ago. And somehow, in the space of twelve days, we assembled a beautiful performance from scratch. I'm wandering into the mawkish and moralistic here, so I'd better conclude now, by saying this: during one of the final rehearsals, when we got a bit chatty and goofy, Eli sternly told us that we aren't here to have fun. We're here to be fulfilled by making art. Well, now that camp is over, do I feel fulfilled? Of course—I'm still slightly dazed. And don't tell Eli—but did I have a blast while I was at it? Oh, yes.


Don Giovanni: Women—and Men—in Love (by Basil De Pinto)

By Basil De Pinto

Is Mozart’s great opera about the amorous adventures of a licentious Spanish nobleman and his downfall: il dissoluto punito? Yes, but so much more as well. It is about social class and its divisions, indicated by titles (or lack thereof): Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira and Donna Anna as opposed to Masetto and Zerlina. In the very first scene Leporello complains of his servitude to a high-living employer. Mozart continues here what he elaborated so well in The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is also about important character traits like truthfulness and loyalty. Don Giovanni and Leporello are inveterate liars; Ottavio and Masetto, whatever their weaknesses, are also sincere people, committed to those they love.

But more than anything else Don Giovanni is concerned with the ambiguity in human relations, where love and death are intricately connected. The opera begins with one death and ends with another. The Commendatore is murdered by Giovanni, and at the end he returns to drag his murderer down to hell. Between those grim events we find a constant tension between love as a life force and the threat of its extinction: Anna’s love for Ottavio smothered by her lust to avenge her father’s death; Zerlina and Masetto divided by her flirting and his jealousy; Elvira half crazed by her obsession with Giovanni.

And just who is the eponymous hero, or anti-hero? He is clearly an inveterate “lover” or, more precisely, a seducer. Love, in the sense of deep personal intimacy and lasting affection, plays no part in his continuous, unending quest for another name to be added to the catalogue that Leporello displays to Elvira and to us. Is he then a personal cipher, a theatrical device or peg on which to hang a moral lesson? The fine quality of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto alone eliminates that idea, but the decisive factor is Mozart’s music. The composer has delineated with utmost precision every facet of the story and each of the characters in it.

Rather than begin with a character analysis of Giovanni, it will be worthwhile to consider the women in his life, since he invests so much energy in them. Each of them is interesting both in her own right and in the light they cast on Giovanni.

In the first scene Donna Anna appears in full flight from her attacker with no introduction as to her situation except that she is the victim of a would-be rapist. Her personal identity emerges gradually in the course of the opera, whereas Elvira and Zerlina are recognizable almost at once. So Anna is more of a mystery. Her grief at her father’s murder is understandable, but it is so total that she ignores, even repulses, Ottavio’s loving attempts to console her. Her immediate reaction is the desire for revenge, which she maintains unflinchingly to the end of the opera. No undue psychologizing is necessary to observe the unhealthy bond the daughter has with the father: she claims she would rather die than live without him.

As throughout the opera, Mozart’s music here does as much as the narrative to show us Anna’s plight. She is a woman at first frightened and then grief-stricken, intent on revenge; later a softer, calmer side of her is revealed. Her two big arias, “Or sai chi l’onore” in Act One and “Non mi dir” in Act Two illustrate these character traits.

In the introduction to the first, she sketches for Ottavio her encounter with her masked attacker whom, moments before this, she has recognized by his voice. She then launches into her great musical cry for vengeance. It is one of the supreme outpourings for the soprano voice. Her music depicts Anna as every inch the noblewoman, conscious of her dignity and secure in her position of command over the meek Ottavio (about whom more later). The soaring phrases with which she identifies the murderer call for a powerful upper register in the voice combined with clarity of verbal projection. This intensity hardly tapers off in the middle section of the aria, normally a place of some repose for the singer—she goes right on with her clarion call and then segues into a repetition of the opening.

Happily, this is not all there is to Anna. In her Act 2 aria we find another, softer side. The ever patient Ottavio tries to calm her incessant moaning over her loss of her father with a firm protestation of his unfailing love and devotion. She initially brushes this aside, but suddenly she realizes how callously she has used and abused him. He calls her cruel and gives her the cue for an aria of melting lyricism and regret: “Non mi dir, bel idol mio”—no, my love, do not call me cruel. She is not totally self-absorbed and insensitive; she is also capable of generosity and gratitude. The strings of the orchestra intone a melody of unparalleled sweetness and repeat it as she begins her aria. Now it is Anna’s turn to plead for calm, to console her lover and assure him of her return of his constancy and devotion. Thus we have a more rounded picture of this tormented woman; there is a light that promises to dispel the darkness that has thus far engulfed her.

