Sunday | May 08, 2016

The Best and Worst of Opera Mothers

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Monday | Apr 04, 2016

A Look into the Life of Vocalist Ray Chenez, Athamas

chenez, headshotI’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….

Janice Lancaster-Larsen and Ray Chenez

Janice Lancaster-Larsen and Ray Chenez

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.

Thursday | Mar 24, 2016

Creating SEMELE: Reflections from Dancer Nick Korkos

011616_nickkorkos_0282_bwOriginality 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. 

Semele Gala 2016 - photo by Kent Sievers

Semele Gala 2016 – photo by Kent Sievers

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.

Semele Gala 2016 - photo by Kent Sievers

Semele Gala 2016 – photo by Kent Sievers

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.

Semele Gala 2016 - photo by Kent Sievers

Semele Gala 2016 – photo by Kent Sievers

George Frideric Handel
Friday, April 8, 7:30 p.m. | Sunday, April 10, 2 p.m.
Orpheum Theater
Click here for tickets or call (402) 345-0606.


Wednesday | Mar 23, 2016

A Day in the Life of Semele Assistant Director James Blaszko

Working as assistant director on SEMELE puts me in direct communication with both Director James Darrah and the team at Opera Omaha. Being a part of the central nervous system of the production is exciting and rewarding, but also means that I am very busy attending to each piece of the puzzle. Here’s what a typical day during rehearsals is like:

8:00 a.m. – Morning Routine

I wake up and cook myself a large breakfast to begin the day. I am from New York City, and Opera Omaha provides me housing while here for rehearsals. I may review notes for the previous day’s rehearsals, double check rehearsal reports or work on projects of my own.

Blaszko110:00 a.m. – Rehearsal Prep

Today I arrive at the Holland Performing Arts Center to prepare for our rehearsal with the dancers in our show. We rehearse here when working complicated dance sequences because the sprung, hardwood floors are better for the dancers’ joints. I meet with our Stage Manager who is already setting up the space.

10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. – Dance Class/Rehearsal

Our dancers start the day by taking class, led by choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansaro. With Gustavo’s encouragement, I join in the warm up so I can stretch a bit too. By 11:30 a.m., James Darrah arrives and we begin working parts of the show. What excites me most about this production is the amount of movement that weaves through each scene. The character of Ino is sung offstage and portrayed by a dancer onstage, so today we focus on one of her first arias. I take notes in my production book for later reference.

12:30–1:30 p.m. – Lunch

James, Janice (our onstage Ino) and projections designer Adam grab lunch nearby at Culprit Café. I’ve really loved all the food here in Omaha. There are so many great places to eat!

Blaszko21:30–5:00 p.m. – Staging Rehearsal

We return to rehearsal, this time with some of our principal singers. It is always exciting to watch the principals incorporate movement to their performances, and with a show like SEMELE they are constantly a part of the action. Today’s rehearsal is particularly fun because we are trying new lifts with Mary Feminear, our Semele.

5:00–7:00 p.m. – Dinner

I drive back to my housing to make myself dinner in our longer break. I find that cooking for myself is always a great way to shake off any stress from the day or just to have some quiet time alone.

7:00–10:00 p.m. – Chorus Rehearsal

Our chorus of twenty rehearses at Opera Omaha’s studio in the evenings, and tonight we are covering a lot of new material. As assistant director, I track their movement throughout the show and help fill in any singers who have missed a rehearsal. These nights are always great because we get to complete the pictures created during the day with the principals alone. Opera Omaha’s chorus is especially willing to try new things, and James empowers them to make their own discoveries throughout the show. We really have a lot of fun!

Today was a particularly long day, but full of new ideas for the production. There is a constant sense of play in James’ rehearsals, and I think this sentiment is what keeps everyone excited and charged about the piece. We have so much more to discover before moving to the theatre, and every day I wake up and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Wednesday | Mar 16, 2016

Meet Iris

IrisThe personification of the rainbow and a messenger to the gods, Iris is also considered a goddess of the sea and sky. As a messenger, Iris acts as a conduit between divine and mortal beings and travels on the rainbow with great speed to every corner of the world, as well as into the sea and underworld. She is often portrayed with a winged staff, much like the messenger god Hermes, and in art is commonly seen as a rainbow or as a lovely young woman with wings on her shoulders. Iris is the daughter of the sea god Thaumas and nymph Electra and sister to the Harpies. She is married to Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, and some sources name Pothos as their son.

While the Greeks believed that Iris served all Olympians as a messenger, it was not until the Roman period that she gained her close affiliation with the goddess Juno (or Hera). In fact, in Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous epic describing the Trojan prince Aeneas’ founding of Rome, Iris is dispatched by Juno to pluck a lock of hair from the Carthaginian queen Dido, spelling the woman’s fate. Later Iris was sent to stir up the Trojan women who were traveling in Aeneas’ party. Once riled, the women set fire to four of Aeneas’ ships, greatly hindering the company’s ability to depart from the island of Sicily.

April 8, 7:30 p.m. | April 10, 2 p.m.
CLICK HERE for tickets.



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