Princeton Festival performs Adams’ Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival closed its 2019 season with a second performance of Nixon in China, an opera more specifically relevant to today’s political landscape than Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.*

In the simple but effective staging, Director Steven LaCosse gave us a big show on a small stage. Though cramped somewhat during the crowd scenes, particularly Nixon’s landing, the banquet at the end of the Act I and the elaborate entertainment in Act II, LaCosse kept things moving both on stage and in transition, thanks to a set which could be morphed smoothly into new entrances, new configurations of chairs and risers, etc. The entertainment, a wild ballet and the crowd’s reactions in Act II were quite affecting; the reflective mood of Act III was never shattered by irrelevant business.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s projections enhanced the transitions with snippets of newspaper headlines on multiple screens, many documenting President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in February of 1972. A quick eye, however, detected as well a projected headline of the current President’s recent visit there on one of the panels on the left. Brief but telling, this is, especially since at the end of Nixon in China the weary characters seem to feel as if not a whole lot of substance had been accomplished by the historic visit.

Then, too, there are numerous images of our war in Vietnam: in the opera Mao Tse-tung observes to Nixon “You want to bring your boys back home,” to which Nixon replies “What if we do? Is that a crime?” Mao then asserts that China doesn’t need to invade other countries because the Chinese people are in all matters self-sufficient. American soldiers, the Green Berets specifically, are in Vietnam to defend a capitalist economy to feed the greed and usury of the American people. Throughout the opera, the images remind us that China, a very Communist country recently cleansed of the burdens of tradition and any wisps of capitalism, had to be, for Nixon, a break from reality, almost a walk on the moon, in context of what was going on back here at home.

Sean Anderson is Richard M. Nixon in  Nixon in China

Sean Anderson is Richard M. Nixon in Nixon in China

Nixon, heroically sung by Sean Anderson,** comes off as, well, an American out of context: he’s positive, genuine, up front, almost childlike, awkward, not really sure of what to say, but fascinated that, regardless, it will be reported in the news all over the world. “When I shook hands with Cho En lai…”

The fatigue of the trip, however, weighs down his exuberance, as much as the fatigue from Adams’ excellent but longer-than-it-has-to-be score weighs down on ours. By Act III, performed without intermission after Act II, the last evening of the visit, Nixon is no longer grandstanding. Rather, he is homesick, seeking the comfort of familiarity. He quietly recalls to Pat his close call with death as a fighter pilot in World War II and what he did to raise the spirits of his comrades.

Pat in her red dress, Kissinger toasting Chou En-Lai as Nixon accepts applause in Act I

Pat in her red dress, Kissinger toasting Chou En-Lai as Nixon accepts applause in Act I

Pat Nixon is similar to her husband, positive and genuine, though not as manic. She’s more interpersonally sensitive, willing to break protocol by getting down on her knees to interact with the cute children. She tries to be gracious and properly excited by the gift of a little elephant in glass, a fitting gift in that it’s the symbol of the USA’s Republican Party. She asks, “Tell me, is it one of a kind?” The Three Secretaries reply “They [our workers] can make hundreds every day.”

During The Red Detachment of Women, an entertainment/propaganda ballet in Act II, Pat is so emotionally shaken that she breaks decorum to comfort a dancer who, in the plot, appears to be savagely beaten. Soprano Rainelle Krause** delivers all this, as well as Pat’s fundamentally positive, hopeful attitudes toward the future in her two ruminations “I don’t daydream and I don’t look back” and “This is prophetic….” both early in Act II, with a well-grounded soulfulness. But Krause can also let loose a lusty, even heroic soprano voice when the situation arises.

Henry Kissinger, sung by Joseph Barron, is the more philosophically, politically and socially savvy one of the entourage. He, after all, set up the historic trip and he, because of his global wisdom, brings more to the table with that international handshake. Barron’s stance throughout was solid, his dark baritone voice resonant.

The Red Detachment of Women  is performed as entertainment

The Red Detachment of Women is performed as entertainment

In the performance of The Red Detachment of Women we meet the character of Lao Szu, a name remarkably like Lao Tsu, the alleged founder of Taoism, the ancient belief system outlawed by the Cultural Revolution in China. Szu is a brutal landlord who, he tells us, has just finished having his way with one of the female tenants. Wu Ching-hua, a revolutionary leader with the Red Detachment, snatches a whip away from Lao Szu and strikes him, kicks him, etc., but, when the tables turn on her, Lao Szu shouts repeatedly to the guards “Whip her to death! Whip her to death!” Graham Lustig choreographed this effective (but long) ballet; dancers included Eun Kyong Kim, Seyong Kim, Azusa Okamoto, Raymond Pinto, Amy Ruggerio, and Gillian Worek.

But wait: Lao Szu was also sung by Joseph Barron, labeled “Kissinger (as Lao Szu)” in the libretto.*** Hmmm. Pat Nixon even asks “Doesn’t he look like you-know-who?” but we, at least I in the audience wondered: a. why Henry Kissinger would play a character in a Chinese revolutionary ballet and b. play it with such gusto, like, where did that vengeful sadistic streak come from?? I thought Kissinger was a man of peace…The synopsis in the program**** was no help.

Answer: as conceived by librettist Alice Goodman and composer John Adams Lao Szu is indeed a different person, played by a Chinese actor who should, to make a point, look and act like an American landlord (which is why the singer who sings the role of Kissinger should take the part). In this we see the ballet through the eyes of the Chinese Communists: Lao Szu represents the former brutality and oppression of capitalism and tradition…

The People…

The People…

The emotional center of the Chinese contingent is Premier Chou En-Lai, who, with Mao Tse-tung, did the Long March in 1934-1935 and helped to bring about the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1969. Of the two, Chou is also the more savvy one about the ways of the West, having been to Europe and met with high level world diplomats, etc. John Viscardi maintained Chou’s gravity, his serious bearing and his pride throughout the opera. Compared to the others Chou is far less prone to bravado and bragging, more to reflection. Mao Tse-tung was sung by heldentenor Cameron Schutza, whose voice had endless power and presence throughout Act I.