A word here for the much maligned figure of Ottavio. Compared with the other men in the opera, his is a rather bland persona, always following, never leading the distracted Anna. Only towards the end does he voice some complaint at his treatment by the woman he so faithfully accompanies through all her woes, and even then he gives way to her. But Mozart treats him very well from a musical point of view. When the tenor at the premiere found “Il mio tesoro” too difficult, the composer gave him a simpler, but far more lyrical aria, the melting “Dalla sua pace.” Now the lucky singer gets two important pieces. Whatever his dramatic slimness, Ottavio has admirable musical depth.      

Eroticism is plainly the subtext of Don Giovanni and it is abundantly displayed in the opera (without the removal of a single item of clothing) and Donna Elvira is its focal point. Consonant with her mental state, her entrance aria is scored for brief, halting phrases, and her complaint about betrayal is interrupted twice by Giovanni and Leporello, aside, who have not yet recognized her. The only thing certain is that she is aflame with fury. Like Anna she wants vengeance, but solely because of her personal grievance; it is clear that she is still in love with the man who has cast her off. Later she joins Anna and Ottavio in confronting Giovanni and takes part in denouncing him. It is only in the second act that Elvira has her big solo, “Mi tradì, quell’alma ingrata,” and by her own account reveals the confusion that tears her apart. She wants to despise him for his hateful behavior and at the same time the very thought of him revives her yearning for him.

This is what Giovanni does to women: he sets them on fire, then he douses the flames by his indifference and/or endless quest for still another object of his insatiable desire. His next victim comes not from the aristocratic world of Anna and Elvira, but in the form of the peasant girl Zerlina, about to be married to the oafish but lovable Masetto. She is momentarily drawn to Giovanni in the famous duet, “Là ci darem,” but her common sense and moral clarity fend off the temptation. Zerlina reminds us of Figaro’s Susanna (just barely missing the inimitable sparkle of that uniquely winsome character), a wholesome, intelligent woman whose inner calm serves to bring order out of near-chaos. Her two arias are full of down to earth warmth and charm, complimented by an uncomplicated but clear-sighted inner life.

So these are the three current lovelies in Giovanni’s life, conveniently extracted from the other thousand Spanish women that Leporello has kept track of. What do they tell us about the man who has pursued them so vigorously? First of all, they conform to the description Leporello has given in his catalogue aria: Anna, strength of character; Elvira, unflinching constancy; Zerlina, the youth that can be molded. What this actually reveals is Giovanni’s opposite qualities. He is morally weak, incapable of commitment, and deeply mired in his addiction to passionate romance.

And yet, Mozart paints him in brilliant musical colors and makes him as attractive to us as to the ladies he is courting, setting up in keen psychological fashion our understanding of his charm and at the same time the elusive quality of his relations with these women. There is an ambiguous hollow at the core of his amorous attention to them, an emptiness that his personal bravado can never mask, and this hollowness is clearly shown in the musical picture of this fascinating man. 

First, the absence of an aria for Giovanni is remarkable. The lively “Champagne” song in Act One and the charming serenade in Act Two suit the particular moment in which they appear and show his socially attractive nature, but they in no way correspond to the introspective quality we find in the arias for Anna and Elvira. There is no room in Giovanni for depth of self-scrutiny; he is entirely outward oriented. But his responses to others speak volumes.              

Of course Giovanni shares some crucial extended musical passages with others. In the quartet with Elvira, Anna and Ottavio in Act One, Giovanni sings in quick, fractured snatches of melody as he tries to extricate himself from a sticky situation, while Elvira denounces him and the other two express their confusion. In the graveyard, after an extended recitative, Giovanni and Leporello sing of their respective viewpoints, the servant trembling in fear, the master contemptuous even in the face of a ghostly presence.

