Archive for the ‘divas/divos’ Category
The Adventures of…
“Look! Up on the stage! It’s a samisan, it’s a parasol, it’s SUPER-KOKEN!
Slower than a drifting glacier, more stealthy than a leopard on the hunt.
Able to spin the turntable in a single hook.”
Further Feats: 40 minutes of standing in a demi-plié, 6 child’s poses, 30 minutes in a forward yoga lay, 16 turntable rotations, 1 death-defying silk drop catch, and more!
But, don’t all superheroes have baggage? Thus, I deliver my diagnosis of the Koken: In need of treatment for OCD and chronic inefficiency. These Kabuki-inspired characters in San Francisco Opera’s Madama Butterfly (of which I am 1 of 6) unfailingly offer up perfectly aligned prop placement and table settings, and impossibly measured, controlled movement. SICK!
From a serious perspective, I love exploring and learning different kinds of movement (and dance). Ours requires us to be very in sync, and move nearly as one, in an energized, yet internalized way (like the Tai Chi we trained in). It’s been the best workout I’ve gotten in ages (boy, those pliés are GREAT for the inner thighs!). I’m also savoring the meditative, spiritual practice I’m experiencing through the incredible presence this technique requires.
Given that our all-black costumes are very much like those of a ninja, our presence lends an air of intrigue and gravitas to the unfolding of the proceedings.
Demystifying Illusion & Stagecraft (WARNING: SPOILERS)
I’m amazed at how transforming the art of illusion and stagecraft are, when used so masterfully. Up-close and unlit, the set shows its almost 30 years, and doesn’t really “sing”…BUT, when lit, and from the house, it emerges full bloom into a seemingly living and breathing world. The fiber board panels with overlapping green carpet look like REAL stone and earth. The perforated metal panels that up-close look too thick and heavy-handed, appear exactly like paper screens. GENIUS!
The technological trick that enables the crew to rotate the turntable a calculated amount each time is a crafty system that includes UV painted numbers on the TT rim, that when black-lit from the side are visible only to the offstage crew. This ensures exact placements every time. WOW! Yes, the cat’s outta the bag, the Koken only pantomime the TT rotation, but it’s still a workout to make it look real, with right degree of physical tension.
Honored & Humbled
I’m about to embark on one of my most exciting stage opportunities to date. Tomorrow night I dive into rehearsals for the San Francisco Opera production of Madama Butterfly. It’s the acclaimed 1982 Harold Prince (Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, etc.) production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, most recently seen in LOC’s ’08/09 season.
I’ll be one of six Koken, a Kabuki-style performer and stage assistant/
attendant. Traditionally, their duties include assisting the leading cast with properties and costumes, helping create special and supernatural effects to propel and enhance key plot points, and acting as puppeteers. Although done discreetly, all of this is done onstage, in plain view.
From Behind Black Cloth
We’ll be clothed in all-black costumes, including a robe with cloth belt, partially transparent, veiled hood, cloven boots, and gripper gloves. They are not unlike tailored, ninja costumes to my eyes. In my surfing (aka research), it seems as if our costuming may more accurately define us as a Kurombo (meaning “black fellow,” for the costumes), rather than a Koken (meaning “assistant”). They serve the same function, but are typically costumed differently. Read more about Kabuki and Koken history here, here and here.
Apparently, in this production, the Koken are onstage for most, if not all of the performance. There are extended sections in which only the Koken are onstage, including a 30-minute ritualistic pre-show, involving the set up of various props, which will also be repeated at intermission.
The production also features a turntable that rotates over 25 times in both directions. The Koken connect sturdy hooks on thick ropes to slots on the turntable to simulate its turning. Thank goodness this one is ALL illusion! (Although, it sounds like I’m going to still have to have really good knees.) I don’t want to reveal any of the other illusions, lest I spoil the surprise element. There is an effective, almost jewel-box-like intimacy to this production, as you can see in the photo above, perhaps necessitated by the turntable.
Tai Chi Preparation
In order to help us master the specificity of movement required, we will be training in Tai Chi. with Cory Chan of Kei Lun. Training in a 700+ year old Chinese martial arts practice for a Japanese-themed opera, you ask? (I asked the same thing.) Well, I’d never done Tai Chi, but the small sampling of it I got in the audition whet my palate, as it seems the perfect balance of meditation and dancer-like movement. It’s a great way to really “get in” one’s body, and the intricate sequences will help prepare the mind for the staging sequences that will be asked of us.
