The Many Lives of Duke Bluebeard
From the Prologue of Bluebeard’s Castle:
“The curtain of my eyelids is raised,
Take notice until it drops again,
Ladies and Gentlemen”:
My name is Allison Lingren, and I am the Assistant Director of Bluebeard’s Castle. It is my happy task to take notes on all the finesse and detail work that Andrew, Sam, Kara Shay, Nils, Hal, and Krisztina do in staging rehearsals so that as the work progresses, we can refer back to the ‘Aha!’ moments and make sure they remain a part of the production. In turn, I get to share these moments with you and throw the door wide open (pun intended) on the rehearsal process!
Last night, the entire team came together for the first time. Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat walked Sam and Kara Shay through the maze of floor tape that will become a real life labyrinth of platforms and stairs when we move into the performance space on Sunday. In his Director’s Notes, Andrew mentions that the production concept began with the symbolism of the locked door, which then was multiplied to create an entire theatrical space. The interior of Bluebeard’s castle is a complex structure of doors and passageways that physicalize Judith’s inner turmoil as she attempts to navigate and uncover the hidden corners of Bluebeard’s psyche. One has to wonder if the end result would be different if she would just stop and ask for directions!
We began at the beginning, as would please the King of Hearts. The Speaker (or, as he is sometimes called, the Bard), played by Nils Haaland, addresses the audience directly in the spoken Prologue. In this production, the Speaker takes the form of Duke Bluebeard’s devoted butler, a man who has been with him for decades, or, we begin to suspect, even centuries. He has seen this story play out between Bluebeard and his wives before.
The original “Bluebeard” story, the children’s tale about a monstrous prince who cruelly murders his wives for disobeying him, is centuries old and has taken on many shapes. It originated as one of the Mother Goose tales written by Charles Perrault alongside classics like “Cinderella”, “Puss in Boots”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Little Red Riding Hood”. After its publication in 1697, “Bluebeard” quickly established itself as a standard in the realm of children’s literature in France, Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe.
However, by end of the eighteenth century, the story began to be adopted and recast many times over by the adult world of literature and opera. Writers explored the psychological motives for Bluebeard’s murderous tendencies and saw him as a lonely man haunted by repeated disappointments in the never-ending search for love.
To Bartok and the opera’s librettist, Balazs, the story was a powerful metaphor for the difficulties that men feel in their relationships with women. And so the Bluebeard character in Bartok’s opera is not the predatory creature from the Perrault tale who shouts so fiercely at his doomed wife that his bellows “make the whole house tremble.” Instead, the moans and the trembling now come from the castle itself, an external manifestation of Bluebeard’s loneliness.
But I digress – back to the Speaker! Andrew sees this character as the conduit of the story, and he and Nils are continuing to experiment with the perfect blend of ingredients needed to create this slightly paranormal figure (part devoted butler of an aristocrat, part human embodiment of Theatre, and a splash of the circus barker with a slightly sinister smirk).
As work on the Prologue went on, our Hungarian language coach and accompanist, Krisztina Kover, pointed out that the score’s English translation actually leaves out the first two lines of the Hungarian text and begins with the 3rd line, which equates to the traditional “Once upon a time…” in English. She translated the first two lines on the spot, and it was decided that “A riddle, ladies and gentlemen” will be the opening line of Opera Omaha’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle. Krisztina even played us a recording of a prominent Hungarian actor performing the Prologue in the original language, which got Nils thinking about the Prologue as an incantation. Cool discoveries like that are what make the rehearsal process fun!
Well, I shouldn’t give everything away in my first post! Stay tuned to the blog, where I’ll continue to expose more of the secrets of Bluebeard’s Castle, at least until Andrew decides I’ve said too much and shuts me up in a room with the three previous Assistant Directors…
In just a few days, our team for Bluebeard’s Castle will arrive and start work. We will begin our process for this intriguing work with Stage Director Andrew Eggert, Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, and our superb cast led by the renowned American bass Samuel Ramey and rising dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson. We also have a special guest joining us, Accompanist and Hungarian Language Coach, Krisztina Kover. I’m pumped!!
You will not find a major American opera singer of the past three decades that epitomizes “best in the world” more than Sam Ramey. He is a superb performer who drew audiences to opera with his visceral stage presence, signature sound and rock solid technique. He has been sought after for leading roles in the finest productions and best recording projects year after year.
Whether singing Boris, Mephistopheles, or Figaro, Bel Canto or American Musicals, he has delivered on the world’s biggest stages. The contributions he’s made to opera and music have been very significant.