Of the Chinese women, Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) is sung with a sweet, high voice by Teresa Castillo. Her big scene at the end of Act II, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” asserts the meaning of the ballet. The Three Secretaries were often omnipresent but silent, sometimes assertive, always polite. Liz Culpepper was the 1st Secretary, Emily Marvosh was the 2nd, and Edith Dowd was the 3rd.

Praise to the Princeton Festival Chorus, under Gregory Geehern; praise for the Lighting Design by Norman Coates; praise for the Costumes designed by James Schuette; praise to Brittany Rappese for Wigs and Makeup; praise for Stanley Fink, the Répétiteur/Coach. One can only imagine the complexity of getting this production synched and ready for show time.

But above all, praise for Richard Tang Yuk for his expert conducting of John Adams’ complex composition. The coordination of the instrumentalists in the pit and the singers and dancers on stage was without apparent flaw. Bravo!

The performance was amplified, in the program the disclaimer: “The principal singers are miked according to instructions from the composer,” which is fine, but Act I was too much ‘miked’ for the relatively small Matthews Theatre. The amplification of Act II/Act III was less obtrusive.

Photos provided by Princeton Festival.

* But there’s always tomorrow, as close as a tweet away. Who knows?

** OperaMetro interviewed both Sean Anderson and Rainelle Krause. It is posted down below this review and the two more recent posts of the stars of Teatro Nuovo.

*** I used the libretto provided in the Naxos recording of the 2008 Opera Colorado production, conducted by Marin Alsop.

**** The synopsis in the program and in the Naxos libretto is courtesy Hendon Music Inc., copyright 1987.

Celebrate the summer festivals! Support your local opera! Embrace new singers, the stars of tomorrow!

Ciao, OM

Stars of Teatro Nuovo perform Vincenzo Bellini’s La straniera

OperaMetro (OM) has the esteemed privilege of speaking with Christine Lyons (CL) and Alina Tamborini (AT), both sopranos from this season’s cast of Teatro Nuovo’s performances of Bellini’s rarely performed La straniera.* Sun is out, but still cool, and we’re sitting together at a local bistro near Jazz at Lincoln Center, smiling, sipping espresso, revealing trade secrets, sharing insights, making observations and espousing opinions, ideas all swirling around before the upcoming performances by Teatro Nuovo in mid-July.** Like fine singing? Don’t miss the chance to hear these two wonderful sopranos live on stage…

OM: Thank you both for agreeing to chat with me.

CL & AT: Thank you for inviting us!

OM: You both are returning for your second season with Will Crutchfield and Teatro Nuovo. It’s probably safe to assume that your experience with the Company last year was positive, oui? For starters, what role did you perform back then and what, in your experience, is special about Teatro Nuovo’s preparation for your role this year, in contrast, let’s say, to any previous coaching, training, performing programs you’ve participated in? Christine.

Christine Lyons sings Alaida in Bellini’s  La straniera

Christine Lyons sings Alaida in Bellini’s La straniera

CL: I had a real transformative experience singing Amenaide in Rossini’s Tancredi rifatto in the inaugural season last year and so I am thrilled to be returning for this revival of La straniera. Teatro Nuovo is such a very special company in many ways, but particularly because of its focused dedication to the techniques of the bel canto tradition, techniques that my voice loves and luxuriates in. It really is such a treat to deepen my understanding and application of bel canto in my second season here at Teatro Nuovo.

OM: Alina?

AT: I was an apprentice artist with Teatro Nuovo last year, so this year, a step up to soloist, is very exciting for me as well. Last year I prepared the roles of Zerlina and Servilia from, respectively, Mozart's Don Giovanni and La Clemeza di Tito for the workshops that were a part of the week. I also sang in the chorus for Mayr's Medea in Corinto. Great music! It was absolutely incredible. At Teatro Nuovo, the faculty and staff, as well as, of course, all the singers sit in on the lectures and the work classes. Second to that is the fact that we have such consistent training in lectures, the masterclasses, aka the work classes, the lessons, the coaching and rehearsals, and let’s not forget the classes in Italian...like, wow! It's incredibly inclusive! Their attention to detail and, consequently, their instruction about how to find these details on our own were incredibly beneficial to us, you know, as young musicians and, honestly, to us as people. I used all of what I learned last year to prepare me to come back this year!

Alina Tamborini sings Isoletta in Bellini’s  La straniera

Alina Tamborini sings Isoletta in Bellini’s La straniera

CL: The truth is, the training NEVER ends for a classical singer. I count Will Crutchfield and the faculty here among the most influential mentors and coaches to my artistry both within and outside of the program’s parameters.

AT: Absolutely, Christine, I agree! The coaches, teachers, and directors are all very much on the same page, but yet they each bring something unique. Certainly they have their own strengths, which they share with us generously. I took one of the scenes I’m performing in to five different coaches/teachers and I got something different out of EVERY coaching. All insights. Very important too, though: they never try to take away from you your identity as a singer. Each of us retains a unique voice. Bottom line: the community they’ve created here is fantastic. That's the best part of Teatro Nuovo.

OM: Teatro Nuovo used period instruments last season to marvelous effect. I reviewed the fabulous opening night Tancredi. As singers, tell me about this switch from a modern orchestra to a period orchestra. Does this practice in anyway change the vocal approach to performing your role?

CL: Well yes, of course, but, it’s not just the instruments that are different. At Teatro Nuovo the highly influential and historically correct institution of a Maestro al cembalo and Primo violin e capo d’orchestra has been reinstated.

OM: Will Crutchfield at the cembalo and Jakob Lehmann as Concert Master and First violin. Same as last season.

CL: Exactly! It’s similar, we’re told, to the way orchestras were set up back in the day. The result is fascinating, its impact far reaching: the absence of a single stand-up conductor means that we, the singers, are given the opportunity, no, we’re actually encouraged to take more authority over our shaping of our vocal line. This set-up invites everyone on the stage and in the pit to think collectively, constantly and carefully listen to one another from moment to moment to craft the performance. Each moment is made up of its own, unique kaleidoscope of choices that we, as a group, feel inspired to make that day. I think we’re all finding that creating music in this manner paves the way for more spontaneity within every performance. I think it’s brilliant!

OM: Actually, Will Crutchfield emphasized the new freedom gained from the reorganization of the cembalo and primo violin in this season’s interview with him.

