As purveyors of what is popularly considered to be an aging art form for the elite, we constantly struggle with the question of how to make our company and its purpose relevant for a modern audience. This, however, is entirely the wrong question to be asking ourselves. Opera is relevant. It is human. It has survived the passage of time and the onset of modernization specifically because its themes speak to us and to the struggles that we face as a society. The question is not how to make opera relevant. It is how to make opera accessible for newly emerging audiences.
In my position as the 2015-16 Weitz Family Fellow at Opera Omaha, I recently had the good fortune of traveling to Washington D.C., a city which I had never before visited, to take in the sights of numerous museums, memorials, and, of course, a few operas. Although I by no means experienced all of what D.C. has to offer, nor was this my goal upon setting out, I did see enough to gain an understanding of the qualities inherent in successful arts and cultural organizations.
National Museum of the American Indian
Self-described as “an institution of living cultures dedicated to the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere,” this Smithsonian museum was by far my favorite of the National Mall attractions. The Museum of the American Indian is housed in a stunning limestone building evocative of towering cliffs and desert landscapes. All of its structure and design elements, from the east-facing entrance to the lofty dome above the atrium, are the result of direct consultation with Native communities and clearly reflect Native perspectives. These perspectives are explained to visitors through carefully curated exhibits; which do not attempt to cover the entire history of Native American populations, but expertly expand on carefully selected political, cultural, historical, and artistic topics intended to develop an informed and appreciative audience.
The museum serves as an effective educational resource due to its intuitive design. Every gallery is easily navigable, and each exhibit is encountered in a manner that feels completely natural. Visitors of every sort are able to gain new knowledge from engaging and varied displays.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
While not the most prominent of national monuments—that title reserved for the iconic Washington and Lincoln Memorials—the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial is by far the most effective, the most moving, and most educational of those that I visited. The F.D.R Memorial is understated, subtle, and guides the viewer through the site in a natural and organic manner. Carefully chosen quotes throughout the memorial successfully convey the challenges, both domestic and international, of the president’s lengthy period of office (1933-1945). Interspersed are numerous waterfall elements, a nice nod to the National Park Service which the president worked tirelessly to expand. The obligatory statute is not a figure meant to inspire awe, but one intended to evoke familiarity. It portrays a humble man, seated, cloaked in a blanket.
Its intimacy makes this memorial so striking. Each turn in the path, each new quote imbues the viewer with an increased sense of who Franklin D. Roosevelt was, as well as the times and the people who surrounded him; and it is a statue of his influential wife, Eleanor, who bids visitors farewell.
Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung
The Ring of the Nibelung is a four-part operatic cycle (often referred to simply as “The Ring Cycle”) based heavily on German and Norse mythology. A great investment of time and resources are necessary for any company staging this operatic monolith, and the returns can be substantial, as many opera aficionados will travel internationally to see this “bucket list” production. It helps that the themes of the Ring Cycle are incredibly relevant. The destruction of nature, a quest for power, far-reaching corruption, and class struggle are all encapsulated in Wagner’s magnum-opus. Due to its length, however, it is vitally important for any company choosing to produce these four operas to seriously consider how best to engage its audience. Washington Opera did a spectacular job.
This production stood apart due to the strong resonance which its themes found with the audience. Everything about this production succeeded in striking a chord with the American viewer. The design team drew on national landscapes and familiar images for source material, and what better way to represent the fallen heroes collected by the Valkyries, than with portraits of American soldiers?
Three Points for an Arts Non-Profit
During my time in Washington D.C. I picked up on three traits that guarantee a successful encounter, characteristics that Opera Omaha also strives to embrace.
These are not naturally quantitative traits, so it can be difficult to measure successful growth. Even so, it is possible to gain a sense of improvement (or stagnation), through communication with our audience and the Omaha community. So I ask you, as a company member to a passionate supporter, share your excitement. Get involved. Let us know what’s moved you, let us know what’s sparked your interest. Reach out to us. We want to learn. We want to grow. And above all, we want to be sure that our beloved art form is accessible to you.
