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Blog entries posted during April 2013

10 Questions with... Ronnita Nicole Miller

Mezzo-Soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller is no stranger to LA Opera. An alumna of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, and with LA Opera appearances including Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Florence Pike in Albert Herring and Flosshilde/Schwertleite in the Ring cycle, she has become a seasoned (and supremely gifted) member of the LA Opera family. Ronnita has the distinction of being in both Cinderella (La Cenerentola) as Tisbe and The Flying Dutchman as Mary at the same time! Not an easy task, but Ronnita makes it look effortless.  

Ronnita Nicole Miller

We aksed Ronnita 10 questions about opera, life, and what's next on her busy agenda.  And in the process learned a lot about this talented singer. 

Who do you love more these days, Wagner or Rossini?

Well, I'm not sure. Mary is definitely a little more challenging; her character is a little more of a challenge vocally and dramatically. Rossini, and the other bel canto composers keep me honest. I have to say that so far, I'm digging Rossini, even though the part of Tisbe really scared me at first.

If you could keep one of the costumes from either production, which would you choose?

Honestly? Neither.  

Have you dreamt that Clorinda would appear in Dutchman?  Or that Mary would be Cinderella’s more morose sister?

I've never dreamt that either of these things would happen. But wouldn't it be hilarious if you saw one of the stepsister’s wigs ascending from the trap instead of Mary, coming in to wreak havoc?

What’s currently on your iPod?

There is A LOT of music on my iPod. Most of it is pop, jazz, and alternative music. I do have opera. But when I'm not working, I listen to a lot of pop music. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bob Marley are all favorites and had big influences. They didn't save anything when they stepped onstage. It still inspires me. Any artist that can be so amazingly talented, practice so thoroughly, and yet, achieve such total freedom onstage is magnificent. I'm also a big fan of Bruno Mars and Adele. They're on heavy repeat right now.

Have you and Stacy Tappan recorded ‘Sisters’ from White Christmas? 

We have not…yet.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

Do you have a favorite moment in Cinderella?

Yes, the moment when Tisbe decides to not follow her older sister.  One can always choose to be a better person.

When you’re not onstage, what’s your favorite way to occupy your time?

During a show when I'm not onstage, I'm probably dancing in the hallway, talking to people, or playing with my iPad. If it's in rehearsal, I may even crochet.  When I'm not at rehearsal or onstage, I'm probably learning music, reading, or playing Tomb Raider on my PC or Just Dance on Wii.  I like video games a lot.

How/when did you decide to become an opera singer?

Well, being an extremely introverted and slightly shy person (no one ever believes that), I actually had a lot of trouble getting up and singing, much less speaking in front of people.  I joined chorus because there was this cute guy that I wanted to get to know.  I got in, but I never wanted to sing solos.  For some reason I decided to major in music with an extremely heavy science course load.  I actually cried the first time my opera director in undergrad asked me to sing.  I would cry at solo and ensemble competitions in high school when I would have to sing (I also played viola, with no problems).  I guess I was always afraid of my voice, afraid of people looking, watching me do something that was so vulnerable.  I think opera came as the result of two things, me being really shy but wanting to be able to express all the emotions I felt in some way and also because I was never really any good at singing gospel or jazz.  The ability to sing – that came later, through classical training, funny enough.

What’s your dream role?

In a perfect world, I would LOVE to sing Carmen and Amneris.  They have always been my two favorite ladies. Carmen, because she is so strong and beats men at their own game. She takes life as it comes and there is an incredible vulnerability in addition to her strength, which I think is why she's so incredibly irresistible. 

Amneris because, although she's typically classified as a villain (she is kind of a spoiled brat, she's never had to doubt anything could be hers as a princess), she is motivated by love.  Not in its greatest form, but it's the one thing she wants, that unfortunately, she can't have.  This, I can personally identify with. Everything she does is motivated by this fact.

Following your current run at LA Opera, what’s next for you?

 After my run with LA Opera, I go to cover Erda and the First Norn in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung at the Met, a concert at the Cincinnati May Festival, and then I prepare to move to Germany [to join the Deutsche Oper Berlin]!

James Conlon Conducts 200th Performance at LA Opera

Cinderella cast, Italian Ambassadors, JC

LA Opera's April 3 performance of Gioachino Rossini's Cinderella (La Cenerentola) marked the debut of a new singer in the title role—Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze—as well as a special milestone for Music Director James Conlon: his 200th mainstage performance at LA Opera.

The performance was attended by Claudio Bisogniero, the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, and Giuseppe Perrone, Consul General of Italy in Los Angeles, who came backstage afterward to congratulate Mr. Conlon and to meet the members of the cast (which includes three Italian singers: baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, baritone Vito Priante as Dandini and bass Nicola Ulivieri as Alidoro). Ambassador Bisogniero is currently visiting Southern California as part of an official mission in celebration of the 2013 "Year of Italian Culture in the United States." This initiative is a showcase of Italian culture and identity and what they mean to the American public.

In addition to 200 fully-staged productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mr. Conlon has also conducted six concerts for LA Opera, as well as six community opera productions at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and five Opera Camp performances of Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibar. Mr. Conlon became Music Director of LA Opera in 2006, and recently renewed his contract through 2018. 