AT: But there is another difference as well: yes, using the period instruments allows us to give a much more authentic performance, but it’s not only the instruments: I mean, in the Baroque era, everyone used ‘period instruments.’

OM: Of course they did. Just like everyone in Mozart’s time composed ‘classical music.’

AT: Ha, ha! Right! But, point is, the pitch is different too: the Baroque orchestras tuned to A415. In the early Romantic era, the time of Bellini, it was common practice to tune to A430.

OM: So more to your point, it’s the tuning, not just that the instruments themselves are ‘period.’ Okay, how does that difference impact you?

AT: Singing at A430, as opposed to today’s tuning of A440, not going to lie here, was a bit jarring the first few days, but we got used to it.

CL: We did. Wasn’t really too difficult.

AT: Don't get me wrong, I love singing high notes! But I'm not going to complain about having to sing the ‘same’ high notes just a little bit under what I am used to. For sure, it takes a moment or two to adjust to, but I feel it's much nicer to perform this music as it was meant to be performed (and experienced) with the instruments that were playing then and the pitch they were tuned to!

OM: So modern recordings of La straniera are not much help in preparation, right? 

AT: No. Correct! For practicing, I try to listen only to my recordings of my lessons and coachings. Unfortunately I can’t easily approximate the correct lowered pitch, even with a piano tuned to today’s standard.

OM: Changing the subject, these are semi-staged performances, same as last season. Did, last year, the absence of sets and props, maybe even no character specific costumes pose any additional challenges to your performance? Christine.

CL: The idea of executing complicated plot lines on the stage without sets and props was, I’ll admit, at first daunting, but after my experience last year with Tancredi rifatto I now understand that working with materials extraneous to the music can be a deterrent to the realization of the core material at hand. Unable to rely on lighting, costumes, props and makeup to communicate with our audiences, we’re tasked to take the listener through the dramatic/emotional experiences of our characters using vocal technique and spirit alone.

OM: You’re singing Alaide, the strange woman in La straniera. What is your acquaintance with La straniera in performance or on recording? And also with Bellini’s style in general?

CL: Alaide is a role debut for me, and it’s quite exciting because La straniera has not been heard in New York in over 20 years! Consequently, Will Crutchfield and I are really shaping the role vocally without feeling any pressure to do what has already been done by any other singer. I find myself pursuing daily what I think resonates best dramatically in the cues I take from Bellini’s score and Romani’s libretto. I think we are creating something totally alive and original. Add to this the bonus of reviving some of the most intensely beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It is one of the greatest artistic pursuits of my career.

OM: Totally agree: it’s a unique opera. Have you sung any other roles by Bellini?

CL: Yes, this marks the third Bellini role I’ve sung in the last year and a half. It’s been wonderful: I’m fairly certain I will never tire of singing his music! For me there is no other composer with whom I have felt such a timeless kinship. Bellini’s score, melded with Romani’s haunting libretto, has created an intangible element, one that has become interwoven into my own pathos. Singing Norma really solidified this bond for me. What a tremendous composition it is! The way he writes for the voice is completely unparalleled in terms of the freedom and autonomy he allows you in the expression of his melodies, and then the brilliant bursts of emotional fioritura are as exciting to tackle, as, I imagine it is, for example, for my dad to complete each portion of the triathlons he undertakes. Bellini is a language I want to speak daily. I’m operating in a creative wonderland here at Teatro Nuovo.

OM: The role of Alaide has a wide range of emotional moments.

CL: Oh my yes! For me, in the case of La straniera, these experiences include conjuring up an atmosphere of absolute solitude and abject sadness, delivering a bloody mad scene, sparring with thunder and lightning, and driving the evening home with a gut-wrenching cry of defiance to the heavens over the dead body of a man who has killed himself out of love for me. It’s a challenge I readily accept, knowing that the exercise can only elevate my vocal artistry, which is THE goal!

OM: Special preparation?

CL: I need only to listen to Maria Callas in her studio recordings to know that if you have the tools in your kit, the choices you can make as a vocal actor can be enough to serve up this gorgeous music and intense drama on a silver platter. Absolutely!

OM: Returning to the lack of costumes and props…Alina?

AT: Often, performers will say that "once I'm in costume on the stage, I really feel like I am in character." But in the chorus of Medea in Corinto last year, I didn’t at all feel out of place doing a concert version of an opera. We were very Greek Chorus-esque. So this year, as a resident artist performing a solo role, I expect, you know, that I’ll feel a bit vulnerable at first. But we're so well prepared here. I have to assume that feeling really prepared is a good start, one that will be work well throughout the season! Also I feel that an opera in concert provides exciting challenges: since we don't have costumes and aren't using props, at least not in Straniera, we have to focus on the music we’re making together. I very truly believe that our well-rehearsed musical numbers will be more than enough to engage an audience!

OM: You’re singing Isoletta, a young bride in La straniera. What is your acquaintance with La straniera in performance or on recording? With Bellini’s operatic style in general?

AT: Oh my! I have NOT performed this role before! In all honesty, though now it’s all ‘past tense’, I knew very little about Straniera, except that it was written by Bellini. Yes, I have performed other operatic roles and songs by bel canto composers, but this is the first time I have actually sung anything by Bellini. I mean, given recordings, it's hard not to know Norma and La sonnambula, since they're so iconic.  But La straneira? It was a whole new experience for me.

OM: Looking forward, Christine, what roles do you seek to perform within the next, say, five years? And, for guidance, to whom does one turn for advice on such decisions? Will these roles involve voice training different from that which you’ve received lately? Do you have to re-tool, in other words, for these sought-after roles? Are there dream roles you seek to perform, but…by virtue of your youth and their challenges, you should put off for a longer spell?

CL: I am beginning to see my core repertoire emerge within the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. Every bit of the bel canto techniques that have become the fabric of my vocal point of view will support me in interpreting this music in the richest way.

OM: Alina?

AT: I'm going to start off by saying that my dream role is, without question, Carmen. Ahhh…

OM: Yes, but?

