An Interview with John Nelson

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege to talk opera with conductor John Nelson (JN), who led literally a small village of artists in the new Erato recording of Hector Berlioz’s massive Les Troyens. From the chilly north, OM chatted with Maestro Nelson in probably much more comfortable Florida by telephone. Since OM has fleeting fingers on the keyboard, the following is actually pretty close to verbatim.

John Nelson conducts Les Troyens

John Nelson conducts Les Troyens

OM: Thank you for agreeing to this interview!

JN: You’re welcome!

OM: You’ve had a long standing love affair with Les Troyens, and you’ve now fulfilled a dream with this wonderful new recording. Tell us about your path to this point.

JN: Yes indeed! Like most deep loves, I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me. First let me say for starters that Les Troyens is a marvelous work, for me it’s the pinnacle of 19th century French opera. Sadly, it was neglected for decades, probably because of its complexity, its large cast and orchestra, its length, all of which put substantial obstacles in the way of performing it…or it could have been the irascible old Berlioz himself, who was misunderstood and had enemies in high places. But the more I studied the score the more fascinated I became with the music. It is incredible music! Though there had been truncated performances here and there after the war, Boston, San Francisco, Covent Garden in London, the first complete recording in 1969 by Sir Colin Davis introduced the opera to the wider modern world.

OM: I remember many evenings back then listening to it over and over again. Apart from reading about it, all I’d known from it was the Royal Hunt and Storm interlude.

JN: Right, as was the case for most of us. I began preparing the score and subsequently made my Carnegie Hall debut in 1972 conducting the complete opera in concert. This led to my appointment as an assistant in the musical and choral preparation for the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Les Troyens in October of 1973 under the Met’s first appointed Music Director, Rafael Kubelík. He made his Met debut conducting its opening night.

OM: I saw that production in ’73…Drove all the way from Delaware to be there! I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing the score live in the house…but also the cast, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig, Shirley Verrett, and of course Kubelík. It was eye and ear opening!

JN: It was certainly a big event at the Met.

OM: But then you took over for Kubelík at the eleventh hour for two performances soon after the opening.

JN: Yes, with not much more than a day’s notice. But I had prepared and conducted it at Carnegie, Kubelík and I had worked on the preparation together for a whole year before, and as an assistant I had rehearsed the chorus and soloists at length, so it was an honor to be at the helm, not in any way stressful.

OM: What was your experience preparing the score with Kubelík?

JN: The man was a genius, insightful, knowledgeable, perceptive, passionate. I learned so much about the score…you know, some years later I heard a broadcast of my Carnegie Hall Troyens, which WNYC had taped. I was shocked, even embarrassed! I mean, it was well received by the critics at the time, but they didn’t know the piece, very few knew it, apart from the recording, and they, like everyone else apparently, were overwhelmed by the sheer experience of it all. Frankly I’m so glad now I didn’t push to record it in the studio, tempting as it may have been back then.

By my studying with Kubelík, my relationship with the piece matured. It still grows each time we, I and Les Troyens, get together in the opera house. The color of the score, and therefore the individuality of the subsections, the pace, it’s all very natural, marvelous…it requires a long time to get it right. Well, I mean, all of the great compositions take a long time to get right. But because Troyens is often so big, one senses others have a tendency to think the big numbers will just play themselves, so they see the task at hand is to go from one big moment to the next, which, unfortunately, shortcuts the process of working through each section’s place in context of the whole. If it’s properly paced with exceptionally good singers, it’s all there, perfectly set out.

OM: It is a wonderful recording, John. I’m struck by two things immediately: the singers, fine as they are, seem remarkably young, but also expressive and, second, the orchestral texture is rich but not dense.

Erato's new CD release of Les Troyens 

Erato's new CD release of Les Troyens 

JN: Thank you! Yes, I too feel the casting is brilliant. Alain Lanceron…

OM: Ah! Alain Lanceron! OperaMetro spoke with him a little more than a month ago on the Warner Classics release of the Remastered Live Recordings of Maria Callas!

JN: Yes, well, he knows singers like no one else in the business! And above all, because of his passion for this opera, he wanted it sung by the very best French singers available. Other recordings Les Troyens do not have near the same proportion of French singers. But I was able to lobby for the three principals: Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre, and Michael Spyres as Énée.

Joyce DiDonato is Dido in new Erato recording of Les Troyens

Joyce DiDonato is Dido in new Erato recording of Les Troyens

OM: They are remarkable, as I say, young sounding, fresh. Joyce DiDonato, whom I adore, is an obvious choice, but I confess I’ve not heard of the other two.

JN: All three were doing their roles for the first time, which perhaps is a good thing because we didn’t spend any time on unpacking the baggage from previous performances. We spent three intense weeks together, lots of rehearsals, several per day, but not one moment was wasted. I, they, and the rest of the cast, everyone became a part of a remarkable situation.

And you mentioned the orchestral texture: one of the joys of doing this recording was working with the excellent Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. I’ve worked with other orchestras on this score, spending a lot of time, a struggle, actually, to get the right sound. But with this group everything flowed so naturally. I didn’t have to talk to them about style because it is in their blood.

OM: The proof is in the recording, obviously.

JN: Some reviews are positive, superlative! I was interested that Norman Lebrecht, a rather tough critic, gave it a rave review!

OM: It deserves it. On another note, you end with the “traditional” ending, the Trojan music as Dido expires on her pyre. But John Eliot Gardiner ends his Théâtre du Châtelet 2003 production of Les Troyens (with Susan Graham, Anna Caterina Antonacci, and Gregory Kunde)* with an extended finale. Is Les Troyans like Verdi’s Don Carlos, meaning: are there other alternate versions available or waiting to be resurrected and performed?