Sam has sung with Opera Omaha on two previous occasions. Early in his career, he joined Beverly Sills for the historic production of Lucia di Lammermoor that re- opened the Orpheum in 1975. His world tour program of Opera’s devil roles, Date with The Devil, came to Omaha in 1999. Samuel Ramey starred with Jessye Norman in a new production of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera that was broadcast on PBS. To say Opera Omaha is fortunate to have Samuel Ramey as our Bluebeard would be the greatest of understatements.
Of our leading lady and her performance of Tosca, it was said, “by her passionate restraint she was able to build a character, which was in every sense, a great woman.” I’m looking forward to working with Kara Shay Thomson.
I’m so impressed with the range of her repertoire and roles. Concert works like The Bells by Rachmaninoff, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony require personal depth and musicianship. Leading operatic heroines like Tosca and Sieglinde take great presence and understanding. Adventures operas like Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle take a special kind of intelligence and courage! These are only a few of her accomplishments to date.
The character she portrays in Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith, is cut from the same cloth as many of the great operatic heroines. Brave, complex, creative, and ultimately human, Judith is a superb character and a great challenge for a talented singing actress.
I’m thrilled to be working with Samuel Ramey and Kara Shay Thomson.
In my previous blog entry, I mentioned upcoming events surrounding Bluebeard’s Castle. Here are a few that you won’t want to miss.
Kansas native Sam Ramey will lead a Vocal Master Class for aspiring UNL singers at First Plymouth Church in Lincoln on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. This is a great opportunity for the singers and audience.
Tuesday, April 9 at 7 p.m. at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Andrew Eggert and Julia Noulin-Merat will present their concept for the production of Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve watched this young team at work over the past year and expect that this conversation between director and designer will be an fascinating one for Omaha’s visual arts, theater, and opera communities. The Bemis is the perfect site for this discussion about design, symbols, secrets and history!
Speaking of history, 1911 was a very important year for the world of art. It included the completion of Bluebeard’s Castle, the publishing of Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and Kandinsky’s On The Spiritual in Art.
Schoenberg’s twelve-tone harmony revolutionized music. Kandinsky, a painter widely credited with making the world’s first abstract paintings, was closely associated with Schoenberg and music. Kandinsky wrote extensively about music’s inherent abstract language and how it might be carried over into visual art. An epiphany came to Kandinsky during a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. He dedicated himself to creating pathways where visual arts, poetry, music and theater could intersect and be infused with new energies. Kandinsky became one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century and his creativity exploded while listening to of all things, an opera performance!
April 9th at the Bemis will be your chance to hear how art forms will merge in Opera Omaha’s upcoming production with Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat. Don’t miss them!
Today I had the pleasure of being onstage with the Omaha Symphony at the Holland Center and I am looking forward to the contribution those musicians will make to our production of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
There will be several really good opportunities before the performances on April 19 and 21 for everyone to get into my current favorite opera. On Tuesday, April 9, Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat will be at the Bemis at 7 p.m. talking about their concept. I will be at Joslyn Castle with Nils Haaland on Friday, April 12 at 7 p.m. to talk about the score. We will also all be together in Opera Omaha’s space on Tuesday, April 16 at noon for lunch and ideas. Finally, I will be doing lobby previews 45 minutes before curtain for both shows.
Because of the production concept of Eggert, Noulin-Merat, and Opera Omaha there will be an orchestra of 70 playing Bartok’s score in the performance. This is the largest orchestra to play a full production at the Orpheum in Opera Omaha’s history. They won’t be in their usual spot, the orchestra pit; capacity 52, but will be in Duke Bluebeard’s castle onstage!
This will allow the audience a chance to experience Bartok’s remarkable score in its full sonic splendor. This new approach taken by General Director Roger Weitz opens the possibility for more new adventures and a variety of great operas in future seasons. Very cool!!
Last night, my class at UNO looked at a really interesting connection between this opera and one of my favorite things, movies! Bluebeard is really an operatic psycho- thriller! It precedes the film genre that Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese and countless filmmakers made popular.
The class listened to Bernard Hermann’s scores for Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1959), and Citizen Kane (1941). We heard many things that reminded of Bluebeard. It’s interesting that Bartok and Bela Balazs, his librettist, finished Bluebeard in 1911 the same year Hermann was born. At the time, Bartok was 30, the same age Hermann would be when he completed his masterful score for Citizen Kane.