Noah’s Flood Rehearsal – Going Overboard

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Early on in Sunday’s Noah’s Flood rehearsal, director Eli pronounced, “We really have to go overboard.”  Whether or not the pun was intended, I’d say that was the theme of the day: testing our limits. The thing is, we had everything in place, and our new job was to turn it up several notches and amplify it—even if that meant completely overdoing it and feeling so embarrassed that we’d never want to face Eli again.


With this objective in mind, we plunged right into rehearsal, running through the opening scene several times. After carefully observing us, Eli pointed to the open door, through which we could see a distant fence at the edge of the campus. He told us to keep in mind that there would be audience members that far away, and that we had to effectively convey the story to them. Therefore, it had to be bigger, louder, and way past the boundary of ridiculous. We had to shed the “armor of appropriateness” and “really explore what embarrasses you.” We took his words to heart and started translating them into action, elongating our bodies and stretching our arms as much as possible. We had extra motivation since he announced that the first person who touched the ceiling would get a thousand dollars.

Next, as the kids rehearsed their ark entrance, assistant director Heather took the “waves” and “doomed” outside to practice.  Since it was so windy, our fabric strips wouldn’t listen to us, instead flapping every which way and talking back. It was exhausting, but it actually added a splash of realism. Now, during the storm scene, I can truly imagine the wind whipping my wave and my clothes and my hair. And plus, my wavemate and I had fun pretending that our wave was a parachute and that we were going to fly away.


As we went back inside, my wavemate and I nearly got trampled by the animals, but we narrowly avoided this fate and got to watch the rest of their ark entrance scene. When working with the kids, Eli told them something similar to what he told us: he said that the scene felt a little tentative and that it needed to be bolder. He said to them, “I’m giving you permission to make mistakes.”

Once they had worked on the scene a little more, we waves stepped in and the storm began. With Eli’s words in mind, I threw myself so fully into the motions and the music that I don’t quite remember what happened. All I know is that my limbs are really sore and that, according to my wavemate’s mom, I had quite a lethal facial expression.


Together with the animals, we sang our parts, and then slowly exited the stage. However, assistant conductor Paul, who was accompanying us on the piano, didn’t stop playing. For the first time, he kept on going, right to the very last note. There were several moments of silence. Then, we burst into applause.

And that’s how our very last ensemble rehearsal ended. Next week, the principals and the community orchestra will join us, and then we’ll be moving to our actual performance venue, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Each rehearsal is more exciting than the last—who knew that embarrassing yourself can be this fun?

Noah’s Flood Rehearsal: The Party Has Only Just Started

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It’s really impossible to call Saturday’s Noah’s Flood practice a “rehearsal.” With all the hilarity, wonderful music, excitement, surprises, and star-struck moments, it had all the makings of a smashing party.

I arrived at the rehearsal venue, East LA Performing Arts Academy (ELAPAA), two hours earlier than usual—our rehearsal this time was five hours long. Before I even entered the auditorium, I heard the purr of strings and chatter of woodwinds. I stepped through the door and stared. For the first time, an orchestra was there. Rehearsal hadn’t even started, and I was already insanely happy and excited.

Hami Orch

After several minutes, LA Opera staff member Anthony Jones began the opening announcements. He started by introducing the orchestra: the Hamilton High School orchestra and the Celebration Ringers, a 5th through 8th grade handbell ensemble. I never even knew that such a thing existed.  He introduced the stage managers and the principal kids and teens playing Noah’s sons and their wives, as well as the gossips. Finally, he introduced Noah (bass-baritone Yohan Yi), the Voice of God (actor Jamieson Price), and the pianist. I hope I didn’t scream that loudly when he said the name Nino Sanikidze.


We kicked off rehearsal by plunging immediately into wave practice, this time with the principals. We went over the drowning of the gossips and reviewed our positions.  After we had gone over the drowning a few times, the rest of the ensemble joined us to rehearse the full storm scene with the orchestra. I got my first glimpse of Mr. Yi, standing in the ark. When he started singing, I was completely star-struck—I couldn’t believe I was onstage with an artist like him. I just kept staring at him while I waited for the fact to register. It never really did.


At last, we got to see all the scenes between the opening and the ark entrance. The first in this sequence is the one in which God speaks to Noah for the first time. We were all excited to hear what God sounded like, but finding out was a little terrifying. Standing above all of us on the auditorium stage, Mr. Price spoke his opening lines into a microphone. There’s no one word that can adequately describe his voice except for summoning — put simply, it’s the perfect Voice of God.

Voice of God

The scenes after God’s address were of Noah’s children and their wives building the ark, of Mrs. Noah and the gossips laughing at them, and finally, of their  children dragging Mrs. Noah onboard right before the storm. It was great to finally see how our ensemble scenes fit into the big picture, and also, many of the principals were my Opera Camp friends, so I had a blast chatting with them and watching them rehearse. Plus, seeing Director Eli filling in for Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mrs. Noah was a real moment to remember.

After a break, we continued rehearsal. When my wave-mate and I walked back into the auditorium, Mr. Price was still onstage, towering above everybody. My wave-mate and I were a bit intimidated and avoiding eye contact, but he noticed the two of us and gave us a kind smile. That was one of the highlights of rehearsal. We proceeded to go around telling everyone that God had smiled at us.