AT: Well, ha! I think it is safe to say that it’s a role I will probably never perform, being, after all a lyric coloratura soprano and whatnot. As a young singer who is very new to this business, I feel in between a lot of things right now. There are so many roles that I could perform, but so much of it depends on the other voices that are cast, especially in Mozart and bel canto operas where there are numerous soprano roles. I would like to think that Violetta in La Traviata is a role that is coming in the future, but maybe at the end of the next five years? I have always dreamed to sing Zerbinetta in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos or all three of the soprano roles in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann.

But there are other factors: it is so important to have literally, I mean this, a tribe of people whom you can trust as a singer. You want to have a manger/agent, a teacher, a closer mentor, a trusted colleague, and a network of coaches who specialize in a number of different areas. In general, I try to only work with mentors whose opinions I can trust.

OM: And who love you.

AT: That too. My teacher, Brenda Harris, has nothing but my absolute best interest in mind. I trust her so much. I also trust Will Crutchfield's opinion a lot, I mean a lot a lot! His musical suggestions always come from a place of cosmic expansive knowledge. Honestly, I trust the opinions of all the coaches at Teatro Nuovo. A lot of them have given me the same suggestions seemingly without conferring with each other. Like I said earlier, they have a vocal sound in mind and they know how to develop it!

The role of Isoletta in La straniera has literally helped me re-tool my voice! Brenda and Will have worked with me to create a much stronger chest voice. Even though we may get all of our praise for high notes, it's so necessary for sopranos to get the chest voice right. My top register has done nothing but grow stronger with this improvement. I know I keep saying I got lucky, but really, I am so glad I have only worked with people who have improved my technique. It's so much more fun to work on details of improvement, as opposed to un-doing something wrong!

OM: Special things indeed! Okay, my friends, I have one more question for you and a request… What sorts of things do you enjoy talking about with normal people, myself of course not included in that group?

CL: I’m a full-time creative and am always preparing for my current role and the next. Many of us singers are carrying around 3 or more scores on a daily basis, and the joy truly is in the preparation. All in all, I feel like my job is my hobby!

OM: Alina. You’re up!

AT: I LOVE sports! My dad grew up in Boston, I have an enormous family still living there, so I've been a Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins fan my whole life. I know that the Patriots are polarizing, but I grew up with them, so what can I do? I had lived in Michigan until I was 23. I went to Michigan State University, my dad was a professor there, so I also followed MSU sports throughout my life. Here’s a Fun Fact: until I moved away for my master's program, I had only missed seven, count ‘em: seven home MSU football games since I was born! I still have the ticket from the very first football game when I was three months old!

Really, my dad loved sports. He instilled that love in me as well. Though I was never any good at any of them, I did play basketball, volleyball, and softball for a very long time. I can't name all the players on all the teams, but I love watching sports and playing in my fantasy football league. Our league is four years deep and I've won twice, beating ten guys. It might be my best non-musical accomplishment. I don’t know, I probably should get more hobbies: I love going star gazing, cooking, and board games, though I get a bit too competitive with the board games!

OM: OK, lastly, if you have an answer to a question I haven’t asked, say the question and then answer it.

AT: Cool! The question is: Alina, what is your favorite role in an opera or song you have performed? Without hesitation she answered: My favorite role I ever performed was Adele in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus. She was such a fun character to play, and really, the life of the party!

OM: As are you. You’re smiling big time….But I want to return to a point you made earlier, Christine, about how the absence of a single conductor on a podium changes the relationship of the orchestra and the singers and the opera as written...

CL and AT: (standing in unison, as if premeditated) Please hold that thought, Metro! Answers, yes, but might we resume this at a later date?***

OM: Er, sure…keep in touch. No, no, I got the check….

Photos: Christine Lyons by Matt Medelsohn, Alina Tamborini by Tyler James with Tyler James Photography.

* Bellini’s La straniera is performed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, July 13, at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, Purchase, New York, and at 7:30 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center Wednesday evening, July 17. Tickets for these events may be purchased at www.teatronuovo.org.

** Actually we did this by email, as usual, but I would have picked up the tab, were there indeed one. Happy we took rain checks on the face-to-face.

*** This afterthought question is answered on the Page labeled Addenda.

No, I, still chained to my desk at the OperaMetro office, have been given these wonderfully insightful,  intricate and complete answers by emails from Alina and Christine. I’m happy not to have to reconstruct it from my ‘speed’ typing transcription…such as it is.

Note that even this interview is split into two pieces. After we finished, another question popped up and I have just received answers from Christine and Alina. Better, I think, to post the above now and then add, as a second interview, my singers’ rather detailed answers to the new question…I love talking to young artists. Like, really.

Happy summer 2019! Damn hot outside, so I’m told. About time!

OM.

Stars of Teatro Nuovo perform Gioacchino Rossini’s La gazza ladra

OperaMetro (OM) has the esteemed privilege of speaking with Alisa Jordheim (AJ) and Hannah Ludwig (HL), both stars of Teatro Nuovo’s performances of the rarely performed La gazza ladra.* We’re sitting together at a different local bistro near Jazz at Lincoln Center, gotta shake things up here, but still making observations, espousing opinions, smiling, sharing insights, revealing trade secrets and ideas, all swirling around before the upcoming performances by Teatro Nuovo in mid-July.** Don’t miss the chance to hear these two wonderful singers live on stage…

OM: Thank you both for agreeing to chat with me.

HL & AJ: Thank you for inviting us!

OM: You’ve both worked with Will Crutchfield before. Hannah you are returning for your second season and the company of Teatro Nuovo. It’s probably safe to assume that your experience last year was positive, oui? What role did you perform last season and what, in your experience, is special about Teatro Nuovo’s preparation for your role this year, in contrast to any previous coaching, training, performing programs you’ve participated in?

Hannah Ludwig sings the role of Pippo in Rossini’s  La gazza ladra

Hannah Ludwig sings the role of Pippo in Rossini’s La gazza ladra

HL: I really enjoyed myself last summer! I sang the role of Isaura in Rossini’s Tancredi. What I love most about Teatro Nuovo is the collaborative atmosphere of singers and orchestral players. I am a huge fan of performing chamber music and that is exactly how it felt last year. It’s what I was most looking forward to when I knew I would be returning. There is freedom to make music together, to choose tempi based on feeling rather than what is tradition. It’s reviving the true bel canto style of making music together and not feeling like soloists as separate participants.