Listening to Hermann’s music and then to Bluebeard, one could hear what a resource classical composers were to the Filmic Arts. Long before filmmakers could show the limitless human imagination, larger than life visions were the ‘Bread and Butter’ of great musical storytellers and sound painters like Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and so many others.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a compelling psychological thriller and the 70 Omaha Symphony musicians onstage will be crucial to its success!
Tickets for Bluebeard’s Castle are available online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606.
We recently announced, on Facebook, that Hal France will be guest blogging about the Bluebeard’s Castle rehearsal process. The post received many “likes” from the Omaha community. However, some of you may be wondering, “Who is Hal France?” This information is for you and for anyone who would simply like to know more about this enthusiastic, energetic arts and arts education advocate.
Hal served as Opera Omaha’s Artistic Director for nearly 10 years, from 1995-2005. We are thrilled to have him return to conduct Bluebeard’s Castle. In addition to preparing for our production, Hal is currently teaching an opera appreciation course at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In February, Hal returned to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to conduct The Grapes of Wrath. He is a hard-working and positive part of our vital Omaha arts community.
Watch for Hal’s blog posts to begin within the next two weeks. He will share insights and observations from the Bluebeard’s Castle rehearsal process. It’s sure to be an exciting and educational series!
First, we’ll share Hal’s official (and impressive) conducting biography from his management company, Pinnacle Arts Management. More information about the conductor’s operatic repertoire is available on the company’s website.
Hal France is a sought after guest conductor of opera throughout the U.S.A. He has conducted nine productions for the Houston Grand Opera, seven productions for Central City Opera (La Fanciulla del West, L’Italiana in Algeri, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Saint of Bleecker Street, Candide, and Susannah), four productions for Opera Theater of St. Louis (including the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast), five productions for Kentucky Opera, three productions each for the New York City Opera (Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and the world premiere of Ezra Laderman’s Marilyn) and Orlando Opera (Macbeth, The Merry Widow and Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and two productions each for Cleveland Opera (Tosca and Rigoletto), Madison Opera (La Boheme and The Magic Flute), Calgary Opera (Tosca and The Ballad of Baby Doe), and Utah Opera (Lucia di Lammermoor and Romeo et Juliette).
Elsewhere, he has conducted productions for Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera (The Passion of Jonathan Wade), Minnesota Opera (Madama Butterfly), Opera Company of Philadelphia (The Rake’s Progress), Santa Fe Opera (A Dream Play – world premiere), Portland Opera (Tosca), Chautauqua Opera, Glimmerglass Opera (Iolanthe), Tulsa Opera (Don Pasquale), Opera Carolina, Chicago Opera Theater, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Festival of New Jersey, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theater, Arkansas Opera Theater, Mobile Opera and the Manhattan School of Music (Street Scene). In Europe, he has conducted Maria Stuarda with the Royal Opera in Stockholm.
Notable future engagements include productions of The Grapes of Wrath at Northwestern University, Bluebeard’s Castle at Opera Omaha, and Show Boat at Central City Opera.
Mr. France has served as Artistic Director of Opera Omaha, as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic, as Resident and Associate Conductor for the Houston Grand Opera, Music Director of the Mobile Opera, Lake George Opera Festival, and as Music Director of Opera Omaha before assuming the position of Artistic Director. He was also Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic. Early in his career, he served on the music staffs of the Glyndebourne Festival, Aspen Festival, and the Netherlands Opera. He began his professional career as assistant to John DeMain at the Houston Grand Opera.
On the concert stage, he has conducted the Richmond Symphony, Orlando Philharmonic, Nebraska Festival Orchestra and Jacksonville Symphony in subscription concerts, and the Chautauqua Festival Orchestra, Juilliard Symphony, and St. Louis Symphony in special galas.
Next, we present the transcript of an interview with Hal for the Nebraskans for the Arts website. In this interview, Hal answers questions posed by Marjorie Maas about his arts education experience and influential people along the way.
Interview with Hal France, relayed by Nebraskans for the Arts Director, Marjorie Maas
MM: What set you on a path pursuing the arts? Did you have a particularly impactful arts educator?
HF: I had some very strong experiences in elementary school and a very large hiatus until college. My parents were both strong in education and the arts. No one pushed me, but it was there. I had a wonderful music teacher in sixth grade, Mrs. Fish, in band and the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” She really supported me and made it a lot of fun. I hadn’t been on stage that much, I’m sure I was pretty obnoxious. But I was so excited by it, that I thrust myself forward. I didn’t see any other way to do it. That was one of the best years of my life; it had so many dimensions to it.