The end of the opera sums up and illustrates the meaning of dramma giocoso. The raucous feasting at Giovanni’s party is shut down as the heavy, portentous chords of the overture return with chilling insistence to announce the appearance of the Stone Guest. No call to repentance can alter Giovanni’s ironclad resistance and demonic forces finally drag him to his doom. A chilling finale to the drama certainly, but then—the scene changes and the rest of the characters in the play come forward to comment on what has happened. This is the final stroke of genius of both librettist and composer. Don Giovanni is not a tragedy; at the end of a tragedy there is nothing more to be done or said: “The rest is silence.” But at the end of this opera, life goes on. Each of the characters has in some way been affected by contact with Giovanni and now each has to find a new way to go on with life. None of the solutions is perfect; rather each one, like the character who inhabits it, is perfectly ambiguous, in keeping with the central concept of the work as a whole. With the end must come a new beginning. And we realize that giocoso means comedy in the Dantean sense.

The totality of Mozart’s power as a composer is evident in Don Giovanni. Of his greatest operas, only The Magic Flute had as yet to appear, and of his greatest symphonies only the last, “Jupiter,” was yet to come. In the end we are simply in awe of the prodigious accomplishment of this amazing man. Throughout his work there is such keen insight into human behavior, and such mastery in expressing it by the most resourceful musical means, that every attempt at adequately explaining it falls short. It is enough to be thankful that this glorious achievement will be celebrated, enjoyed and loved as long as we have ears to hear it.

Basil De Pinto has written for the opera companies of Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.

 

         


Venice, Verdi and "The Two Foscari" (by Mary Jane Phillips)

On the Grand Canal in Venice, the city operates boats as buses for public transportation. On the right and left banks of the Canal are rows of gorgeous houses, the celebrated palazzi, rising miraculously out of the water. Many have private docks and water-entrances, with gondolas and other vessels tied up at the piers. Dozens of other boats vie for space in the canal’s mainstream.

Suddenly, amid these wonders there stands a large palazzo, Ca’ Foscari, the marvel built on the Canal in the 1400s by Francesco Foscari, the Doge or ruler of Venice. He is a main character in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari).

The Foscari palazzo, Ca’ Foscari, stands at the far right in this photograph by Carlo Naya, taken circa 1875.

(The Foscari palazzo, Ca’ Foscari, stands at the far right in this photograph by Carlo Naya, circa 1875.)

This seems like history, but for me Ca’ Foscari was a workplace. Living in Venice in the 1970s, I was teaching English as a second language in Adult Education in the palazzo. My students were several dozen pilots, sailors, dockhands, ticket-takers, janitors and other employees of the public boat system. I’m not sure what they learned, but from them I learned to speak Venetian, which is very different from Italian; and the Venetian language was also one of the first languages that four of my children learned.

Giuseppe Verdi and the Creation of The Two Foscari
Between 1842 and 1844, Verdi’s operas Nabucco, I Lombardi della Prima Crociata and Ernani won over audiences. And because of Verdi’s growing popularity, it was virtually certain that he would be invited to compose a work for one of Rome’s theaters. His commission for The Two Foscari came from the impresario of the Teatro Argentina.

Verdi had a great success in the early 1840s with Ernani, in part because Francesco Maria Piave, his librettist, a Venetian, was an experienced professional, having written texts for other composers. Piave’s librettos for Verdi and others contain transparent and remarkably beautiful lines. Indeed, few can match his texts for Rigoletto and La Traviata, to say nothing of La Forza del Destino. His lines are also found at their best in the heartbreaking phrase of young Jacopo Foscari, “Ecco la mia Venezia,” as he, dragged from a windowless prison cell, sees the city and the lagoon. In fact, nostalgia and grief over leaving Venice and his family eventually kill this character as he is being sent into exile. Another main character in the opera is Jacopo’s father Francesco Foscari, the Doge who is the ruler of Venice. Remarkably, a sculpture of Francesco still adorns the entrance to the Doge’s Palace where he is shown kneeling before the Lion of Saint Mark. To make the meaning of the image absolutely clear, the Lion has its paw on a large book that reads: “Peace be unto you, Mark, my evangelist.” (Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus.)

Francesco Foscari kneels before the Lion of Venice in a sculpture at the entrance of the Doge’s Palace.

(Photo by Richard Fischer)

The opera was created for the Teatro Argentina in Rome, and it had its world premiere on November 3, 1844. Verdi and Piave both were there to oversee rehearsals and early performances. Both were concerned with the production of the opera. Verdi disliked a lot about cities. When this opera was written, he dismissively referred to them as “capitals.” And he would say: “You, who live in the capitals.” He also sometimes would address friends or colleagues, accusing them of not understanding the problems of ordinary people because they lived in cities.