JN: Yes and no, but mostly no. There is a small section in an earlier scene which Berlioz did not orchestrate, and therefore it was not included in the final score. Someone scored it and performed it once maybe. The extended final scene you talk about had not been used before, but with good reason: it deflates the impact of Dido’s death and finally we get tired of what's added. The whole opera is about the Trojans and their fated journey to Italy. We retain the traditional ending.

As to that, though, his Benvenuto Cellini exists in a few versions, each quite different. But not so with Les Troyens. And Cellini, the title role, lies very high. Difficult to cast.

OM: The newcomer to Berlioz’s operas should start with Les Troyens, but where to next?

JN: Beatrice and Benedict is a jewel, full of charm and grace, not a drop of tragedy in it. Sadly it’s underperformed these days. I’d also recommend that fans read the Memoirs of Hector Berlioz.** Fascinating man, fascinating music.

OM: Yes, fascinating. I find myself thinking after I've listened to Symphonie Fantastique that it must have been composed in the 1860s, not 1830. Okay, so “record the perfect Les Troyens” is now checked off on your list of things to do really well. What then lies ahead for you, John?

JN: Well, I kind of made a commitment not do any new productions of pieces I don’t know yet. This means I’ll concentrate on what I know well, revisit the score, rethink it, and do it better. I’d love to do Debussy, more Verdi, more Massenet, maybe these are in my playbook down the line. But I’m finding I really have a difficult time in the opera world these days. The stage directors, the management, and consequently even some of the artists have too much influence. And sometimes bad ideas: I once did a Les Troyans in which Dido was more or less in the guise of Angela Merkel! Absurd! It is the conductor who holds the whole thing together. But I adore doing opera in concert and recording. Unfortunately these don’t happen very much.

OM: Looking back at my notes, because I keep notes of these things, I see that you conducted the Met’s new production of Janacek’s Jenůfa in fall of 1974.

JN: Ah yes, Jenůfa.

OM: I was at the opening performance of Jenůfa, again up from Delaware. I’ve always been a fan of Czech music, Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, so I was very eager to see it on stage, coming well prepared from an old Supraphon recording.

JN: It was a bit of luck for me, but unfortunately, as it turned out, not so for Maestro Kubelík. He was eager to revive it here, but ultimately assigned Jenůfa to me just before he left, based on the quality of our relationship preparing Troyens.

OM: He left rather abruptly, yes? At the Met only more or less a year?

JN: Yes, but apparently there were power struggles behind the scenes. He mentioned Erich Leinsdorf.

OM: Hmmm. Well, Leinsdorf had conducted the new Schneider-Siemssen production of Tristan und Isolde in 1971 with Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas, then conducted a revival of Die Walküre and the new Siegfried, both with Nilsson in 1972, and he had the Tristans with Jon Vickers in the winter of '74.*** But might Leinsdorf have been more than a little miffed that Kubelík assigned the new Götterdämmerung to himself in that spring of ’74? As to that, it struck me as odd at the time that the first complete Ring cycle with the Schneider-Siemssen sets (based, you’ll remember, on the Salzburg Easter Festival production with Herbert von Karajan) in spring of 1975 was conducted by Sixten Ehrling (?).

JN: Don’t know. Still, his work with me on Jenůfa was professional and untroubled. We spent hours and hours dissecting the score, getting those intricate rhythms and orchestral balance just right. Kubelík wanted to do it in Czech, of course, but the Met probably could not have casted it with familiar big draw singers like Jon Vickers if it were not done in English. And there were no back seat subtitles then.

OM: Right. One of my several vivid memories of that opening night of Jenůfa was when, before the house lights dimmed, an elderly woman stepped into one of the side boxes and many in the audience turned, stood and applauded. She bowed gracefully. An older gentleman to my right, probably younger than we are now, John, said audibly “That’s Maria Jeritza!” I knew the name, of course. Later I found out that she was born in 1887 in Brno, Janáček’s home town, she probably met him, maybe even performed for him. She was the Met’s superstar after Geraldine Farrar retired. In addition to all of the other great things she did here, she was the first Jenůfa at the Met in 1924 (sung in German). Maybe the older gentleman had been at one of those performances as a young man…

JN: I hadn’t entered the pit yet, so, unfortunately I missed this.

OM: It was a moment, for sure. The other time I heard you conduct at the Met was in 1999 with the revival of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with Jennifer Larmore, David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe, and others. I remember thinking then, wow! Handel has really arrived! Well, best wishes to you, John Nelson and congratulations on a fine Les Troyans. Been a pleasure chatting with you.

JN: My pleasure. Thank you.

Footnotes: Among other things, John Nelson made an early splash conducting Carmen at NYCO; after his 11th hour Met debut with Les Troyans in 1973, detailed above, he was assigned Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci in October of 1974, then taking on Jenůfa in November and Il Barbiere di Siviglia in fall of 1975. Nelson was a Music Director at Caramoor Music Festival from 1983 to 1989 and also conducted P.D.Q Bach performances here and there as well as the Philharmonia in Greenwich, CT

*John Eliot Gardiner’s Les Troyens is video recorded by the BBC, released on three Opus Arte DVDs.

** My edition of the Memoirs is "a Dover edition designed for years of use! It is an unaltered, unabridged replication of Ernest Newman's drastically revised, annotated edition (1932). Paperbound edition is 1966. Not false advertising, this: mine still hasn't fallen apart.

*** The evening of January 30, 1974 was the only time Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson sang Tristan und Isolde together at the Met. Talk about an electric evening!!! I'm told there is an underground copy of this performance....and one of the ushers maintained that the two even offered to do a second performance on a Sunday, just to please their fans.

Interview with Taconic Opera’s creative Dan Montez

OperaMetro (OM) has the esteemed privilege to chat with Dan Montez (DM), General Manager and Artistic Director of the Taconic Opera, which, for two decades now, has been performing operas in English for the enjoyment and pleasure of those nearby. Pretty much standard repertory, right?