Next we moved on from the ark entrance and began the storm. With the orchestra playing full-throttle, the whole auditorium seemed to expand. There was a new sense of hugeness and space to be filled, and this began to translate into our motions and singing.


When the storm was over, the teen and adult ensemble members got a chance to rest, since our only remaining scene to perform was the finale. It wasn’t a very relaxing break, though—every time Mr. Price uttered “Noah…” into the microphone, we all jumped. We eventually came to anticipate it, but the first time, everyone had a mini-heart attack and the guy next to me even screamed. We could only imagine how poor Noah must have felt hearing that voice from the sky.  With almost all the elements present, the performance became grander, bigger, fuller. I can hardly imagine where it’ll be by showtime.

It won’t be long before we find out. On Monday, April 15, tech week begins, and we’ll be in our performance venue, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. This was our final rehearsal in ELAPAA, and as we left the building, we bid the wonderful space goodbye.

Ellie and Muse

Saturday’s rehearsal was quite a party: we’ve reunited with friends, sung glorious music, and received a smile from God. Something tells me, though, that the best is still ahead: the party has only just started.

Noah’s Flood Has Taken Over My Life

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It’s official: Noah’s Flood has taken over my life.

Just look at my Monday, for example. For starters, on Sunday night, my dreams were all about the opera. Then, in school, I wasted my free time watching Noah’s Ark cartoons on YouTube. A little later, I headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for a three-hour rehearsal. Finally, when I got home at 10pm, the first thing I did was rush to the computer and start this blog post. So many exciting things happened that simply going to bed wasn’t even an option: Monday was equal parts rehearsal and adventure.

Cathedral spaceAs Day 1 of tech week, Monday was a bit hectic. I had to squeeze all my homework into the two hours between school and rehearsal. However, it was “happy trouble.” I just couldn’t wait to be in the Cathedral, and the time finally came. As I walked to the entrance, I took it all in. The building jutted sharply up to the sky, cut out in slanting planes and stark angles. I was filled with awe and reverence. I signed in and entered the vaulted, mystical chapel at last.  

I soon found my wave-mate sitting in the choir pews, and I joined her. We spotted Noah (Yohan Yi) and for the first time, Mrs. Noah (Ronnita Nicole Miller) sitting in the pews. I found out that my wave-mate also loves her, and of course, we started “fan-girling” together. I’m Facebook friends with Ms. Miller, and I met her once backstage. However, I wasn’t sure whether she remembered me or not. My wave-mate and I decided that no matter what, we’d approach her and see what would happen.

We didn’t have time for that yet, though—Director Eli promptly got us on our feet to walk around the Cathedral and get a feel for the space. Then, after that, he had us go to our opening positions. There was some confusion about our places, since this was our first time in the Cathedral. Soon, though, we sorted it out. As I walked down the aisle to get to my position, I nervously passed by Ms. Miller and Mr. Yi.  Ms. Miller noticed me and broke into a huge smile, waving. She actually remembered me! Ecstatic, I waved back, and Mr. Yi also smiled and said hello. They began to feel less like celebrities and more like real people.

Noye and Mrs.

We proceeded to rehearse the opening scene. In the huge Cathedral, it was almost eerie to hear our own voices. However, singing the phrase “Lord Jesus, think on me” in a holy building added an element of raw sincerity and even fear to our words. Eli encouraged us to key into these emotions and to make our singing and our actions bigger and fuller. After we went over the opening scene several times, we ensemble members sat back down in the choir pews. Then, Jamieson Price, playing The Voice of God, spoke his first lines. I thought the huge Cathedral would make his voice sound scarier, but instead, it served as a natural vessel for the sheer gravity of his voice. Everything was really starting to fit into place.


From this time, we occupied ourselves with watching the principals. Seeing and hearing Ms. Miller so close up sent me back into fan-girl mode. I’d always seen her in LA Opera productions, and now, here she was, singing right in front of me. Better yet, we’d be singing with her. It was unbelievable.

Break time came. During the first half, my wave-mate, her sister, and I explored the vast outside area. Then, my wave-mate and I resolved to approach Ms. Miller as we had planned. We found her sitting in the pews with Mr. Yi, and I introduced my wave-mate to her. We had expected it to be a quick introduction, but to our surprise, Ms. Miller kept on talking with us, and Mr. Yi joined in. By the time rehearsal resumed, we had talked about chicken, brownies, and Björk. Since Ms. Miller will be covering Erda and singing the First Norn at the Met, she also treated us to her spin on Rheingold. I vote Ronnita Nicole Miller as the next Anna Russell.

We had to end the conversation when rehearsal started up again. In the final half of Noah’s Flood rehearsal, we went from the storm to the finale. We had trouble translating some of our movements to the Cathedral, since we’d been rehearsing in the East LA Performing Arts Academy auditorium all this time. However, when it finally began coming together, it really started looking and sounding spectacular. In a way that’s difficult to describe, the Cathedral setting has brought out shades and colors in the opera that would have been lost in a theater. Benjamin Britten intended Noah’s Flood to be performed in a church, and I think all of us are beginning to realize why.