Performances are October 12th through November 27th. Buy tickets here. Our cast will include Svetla Vassileva / Daniela Dessì (Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Quinn Kelsey / Brian Mulligan (Sharpless) and recent Adler grad Daveda Karenas (Suzuki). Nicola Luisotti / Julian Kovatchev will conduct, and SFO regular Jose Maria Condemi will direct this remounting.
Here goes…I’m ecstatic! How lovely to be able to add a Puccini opera to my previous experiences in a Verdi, Wagner and Philip Glass opera. This opera has never been one of my favorites (other than the few obvious musical highlights), but I’m sure this experience will spark a new love affair with the score.
I leave you now with arguably the most famous selection from the opera, sung by a legendary Cio-Cio-San:
My responses to La Cieca’s quizzes and inquiries are often worthy fodder for re-posting here on jcm. Her current call for nominees is for “your favorite opera diva of this generation,” from which the surpreme list of ten will be crafted.
The acceptable career range is onstage between 1980 and 2010, BUT I took it upon myself to discluded any divas who had a large part of their primes BEFORE 1980 (begrudgingly discluding the queens of my Diva Totem: Price, Caballé, Ludwig, etc.), because they are really Golden Age holdovers, NOT really divas of THIS generation. For each the notable attributes are highlighted.
Here goes…they are essentially in order of my nomination, but I felt they were just too equal to assign a number to. Which of your favorites, or other truly deserving divas (OF THIS GENERATION!) have I left off?
Limpid tone, truly affecting pathos.
Blazing coloratura, firm tone, balls-out ferocity.
The Omniscient Mussel, hostess of the famed OperaPlot contest is writing a piece about opera standing room culture, and has put out a call for standees’ tales on the experience. Below are the my submitted musings.
Standing in San Francisco
I’ve enjoyed standing room at San Francisco Opera many times over my past 17 years in the Bay Area. My first experience of it at The War Memorial Opera House was from the rear Orchestra at the ’95 Die Walkure, starring Jane Eaglen and James Morris. It was also my first-ever live Ring opera. Having only familiarized myself with a few recorded highlights, the score was surprisingly lyrical, and Jane’s approach refreshingly bel canto.
The first half flew by, and I nearly forgot I was standing, so captivated I was by the evening. Plus, given that opera singers work SO hard, standing for hours themselves, whilst exhibiting a mastery of language, character, vocal technique…it’s a worthy trade. Cupid struck my heart with this taste of the Ring and I haven’t looked back since.
OK…I confess, I did that night what many daring standees do, which is to trickle down into a seat left empty by someone who bailed during the intermission. SO, I got an Orchestra seat for the price of standing room, at least for half the performance. However, I rarely try that stunt these days, and the ushers, perhaps understandably so seem to be more stern guardians these days.
My most recent standing room at SFO was from the rear Balcony at the Verdi Requiem. It was a gala performance that served as the farewell to Donald Runnicles as Music Director, and featured Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe.
Below are some excerpts from my blog review of that performance that reveal some benefits of standing in the rear Balcony:
“After my friend scored a single last-minute seat in the Orchestra, I scaled the heights to find the last standing room spot in the Balcony (aka “nose-bleeds”)…
I was reminded that where I stood was the real acoustic sweet spot of the house, and nowhere else can one hear such fine textures in the soundscape, far better than in the rear Orchestra, where I first scavenged for a spot. It does seem to favor voices over instruments, as the chorus actually seemed to overpower the orchestra a bit…but I’m certain that’s just a slight acoustic imbalance, and was hardly a problem.”
My verdict? The rear Orchestra offers the better standing room views, but the rear Balcony offers the finer acoustics…it’s a trade-off. Perhaps the deal breaker in favor of the rear Balcony is that I’ve observed many of the senior standees sitting or laying on either the floor or a bench near the back wall, enjoying just the aural pleasures alone. I have a special admiration for them, as they hearken back to the days of gathering around for an old radio show, creating one’s own visuals with only a ripe imagination.
Brace yourself for this historic and tragic first-ever NorCal gathering of parterre.com fans and followers! La Cieca has sanctioned it with an amusing post. We hope you can join us…I know I’m just itchin’ to get on with it. Opera fanciers, queens and lovers are encouraged and welcome too.
A SF/Bay Area parterre.com Soirée…dare I say: Demented Mini-Conference? Perhaps our fair Queen Mum herself, La Cieca will descend upon our happy occasion and lead us in some gaiety. Although, Nilsson, Tebaldi and Rysanek’s attendance is more likely.
Chinese Pagoda (pictured below), on Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Location details: eastern tip of Stow Lake island, just south of Stow Lake waterfall, just southwest of the red star on this map.