But wait, there’s more: this October Mr. Montez will be staging the world premiere of his very own brand new opera! Always one curious about the creative process, I asked him to discuss the project. Imagine that we’re chatting in the rear of an auditorium, on the stage of which is a rehearsal of one of his productions. Actually this is not too far from reality: he and I usually have talked there in recent years! But time and space being what they are today, and the fact that I've been away in Paris, truth is he responded to my carefully crafted questions via email. These I have reformatted below.

Dan Montez

Dan Montez

OM: Dan, thank you for coming on board.

DM: My pleasure.

OM: So, a new opera…cool! Like most people, you just woke up one day and said, “I think I’ll compose an opera…”

DM: More or less.

OM: Please tell me about it.

DM: It’s an opera buffa, titled In Bocca al Lupo, which, translated, means Into the Mouth of the Wolf, opera’s equivalent of the theater’s “break a leg” wish for good luck. And yes, I more or less got a sudden itch to compose an opera.

OM: But I’ll bet scratching that itch is the tricky part.

DM: The plot itself was a hurdle from the very start. As you can imagine, I have the plots of all these other operas floating around in my head. What to do? But as people often say: write about what you know best! And I realized that, sure, I know the operas very well, but I also know the opera business very well, from bottom to top, from, you know, “how about we do this one next year?” to the final curtain, season over. Of course!! Operas are put on by real people (he’s knocking his head now) and there’s a lot of drama in this! Also a lot of humor. So Bocca al Lupo is about a buffoon trying to run an opera company; it takes us on a journey through the audition process, running the opera office, holding a fundraiser, musical coaching, stage directing, backstage disasters during a performance, and finally presenting the show.

OM: From back stage to on stage.

DM: Right. It’s actually an Italian opera nested within an English opera.

OM: I don’t wish anyone reading this to think that one simply wakes up and composes an opera from page to stage. You’ve lived music and opera your whole life. you wear many hats.

DM: One way to put it.

OM: A few details?

Jorge Ocasio is the Director, here as Mustafa in Rossini's Italiana 

Jorge Ocasio is the Director, here as Mustafa in Rossini's Italiana 

DM: Well, among other things, early on I was trained as a conductor, but I was drawn to the stage and I had a voice, so I became a fulltime opera singer.

OM: Seems the natural thing to do.

DM: For 14 years or so I performed about sixty leading roles at locations including Lincoln Center, San Francisco Opera, and Carnegie Hall.

OM: Importantly as Tamino. Do I remember this correctly from past discussions we’ve had?

DM: Yes, I sang Tamino, other roles, of course, but the pace, the schedule was daunting. I was on the road for about ten months at a time each year…and then my dear wife got pregnant.

OM: The life of a young wandering minstrel is not an easy one for the family man.

DM: I barely saw my daughter for the first couple of months of her life. It was awful. After much soul searching and introspection, I decided to stay put locally and be with my family, which eventually numbered five.

OM: But you can’t sit still, oui?

DM: Right! And so, in 1997 I founded an opera company in Westchester, called it the Taconic Opera, and the rest is history. I’ve staged all of the operas there over the past twenty years, more than sixty and counting.

OM: Admirable resume! Conductor, performer, parent, stage director and drama coach, intellectual…wait, am I leaving anything out?

DM: Throughout I was composing as well: six major works, all liturgical oratorios and lots of other choral works, performed throughout the United States, a Trio Sonata last year for Violin, Piano and Clarinet.

OM: But…I can hear a ‘but’ coming…

Samia Bahu is Miranda Sfortunata, here as Puccini's Tosca

Samia Bahu is Miranda Sfortunata, here as Puccini's Tosca

DM: But I got to thinking it was time to compose an opera. Do it as part of the celebration of Taconic Opera’s 20th anniversary this year. Fitting, right? Why not?

OM: Sure, why not?

DM: I thought, after writing such serious works, I needed a departure. It would be my first foray into actually creating an opera, as opposed to recreating someone else’s on stage. Once I decided to go for it, I knew I wanted to write a comic opera. Being a Rossini and bel Canto specialist, singing that repertory, also having staged a lot of them, by this time I understand how a comic opera is laid out. I ‘get’ the genre. Problem was I really didn’t want to write the opera libretto myself. I don’t feel like I’m a terrific word-smith. Yes, sure, I had written the texts for my oratorios, but would be very different.

OM: I’m hard pressed to think of last comic oratorio I heard.

DM: I thought seriously about finding a librettist. I first asked my wife, who is a wonderful, super writer, but she didn’t feel qualified. As I considered my options, in context of my limitations, the plot and the genre more or less just bubbled up.

OM: So you rolled up your sleeves…

Sarah Nordin is the Conductor, here as Isabella in Rossini's Italiana

Sarah Nordin is the Conductor, here as Isabella in Rossini's Italiana

DM: And got my hands dirty! My libretto is silly, full of rhymes, but also in English, as is our rule at Taconic.

OM: Like William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan?

DM: The G & S light operas are really the English bel-canto equivalent of the Donizetti and Rossini comedies and for sure their spirits are always by my side. But though to some extent these composers were my inspirations and role models, I decided I wanted to write a distinctly “American” opera buffa, not something Italian or British.

OM: Can’t wait to hear it. You’re doing the stage direction?

DM: Yes.

OM: Of course. Am I leaving anything out?

DM: I designed the sets too.

OM: Okay. Are you conducting this premiere as well?

DM: No.

OM: Ah!

DM: My wonderful music Director, Jun Nakabayashi will be conducting the opera. Doing the stage directing is hard enough, so I’ll stick to that! He is a masterful conductor—and he ‘gets’ me, I mean he really understands my methodology of stage direction. I trust him, believe me.