The first day of tech week is down, and there are five more days to go. It won’t be easy, though—I have a feeling that if this adventure continues as it did on Monday, I won’t be getting to bed anytime soon. 

Noah's Flood: Taking The Leap

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood. Performances were this past weekend, April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  This is her final post in the series.

Tuesday and Wednesday

I’ve been saying the word “almost” a lot: we’re “almost” there, it’s “almost” coming together, etc. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we finally abandoned “almost” and took that leap.

On Tuesday, we rehearsed the performance with the community choirs and orchestras for the first time at the Cathedral. Both elements added incredible majesty, grandeur, and energy. Still, the performance remained at the “almost” stage.

However, on Wednesday we added four main things: costumes, lights, the LA Opera Orchestra members, and most exciting of all, Maestro James Conlon.  And one that day, two things happened that completely changed the game.

Noah's Flood

The first of these things came in the form of a surprise visitor: a bespectacled man with a close-trimmed beard. Blinking, I whispered to Noah (Yohan Yi), “Is that Christopher Koelsch?!” It really was.  That’s when I really sank in that we were part of something so significant that it called for a visit by LA Opera’s President and CEO. My determination hardened. I would do all I could to help make it a great performance.

For me, that set the tone for the whole day. When the time came for rehearsal to start, we went to the halls flanking the sanctuary to review notes and warm up. As we did, we heard a murmur and applause from inside. Maestro Conlon had arrived.

Noah's Flood

I knew that the second I ran out into the sanctuary for my opening position, I would see him up there on the podium. My nervousness escalated, and the beatings of my heart hurtled to a peak. The thundering opening chords sounded. My running partner and I exchanged a glance; it was our cue.

At that moment, the second amazing thing happened. The moment I took off sprinting, my nervousness immediately converted itself to fear and anger. I ran down the aisle, bursting with desperation, searching everywhere for answers. When I skidded to a halt, it wasn’t me anymore, but at last, my character. For the first time, I carried my voice to the breaking point, singing on the edge of danger.

Noah's Flood

Throughout the program, director Eli Villanueva, assistant conductor Paul Floyd, and assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell have been urging us to realize our intention. Up until that point, it had been make believe. Now, one by one, we were all finding our own meaning in the words and actions.

We bumped through the rest of the opera, costume changes and Maestro Conlon and all. By the end of rehearsal, the only element left to add was an audience, which would come in during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal.

On the first day of tech week, Monday, I don’t think any of us could honestly say we were prepared to perform. By the time we hit Wednesday, we crossed the boundary between “almost” and “finally.” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, here we come. We couldn’t feel any more ready.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

At this point, I began reflecting on all parts of my Noah’s Flood experience—the beautiful music, the friendships made with the ensemble members and principals, the number of times we imitated Jamieson Price (Voice of God)—and I keenly felt the fact that it would all be over soon. I knew that it wouldn’t end without a bang: the last three days would be a stunning finale. 

Noah's Flood

The first of these three days, Thursday, was our final dress rehearsal. For the first time, we had a handful of people in the audience. It went smoothly, and the audience loved the performance.

We still hadn’t endured the greatest test, though. On Friday, all of our emotions were at a peak. The stress from tech week had now accumulated, and it now aggravated by opening night nerves. It didn’t help that we were told that two thousand people were coming.


Downstairs, assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell led us through our warm-ups and review. Halfway through, Eli came in. He stood up on the platform and began to speak to us. “On Monday,” he admitted, “I was concerned.” He went on to tell us how we had then invested all that we had into the performance, and how it had now evolved into something truly beautiful. He concluded by saying, “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens, and just do what you know to do.”

Noah's Flood

With his words in mind, we went upstairs to the sanctuary and got into our places. When we saw all the pews swelling with people, our hearts fluttered again. “This is what two thousand people looks like…” someone whispered. Eli’s words, though, repeated in our minds: “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens. Just do what you know to do.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Hearing the applause of thousands of people is a frightening, cathartic, overwhelming moment. We glanced around at each other, smiling uncontrollably. We had done it, and we felt fully confident to do it again on Saturday.

Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s: we brought our quick-change costumes upstairs, and then went back downstairs to warm up, review, and receive our final pep talk. Eli expressed how proud he was of us, and thanked us for giving our all. For the final time, we went to our opening positions.

LA Opera

Knowing that it would be my last time singing each number, I poured more than I ever had before into the performance. I tapped into my desperation during “Lord Jesus, think on me,” and let loose my fury in the storm scene. At last, we reached the finale. As we sang the soaring, wondrous melody of “What though in solemn silence all,” with the choirs and orchestra triumphantly accompanying us, I gazed out into the audience, and my throat constricted. When I sang the last “Amen” and slowly retreated offstage with the rest of the cast, there was no stopping it anymore. I sank down in the choir pews and wept into my sleeve.

Noah's Flood

The lights went back on, and audience swept us up in warm, rushing applause. We bowed and waved, still in disbelief. Then, when the audience began to disperse, I met up with my wave-mate. We went downstairs to hang up our costumes for the last time.

Muse and Ellie
Muse and her "wave-mate" Ellie after the performance

There were still tears in my eyes as we went down the stairs and said goodbye to all the staff and ensemble members. That night, before and after, there were many incredible moments, but I think it’s best to end by relating a single incident.