Piave was already familiar with Rome, where he had studied philosophy and rhetoric, and where his family had an extraordinary personal connection with Pope Gregory XVI. In fact, the librettist made a real name for himself in Roman literary and poetry societies, publishing essays and short novels and even translating some of the psalms. Loyal and good-natured, he was known as “that Goth from Venice,” with an unruly mop of auburn hair, a shaggy beard and a loud voice. All this meant that he was a big asset to Verdi.

The idea for writing The Two Foscari was Verdi’s. The composer described the subject as “beautiful, very beautiful, super-beautiful.” Work was already well underway in May 1844 when Piave sent Verdi the scenario he had written.

Then a revised version had to be sent to Rome to get the approval of the Pope’s censors, who virtually ruled the theaters. The papal censors were likely to veto any text that included regicide, treason against the state, offenses against God, the clergy or the church and, of course, adulterous love, “bawdiness and lewdness” and suicide. The censors would change characters as they liked, and rip plots apart. Poetic lines and even whole scenes were cut or rewritten or wrenched out of context. To Verdi’s and Piave’s relief, the censors approved the scenario of The Two Foscari without changing anything.

This was not an easy time for Verdi who had been ill and was often tired. Having tried to recover at home, he left for Rome, taking the ship from Livorno to Civitavecchia and riding out “a bad sea.” He arrived during the first week of October 1844. With him was Piave, who was returning to familiar territory. Up to then Verdi’s experience of cities had been limited to Milan, Genoa, Venice and Parma, so Piave and his connections gave Verdi an essential entrée to Roman literary and theatrical circles

One of Piave’s friends and mentors in Rome was Jacopo Ferretti, a respected older librettist and poet. He remained a man of sterling literary reputation as the author of librettos for Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola) and Donizetti’s L’Ajo nell’Imbarazzo, Il Furioso all’Isola di San Domingo and Torquato Tasso, among other works.

He knew Roman theaters at first hand and was therefore the right person to help Verdi and Piave in their situation.

The challenge can hardly be overstated. Virtually all the great Italian composers had presented successful premieres in Rome, many at the Teatro Torodinona, the Teatro Valle and the Teatro Argentina, so they could not afford to have a fiasco. The kind of fame that Donizetti and Rossini had won in the city was exactly what was needed in 1844. There can be no doubt that the support of Ferretti helped set the stage for a significant personal triumph for Verdi.

A letter from Rome, dated October 5, 1844, described the censors’ final clearance for the production. Verdi visited Ferretti and was about to begin rehearsals, and he reported that two other works were to precede The Two Foscari at the Argentina. And like every tourist, Verdi was impressed by the city: “I am going all around Rome and am astonished.”

On October 21, Piave sent news to a colleague in Venice: “Here we are, rehearsing Foscari, which will go onstage on the evening of November 3 and not before. The music (it seems to me) is worthy of Verdi and of his fame.” Artistically the composer was very much at an advantage, with a cast that included the versatile dramatic soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, who was later his Lady Macbeth, and Achille De Bassini, a reliable singer whom Verdi used in other productions.

From everything we know about the premiere of The Two Foscari, it seems the Roman audience did not give Verdi the success he was hoping for. People were critical of singers who “shouted,” the critics said, and even a fine artist like Barbieri-Nini was taken to task. According to one review, cited by Marcello Conati in La Bottega della Musica, the first-night audience did not applaud all the pieces in the opera; it particularly disapproved of one number in the first act, when the singers seemed in poor form, and the tenor so distressed that people wondered whether he could even finish the opera. As Julian Budden pointed out in his book The Operas of Verdi, the operagoers were also upset by the fact that the theater had raised the price of the tickets. Verdi got only seven curtain calls when he often got 20 or 30 in other places. The second night went better than the first because by then the singers were in control of their roles.

The greatest risk was that the opera was too tragic. Verdi’s later, well-known opinion was: “In operas that are inherently sad, if you aren’t careful, you end up in a mortuary.” Fortunately that is not what happened here. While Verdi was in Rome, he was honored by such dignitaries as Prince Don Alessandro Torlonia, who gave a sumptuous dinner party for him; and the City of Rome struck gold medals to mark his visit.

Mary Jane Phillips is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and the award-winning Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.

Acknowledgements: Julian Budden, Clare Ann Matz, Margaret Matz, Charles Matz III, the Royal Opera Convent Garden, William Weaver and Andrew Porter.