Jun Nakabayashi conducts

Jun Nakabayashi conducts

OM: The structure of the plot?

DM: As I alluded to earlier, there are basically seven scenes. We have an audition scene, an opera office scene, a coaching scene, a stage directing scene, a fundraiser, a backstage scene (during the opera), and the opera proper.

OM: You mentioned Sullivan, Donizetti, and Rossini, which begs the obvious question: will your score echo their music?

DM: It’s an interesting question because so far everyone who hears it “uncovers” something different! Most of them will clearly hear Rossini’s influence, some have told me they hear Sullivan, but then some tell me they also hear Poulenc, some Prokofiev, some Sondheim, others Puccini. I’m sure there are bits of all of them in it. I will say there is a lot of jazz influence. When I began composing this, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to write in a style similar to my oratorios, one I’m more comfortable with, or whether I would go even more modern.

OM: It has to fit you, right?

DM: I agree. Above all I needed my opera to be fun. I didn’t want to get pretentious by making the score musically complex at the expense of my audience’s involvement. So, I wrote a buoyant and harmonically accessible work—almost a “light opera.”

OM: But actually it’s two ‘operas.’ You have the two distinct sections: backstage, then onstage in performance.

DM: Yes, and therefore, to me, my opera must have two distinct compositional styles: one for the opera company itself as real people and another for the Italian comic opera produced by the company on stage with its various characters from the company. These should be contrasting musical styles. As I wrote the Italian opera sections, I had fun lampooning Romantic Italian opera music, language and style along the way.

OM: Ha! Should bring out big smiles in the audience! Back in the day composers wrote for the strengths of specific singers. You as well here?

DM: You bet. Before I even started, I had my dream cast. The Director is being done by my favorite bass-buffo, Jorge Ocasio. He has already done my Mustafa in Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, Donizetti’s Sulpice in Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale. Jorge is the absolute king of this genre! It’s as if every note was lovingly written with him in mind. No one, I mean this, makes me laugh more. My soprano lead, Miranda Sfortunata, is taken by Samia Bahu, who sang roles with us for over a decade. She’s a real Verdi and Puccini heroine.

Esmerelda Bell'Odore will be sung by Tina Cody; the character of the Conductor will be sung by our coloratura mezzo, Sarah Nordin, who has done Isabella in the Italian Girl in Algiers and Falstaff…fabulous bel-canto singer! I wrote an aria crafted especially for her voice about the difficulties of being a female conductor! A new addition is tenor Adam Klein, who sings at the Metropolitan Opera. He’ll be doing the lead role of Haroldo Narciso. Tammy Smithson is sung by Kristina Cook, and finally, of course, David Richy, who has also done some of my leads at Troupers Light Opera in Connecticut. He rounds out the cast as the exploited Stage Manager. David plays a great straight man.

OM: I’m hoping all who read this will come to see the world premiere run! It’s certainly a positive thing, your new opera celebrating the 20th year of Taconic Opera. How is the artform doing in 2017?

DM: Opera is having a hard time still. The economic difficulties since 2008 have caused the doors of many opera companies to close. One of the reasons I believe we are still here, in addition to the quality of our productions, is our lack of a salaried administration. As General Director of the company, I have not taken a paycheck for running the company over the past twenty years. This is a labor of love for me.

OM: As well as for the others.

DM: But I think that administrative costs are what have caused many smaller companies to close their doors.

OM: What would you say to a reader who is on the fence about taking that first plunge into opera?

DM: Oh my gosh, they should take the plunge, by all means! Everyone that comes to the opera for the first time—especially at our shows, walks out saying “I had no idea this is what opera was about. This is wonderful!” And they’re soon back for more. Opera has something for everyone. There are comedies, powerful dramas, love stories, sci-fi and fantasy operas, horror operas, you name it. There are also different kinds of music for every taste. But what’s very special, certainly for those of us who love the human voice, is that visceral something about hearing singers without microphones too. It’s pure sound, straight from the singer to your ear without electronic reproduction. I find it powerful and exciting, and it must be seen live!

OM: Totally agree. I still get chills remembering the great singers I heard live on stage.

DM: Adding this last: if you are going to go to an opera for the first time, this opera is a great choice. Comic operas are meant to be entertaining. You’ll come away with a smile.

OM: Dan, thank you for talking to me.

DM: My pleasure!

OM: Into the mouth of the wolf!

Photos courtesy of Taconic Opera.

Dan Montez’s opera buffa, In Bocca al Lupo, is performed on Saturday, October 21, 2017, at 3:30 pm, Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY, followed by a second performance the following day, Sunday, October 22, at 2:00 p.m., again at Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY. A wide range of ticket prices are available and significant reductions are offered for seniors.  To encourage youth attendance, student prices are only $15 regardless of seating selection.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the company website at www.taconicopera.org or call the toll-free number: (855) 88-OPERA (855-886-7372).

In addition, a special performance for area schools is Thursday, October 19, 2017, at 10 a.m., Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY. In Bocca al Lupo will be performed in both English and Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage.

Immense fun! Support your local opera!

Soon it will be fall!

Diana Damrau releases new album of Meyerbeer arias

OperaMetro had the esteemed privilege of talking with star soprano Diana Damrau about her new Warner Classics recording of arias from the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, but also about a whole raft of stuff…delightful artist, she! As is customary in these pages, the interview is structured as if we were chatting over hot mugs of tea in a quaint tavern in rural Connecticut after horseback riding on a brisk spring day, not unlike today.

Well, no, in reality we did it on the telephone, a wonderful chat nonetheless I must say, but the truth is I haven’t sat a gee since I was ten. She rides quite well apparently, at least once up in Connecticut, so she tells me.