Over the course of the program, I had become friends with a young man with an intellectual disability. He was always cheerful and bubbly, and whenever he saw anyone, he would break into a huge smile. That night, as I spoke with my wave-mate through tears, he walked in and noticed me. For a moment, he watched uncertainly. Then, he stepped forward and tightly wrapped his arms around me for a long embrace. When he finally pulled away, I looked up. To my surprise, there were now tears gathered in his eyes as well. Struggling not to cry, he hugged me and my wave-mate one more time, and shakily said goodbye. “Next year,” I managed to reply. He nodded, bravely smiled, and then slowly walked away.

I’ve covered this Community Opera program over nine blog posts. However, I think describing this one moment makes all of them unnecessary.

Noah's Flood

Tosca La Latina

Tosca drives people crazy. The opera brings out venom in people—even in people who normally digest the outrageousness of other operas with ease. Composer Benjamin Britten said he was “sickened” by the music’s “cheapness and emptiness,” and the astute critic Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker.” Much of this has to do with the title character. Driving people crazy, as we’ll see, is sort of her job.

Beyond the classic denunciations, Tosca is routinely called out as “vulgar,” “sensationalist” and “overly emotional.” Indeed, it is standard—and even expected—to look down on this opera as if it were a bordello—or a telenovela. But while some people maintain a sense of shocked condescension toward this enormously popular work, the Hispanic world possesses unique tools to appreciate Tosca and to unpack its treasures with penetrating insight not readily available elsewhere.

Some of Tosca’s connection to Latinos abides in the importance of the city of Rome. Other operas happen to be set in Rome, but nowhere is the mythical power of the Eternal City more central than in Tosca. Latins are closer to the mythical fascination exerted by Rome (home of the original Latins) than Anglo-Saxons are: the name Anglo-Saxon recalls the Germanic tribes who overthrew the Roman Empire, while the term Latino claims an intimate relationship with Romanità (“Roman-ness”). Sancho Panza annoyed Don Quijote by constantly repeating the proverb “Bien está San Pedro en Roma”—my Mexican grandmother annoyed me too with that proverb, more recently. Spanish is a Latin language, but there’s more. There is the Roman Catholic heritage of Latin America.

An important part of that heritage is the “Quadriga,” the four-fold method of textual analysis that was (and officially still is) at the core of Catholic thought. This Quadriga is a system of reading a sacred text—and, by implication, everything else—on four levels: (1) literal; (2) allegorical; (3) theological; and (4) anagogical. To properly interpret a passage of scripture (or anything else), one should understand (1) that it actually happened; (2) that it has other meanings beyond the literal; (3) that it has moral implications; and, most important for our present purposes, (4) that it has an anagogical dimension. An “anagoge,” from the Greek word for “leading,” means something pointing to a future event. In Christian scripture, according to the Quadriga, the manna in the desert is important anagogically because it prefigures the bread of the Last Supper, another meal sent by God. An event, therefore, can exist in two (or more) moments in time.

The Protestant mind works differently, with no Quadriga, an emphasis on literalism, and a veneration of The Word. Eucharist, where it exists at all, is commemorative or symbolic of something that happened two millennia ago. And as with events, so too with objects. One thing cannot be another thing if it is literally that thing: that is, bread and wine, being bread and wine, cannot be something else (e.g. flesh and blood) except symbolically. But symbolism is something else—it is one thing standing for another. An anagogical interpretation means one thing can be itself and something else at the same time. Bread and wine can be flesh and blood without ceasing to be bread and wine.

The same pattern holds true for people as well as events. Eve is important as herself and as a prototype of Mary, and so forth. Folk traditions in Latin countries manifest this even clearer. In Las Posadas, people become the Holy Family and angels, shepherds and others around them. Protestants might sing about the Nativity or re-enact it in pantomimes, but they will not aim to become the Holy Family as in Las Posadas. The Hispanic traditions associated with La Semana Santa and especially Good Friday show how intensely carnal this association with sacred events can become. Archetypes can directly inhabit the very bodies in Latin communities. The man who is “being” Christ or Pilate in a Hispanic pageant does not cease to be himself. One can be two people at once, filtered through an anagogical mindset, and not only in religious areas. Thus a Latino can freely address someone who is not in fact a relation as “mi hijo,” “mamacita” or “papi.” This simply does not happen in English.

This permeates the literature of Latin America. The impossibly long-lived characters in Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction [e.g. El inmortal, et al.] are a form of anagogical type; so are the ghosts that recur in Gabriel García Marquéz’ Cien años de soledad, not to mention the ghost that makes love to his widow better than her new husband in Jorge Amados’ Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos. People exist in different times and places in the genre of magical realism, which flourishes in Latin America. And while magical realism exists elsewhere (possibly including Kafka et al., depending on who applies the labels), it is particularly at home throughout Latin America—perhaps owing to this background of Roman anagogical thinking. So being Latino is not only about how one conjugates a verb, or how (or if) one prays: it’s also about how one reads and relates to a text—and everything is a text.