Stella J. Fritzell
With Father’s Day upon us, Opera Omaha would like introduce you to the best and worst of opera’s paternal figures. Unlike the mothers featured earlier, opera dads take on a much wider range of roles, from the most caring and excited of fathers, to those with rather questionable motives. Read on to learn a bit more about these iconic and dramatic examples of parenting.
Agamemnon (Iphigenia in Aulis, Gluck)
Not much better than his wife, another infamous opera parent (Clytemnestra), Agamemnon promises to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of a military campaign. Luckily, Iphigenia’s life is spared by the goddess Diana. Even though Agamemnon was beginning to regret his promise, he was fully prepared to carry out the sacrifice on the behest of his men. http://bit.ly/24MDauh
Alberich (“The Ring of the Nibelung”, Wagner)
The Ring cycle contains a whole slew of bad fathers, but Alberich has to take the cake. Setting every event of the four-piece opera into motion by forswearing love in the opening scene, Alberich enslaves an entire race of people before his prized possession gets stolen. He then raises his son Hagen for the sole purpose of murdering the hero Siegfried and gaining vengeance. http://bit.ly/1YmGj3V
Rigoletto (Rigoletto, Verdi)
A hunch-backed court jester, Rigoletto keeps his beautiful daughter, Gilda, hidden from the rest of the city. Allowed to appear only in public when going to church, Gilda is ignorant of both her father’s occupation and his name. When Gilda falls in love with the licentious Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto swears revenge and in poor judgement hires an assassin. Gilda is killed. http://bit.ly/1rnQB6F
Commendatore (Don Giovanni, Mozart)
Although he appears only infrequently in this Mozart classic, the Commendatore proves his value as a father. In the opening scene of the opera, the Commendatore challenges the infamous Don Giovanni to a duel, who has been attempting to seduce his daughter. The Commendatore does not survive the encounter, but later returns as a statue to cast judgement on his murderer. http://bit.ly/260ih1j
Gianni Schicchi (Gianni Schicchi, Puccini)
A clever newcomer to Florence, Gianni Schicchi uses his wits to ensure that his daughter can enter into a prosperous marriage with the man she loves. At his daughter’s urging, Gianni Schicchi tricks a group of greedy relatives, clamoring for favor in their uncles’ will. He secures the man’s wealth for himself and is able to provide his daughter with an adequate dowry. http://bit.ly/1UxxZJo
With Mother’s Day just around the corner, Opera Omaha would like to introduce you to the best, and worst, of maternal figures in opera. Unfortunately, moms have it very hard in the opera world, often taking the role of the obligatory villain. Perhaps due to a near male-monopoly on operatic composition, or that the most famous of operatic works were written during a time untouched by any women’s rights movement, locating true role-models among opera’s mothers has proved near impossible. Though largely examples of poor parenting, the opera mothers highlighted below are nonetheless iconic.