OperaMetro (OM): Good to warm up a bit!

Diana Damrau (DD): Indeed! I'm good though.

OM: Diana, it is sincerely a pleasure to have this opportunity to chat with you!

DD: With you as well!

          Diana Damrau. Warm

          Diana Damrau. Warm

OM: Your new album is a rich collection of arias from the Meyerbeer operas. One aria, the Shadow Song, I can whistle, grew up with it from an RCA recital LP by Anna Moffo; another I’d nail playing name-that-tune if QXR ever broadcasts it on the radio. The four big operas I know fairly well through recordings, but the others? I'll bet no one save scholars and possibly Meyerbeer’s adoring parents have ever even heard of the others. I mean, why Meyerbeer?

DD: I became fascinated with Meyerbeer’s music when I was a student in Würzburg. I was asked to sing his cantata Gli amori di Teolinda. It moved me as I was singing it, it just ‘spoke’ to me, the way he expresses emotion in the orchestra, in the vocal writing. I am a singer who likes to immerse myself in a composer's music, sometimes with their librettists too, like Mozart with Da Ponte or Strauss with Hofmannsthal. I feel that one can discover many emotional insights through such an immersion. With Meyerbeer, the deeper I went, the more riches I found. It’s unbelievable that he could write music for German, Italian and later French texts.

OM: Well, not so unique: Handel set to music German, Italian, and later English texts. Gluck composed for libretti in German, mostly in Italian, but later in French.

DD: Yes, of course, but one feels with Meyerbeer he was able to dig into the musical souls of these different peoples. His arias are connected to the dramatic moment, but in general his writing for the Italian texts is different from his writing for a German text, and both are different from the French operas. There is a certain earthiness to the German arias; I find warmth and sunlight in the Italian arias; I feel a grandeur in the French arias.

OM: I hear what you’re saying; I hear what you're singing.

DD: Like you feel the Russian soul when singing the songs of Rachmaninoff. I love these as well.

OM: Meyerbeer is known for cementing the style of Grand Opera in Paris from Robert le Diable, through Les Huguenots to Le Prophète and L’Africaine. You include two arias from this last one listed and one aria from each of the first three. Nicely done, too!

DD: Thank you! Yes, they’re all wonderful arias. I am particularly fond of Marguerite de Valois’s big aria in Les Huguenots. It’s noble, grand, as you say.

OM: Problem is, though, these operas are rarely revived these days. They’re big, I mean BIG scenically, large casts and chorus, maybe a ballet (if it’s even left in these days, production costs being what they are).

DD: Yes, big, but because of this they’re also big events when they’re staged.

OM: How many opportunities does one get to perform them? I think they deserve to be revived, though of the four I’ve seen, only one was live on a stage (at the Metropolitan Opera in January of 1977…and three times at that, because one never knows when they’ll do it again…unfortunately I missed Les Huguenots in Bard’s Summerscape a few years ago). The others I know only through DVDs. I’m particularly fond of the Robert le Diable from Covent Garden in 2012: interesting production, also my first introduction to Bryan Hymel on stage, putting the persona to the voice from his French recital on the Warner Classics CD Héroïque.

DD: Ah yes, Robert. I was to sing Isabelle in that production, but instead I was giving birth to one of my children instead.

Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau in the Met's new Roméo et Juliette

Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau in the Met's new Roméo et Juliette

OM: You’ve certainly been busy at the Met since. A hot Manon in 2015, a new Pecheurs de Perles last January, a new Roméo et Juliette this January, an important revival of I Puritani in February…wow!

DD: Ach ja! I’ve been busy.

OM: I especially looked forward to the Manon that season because a. you were singing, b. Vittorio Grigolo was Des Grieux, but c. Emmanuel Villaume was conducting, not to mention d. that it’s a favorite opera of mine. You and Vittorio have a real chemistry. I’ll go so far as to say that you and Emmanuel have a chemistry too. Tell me about these men in your artistic life.

DD: They are both particularly sensitive to the emotion and passion of the character, to the drama, and to the music. Emmanuel is a wonderful conductor to work with. He brings out nuances in the music that speak to me, the singer on stage, and as well to you in audience. You’ll hear it in the Meyerbeer album. Emmanuel was very supportive during the Manon. It’s a very tricky opera to sing, actually.

And Vittorio, ah yes, Vittorio! He is a natural, he is always 100% in the emotional moment. In the Manon, I always felt we were building up through the whole evening for the last scene, which I find so magical I never want it to end.

OM: I was very moved by that scene with you two, especially by the way he held you and cry he uttered, as if his true love had really died, not “okay, we’re done here.” I included the photo of the scene in the review on OperaMetro. Not surprised that your Roméo et Juliette together was intense as well. The Tomb Scene was equally touching.

DD: I love working with him. Vittorio wants magic, he wants to inspire all on stage, get you involved, and when he does this, wonderful things happen. We just did Antonia and Hoffmann in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Same thing.

OM: Switching gears: more often than not, Diana, I’ve seen you at the Met in a comic opera, and I must say that you’re very funny, a natural really, particularly noticeable up close in HD, but the little comic touches also come through live in the house. Rosina, Adina, Marie, the Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory, all with Juan Diego Florez.

DD: Well, I very much love to laugh.

OM: You’re laughing right now.

DD: There is so much positive energy in laughter.

OM: I’m feeling it just talking to you.

DD: Juan Diego is a large part of the success too. I love working with him as well.

OM: So, as long as we’re on comic operas: all of the popular Italian comedies, L’Elisir d’amore, Barbiere, etc. have been recorded over and over again. Ever thought about doing a recital disc of arias from those wonderful German operas lying just below the surface of the standard repertory? I mean Der Wildschütz, Zar und Zimmermann, Martha, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, etc.