Latins can easily see Tosca as a multitude of archetypes—and no less because she is also meant to be a real woman walking around a real city on the afternoon of June 17, 1800 (the date of the opera’s action). She is a “diva” and can be understood as a sort of Maenad (a follower of the god of wine called Dionysos in Greece and Bacchus in Rome) creating a healthy level of disorder amid the stifling Apollonian order of the overbearing state represented by Scarpia. She slices him up like a proper frenzied woman of Greek mythology when confronted by a minister of Apollo (Scarpia here, Pentheus in Euripides) who reject the divinity of chaos: Note Scarpia’s shocked comment when he enters the church (and the opera) and sees the kids having fun—of all things—in Act I: “Tal baccano in chiesa!” “What a bacchanalia (festival in honor of Bacchus, i.e., drunken, drug-ridden orgy) in church!” He is preternaturally opposed to anything Bacchic/Dionysian.

The character Tosca is a bacchanalia on two legs. For starters, she is a singer of opera, an art form invented as an attempt to recreate the spirit of the ancient Athenian Drama Festivals, the Dionysia, given in honor of Dionysos/Bacchus. And while Apollonians look down on Dionysians, the Maenads dismembered Apollonians at their drunken orgies. Tosca merely slices Scarpia with a knife and tells him to choke to death on his own blood… There are limits, even in this opera.

How appropriate, then, that María Guadalupe Jiménez López, the alleged drug cartel enforcer suspected of 20 murders who was apprehended last year in Monterrey, Mexico, is known as “La Tosca.” Tosca in Spanish means rude in a sloppy way – I remember that same grandmother telling me “No seas tosco!” when I knocked over glasses on the table – but there are many derogatory words for rude people (especially women) in Spanish. But since this woman is an enemy of the state, a subversive, and an agent of chaos as well as a killer, no name is better than La Tosca—whether anybody who named her was conscious of the opera or not. This Maenad roamed ancient Greece; she was in Rome in 1800; and she has recently been arrested in Monterrey. Borges himself couldn’t have made it any clearer.

Puccini’s original stage directions have Tosca leap to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo at the climax of this intense opera. This is the final straw for many critics of the work. Yet it’s the perfect example of how a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon can see two disparate things in the same object. In this case, an iconic event from Mexican history would have informed a Roman audience’s understanding of this striking stage moment.

The Niños Heroes of Chapultepec are familiar inspirational figures throughout Mexico. The six cadets, ages 13 through 19, were serving in the Mexican military academy at Chapultepec Castle overlooking Mexico City when it was under attack from the United States Army in 1847. The cadets refused to retreat or surrender, and died defending the castle against hopeless odds. It is said that one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death to prevent the flag’s dishonorable capture by the Americans. Newer scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of this occurrence, but the legend continues, amplified by a searing overhead mural by Gabriel Flores at Chapultepec. Every year, six cadets are honored as the Boy Heroes, the Niños Heroes, wrapped in Mexican flags, and the names of the original six are called out as the crowd—in a ritual familiar throughout Latin American—responds “presente!” The Heroes are alive, and dead, again.

The martyrdom of the Niños Heroes seems to have echoed powerfully in Rome shortly afterward. In 1849, the Pope, ruler of the Papal State centered in the Eternal City, had fled Rome and been replaced by a short-lived republic. Garibaldi was among those fighting for the end of Papal rule in Rome and with the long-term goal of a unified, independent nation. The composer Giuseppe Verdi, also an important leader of this Italian “Risorgimento” movement, arrived in January to produce his new opera La Battaglia di Legnano. This was an incendiary work of thrilling choruses and patriotic rhetoric, commemorating a significant moment in Italian history in 1182, when Italians briefly put aside their differences and successfully fought the German-led forces occupying the country. The climactic moment of the opera is in Act III: the tenor has been locked in a tower to suffer the disgrace of missing out on the battle. Unable to bear this, he wraps himself in the red, white, and green Italian flag (an obvious anachronism for 1182, but a powerful symbol in 1849), cries “Viva Italia!” and leaps out the window. (A figure in the orchestral prelude gives us the hint that this tower is fortunately surrounded by a moat). He gets to Legnano and dies fighting for his country, praised by the crowds. The 1849 premiere of this opera at Rome’s Teatro Apollo was a sensation. In one performance, a man sitting in an upper balcony proscenium box was so moved to patriotic action that he wrapped himself in the Italian flag, cried “Viva Italia!” and leapt into the orchestra, unharmed. Or so the story goes….

Rome, with its busy diplomatic community (including a Mexican delegation) must have been aware of the tales of Chapultepec a year before. And the image of a doomed hero, fighting a Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) invader, flying through the air wrapped in a red, white and green flag would have had inherent power for Latin audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The audience at Tosca’s 1900 Rome premiere would have had a collective memory of the Legnano premiere 50 years before—surely someone in the audience had been there. And its effect would have differed from its effect on the dismissive English-speaking critics who saw, and see, nothing in Tosca’s leap but a Roman diva over-acting one last time.