OM: Alisa?

AJ: You’re right, this is my first season at Teatro Nuovo, but the first time I worked with Will Crutchfield was at Bel Canto at Caramoor in 2015. I sang the role of Constance in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites.

Alisa Jordheim sings Ninetta in Rossini’s  La gazza ladra

Alisa Jordheim sings Ninetta in Rossini’s La gazza ladra

OM: I remember that season! Will’s daughter directed the staging, as I recall. Dialogues des Carmélites is one of my favorite operas!

AJ: Oh yes, one of mine as well. That production was a transcendent experience for me in so many ways; therefore, when the opportunity arose for me to sing Ninetta in La gazza ladra this summer at Teatro Nuovo, I was so excited to work with many of the same colleagues who had such a profound professional impact on me back in 2015.

OM: Experience with the Company so far?

AJ: I appreciate so much that Teatro Nuovo focuses on the true bel canto traditions of the past, as well as encouraging us singers to have the most authentic Italian pronunciation possible. This focus on working the music and text simultaneously for six weeks (instead of just a typical three-week rehearsal period) is exceptional. We also get to work with members of the orchestra well in advance of the performances, which is a luxury and a joy.

OM: Teatro Nuovo used period instruments last season to marvelous effect. Does this practice in anyway change the vocal approach to performing your role?

HL: It makes the overall pitch lower and for a mezzo that is actually fun! I love singing in my lower register. The initial shift from practicing at home at a “normal” tuning pitch is an adjustment at first but this time around I was used to it.

AJ: I have sung with period instruments before and find the experience fascinating. It's a way for me to go back in time and experience what these pieces would have sounded like in the composer's day. Our tuning for La gazza ladra is at A430 rather than A440, so the pitch difference isn't terribly noticeable (approximately a quarter of a step lower than what we are used to today). Graciously (and thankfully) the Teatro Nuovo/SUNY Purchase staff tuned some practice room pianos to A430 so we can get used to the feeling of the new pitch well in advance of the performances. When I performed baroque repertoire with period instruments at A415 (which feels like a half-step lower than A440), I was aware of a much bigger difference, and in that case, I will practice the music a half-step down so I'm not surprised during rehearsals.

OM: Interesting! Last season Teatro Nuovo, at least for the Tancredi I reviewed, used few or no sets. Will the absence of sets and props, maybe character specific costumes, pose any additional challenges to your performance, Alisa?

AJ: Because of the importance of various items in La gazza ladra, we are actually using props! We are also wearing attire that helps us tell the story in the absence of costumes and a set. But on the whole, our semi-staged version of the opera is freeing: while we do have minimal props and stage movement to tell the story, we are given the opportunity to let the music speak for itself, especially in the more reflective moments of the score.

OM: Hannah?

HL: I agree. If anything, it removes the distraction of having to remember other stage items and just allows me to truly focus on my singing.

OM: Alisa, you’re singing Ninetta, the young servant, the accused thief in La gazza ladra. First, have you performed this role before or, if not, what is your acquaintance with La gazza ladra in performance or on recording? With Rossini’s operatic style in general?

AJ: This is my role debut of Ninetta! I didn't know much about La gazza ladra before being offered the role. I have studied bel canto and the Rossinian style before and, having performed Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the musical elements in La gazza ladra were not unfamiliar to me. There aren't many recordings of La gazza ladra, but I did listen to one before diving into the score myself. Knowing the appropriate vocabulary for ornamentation is perhaps the most challenging aspect of making a bel canto role one's own, and I so appreciate Teatro Nuovo's attention to that element of education and the program's encouragement to explore what works best for each individual voice. I'm so grateful to know the opera now: what a gem!

OM: Hannah, you were in last season’s heroic epic Tancredi, yet this season you’re singing a trouser role in Gazza ladra in a semiseria opera. Are you finding subtle differences in the style?

HL: I have sung some of Rossini’s leading roles before such as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and I’ve always been the most vocally comfortable singing his music. It allows the voice to stretch and move that makes my technique stronger, as if every time I perform I’m getting a nice vocal workout. I will be singing Pippo for the first time this summer with Teatro Nuovo.  Before being asked to do the role, I had never listened to La gazza ladra, but I had just performed Rosina. Once I started studying it after Rosina I found a lot of similarities in the vocal part. The coloratura patterns are very well constructed and I don’t feel like I am stretching any part of my voice in an unhealthy manner.  It’s very refreshing.

OM: Looking forward, Hannah, what roles do you seek to perform within the next, say, five years? And, for guidance, to whom does one turn for advice on such decisions? Will these roles involve voice training different from that which you’ve received lately? Do you have to re-tool, in other words, for these sought-after roles? Are there dream roles you seek to perform, but…by virtue of your youth and their challenges, you should put off for a longer spell?

HL: At this moment, I’m still considered a young low voice. The main focus of the next couple of years is to keep the voice healthy and flexible before I move into rep like Verdi and Wagner. For now this means singing rep like Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart etc. I have a wonderful “circle of trust” which includes my teacher, my managers, and vocal coaches with whom I discuss, on a regular basis, the progression of my development and what music I should focus on so that I have a long career. Even though my voice is already pretty dark and big, I need to have patience in singing the big girls. Patience is a virtue here.

OM: Alisa?

AJ: I hope to sing more bel canto repertoire in the near future - I'd love to sing Lucia di Lammermoor, Adina in L'elisir d'amore, Marie in La fille du régiment, and Ophélie in Hamlet, just to name a few. I also greatly enjoy doing concert and contemporary work, recitals, and musical theatre. No matter what projects come my way, I am always excited by the possibility of new characters, new music, and new collaborations; it's all an exciting journey for me. I always consult my teacher, William McGraw, as well as my managers, Guy Barzilay and Michael Denos, about appropriate repertoire. No matter what role I'm singing, I sing with my own voice and technique, and I never try to sound like, or be, someone else. One of the special things to embrace about the human voice is that no one else has yours!

OM: Special things indeed! I have one more question for you and a request… What sorts of things do you enjoy talking about with normal people, myself not included in that group?