  


Don Giovanni Scenery Load-In

The Don Giovanni set has arrived! Seven (7) forty-foot shipping containers (over 16,000 cubic feet) of scenery and props traveled to Los Angeles from Chicago via rail and truck. Our union stage crew of approximately 50 stagehands has been extremely busy this week. By day five the crew is sixty hours into assembling the set, hanging lights, building and repairing props, touching up scenery and prepping all aspects of technical production. 

Don Giovanni stage crew

Stage crew unloading a spectacular silk flame effect which will rise through the Giovanni stage floor on cue

LA Opera scenic painters

Scenic painters applying new artwork to a Giovanni backdrop at the request of the set designer

LA Opera stage with lighting  equipment

The stage looks empty early in the process of hanging more than 700 lighting fixtures at stage level. Lighting equipment is lowered on ‘battens’ that are lifted 40 feet in the air for the production.

LA Opera shop

Carpenters building platforms for use as mock-up scenery in the rehearsal room


The Best Day of College You Ever Had

Having graduated in 2010 there is something that I realized. I miss college.

Many may share the same sentiment, but I know my pining is for more than the social surroundings and unparalleled freedom. My longing comes from my absence from the classroom: learning, growing, constantly challenging one’s self, and the influx of brand new ideas (or old ones presented with a new twist).

The classroom is a beautiful entity that I know we all take for granted while sitting in them. The communal experience where minds - no two exactly alike - listen, contemplate, share ideas, challenge thoughts, and take something with them by the end of the day that they didn’t have before – knowledge.

With that said, I am excited for the new season ahead because of the wonderful program here at LA Opera, spearheaded by our Education Manager, Jill Burnham, known as Opera for Educators.  It's like the best day of college you ever had!

Opera for Educators

This program takes place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where hundreds of teachers take seven Saturdays throughout our season to learn about opera.

Actually, “learn about opera” does this class no justice. This is a program that creates strategies for integrating art and the multidisciplinary art form of opera into teacher’s curriculum to reinforce important historical, cultural and socio/political events. Teachers develop and discuss strategies for making curriculum connections between opera and literature, language studies, cultural diversity, geography and the science of sound. Opera for Educators is a home for those teachers who seek to better their minds, better their classrooms and better themselves.

Opera for Educators

I was lucky enough to help Jill out during the course of Opera for Educators during the 2011-2012 season and my world view on opera dramatically shifted. Jill creates such a fun learning environment by inviting some of the most renowned minds to lecture on the music, history, and literature surrounding the opera in discussion. Every so often Jill even surprises her teachers by bringing in professional artists to give recitals singing pieces from the opera or other pieces by the composer. She’s also been known to nab directors, stage managers, costume designers, orchestra players and stars of the main stage.

If you are a teacher – and we all take the role of teacher, just as we all take on the role of student – then this is a program you should not miss out on.

To register and/or get more information, click here.

We look forward to seeing you at the Opera!


Verdi: Pater Familias (by James Conlon)

1813: The birth year of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner

1913: The birth year of Benjamin Britten

2013: The year LA Opera and the classical music world will mark these three anniversaries. Actually, 2013 will serve as the center line for observing these birthdates. We have already begun this process, and it will extend into 2014.

One could barely think of three composers who were personally and artistically so different. And yet, aside from their centenary celebrations, they have one enormous attribute in common. All three unquestionably stand at the zenith of their respective operatic cultures. In presenting The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari), in its first production in a major American opera house in 40 years, LA Opera brings to light an essential work from Verdi’s early period, which will be especially appreciated by Verdi lovers. This opera represents an important step in the development of Verdi’s style and musical vocabulary, in which he gradually transforms the inherited culture of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini into a language of his own, quintessentially defining and personifying the Italian 19th century.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi

I Due Foscari is the sixth opera of Verdi’s 26 theatrical works (not counting several revised versions). Between his first opera, Oberto (1839), and Falstaff (1893) are 54 years. Foscari (1844) was written five years into that trajectory—in terms of works written, not yet a quarter of his ultimate output and in terms of years, less than ten percent of the way. It may be, by our standards, an “old-fashioned” opera. It certainly would have been considered as such by the composer himself. But we have come to measure the sophistication of Italian opera precisely by the yardstick Verdi has provided us through his extraordinary life’s productivity.