The music of the finale also confounds many: it’s a restatement of the big theme from the tenor’s aria earlier in the act, “E lucevan le stelle.” Kerman said the orchestra thunders out “the first theme that pops into its head,” which is truly unfair. Whatever shortcomings Puccini had from an academic point of view, no one can say he couldn’t come up with a new melody when he needed one. In fact, the reviewer for the Buenos Aires paper La Prensa wrote from the world premiere of Tosca in Rome that Puccini had written a more complex work than his previous operas, one which deftly managed “Italian melodic simplicity” (“sencillez melodica italiana”) so as not to “shut oneself up” (“encerrarse”) in the style of French and German modernists (La Prensa, January 15, 1900). It was an insightful and specifically Latin observation to see Puccini’s use of melody as an effective choice of directness, and a liberating rejection of inhibiting Northern European models.

The sort of theme Puccini uses in the tenor aria and then restates at the finale is called a slancio, which means many things: impulse, rush, outburst, leap or jump, even. The term also contains references to lanciare, to launch or hurl, and lancia, a spear. Spear in Latin is jacula, and to cast one is ejaculare, whose cognates in English and Spanish are obvious. Tosca’s final deed, therefore, is a leap, an act of love, and a climax. She cries out to her enemy Scarpia that she will meet him before God, and this calls forth the slancio in the orchestra. So this act is also a declaration that she, as a sexual being, has a right to stand in confidence before the judgment of God.

Perhaps much of one’s reaction to the finale of the opera has to do with one’s point of view toward sex, or at least its role in the opera house. Curiously, the critic reviewing the Montevideo premiere of Tosca singled out the tenor’s aria as “very elegant, and its melody is pure and spontaneous" (El Día, August 18, 1902), an assessment that would have surprised Kerman. But there is in Rome another work of art whose scandalous juxtaposition of genres helps put Tosca’s supposed blasphemies into clearer perspective.

Bernini’s famous statue The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652) in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria captures an extraordinary moment in the Spanish mystic’s celebrated Autobiography: her encounter with an angel who imparted the fire of divine love in her. She wrote: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails…. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it.”

The statue is frankly sensual. As a rakish president of France commented, on touring the church a century ago: “If that is ‘divine love,’ I know all about it.” Some recent commentary plays down the erotic aspect of the statue, but it is undeniable: Saint Teresa herself is frank about her experience, being neither sensational nor coy, and Bernini was pious rather than lurid. Carnality, however, is not really the point of either the statue or the scandal it causes. Sexuality and spirituality had been mixed before in many genres, and spectacularly in the poetry of Bernini’s own time (by Donne and Marvell in England, and especially by Sor Juana de la Cruz in Mexico). The real scandal of Bernini's statue is not in its eroticism but in its theatricality. It is set in an opera house, so to speak. Members of the Venetian Cornaro family who commissioned the statue are also represented by statues on either side of the chapel, sitting in theater-type boxes and leaning over as if watching something on a stage and commenting about it. “Theater” in 17th-century Venice meant “opera houses” and the city had dozens of them. The operatic setting of the statue is what truly makes it a scandalous "baccano in chiesa." It recalls Garrison Keillor’s priceless line about the Lutherans in his home town frowning upon sex because it might lead to dancing. Yet Roman ladies pray in this chapel every day as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which, for them, it is. A Spanish saint has an orgasm for God on an operatic stage, and—in Rome—it makes perfect sense.

Bernini’s masterpiece makes it clear that what is vulgar to one culture could be sublime to another. A conception of mythological identity in everyday individuals, a sense of recurring archetypes in modern (and future) life, and historical moments of suicidal leaps as noble self-sacrifice will also influence what one sees in the opera known as Tosca. This opera will continue to divide audiences for ages to come. But experiencing Tosca through a Hispanic frame of mind—whether one is Hispanic or not—might allow audiences to see what Kerman, Britten and the others could not see: a vital and honest drama of an ageless heroine in a never-ending struggle that continues today and beyond.

A writer, lecturer and radio commentator, William Berger is the author of Wagner Without Fear, Verdi With a Vengeance and Puccini Without Excuses.  He is Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.





A Celebration with Domingo

On June 7, LA Opera will present An Evening of Spanish Zarzuela and Latin American Music, followed by the presentation of Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera’s annual Plácido Domingo Award. Plácido Domingo will perform as both singer and as conductor of the LA Opera Orchestra. Soloists include Janai Brugger, a former member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program who has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera as Liu in Turandot and with LA Opera as Musetta in La Bohème. In 2012, Ms. Brugger was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and she also won three top awards at Operalia, the international vocal competition founded by Mr. Domingo. She will be joined by tenor Joshua Guerrero, a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, and by soprano María Eugenia Antúnez, who will create the title role of Dulce Rosa in May.  Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer will lead portions of the concert. Concert tickets start at $19 and can be purchased at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office, by telephone at 213.972.8001 or online at www.laopera.org.

The concert will be followed by the 15th annual Plácido Domingo Awards Gala, chaired by HLAO founder Alicia Garcia Clark. The gala is presented each year by Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera to celebrate the accomplishments of Hispanic artists as well as those who contribute to the awareness of opera and its educational value in the Latino community of Los Angeles.This year’s award will be presented to soprano Ailyn Pérez, who last appeared with LA Opera as Mimi in La Bohème, as well as to Iberia Chairman Antonio Vásquez Romero and to the Lloyd E. Rigler – Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. The event celebrates the accomplishments of Hispanic artists and all who contribute to the awareness of opera in the Latino community. For more information about the gala, please call 213.972.3664.