HL: Ha! I feel like I am not normal…makes me chuckle. I actually had a coach last year say that I needed hobbies because I tend to make my job a 24/7 affair.

OM: It is an all-absorbing world, isn’t it.

HL: I guess outside interests would be my love of reading and doing any kind of activity that involves history.  If there is a museum or historical area in the places I’m traveling for work, it’s where I will be as soon as I have free time. I’m also into fitness so I love working out. Other than that, any time I can hang out with my boyfriend at home is the best.

OM: And you, Alisa?

AJ: I too love reading: I just recently finished Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series. I very much enjoy watching my Netflix and HBO shows…Breaking Bad is my ultimate favorite.

OM: I’d say ‘Yo Bitch!’ but that might be misconstrued.

AJ: Ha! And of course I enjoy catching up with friends and family on the phone or FaceTime. One of my favorite things about being a singer is the opportunity to travel, so I try to explore the places I visit and soak up the culture (and food!). If I haven't worked out enough in rehearsals, I bring my Insanity DVDs with me when I travel to get some additional exercise!

OM: All right, lastly, here’s the request: If you have an answer to a question I haven’t asked, what is the question and what’s your answer?

AJ: My question is: If you weren't a singer, Alisa, what would you be? My answer is: A hospital nurse or nurse practitioner.

OM: From ‘audible’ to ‘laudable.’ Hannah?

HL: Okay, what is your favorite part of preparing/performing a role, Hannah? Is it the prep work, the staging rehearsal, etc? Hannah thought for a moment, then said: My answer is: there is no better feeling in the world than singing with an orchestra! That initial rehearsal with the orchestra is the most emotional and exciting part of the process. They bring forth all of the colors of your character; they provide the sounds of the scenery where the piece is set. Once you have nailed down the character in rehearsal and then perform it with your orchestral colleagues, it truly feels like the culmination of something glorious that you get to share with the whole world.

OM: Thank you so, wonderful singers! It was a pleasure to talk to you. Look for that new question…

Photos: Alisa Jordheim by Fay Fox; Hannah Ludwig by John Matthew Myers.

* La gazza ladra is performed on Sunday afternoon, July 14 at 4:30 p.m. at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, Purchase, NY, and again on Thursday evening, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tickets for all performance are available at www.teatronuovo.org.

** Actually we did this by email, as usual, but I would have picked up the tab, were there indeed one. Happy we took rain checks for the face-to-face followup.

No, I, still chained to my desk at the OperaMetro office, have been given these wonderfully insightful, intricate and complete answers by emails from Alisa and Hannah. I’m happy not to have to reconstruct it from my dreadful ‘speed’ typing transcriptions…such as they are.

Note that even this interview is split into two pieces. After we finished, another question popped up and I have just received additional answers from Hannah and Alisa. Better, I think, to post the above now and then add, as a second interview, my singers’ rather detailed answers to the new question. It will be posted on the Page Addenda…I love talking to young artists. Like, really.

Happy summer 2019! Hot outside, so I’m told. About time!

OM.

The Princeton Festival to perform John Adams’ Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival will perform Nixon in China, for sure a daring stretch for a summer music festival, but also perhaps a timely undertaking, considering the world we live in.

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege to interview two of the principal singers, Sean Anderson (SA) and Rainelle Krause (RK), who will portray Richard Nixon and his wife Pat in the Princeton Festival’s production of the John Adams opera.

As usual for my interviews, I say here something like ‘and we’re sitting in an outdoor café, downtown Princeton, across from the majestic campus of Princeton University on a glorious day in late May, chatting over our designer salads and frothy cappuccinos…but frankly no, we did this by email. Screen time, not face time.

OM: Thank you Sean, thank you Rainelle for coming! I’m really looking forward to Nixon in China.

RK: So far it’s a great experience for us.

Rainelle Krause is Pat Nixon

Rainelle Krause is Pat Nixon

SA: Agreed.

OM: This opera must be exciting to perform, but at the same time to some extent intimidating. I mean, most national leaders in opera, Caesar, Attila, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Queen Bess, Mary Stuart, to name a few, are not known in the way we know Richard Nixon and Pat. I close my eyes and I swear I can still hear him saying “I’m not a crook, I’m not a crook,” as if it were yesterday. Watergate, Deep Throat, John Dean, Rosemary’s booboo…I remember the day Nixon resigned as if it were yesterday…real people…not Attila…Tell me about the preparation you each did for your roles.

SA: I did some research into Richard Nixon’s life. I read his book, Six Crisesand listened to most of an audiobook called Richard Nixon, the Life by John Farrell. There is an HBO special called Nixon By Nixon: In His Own Words, which was quite interesting.

Sean Anderson is Richard Nixon

Sean Anderson is Richard Nixon

OM: So you know how the man moved, his postures, facial expressions, gestures…don’t need to know the voice I guess, because he didn’t sing his lines…

SA: Right. But aware of these things, I’ve also noticed a certain physical language that seems to be a part of many politicians' public image, like, in the same way, say, a dancer always seems to move with grace, arms, certain postures and hand gestures. These too may simply be a part of what it means to have a career in politics.

OM: I get that too.

SA: So I came to rehearsal more or less prepared with a very basic Nixon characterization and some general politician body language. But I don’t think that this production is going to focus too much on recreating Nixon’s behavioral idiosyncrasies. And I think this is wise: Nixon impersonation has become too associated with political and popular humor for it to function as anything else.

OM: Well, and in reality only a certain percentage of the audience would pick up on the mannerisms. The opera is 1972 and Nixon was more or less off camera after the late 70s.

SA: Agreed. However, I think knowing the historical and political context of the ’72 visit is important for us to make sense of the piece, and certainly knowing Nixon’s mindset at the time is vital to understanding how to perform the role.

Cameron Schutza is Chairman Mao

Cameron Schutza is Chairman Mao

OM: Rainelle?

RK: I also watched some clips of documentaries on Pat, watched news footage from the time, and also did some light reading on her life, but I’m primarily using these sources only to highlight what the libretto gives me to work with. The text is my main source of her character, enhanced by the program notes by the librettist. I agree with Sean: I want to really keep my Pat in this moment in time, 1972, and reduce the possibility of layering thoughts about her later life into my characterization.