Clytemnestra (Elektra, Strauss)
Few, if any, can rival the dysfunctional family at the heart of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. Clytemnestra, as the family matriarch, rules over her unbalanced daughters as a single-mother. Having murdered her husband and driven her son into exile, Clytemnestra can easily be called one of opera’s worst mothers. http://bit.ly/21tD8Y6
Lucrezia Borgia (Lucrezia Borgia, Donizetti)
Product of a politically powerful 15th-century Italian family, the leading lady in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera dabbled in mixing poisons and arsenic cocktails. Taking offence at even the smallest of insults, Lucrezia Borgia poisons her own son twice throughout the course of the opera, as well as an entire village. http://bit.ly/1NjXGzX
Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute, Mozart)
Singing what is one of the most well-known soprano arias, the Queen of the Night is diametrically opposed to the father figure (Sarastro) of Mozart’s famous The Magic Flute. Representing darkness and revenge, the queen commands her daughter to assassinate Sarastro, threatening to disown her should she refuse. http://bit.ly/1Wbwsi8
Norma (Norma, Bellini)
Fierce, smart, and strong-willed, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is a mother motivated by politics, religion, and love. Her two children are products of a foundered relationship with an enemy officer. She is understandably hesitant to see them delivered into enemy hands, and contemplates their murder as a means of prevention. http://bit.ly/1NkR5VQ
Madama Butterfly (Madama Butterfly, Puccini)
Sympathy is a familiar sentiment surrounding Puccini’s heroines. Madama Butterfly is only a 15-year-old girl when she falls in love with an American naval officer under the pretense of marriage. When the man finally returns to Japan, a day she has been yearning for, he brings his new American wife, prompting Butterfly to commit suicide in the hope that her son will now have a better life. http://bit.ly/1ZiYgP5
I’m happy to write my first ever blog post, in which I thought I would share a bit of my daily life as an opera singer while here with Opera Omaha, which includes eating, singing, studying, eating, rehearsing, yoga-ing, eating and eating! All kidding aside, the first thing I do every day when I wake up is drink 2 glasses of water. It takes several hours for the vocal cords to hydrate, so it’s important to start as soon as possible. I also eat a good breakfast every day, usually a protein shake and a banana, or on a performance day I typically eat eggs, toast and bacon. After eating, I often crawl back into bed with my laptop (It takes me a little while to get moving), and answer emails. I almost always have business to take care of with my agents in New York and Vienna, travel to arrange, and social media to update.
I am always traveling, which makes it difficult to maintain a fitness and nutrition regimen. I believe very strongly in the practice of yoga, which helps me to feel my best both physically and mentally. Though I do not practice every day, I aim to practice 3-4 times a week. I always pack my travel yoga mat with me and I subscribe to an online yoga streaming service. As I did today, I like to practice after I have finished my work on the computer and before rehearsal.
When I am in rehearsal for a production, I am often preparing additional music for upcoming projects. After taking a shower and getting ready, I spent some time today studying some new scores. This is a difficult aspect of being a singer, in that while I am in rehearsal for one project I am also getting ready for the next project. For me, it’s very important that I sing every day and always warm up my voice properly. The voice and body are directly connected and feel different every day. Some days I find that my voice is ready almost immediately, and other days it can take much longer. For this reason, I prefer to leave plenty of time to start my warm-up before going to rehearsal so that I don’t feel rushed. Once I feel properly warmed up with exercises, I like to sing through my arias and also check any trouble areas. Opera is incredibly physical, and during the staging rehearsal process it can be easy for the voice to get derailed as you are focused on so much movement. This is especially true in baroque music, as the music requires incredible focus and precision to sing well. For this reason, I make sure to constantly review my music and sing through it regularly on my own. Oh, and somewhere in there I had two shots of espresso….
Here in Omaha, we typically begin rehearsal in the early afternoon and finish at 10 p.m. with a break for dinner. Today we staged my Act I duet with Ino, which I knew would be a very difficult number to stage from the first time I opened the score. The duet has a lot of quick alternating phrases between Athamas and Ino, which requires a lot of movement on stage and makes it very easy to get lost in the music. In our production, we are working within a unique concept by which Ino is physically embodied by Janice Lancaster-Larsen as a dancer on the stage and sung from the orchestra pit by Peabody Southwell. This creates a unique staging dynamic where I’m physically interacting with Janice on the stage and singing with Peabody who is at a distance from me. Our choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano and our director James Darrah worked together brilliantly to shape every tiny moment in the duet. It takes an incredible amount of focus (and experimentation) to find the right timing of the gestures within the music. Even with such detail in the process initially, we continue to change and develop every aspect of the production up until the performances.