What it is easy for us to miss, in a first hearing, is actually how much there is that was new and significant at the time, starting with Verdi’s choice of subject. He recounts the story of the forced abdication of a great Venetian statesman (Francesco Foscari) resulting from an unseemly, clandestine intrigue by other Venetian nobles. (The Doge of the Venetian Republic was the head of state, and the word Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin word Dux, whence the English word duke and Mussolini’s self-appellation Duce). Considering that the work was intended to be premiered in Venice, this constituted an unacceptable affront to the nobility at large and to the still-prominent Foscari family. It was rejected as unsuitable, and Verdi later substituted it for a commission in Rome, where it was premiered.

After dispensing raw energy and occasional bombast in his early operas, he took a decisive step toward elegance and refinement. His third opera, Nabucco (1842), catapulted him to prominence as a daring young composer and, almost simultaneously, into a political hero.

Nabucco is to Verdi what Idomeneo is to Mozart, the “Eroica” Symphony to Beethoven, The Flying Dutchman to Wagner, and The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky: a quantum leap into the future. Verdi would continue a pattern of pushing his vocabulary forward with new forms and compositional procedures, followed by a work of consolidation. Foscari is a determined step towards intimate drama following larger-scaled works. It demonstrates a pattern he was to repeat nine years later, following the medieval and stormy Il Trovatore with the elegant Parisian “drawing room” romance of La Traviata.

Verdi concentrates the action of Foscari within a tight family unit: the aging Doge Francesco, his son Jacopo, persecuted by the intriguing nobles, and Jacopo’s devoted and courageous wife, Lucrezia Contarini (herself of noble blood). Venice is an alternatingly colorful and lugubrious background, one of the first examples of Verdi’s fascination with the political world and the ambiance of power. The first two words of the opera, an example of Verdi’s famous “parola scenica” (“the scenic word”), are “silenzio …mistero” (silence and mystery), which are said to reign over and to have protected Venice since its infancy. In contrast, the populace sings to Venice, the daughter, wife and mistress of the sea, as a mirror; the blue lagoon reflects the brightness of day, and the moon transforms its night into silver.

Verdi uses identifying motifs for his principal characters in a more consistent way than in his previous operas. His characteristic devotion to concision produces one of his shortest operas.

But by far the most important aspect of Foscari is the subject and the primacy of the father-son relationship. There is no question that the plight of the father is the single most central theme spanning Verdi’s entire output. Its absence in an opera is the exception rather than the rule. Psychobiography is a highly unreliable, if not an entirely unworthy, approach to analyzing works of art, but it is tempting to state the obvious. Verdi’s loss of his first wife and two infant children within 22 months between 1838 and 1840 clearly left its mark on the composer as well as the man.

His fathers are complex and multi-dimensional; few are stick figures of good or bad. Many of the fathers are unsympathetic by their actions, but win our compassion through their own sufferings, or incapacity to prevent their own tragic fates and/or those of their children: Nabucco, Count Walter (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Germont (La Traviata), Monfort (I Vespri Siciliani) King Phillip II (Don Carlo) and even the comic and blustering Mr. Ford, outdone along with Falstaff by his clearly superior-witted wife.

One might consider Miller, father of Luisa, and Simon Boccanegra to be the most enlightened and evolved fathers in the Verdian pantheon. Conversely, Amonasro (father of Aida) is the least sympathetic father, perhaps because he puts his role as king ahead of his role as father. He shares this dilemma with the father Foscari. In fact, one can see in Foscari the kernel of the future tragedies: the conflict between love and duty. Whether it is opposing national loyalties, as in Aida or I Vespri Siciliani, duties of state as in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Violetta’s choice between the dictates of her heart and the demands of the father of her beloved to conform to provincial bourgeois values, the polar forces of love and duty will be omnipresent throughout most of the Verdi corpus.

The Two Foscari is the first of the series of complex father-son relations, passing through I Masnadieri (with a good and bad son) and Luisa Miller (which will present a clear contrast between the “good” and the “bad” father­) on through Monfort and his son Henri until it finds its apotheosis in the portrayal of the monumentality failed relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his son Don Carlo.

Rare is the Italian opera that lacks the triangular love stories that provided the stuff of generations of competing sopranos, bleating tenors and vindictive, thwarted baritones. But Foscari foreshadows Macbeth in its total absence of love conflicts. It is significant that in Macbeth, a tale of regicide, the good King Duncan and the good father Banquo are murdered, but the story of their sons takes on great significance. The role of Macduff is essentially reduced to one aria, devoted to mourning his murdered children. Leonora’s father in La Forza del Destino appears only for several moments at the beginning of the opera, but his accidental death sets the entire drama that follows in motion.

Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with and failed attempts to set King Lear may have many explanations, but it is noteworthy that the greatest of all tragic fathers in Shakespeare plays intimidated even the genius who had placed so many fathers on the stage. Of the tantalizing “what ifs” of operatic history, Verdi’s unwritten King Lear is the most frustrating.

The Foscari family trio is a unified and tragic entity, bound together by their implacable enemies’ thirst for vengeance. The conflict between paternal love and the demands of the crown break the will of the aging father; the death (murder) of his son breaks his heart. Only the commanding presence of Lucrezia remains alive at the end of the Foscari reign to face the victorious enemies of her family. Brought to its end by the silent and mysterious forces that ruled “la Serenissima,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” the demise of the Foscari family shows that the “daughter, wife and mistress of the sea” was all but serene.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.

 

 

 


Community Educator Training: Grading the Presentors

Community Educators and Student Guest

The first time I heard about the Community Educators program was on Facebook. The post described what it was: a training program for speakers who would share their opera-love with audiences. Applying to join went down on my adult life to-do list.

The second time I heard about the program was by e-mail notification. “We are seeking middle and high-school students who would be able to give feedback during these presentation training sessions (for example: what works, suggestions for ways to improve their project/presentation, etc).” It looked like I didn't have to wait to get a taste of the program. I was punching in a reply and hitting “Send” before it all really registered in my mind.

So, a few days later, I arrived at the Dorothy Chandler and headed for the Artists' Entrance. Every time I walk through that door, a small thrill tickles me. I always imagine all the incredible people who have graced that threshold. It got even more awesome when I signed in and saw that some of my Opera Camp friends would also be there. And even going up the elevator to Rehearsal Room 1 was exciting. I mean, being in the elevator with (a framed portrait of) Plácido Domingo doesn't exactly soothe the nerves.

It only got better. Afraid that I'd be late, I had arrived a bit too early. It turned out to be a good thing—I was allowed to have a glimpse of some Foscari things in another rehearsal room. Believe me, when I saw the costumes labeled with the names “Domingo” and “Poplavskaya,” my heart nearly fell through the floor.

I managed to stay intact as I walked back to Rehearsal Room 1. People slowly trickled in, and I had a happy reunion with my awesome 90012 friends. After a while, the lady who's teaching the program, Carmen Recker, greeted us, thanked us for coming, and told us what the session would be all about. She explained that the educators had been training for weeks. At this point, each educator had selected an opera to present about, and had developed a corresponding activity. Alongside the other educators, we would act as their audience and try these activities out. Our job was to give feedback, providing the teenage student perspective.

I could hardly believe my ears. I was going to get community service hours for testing opera games? Gosh, I would have paid to get this opportunity to participate.

We launched into the night's program. First, Jessica Gonzales-Rodriguez stepped up before her audience of fellow educators and volunteers. Her task was to introduce Tosca to 8th graders. When she started talking, I noted on my paper the strong, assured way she addressed us. She told us what the upcoming activity was: we would get into three teams, Tosca, Mario, and yes—Scarpia. Each team got to choose a scene to act out. The catch was that we couldn't speak while acting. We could only use body language and facial expressions. Plus, we only had a minute for the scene. I was in the Tosca group. We did the scene when Tosca goes crazy about the way her boyfriend, Mario, painted Mary Magdalene's eyes. They looked suspiciously similar to the eyes of a girl who had visited the church... And I got to play Tosca! It was fun being an exploding diva for sixty seconds. Also, I think the activity as a whole will really let students get “inside” the opera. It'll probably make them curious about Tosca so that they can watch the scenes they acted out, to see the context, the singers' interpretations, everything. And, during the actual presentations, Ms. Gonzales-Rodriguez will also play the corresponding music of each scene in the background. Can I disguise myself as an eighth grader and join her teaching sessions?!

When the activity was over, we gave our feedback and then moved on. Next up: Annie Austin speaking about The Flying Dutchman, her presentation molded for AP 12th grade.  She was both humorous and matter-of-fact. She distributed packs of M&Ms into the crowd and then explained the activity: While excerpts from Dutchman played, we would have to keep passing along the M&Ms. When she paused the music, we would stop. Whoever ended up with a pack in their hands would have to answer a question—a question about the opera, about ghost stories, and about how the two connected. It sounded simple enough. Let me tell you now, though—her activity was one of the most stressful games I've ever experienced. We were unevenly spaced, so people were rushing frantically across the room to rid themselves of the M&Ms. Packs went flying and skidding everywhere. And all this was happening with Wagner roaring and bellowing in the background. Really, the epic-ness of the game could rival anything in his oeuvre.