DD: Oh dear, I love those operas! Wildschütz is marvelously fun!

OM: The entrance aria by the Baroness, Auf des Lebens raschen Wogen in Act I is my favorite.

DD: And the quintet in the Billiard Scene in Act II is great.

OM: Probably pretty tough to stage if the singers actually have to make all of the shots! Moving on, you’re also a master of the soprano repertory of Richard Strauss as well, having conquered the higher voices, Zerbinetta, Sophie, Aithra in Die Ägyptische Helena, and the like. What’s next for you from this wing?

DD: I’m close to embracing the Vier letzte Lieder. Ravishing music!

OM: Arabella?

DD: Yes, maybe soon, in a few years. In the more distant future the Marschallin.

OM: How distant?

DD: You know, so many roles are tempting, but each has to be right for my voice. And then, I’m always looking ahead to the time when I can fit it into my study schedule, my performance schedule, maybe recordings. I sample roles, like, for instance, I’ve been looking at Luisa Miller in Verdi’s opera. But then I think, maybe not now, yet all the while knowing as I say this that maybe I’ll miss the chance to learn it and perform it in the future because some other opportunity has come along. The choice of what to learn next is a big one. It has to be a natural fit and then also one has to find the right time for it within the arc of your career.

OM: Lovely to speak with you, dear Diana Damrau. May we meet sometime in the future.

DD: Yes. A pleasure to speak with you.

Interview date: May 5, 2017

Portrait of Ms. Damrau courtesy of Jurgen Frank; photo by Ken Howard from the Metropolitan Opera production of Roméo et Juliette, January, 2017.

The review of Manon with Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo from April of 2015 is on the page Met-Fourteen-Fifteen, toward the end of the season.

“sat a gee” is a phrase in the Major General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Couldn’t resist. Means "rode a horse"

Bathing suit weather? Unfortunately not yet...

Enjoy her new album. J

Elza van den Heever, a new presence on the world’s stage

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of interviewing soprano Elza van den Heever (EvdH), who stars in this season’s Idomeneo as the Princess Elettra, to be telecast in HD live from the Met’s stage on Saturday, March 25. As is my custom here, the interview is formatted as if she and I were chatting while on a break from a brisk walk through Central Park on a warm March day, the sun streaming through the trees, just wonderful...but, actually, we did this by telephone separated by miles, subfreezing temperatures, snow and sleet blowing horizontally about by a fierce gale force wind.

OM: (warmly) Elza, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.

EvdH: (warmly also) My pleasure as well.

OM: I was one of those maniacs shouting Brava! Brava! Monday night. You brought the house down.

EvdH: The Met audiences are very kind. I feel quite welcome here actually.

OM: This is your third opera at the Met, correct?

EvdH: Yes, but my fourth season. Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda twice, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in between and now Elettra in Idomeneo.

OM: I missed your Donna Anna, unfortunately, but your Elisabetta was for me a total conception, riveting, as is your Elettra. Do you have any special methods for getting into the personalities of your characters?

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Met

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Met

EvdH: Well, I very much enjoy delving into the psychology of my characters, but the music always comes first. It’s not ‘oh I’d love to play this character,’ but rather ‘I’d love to sing this role,’ with an eye toward the bonus that the character also has several psychological dimensions to her. It’s wonderful when the role is rewarding both to sing and to play on stage. At the onset, then, I spend a lot of time at my piano learning the music, mastering the style of the music if it is new to me, putting the text to the vocal line. I’m always asking myself if the music really fits my voice. If it does, I keep going, if not I might set the part aside for a few years. But from there I place the music and text in context of the whole drama, and from all these elements the concept of playing the part on stage sort of evolves in my mind. But I try not think too much about the stage part beforehand. After all, I’m fitting into a director’s vision and I have to more or less fit the stage directions. I find I can be molded.

OM: Having seen previous seasons of Idomeneo here I recognize Ponnelle’s directions for Elettra. She’s a strong character, but I was aware little things you added.

EvdH: I enjoy playing edgy characters.

OM: Your voice too is interesting. Would you call yourself a dramatic soprano?

EvdH: No, but that’s not to say I’m not, just to say that I don’t wish to be voice typed. You know, once you’re boxed into this or that type of voice I feel like you’re sort of pushed into certain roles and, as a consequence, prevented from doing others. At this stage of my career I like to keep my options open. I want to call my own shots, in other words...Be creative, keep the joie of performing alive as long as I can.

OM: You did Leonore in Fidelio at Caramoor this past summer. I previewed the performance here on OperaMetro but was out of town. Leonore is getting pretty close to dramatic soprano…

EvdH: Yes, but before saying yes to that role I did a lot of soul searching. I thought to myself, ‘no, no, Leonore is not something one should sing until she is over 40. I like to err on the side of caution with these new roles, try to stay a step behind other people’s recommendations rather than a step ahead. And I’m always going back for advice to my teachers, my coaches, my manager, the team of people whom I can trust. So Fidelio, Fidelio, this is too soon to sing in Fidelio, I’m not going to touch Fidelio. The vocal line crosses back and forth over the passaggio, I mean, what was Beethoven thinking!? Be patient, just wait, everything will fall into place eventually. But I sat down at my piano and played with it…I found that my voice wants to be there, the tessitura is on the low side, a place I can live in, and the back and forth across the register break wasn’t a problem. In fact it felt really good, the role fits my voice like a glove. It was fun to do last summer.

OM: And so?

EvdH: And so now I realize that these roles, my so-called over 40 roles, are totally in my future.

OM: Cool. New Roles?

EvdH: Richard Strauss.

OM: Ah! Now you’re talking! He LOVES sopranos!

EvdH: Yes, but the roles are pretty scary, scary vocally, the chords, the intervals, just the music itself is complicated. It’s tough to wrap myself around what I’ve seen so far.