We can mosey over to the Verdi Statue, towards the end for “Va Pensiero” and a knelt adoration. And, I’ll be sure to pass by the Beethoven Statue too on the walk home to make sure he doesn’t feel left out.
12 noon – 3pm, Saturday, July 31st
(If too foggy, wet or cold, our back-up date is: Saturday, August 28th.)
What to bring?
Please bring something to share, by last name, as below. (If you object or have a terribly pinched wallet, you are still welcome to come, but please let me know.) Opera-or-Chinoiserie-related themes encouraged, but random, store-bought lameness fine too:
A – F: savory dish, finger food, or substantial snack
G – M: salad
N – S: beverages…chinese tea anyone?
T – Z: dessert
All (good/festive/opera-related ideas) welcome! I plan to shoot a Wenarto-inspired video shoot, involving those who are interested. If you have any operatic accessories (particularly Chinese), please bring/wear them to spice up our video.
My iPod will be chock full of apropos selections, but feel free to bring yours as well, if you’re compelled. Again, orientalism encouraged (given our setting).
If we find a bevy of pigeons or a rival encampment has already inhabited the pagoda, we’ll be forced to shift our location, so it’s best if you RSVP beforehand, so I can give you my cell phone number, in case we should need to move.
The challenge? To post a youtube video that serves as a sterling example of the art of bel canto, including narrative explaining why. Enjoy it here:
It includes offerings by Orgonasova (‘94), Baltsa & Gruberova (‘84), Pavarotti (‘68), Steber (‘58), Gigli (‘33), and Barrientos (‘18, pictured above). I will always jump to the defense of my favored, and less touted bel cantists!
Many submissions honored the greats: Muzio, Callas, Kraus, Sutherland, Horne, Caballé, Sills, and so on. However, this offering, by Shirley Verrett, although not a winner or runner-up was the most exciting new find for me:
Now, please share your bel canto favorites!
Being a part of Francesca Zambello’s production of Die Walküre has raised the bar for me yet again on my operatic excursions as a “Super” at the San Francisco Opera. CHECK!…another dream fulfilled. This time Wagner! When I pass over the scratched and worn stage floor, I still pinch myself and marvel at all the legends who have left their mark in this hallowed place. Here’s a photo-narrative glimpse into this exciting production, and my wonderful world of Wagner.
Yes, True Wagnerians Still Walk the Earth
When’s the last time you saw a Wagner opera and weren’t wishing singers of the past were instead onstage? Well, it would be hard to best this nearly peerless cast, particularly in today’s international crop. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde is utter perfection, with a refulgent, voluminous voice, and yet, there’s such a naturalness to her delivery, it’s as if she’s speaking. She exudes considerable warmth in her very convincing acting expressions, and as one reviewer said, she couldn’t play the victim better. She also couldn’t look the part more (as evidenced by this glowing photo). She, and all the principals are a joy backstage too. Given the pressure they’re under to perform a VERY difficult piece, that’s quite a testimony.
In her debut as the Walküre Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme delivers the much expected stamina and bravado, but never betrays her beauty of tone, or pushes outside her “column of sound.” She uses her slighter stature and strong connection to her body to paint an authentically youthful and feisty characterization. No, she doesn’t erase memories of Nilsson’s vocal sword throwing in the highest reaches of “Ho-jo-to-ho!,” but she has a far darker, warmer, and more alluring tone, and greater physicality than Nilsson.
Mark Delavan is tireless, and the model of godly alpha-male strength as Wotan. At times he sings with a legato line, but other times chews up and spits out the german consonants to portray anger, or when commanding others. Backstage, he’s the funniest opera personality I’ve ever been around…cracking up the Supers without fail, with his disarming humor. Enjoy his perspective on Wotan, and at times refreshingly irreverent sense of humor in this interview.
Christopher Ventris as Siegmund is in the Heppner/Windgassen vein, having a brighter, not baritonal Heldentenor tone. However, he is easily heard, and has plenty of thrust to cut through the orchestra. He and Eva-Marie make an appealing and very engaged duo. Ray Aceto as Hunding is genuinely scary and imposing, and wields a very satisfying black basso. Janina Baechle as Fricka doesn’t erase vocal memories of Marjana Lipovšek (‘95), but she is quite perfect in this production’s conception of this role, and is fully and excitingly committed.