Of course, we all gave positive remarks while we “recovered.” The next activity was a little quieter, so we started to calm down. The speaker was Judith Hyman, with a Madame Butterfly presentation intended for grade 8. The activity was one of the most thought-provoking of all of them so far. We had to put both Pinkerton and Butterfly on trial and determine: Innocent or Guilty? Just the notion of Butterfly being guilty startled my brain gears. Since Pinkerton was the one who left her, not the other way around, I had never considered that she may be the one in the wrong. We were divided into four groups: Butterfly Innocent, Butterfly Guilty, Pinkerton Innocent, Pinkerton Guilty. My group got one of the harder stances, Pinkerton Innocent. When we started discussing, we realized that the notion wasn't all that ridiculous. Maybe Pinkerton was just a product of his time. Maybe he didn't know how devastated Butterfly would be. Maybe Butterfly was just dumb to really think it was true love...After all four groups voiced their viewpoints, we were freed from our assigned stances. We all took a vote. Of course, Butterfly Innocent won. Still, I have to give Butterfly Guilty the prize for the funniest statement of the trial: “Butterfly was a spoiled, immature BRAT.”

The trial activity will be really effective with the students, I think. They'll want to go see the opera to deliver the final verdict for themselves. And plus, the idea itself of Butterfly being guilty destroys that stereotype of the innocent, wronged, heartbroken soprano. It'll definitely make teenagers think twice about opera itself.

We took a break after the Butterfly activity. Then, we all transformed into elementary school kids for Dorothy Mathious' presentation of The Magic Flute, created for second graders. First, she told us all about the character Papageno, a bubbly bird catcher. Then, we all picked some colorful feathers. Getting into the spirit of elementary school, we started whining, “I want the blue one!” “I want the red one!” Garrett Collins, Communications Coordinator, grabbed a whole bunch of feathers and started taunting the rest of us with “I got all the feathers! I got all the feathers!” We somehow remembered our maturity, though, and divided the rest of the feathers in a civilized manner. She told us to think of our favorite birds and to imagine that we were those birds. As Mozart's jubilant, airy music played, we flapped and paraded in a circle around the room, and whenever we heard Papageno's pipes, we leapt into the air and reversed directions. I have to admit that I was having the time of my life. I mean, I was starting school the next day, so it was nice to be a second grader again.

The fun couldn't last forever, though. Soon, the music ended, and since the next activity was geared right at my actual grade level—grade ten—I had grown up all over again. It was worth it, though. Erika Nadir presentation was wonderful. I really liked the way she spoke. She was very energetic, enthusiastic, and, most of all, natural. I have trouble being natural in public speaking, so I admired that a lot. Her activity was incredible, too. She split us into groups and gave each group one line from Tosca: Mario's delirious “Vittoria! Vittoria!” (Victory! Victory!), Tosca's grim, vengeful “Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor” (I planted that dagger in his heart), and Scarpia's thoroughly creepy “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (Tosca, you make me forget God). We said or sang the line the way we thought it would sound, and then we heard the actual thing. I really thought it was such a wonderful activity. It put you in a composer's mindset.

The last presentation of the night was Elizabeth Burke's on Cinderella, aimed towards eighth graders. I got the sense that she really knew her material. It was very interesting to compare and contrast the fairytale with the opera. For one thing, there was no evil step-mother—it was a step-father. In the opera, the fairy godmother became a philosopher instead. And gone was the glass slipper. Rossini made it a bracelet. After we got the low-down on Cinderella, we did an awesome activity. We got called up to the front of the room, chose which character we wanted to be, and then answered audience questions as the character. Luckily, we had small fact sheets about our selected person to help us. After the questioning was over, we each got a mounted picture of Cinderella, or more precisely, of the Cecilia Bartoli recording. A lot of middle schoolers like role-play games and especially tangible rewards, so I think it'll work really well with eighth graders.

I really wouldn't have minded staying all night playing opera games, but unfortunately, that was the last presentation of the night. I left with a whole lot of things buzzing through my head: new insights, funny things people said...It was truly one fine day.