OM: What role are you looking at now?

EvdH: I’m looking at Chrysothemis, tentatively, just tentatively. There is a trick to it, and I’ll get to it, and the role someday will fit like a glove. But on this side of it, it is daunting.

OM: Do you listen to other singer’s recordings to get an idea of the role before committing to learning it?

EvdH: No, not really. I mean, I do listen to recordings, but not for the singers. I listen in order to figure out the orchestration and what the orchestra is saying at the moment to complement my singing. It wouldn’t necessarily be contained in the vocal score in front of me, maybe the dynamics, but certainly not the orchestration.

OM: Interesting.

EvdH: Actually, I find James Levine’s recordings of the operas very helpful because of the balance and articulation he gets out of the Met orchestra. I hear more of the instrumental voices in the score.

OM: And now you’ve worked with the man himself.

EvdH: It’s been wonderful working with him. He is really a singer’s conductor. It’s more than just the entrances or the cues: he worked with me, helped me achieve the style of the music, the feel for the music. And not just with me; he works with everyone on stage, in the pit, even the rehearsal pianist. Mr. Levine is amazing, inspiring, so supportive, just golden. He makes every artist feel at home at the Met.

OM: Well, as to that, Elza, what is your home theater?

EvdH: Home theater? That would be Frankfurt. I’ve had the majority of the starts there. It’s embracing, like a good old friend, like the home where you know your way around. But the Met is comfortable for me now to some degree. I know my way around here more and more. I feel happy here too.

OM: Other opera houses to conquer? Your bucket list?

EvdH: Yes and no. My criterion is I want to sing with companies that really want me, where the atmosphere is positive. So it’s not about just saying I’ve sung there.

OM: What are the biggest challenges facing young singers today?

EvdH: Honestly? Trying not to get sick. Viruses more aggressive these days, you’re in airplanes, subways, trains…closed environments. Should I go to this party during flu season? If a singer gets sick and has to cancel she doesn’t get paid. But right up there as number two is traveling 10 months out of the year, being away from family, OMG! eight countries in one year last year. Sometimes alone. And it’s fine with me, I travel comfortably, it’s an adventure for sure, but it has its lonely side too. I very much look forward to getting home for a spell.

The real Elza van den Heever, without the fright wig from Idomeneo

The real Elza van den Heever, without the fright wig from Idomeneo

OM: I’ll bet. Tell me, were your family for or against this career?

EvdH: Totally for. I thank them every day. Other music students with me were told ‘oh no, don’t put all your efforts into singing, take the LSATs, have a backup plan,’ but no, my parents were totally behind me. They’re artists: my father makes documentaries, my mother was an actor, now a producer, one brother is a painter, one is a photographer, the last was a professional chef until he decided to be a hunter.

OM: What do you do for fun, apart from stress about Strauss?

EvdH: I love to walk, outdoors, not a treadmill. Walking is my great escape. If I can’t walk I think I’ll die. When I’m home and not walking, I’m in my own kitchen. It’s how I relax.

OM: Favorite meal?

EvdH: Just whatever mood strikes me. I go to the market place, see what looks good, and invent something. Love to cook.

OM: Music?

EvdH: I LOVE country music, I just love it. Actually I don’t listen to classical music very much. I like a cappella groups, I adore Barbara Striesand more than I can say (I’d love to meet her, what an honor!) and Christmas music. I just can’t wait for the first of December. It’s my favorite time of the year.

OM: Among mine too. Elza, I wish we could chat for another hour. Thank you for talking to me, congratulations, brava! on your Elettra, and best wishes in the future. Please keep in touch.

EvdH: Thank you.

Photos: Metropolitan Opera production of Elza van den Heever in Idomeneo by Marty Sohl; Ms. van den Heever publicity photograph by Robert Glostra.

Please see OperaMetro’s review of the Met’s Idomeneo on the page Met Sixteen Seventeen. Catch the HD telecast of Idomeneo in a local theater near you.

Also have a nice day! No, we didn’t all get kidnapped and taken to the Arctic Circle during the night. It just came down to visit us Tuesday…

Met mezzo Isabel Leonard: an interview

OperaMetro had the privilege two years ago of discoursing about opera and life with the delightful mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard in November when she starred as Rosina in the Metropolitan Opera’s November 22, 2014 HD telecast of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. She has appeared at home and abroad in operas by Mozart, Rossini, Handel, Gounod, Poulenc, and also Thomas Adès. This February, Leonard performs her first Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, opposite Vittorio Grigolo. Our conversation focused on the next steps in her career.

OM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with OperaMetro!

Isabel Leonard: My pleasure.

Isabel Leonard to star as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther in February, 2017

Isabel Leonard to star as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther in February, 2017

OM: We and, believe me, everyone around us in the audience marveled at your performance of Cherubino in the HD telecast of Figaro in October, 2014. Brava! In the backstage interview that day you came across as an exceptionally bright and articulate singer, extraverted, but also thoughtful. You talked about preparing Cherubino then, but, in general, what are some of the ways in which you make a new role your own?

IL: I try in whatever way I can to be true to myself and follow my instincts about a character. At this point I know when I’m not being true, when I’m using stock gestures. I know when something is not as centered with me as it should be and I work really hard to eliminate that kind of thing. I don’t like to fake it...it’s just not right, it’s uncomfortable. I would rather stand there and sing with no movement at all if I felt like my physical actions are not real, like I’m not communicating. So making the character “my own,” is, for me, a big part of my process.

OM: Are there personality factors at work in your planning, like “this character simply does not suit me” versus “I know this character well. I feel close to this character”?