I had a fine piano teacher third grade to eighth grade, Mr. Cafarelli. I also played piano for kids at school, and noticed when I did that girls were more interested in me. I didn’t really have arts in high school and was very involved in sports, football and basketball. As I got into junior high, sports won over.
MM: What transitioned you back to the arts, opera in particular?
HF: I got to end of high school 1970, and there was a lot of music going around that was related to what we were doing with the Vietnam War. I started writing songs and performing in coffee houses, and this led me back to take music lessons, piano lessons in particular. Mrs. Wolffe was my teacher, and I studied with her for a summer. She gave me recognition of my ability and told me I was very musical. People don’t necessarily know that themselves.
I went from not playing the piano to playing eight hours a day. This changed my life; all my friends were athletes. I became a different kind of person. I would consider Mrs. Wolffe my most important art teacher; she gave me a view of myself that I wouldn’t have had by myself. It impacted me so much so – that I would later become a music major.
Starting my sophomore year, I took a lot more music classes. Then I transferred to another school for a better program. This led to me following a teacher out to Los Angeles. I got hooked up with opera at 24 and then went on to Julliard. When I got to opera, it made sense, it was definitely what I wanted to do. That early experience of being in a production early on made all the difference.
MM: Anything else you would like to say?
HF: My parents never pushed me – they waited a long time to see if this was really what interested me, and then gave me 100% support. I was also so shaped by being involved in opera, which is the collaboration of the arts. It gave me an opportunity to work with people in different areas of arts.
(Arts) teachers open doors for people, I had some that opened doors for me. Then, they leave it up to you. You never know what the door might lead to – it might not be a career in the arts, but it will be something. It’s a window into yourself.
Thank you for taking time to learn more about Conductor, Hal France.
Tickets for Bluebeard’s Castle on April 19, 2013 and April 21, 2013 are available online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606. Don’t miss this opportunity to see Hal conduct Bartok’s only opera! Call or go online to get your tickets today!
The Jun Kaneko-designed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute played to sold out houses in San Francisco and Omaha. Patrons marveled at the artistic presentation. At intermission and after the performance, audience members praised the costumes and the visual masterpiece created by not only the scenic art work, but the combination of staging, costumes, wigs, and makeup in concert with the background imagery. This co-production involving an internationally known visual artist and multiple opera companies is heralded as a magnificent achievement. The Kaneko-designed production of The Magic Flute is all of those things, but the spirit of cooperation and partnership between artistic communities is not new.
Collaboration between the visual arts community and producers of opera is a standard feature of opera performance. Opera is comprised of multiple art forms. A fully staged opera production includes visual art in the form of set pieces and paintings, costumes, props, lighting, and staging. The performers are required to be fantastic singers and proficient actors. The element of drama or comedy within the libretto must be portrayed along with the, sometimes astonishing, vocal feats required by the musical score.
Historically, to meet the scenic demands of the stage, professional artists (usually painters) were employed by opera and theater companies. As available technology evolves, so do the artistic possibilities. The changing world of visual art, and that of opera, presents new opportunities for cooperation between the art forms.
In 2006, Opera Omaha partnered with Kaneko to design the set, props, and costumes for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In 2008, visual artist Catherine Ferguson worked with Opera Omaha to create a dramatic and brilliantly colorful production of Verdi’s Aida. The photo below beautifully illustrates Ferguson’s vision for what the audience would see on the stage. The picture is created through the use of set pieces, costumes, and props that complete the stunning visual image.
For Opera Omaha’s final performances of the 2012-2013 season, we partner with scenic designer Julia Noulin-Merat to create a new production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. When you attend the opera, you will see the artist’s vision as it complements the incomparable singing of Samuel Ramey and Kara Shay Thomson. The artistic elements will, as always, be used to illustrate the story and to create a visual and auditory masterpiece to enhance the audience experience.
Tickets for our April 19 and 21, 2013 performances of Bluebeard’s Castle are available online or by calling 402-345-0606. Don’t miss your chance to see the intersection of visual and operatic art at its finest. We look forward to seeing you there!
If you’re interested in learning more about Bluebeard’s Castle and the use of visual art in opera production, Friends of Art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is hosting an event on Sunday, March 10 to explore these topics. Hal France, our conductor for Bluebeard’s Castle, is the featured speaker. The event begins at 6:00pm with a wine and appetizer reception following the talk. Admission is $20, free to UNO students with MAV cards, or $3 to students with student I.D.s. Contact information and more is available on the organization’s Facebook page.
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