In this Act I play one of Hunding’s thuggish *insert grunt here* kinsmen, returning from a day of hunting. I carry in a giant plastic-wrapped meat pack, which I immediately throw to Hunding. (Yes, me, the one who couldn’t throw a ball to save his life as a kid…WHY?!) We all threaten Siegmund with our rifles when he hesitates Hunding’s commands. (I’m at bottom left.) Later Sieglinde ladles us up some slop (aka bloodied plastic cubes) from a giant pot, presumably whipped up from the meat I tossed. Mmm-mmm good! Another Super carries a rope with two rather sad, dangling fowl. Not surprisingly, the kinsmen have been likened to the “Michigan Militia,” present-day paramilitary thugs.
I now present to you my entry for La Cieca’s (parterre.com) light-hearted lip dub video competition:
Although a winner hasn’t been announced, happily, my entry was featured today on parterre.com: Darkest Before the Dawn
[UPDATE: I won! My video received the winning prize worth $200.00, and cries of “Bravissimo!,” “genius,” “brilliant,” “poignant” and “hilarious.” Woo-hoo!]
The song is opera diva Renée Fleming’s recent crossover single “Endlessly” (originally by Muse). It was GOBS of fun to create…a tragic tranny mess? Visionary? You be the judge, but it’s nothing if not fun. Plus, I didn’t know I was a blonde (the look chosen to APPROXIMATE the album cover)…the results proved me SO wrong.
For non-opera aficionados, the paper dolls are of Peter Gelb (he runs the Metropolitan Opera), Barbara Walters (operagoer), Mary Zimmerman (director), James Levine (music director and conductor at the Met), and La Cieca! (Yes, the inside jokes abound.)
I invite you to share comments directly below the video at vimeo.com link provided above! Praise me, roast me, sex me up, and so on!
Here’s the official collectible album cover:
L’Objet du Désir
Back in the pre-youtube days (yes, a mere 5+ years ago), presumably in one of my crusty old opera books, I came across this photo of a french diva who performed to acclaim from the mid-50’s through 70’s. I remember being smitten, and trying to imagine experiencing a great lyric soprano, in this case as Thaïs, in such an alluring, voluptuous package (my feminine ideal, which I wish would return to favor). I also stood in disbelief of the costume, which could hold its own even among today’s drag best, and would still be considered shocking on the stage of any international opera house. This exotic, statuesque vision was one Andrée Esposito.
Somehow she only reentered my radar last week. I’ve been transfixed since, exploring her art on youtube. Yes, she had much more than just a beautiful physique. Her elegant phrasing and on-the-breath tonality bears more than a slight resemblance to another of my favored divas, Eleanor Steber. One can also hear flashes of Sills’ attack and brightness, but none of her acidity or tonal pressing. This is impassioned, fully committed, unforgettable singing, and particularly idiomatic in her native french.
She embodies all the finest qualities of the french operatic style: a ringing, well supported column of sound, and the perfect dose of taut tonal nasality. But, unlike Steber, who sometimes stepped over into a matronly firmness of tone, Andrée, while having thrust, never muscles past a girlish vulnerability. So many of the quintessential french divas of mid-century (ie: Vallin, Robin) offer too brittle or bright a sound for my ears, and one which feels more caricaturish and less human. Andrée offers the best of their qualities, but balanced with a cool smoothness more pleasing, and realness more affecting to my modern ears.
An Overview: Her Life & Career
She was born (February 7, 1934) in Algiers, Algeria, into a family of French-Italian origin. She completed her studies at the Paris Music Conservatory, where she was a pupil of Louis Noguéra and Charles Panzéra.
Andrée was then quickly invited to all the major opera houses of France, including the Paris Opéra-Comique, singing the standard French light lyric repertory: Olympia, Philline, Mireille, Micaela, Leila, and Lakmé. She made her debut at the Paris Opéra in 1959, as Violetta. Other roles there included Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Xenia, Marguerite, Juliette, Manon, Thaïs. She also enjoyed singing Rosalinda and Hanna. She was also a very active recitalist.
Andrée was married to French baritone Julien Haas, with whom she often appeared on stage, the two were also active as voice teachers at the Strasbourg Music Conservatory. (Wikipedia)
A Video Sampling
These videos are some of her finest offerings available online (do NOT miss “La Chanson perpétuelle” below). Both the Mireille and Manon duos are with the elegant, tender french lyric tenor Alain Vanzo.
“Oses venir, toi qui braves Vénus!,” from Massenet’s Thaïs
With Andrée as the courtesan Thaïs, this recording (french radio, 1959) also features the magnificent Robert Massard as Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, and tenor Jean Mollien, as the nobleman Nicias. Albert Wolff conducts.