OM: Tell us, Rainelle, about singing Pat. What is the role like vocally?

RK: Right now I’m making my mark, so to speak, as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Zauberflöte, so being able to sing Pat is a great opportunity for something completely different.  I feel it’s good for the voice to have a chance to work down out of that stratosphere and explore some new colors, and while I find both characters complex and interesting, Pat, in contrast to the Queen, has a lovely quiet strength to her. It is quite beautiful.  In my opinion, she has the prettiest music in the whole piece.  This is a role debut for me, and also my first Adams production; as such, it’s exciting and, as you say, a little intimidating!

OM: Sean?

SA: This is as well my first piece by John Adams. I have seen a video of the Met’s production of Nixon, but nothing live. While I have performed several 20th century operas, Nixon is one of the most challenging I’ve ever faced. This will be my debut in the role.

OM: What are some of your current staples?

SA: This past season I sang Gianni Schicchi, Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and I have Sharpless and Gellner in La Wally coming up…

OM: Gellner? In La Wally?!? THE La Wally? Wow! Now there’s an opera not frequently done! Cool! Curious how they’ll pull of the avalanche at the end…

SA:  Ha! Well, we’ll see.

OM: It’s not surprising that you both mention digging into new roles in the standard repertory, Wally notwithstanding, both trying out this and that. But John Adams is a whole new world. Tell me about the challenges you face with his music.

Teresa Castillo is Madame Mao

Teresa Castillo is Madame Mao

RK: I think every role has its own challenges, but the sheer complexity of Adams’ music makes it a technical as well as artistic challenge. It’s a real collaboration between the singers, the conductor, and the orchestra, to carry it off.  I find Adams’ music compelling, even at first listening, but it grows more satisfying through the process of study and performing. I think the audiences will find it so.

SA: I totally agree with Rainelle: the biggest challenge of Nixon in China is, by far, the rhythmic complexity. At first listen, it is easy to mark the repeated notes, rhythms, and text that are Adams’ trademark style, but nearly every instance of repetition contains variations – some obvious, some exceedingly subtle – these change the perceived pattern. One must always be counting, and even one slightly early or late entrance/cut-off can derail the train. Of course there are other challenges to the piece, but the labyrinth of rhythmic trials in Nixon stands far and above the others – at least for me. When learning other roles, there usually comes a point when the rhythm has become internalized enough that a singer need not necessarily count every beat. Not so with Nixon.

OM: My next two questions are prefaced by two observations, part unbiased, part biased, only a little bit, but part devil’s advocate. First, one might say that the purpose of the ‘minimalist’ operas (and the instrumental compositions as well) was to facilitate the entry of the listener into an altered state of consciousness, an almost out of body experience through seemingly endless repetition of musical lines, text, and, on stage, often made visual with choreographed repetitious behaviors. Certainly the early ones in the late 70s, early 80s were like this.

As an aside, my dear mother used to say this about Bach, even without the staging and singing.

Taking a more positive slant, I thought Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (at BAM in 1984) was thoroughly mesmerizing, and his Satyagraha (at the Met in 2008) was emotionally impactful in unexpected ways. Which leads to the second observation, namely that whereas in most of the operas in the standard repertory the emotional impact of an event in the drama is clearly defined by the music and the text, and hopefully complemented by the staging (action, interaction and scenic setting), often the music and text of the minimalist operas add options for the staging, but at the same time eschew dramatic clarity.

First question: how do you create a character in an opera like this?

Joseph Barron is Henry Kissinger

Joseph Barron is Henry Kissinger

SA: Well, yes, character-wise, there are no “operatic archetypes” to fall back on: there are no revenge plots, no armies to lead to victory, no broken hearts or tragic deaths. The drama in this opera is found more in psychological profiles and personal relationships than in anything else. For the singer, the challenge here is to covey the incredibly high, intangible stakes of each moment in a compelling and naturalistic manner while maintaining the consistent inner-metronome the music requires.

Adams’ Nixon is grandiose, clever, and paranoid, in short, actually similar to the man himself. He craves the respect of, but at the same time is confounded by Mao, whom he realizes occupies a place of historical importance that exceeds his own. He is jealous of Kissinger, whom Mao recognizes as a fellow philosopher. He recognizes Chou En Lai as a fellow politician and someone with whom he can deal, as long as he can find a way around their cultural differences. He loves Pat, but her needs are a distant second to his political goals. In this piece, Nixon’s different personalities are more revealed by how he acts in public vs. private, rather than towards individual people. The exception to this would be in the third act when he opens up to Pat about his experiences during the War of the Pacific. As these aspects emerge the music changes.

OM: We’ll return to this last point. Rainelle? 

John Viscardi is  Chou En Lai

John Viscardi is Chou En Lai

RK: Sean is right, Pat doesn’t have a whole lot of verbal interaction with other characters in this production — she is focused on her husband, except for the scene where she tours the countryside and visits hospitals and farms, where we get a glimpse into her thoughts, her past, and her vision for the future.  Adams’ Pat is hopeful, almost painfully so since we as the audience know what is to come.  She has a strong, unwavering belief in the goodness of the nation, and in the rightness of this trip.  She’s portrayed as almost naive, despite her age, and at the same time has an empathetic humanity to her that I think will resonate with the audience.  

So my biggest challenge, dramatically speaking, is to show the strength of Pat as a highly educated, driven woman, and also reconcile that with her absolute dedication to her position as First Lady and the wife of a politician.  She took those roles very seriously, and I think it does her a disservice to only portray her as just a typical housewife when she was anything but.  She projected that sort of demure, diffident, 1950’s housewife persona, but in reality she had a great complexity about her.  Her aria really highlights these facets of her personality, as well as her dreams for the nation.

OM: This, Rainelle, leads me into the second question: what is, for you and/or your character, the most emotionally touching moment in the opera and why does (or should) this moment resonate with audiences? Perhaps put into words how the composer and librettist build to the moment.

RK: I really think that Pat’s introspective aria, This is prophetic! in Act II is one of the most touching parts of the entire piece.  It’s placed in the middle of the opera, it forces us to slow down musically and psychologically, offering a respite from what could be called an assault of repetition.  Poetically, it is dense and highly symbolic, it’s a moment out of time, and digs into her vision of herself, and of America.  I find it more layered and revealing with each rehearsal.