IL: Well, there are definitely characters whom I identify with more closely than others at first glance. When I am looking at a future role, I first get to know the story and how the character fits into the story. It becomes apparent pretty quickly by their situations, their ‘stations’ in their worlds, and their choices if they are a character who falls within the spectrum of roles that would work for me. Past that, the trick for me is to find some thread of connection between the character and some facet of who I am. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it takes a while to find that common thread. But once I find it, it helps me not only to understand the character but to portray her (or him) accurately in a genuine way.

OM: As your career continues to take off, I’m sure you’re getting offers to sing all over the place. And so far the roles I’ve seen you perform at the Met have been reasonably straightforward in terms of dramatic demands. Maybe Sir Richard Eyre asked you to stretch a bit for Cherubino in the new Figaro, but Dorabella, Miranda (Thomas Adès’s The Tempest) and, earlier this week, Rosina were well within the bounds of propriety. Today, however, singers are often asked to do some pretty crazy things in some pretty crazy productions. Do you have a set of first questions you ask a director/producer about the production he or she is considering you for? Or, put another way, at what point do you draw the line in the sand, as if to say “No way am I doing ______.”

IL: Good Question!! Also, hard to answer. It’s not easy to write down a hard and fast rule for how I should accept a production or not. For now I look at everything case by case. But, like I mentioned before, I want it to be real. I am happy to stretch the boundaries of all characters and to explore different mentalities and how to find those permutations in myself. This can be really interesting: Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is a good example. But I’m certainly not interested in ‘grotesque’ for the sake of shock value or indecency in the place of good theater. I’ve been lucky so far. I haven’t been a part of a production where my character was being used in a way that I felt was detrimental to the piece or to the integrity of the character. If, however, I am in that situation in the future, I promise to let you know how I handle it!

OM: By all means keep in touch Isabel. Let’s talk about the more distant future: are there, in your mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, images of the next phases of your career? Like, what are the to-die-for-roles you see yourself gravitating towards, the roles you feel would be deeply rewarding to do, roles you’d like to be known for years later?  

IL: This is honestly a difficult question. I feel there are so many things I would love to do in my life that are related to my career at this present moment. The best answer I can give is this: No matter what I do, and what direction I choose to go in, I want to bring my integrity and dedication to music with me. It is and has always been my first priority to remind not only myself but others that good singing, soulful singing, is what hits us in our hearts, what moves us. That is what counts to me. So, no matter what the medium, whether opera, musical theater, movies, TV, commercials, what have you, I would love to bring my music with me.   

OM: You’ve obviously had good guidance along the way. Are there any special people, singers, conductors, directors, staff who have been particularly helpful in guiding your steps along the path?

IL: Ahh, sooo many people to mention! It’s like thanking the important people in your life when you win an Oscar! But the main person who helped me develop and taught me to sing is, of course, my teacher Edith Bers. She has been not only my voice teacher, but a mentor in life and a true protector of my emotional well-being. Does that sound corny? Well, I don’t care, it’s true. She has taught me so much! I had the incredible fortune to work with Matthew Epstein and Marilyn Horne one summer at Music Academy of the West and Matthew went on to be my manager. With his careful planning and his vast knowledge of music and the business, he paved out the first decade of my career. I have learned a lot from him. There are many coaches with whom I have worked now for years, like Brian Zeger, Denise Masse, Pierre Vallet, and Warren Jones…My fabulous friend and pianist Vlad Iftinca, he and I have worked together since our Masters at Juilliard.  SO many wonderful people.  

OM: Would you share please some of the good advice you’ve received along the way, so that a younger singer reading this will benefit?

IL: Sure. Some of the helpful advice I have received is “be the chairman of your own board” and “remember what it is that you are actually saying on stage” and “it’s just an opera.”

OM: I’ll bet most people don’t exactly dream of a career in opera in pre-school, yet here you are. What were the early abilities, talents, desires, whatever you had that suggested the career path on which you are currently traveling? You obviously explored and thought through a number of things to get where you are today.

IL: I have to say I knew from a young age that I wanted to be in the theater.  I did not know how exactly, but I knew I enjoyed the process and the result.  I was however, painfully shy, and I still am deep inside. It is something I had to work through a lot. I had to learn how to feel comfortable letting myself go, so to speak, trust my instincts, trust my gut…But I had many opportunities to test these things out: I danced ballet as a child, performed in the Joffery’s Nutcracker for two seasons, I sang in choirs, sang with a jazz band, did musical theater. I also painted and did visual arts. So, for me it was all in there somehow. These experiences are still a part of me: I hope, by the end of my life, I will have revisited all of those amazing mediums and more.  

OM: As to that, you have a children’s album that was new in 2014, oui?

IL: Yes! It is called Gertrude McFuzz, one of the fantastic Dr. Seuss stories, set to music by composer Rob Kapilow. Rob really did an incredible job: he created a wonderfully bubbly score. The story is both funny and tender and it has a great moral at the end that every child, I think, should hear. Not only that, it is paired with another great story: The Polar Express, also set to music by Kapilow and performed by Nathan Gunn. GREAT for the holidays; available on Amazon too.

OM: Can’t wait to hear this! Thank you, Isabel for your time and thoughts. Best wishes, happy holidays to you and family. Your audience will love your Rosina. And we can't wait for your Charlotte...wow!

IL: Thank you.

The above was transcribed from an interview by email, the medium best suited for Ms. Leonard’s hectic rehearsal schedule leading up to the November 18, 2014, opening of the production. In fact, email has been the most frequently used medium for OM interviews. The interview was removed from OperaMetro when the site was overhauled from Pages to Blogs. 

Please find OperaMetro’s review of the opening performance of that run of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2014 on the page Met Fourteen Fifteen; the review of Massenet's Werther to come in February 2017 on the page Met Sixteen Seventeen.

Don't miss Werther with Grigolo and Leonard. It'll be a wonderful night! Enjoy!

JRS