After a short dinner break, I returned to rehearsal, in which the chorus was in attendance. Staging scenes with large groups of people takes the most time and requires a lot of mental energy and focus. In these rehearsals, we have the opportunity to put things together and see the entire concept as well as the flow from scene to scene. These large scenes are often among the most captivating moments in the performance, so they are worth the time and energy to create. After rehearsal I like to wind down late at night by talking to friends on the computer and by text message. I feel very lucky to live in a time when it’s so easy to communicate with people while traveling. I don’t watch much television, but I am a fan of the show Nashville, which I keep up with and sometimes watch after rehearsal.
Originality is hard to find. Because one idea stems from another, inspiration and originality have to walk hand in hand. The best work comes from those who knowingly bring their past into the creation process, not turning away from it but rather using it to their fullest advantage. Exciting work starts with passion and with the need to share that intensity with others through your craft.
I came blind to Opera Omaha. I was the last dancer to sign on to Semele and only by happenstance when a friend who was slated to do the production bowed out last minute and recommended me to replace him. I had never met Director James Darrah, but because I had long-time friendships with two of the dancers and was familiar with Choreographer Gustavo Ramìrez Sansano, I signed on immediately.
The first week of work consisted of rehearsals for only the Opera Omaha gala with the five dancers and our Semele, soprano (and new best friend) Mary Feminear. It was a concentrated workshop process consisting mostly of improvisation. We all dove in: dancers, singer, director, choreographer. Where some of us had previously worked together, others were complete strangers, and yet none of it seemed to matter; a unique familiarity was born. The second week brought in the rest of the principals and the chorus to start Semele rehearsals. After only two lightning fast weeks, it’s clear how standout this team and Opera Omaha is.
Collaboration is the answer to advancing forward, not only here in the beautiful worlds of opera and dance, theatre and music, but in any professional career. Change comes when people start looking outside of themselves, when they start to notice how important human relationships are and how vital other outlooks are to developing their own. When minds come together, there is the potential for the new to spark, for the unheard of to thunder.
James Darrah is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. His rehearsal process is unabashed, loose, fiery. After the first rehearsal, I spoke to my mom on the phone and told her how motivating it was to work with someone who was almost innocently obsessed with his work, who literally throws himself into every word and movement. James’ work ethic and honest excitement for opera, something so rooted in history (and let’s face it, Semele is 243 years old) is joyously contagious, spilling out into the room. When it happens, you can see everyone running toward it, careful not to miss out on its power.
Gustavo Ramìrez Sansano’s role here in Semele is quite different than what he normally does, but his attention to detail and to specifics is something rare to behold. As James gives us insight into every character throughout the scene we’re rehearsing, narrating their thoughts and suggesting their actions, Gustavo stands quietly to the side, his brain dissecting the room, the music, what James is saying and how movement can best complement it all. He’ll say something that can pull a scene together in the blink of an eye, with a gesture, look, transition or lift. His musicality seems to be his mode of survival. He finds it easily, relying on his expertise, yet never repeating an idea in the same setting.
Working with Darrah and Ramìrez Sansano is a like stepping into that room in your house that has taken years to perfect. There’s the massive painting that splashes across one wall, colorful and dynamic, unable to be ignored. Then there are the other pieces in the room, subtle enough to complement the painting, yet essential to the flow of the room, permeating the walls and spreading into the rest of the house. Darrah and Ramìrez have created the type of partnership that comes on subconsciously and surges past any expectation.
Opera Omaha – Darrah, Ramìrez, the singers, dancers, musicians, and everyone behind the scenes – has in fact created something original, inspiring and incredibly exciting, through collaboration. We’ve all brought our strengths, weaknesses and passions to this multimedia production of the beautiful piece that is Semele. All of us have been working for a lifetime in our respective fields and I think I speak for everyone when I say that this is a one of a kind experience, which these days is a very hard thing to find.
George Frideric Handel
Friday, April 8, 7:30 p.m. | Sunday, April 10, 2 p.m.
Click here for tickets or call (402) 345-0606.
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