SA: I don’t know if “touching” is the right descriptor for my example, but I think the most emotional moment for Nixon is near the end of the first act. He has just finished a toast in response to one made by Chou En Lai and has received a tremendous ovation. His optimism about what this visit to China will bring is at its highest point; his doubts about the future and troubles at home are numbed by a tipsy haze. He sings: “Just let me say one thing: I opposed China. I was wrong!” to another ovation, greater than the first. We rarely take given opportunities to publicly admit mistakes, let alone get applauded for it. The cynic in me wonders if Nixon really means this apology, but the headiness of the moment is undeniable. The harmony, driving rhythm, and drama build to this point perfectly. It is everything the end of an act of opera should be.

OM: We look forward to both of these moments. One last question: Act III of the opera has considerably more introspection than the first two acts, Pat’s aria in Act II notwithstanding. What new aspects of your characters and their relationship are revealed?

SA: You're correct about Act III being more introspective. As I said, Nixon opens up to Pat about his experiences during the War of the Pacific. There is a lot to unpack in the text, both personally for Nixon and with his relationship with Pat. We have yet to stage that act, but I'm looking forward to hearing Steve LaCosse’s ideas and sharing my own. I will say, that while the music is still quite challenging, the rhythmic frenzy of the previous acts is not as prevalent. Working on that act feels akin to exercising a different muscle group.

RK: Act III is huge in many ways: it’s when all the walls come down, figuratively speaking. The hopes and dreams of the characters have reached their conclusion, and what’s left is a harsh, unforgiving reality which forces our characters to introspect. This takes the form of reminiscence, and pares down our ties to each other — more than First Lady and President, we are husband and wife, and beyond that, simply flawed individuals. Mao, his wife, and Chou En-lai have similar memories of their own paths. At one point, Chou En-lai asks “How much of what we did was good?” That, to me, is the central question of the third act, for every character.

OM: The mask is dropped. 

SA: It might make one think about the present.

OM: Elaborate, s’il vous plait.

SA: It’s inevitable, I think, for people to draw comparisons between Nixon in China and current events, the trade skirmishes with China, President Trump’s visit to North Korea specifically.

OM: Are there lessons to be learned?

SA:  Not really. I feel that history is a wheel, and if the story of this opera and/or the characters in it seem relevant, it is due to the fact that the wheel seems to have returned to that point once again; in short, pure coincidence.

OM: What we call a selective, or confirmation bias.

SA: For us, Adams’ Nixon in China is incredibly challenging musical experience. That a smaller festival company producing it is the definition of daring, some would say audacious. Our only objective is to perform the best opera we possibly can. In other words, this not a political statement.

OM: (turning to the readers) You’ll have to judge for yourselves, that’s all there is to it. (back to RK and SA) Lastly, tell the readers briefly what you do when you’re not on stage or in rehearsal, hobbies, interests, favorite Impressionist artist, favorite binge watching experiences. Whatever. The humanizing sort of stuff.

SA: I have several hobbies that keep me busy when I’m on the road, but the simplest way to describe me would be to call me a “geek”. I collect comic books, play pen and paper role-playing games, enjoy board games of all kinds and am a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, both mainstream and obscure. My favorite impressionistic artist is Pissarro: Allée dans une forêt being my favorite of my favorite. The best binge-watching experience I ever had was watching Avatar: the last Airbender with my wife and daughter.

OM: Pissarro is an artist my mother-in-law and my wife are very fond of. Beautiful art. Rainelle?

RK: Okay, in addition to my work as a singer, I’m also an aerialist.

OM: Humanizing, but with risks, oui?

RK: Oui!  One of my clips from a rehearsal in New Orleans just went viral, singing Queen of the Night upside down on aerial silks.

OM: Ahhhh, The aforementioned Queen.

RK: Want to see it? Check out https://youtu.be/hOvQ6GlH3Vk  I have a whole portfolio of aerial arias, and am finishing up work on choreographing Ophelia’s Mad Scene from Hamlet, which I’m SO excited about!  Art? I really love Klimt and Schiele, and recently fell in love with Murakami.

OM: The Kiss, Judith, and Kafka on the Shore.

RK: Exactly. My husband and I binge watch shows together when I’m at home, most recently Game of Thrones, along with the rest of the country!  We live with two fluffy cats and one very spoiled reptile!  Pictures of all of them can be found on my Instagram and Facebook profiles.

OM: Lovely. Shall check ‘em out!

Thank you both for chatting with me, look forward to meeting you after the performance on the 30th.

Nixon in China, set to a libretto by Alice Goodman, was co-commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the home of many signature “Next Wave” performances, including a major revival of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach in 1984 and The Photographer; Nixon in China had its premiere was in Houston on October 22, 1987. It was American composer John Adams’ first international success, to be followed by The Death of Klinghoffer, libretto by Alice Goodman, in 1991 at the Théâtre de la Monnie in Brussels and Doctor Atomic in 2005 in San Francisco, all three world premieres directed by the great Peter Sellars. Sellars also wrote the libretto for Doctor Atomic and for Adams’ most recent opera Girls of the Golden West, premiered at San Francisco in 2017.

Nixon in China sports the following artists and performers: Richard Tang Yuk conducts, Steven LaCosse is Stage Director, the Production is designed by Jonathan Dahm Roberts, the Lighting Designer is Norman Coates, and Costumes are designer is James Schulte. Sean Anderson is Nixon in Princeton, Rainelle Krause is Pat Nixon, Cameron Schutza is Chairman Mao, Teresa Castillo is Madame Mao, Joseph Barron is Henry Kissinger, John Viscardi is Premire Cho En Lai, Liz Culpepper is the 1st Secretary, Emily Marvosh is the 2nd Secretary, and Edith Dowd is the 3rd Secretary.

Nixon in China is performed on two Sunday afternoons at 3:00 p.m., June 23 and June 30 in the Matthew Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

Tickets for Nixon in China can be purchased at the Princeton Festival website, https://princetonfestival.org.

Support your local opera!! Embrace the moment. Some of us remember watching newsreels of the actual event in black and white TV…

OM