Floria Tosca and the Freedom of the Artist

By John Caird

Tosca is one of the greatest works of music theater ever written and its importance is undiminished a century after Puccini wrote it. Its narrative is deceptively simple. It involves the lives of three principal characters. Cavaradossi is a talented young painter earning his living by creating ecclesiastical art in Roman churches. Floria Tosca, his lover, is a well-known classical singer, adored by her public. Baron Scarpia is the Chief of Police in a military state that is cracking down on all opposition together with the artistic freedom that sanctions it and draws support from it.

Cavaradossi hides a political friend who is fleeing for his life and gets himself imprisoned and tortured for his pains. The corrupt Scarpia attempts to seduce Tosca, offering to release her lover if she gives in to his demands. Faced with watching her lover suffer further torture, Tosca laments her powerlessness in “Vissi d’arte,” one of the most heartrending arias in the grand opera repertoire. In trying to protect Cavaradossi from further agony, she agrees to betray his political friends. Cornered and ashamed, Tosca kills Scarpia and attempts to outwit the police in order to secure Cavaradossi’s freedom. In the Castel Sant Angelo, surrounded by scores of other political prisoners, her plan fails and her lover is executed. Scarpia’s death is discovered and Tosca kills herself rather than yield to her captors.

The reason for the great popularity of Tosca is enshrined in its overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers.

Puccini’s score is utterly masterful. Its tightness of musical conception combined with the intimacy of its subject matter makes for extraordinary intensity, in orchestral color and sung line—in short, it is a musical masterwork.

The human drama that Puccini and his librettists have adapted from Sardou’s original play constitutes a timeless plea for artistic and political freedom. In a world of fundamentalist philosophies, religious intolerance and political tyranny, Tosca stands as a beacon of enlightenment, a passionate plea for freedom of speech, thought and artistic expression. In any country that values its political freedoms, Tosca reminds us of what we have to lose, and the terrible price in human suffering if we cease to value what we truly believe in.

The moral and religious aspects of the story are far harder to pin down. At the beginning of the opera, the painted image that Cavaradossi is working on is that of a Mary Magdalene—a complex woman whose sexuality and experience seem to be in conflict with the teachings of her Master and therefore the teachings of the Church. She is also, at least in part, an image of Tosca herself—and in this production the Magdalen’s face has been fractured by the effects of war on the structure of the building in which she is to hang. In this respect the image takes on a dramatic irony. Tosca becomes a fractured character in the drama—as does the man who has imagined her as a redeemed Magdalene. The picture will never be completed, just as Tosca’s and Cavaradossi’s lives will never be completed.

Floria Tosca’s genuine religious devotion to the other image in the church, the image of the Virgin, requires a director, a designer and, more importantly, a singer to build up a picture of the life of this complex character—from her earliest religious and artistic yearnings as a child right up to her sacrificial death as an adult. What was Tosca’s life like as a child? How did she develop as an artist? The original Sardou play gives us many of the answers. She came from a very poor background and was brought up in the church, the beauty of her voice redeeming her from a life of religious devotion. But as with many artists, the soul of the child has remained vividly alive in her. It is part of her artistry. Perhaps that is why she is so vulnerable to the corrupting demands of the real world. And so trusting.

The aspiration contained within the beauty of Cavaradossi’s ecclesiastical art is deeply envied by Scarpia and, like many an autocratic Philistine, his envy turns into a collector’s ambition. The palace from which he works is crammed with banned and stolen art. But his ambition goes beyond objects to include people. He has Tosca, too, in his sights. His inability to understand her beauty and artistry makes him want to control it and if he can’t control it, destroy it. In short, he wants to add her to his collection.

Like his two lovers, Tosca and Cavaradossi, Puccini himself had a deeply divided attitude towards the church. In moral terms he was a passionate Humanist, but like many men of his age, brought up in the faith of his forefathers, he could never completely escape from his feelings of religious fervor when faced with questions of belief or eternity. The evidence in this opera would seem to point to his Humanism and Catholicism being all of a piece, inextricably entwined with his passion and integrity as an artist. And he certainly imbues his two heroic characters with the same synthesis of beliefs.

Floria Tosca’s decision not to be controlled by Scarpia, that her integrity as a woman and an artist is more important to her than life itself, leads her and Cavaradossi to their deaths. But even in the hopeless confines of the Castel Sant Angelo, and in spite of everything he has seen, Cavaradossi still manages to believe in a future life of freedom and happiness for himself and his lover. The fact that he believes, against all the odds and all the evidence, is what makes his belief so moving. It is the same belief fuelling the same artistic passion that he uses to breathe life into his painted canvas characters.

After Cavaradossi has been executed, Floria Tosca goes willingly to her death. Willingly because she cannot imagine living on after the man she has betrayed but also because, in killing Scarpia, she knows or fears that she has become no better than him. She will meet him again before God. The God of her childhood faith will make the judgement, not them. In that sense she has become the Magdalene, trusting in the very faith from which she has never really drawn a benefit. Perhaps that is the meaning of true faith. And perhaps Puccini’s understanding of it can help us with our own faith in the limitless moral powers of artistic freedom.

John Caird is the director of LA Opera's May/June 2013 production of Tosca.