LA Opus
Southern California's classical voice for music and live arts
492 Entries

By Erica Miner
EM: Do you feel equally passionate about opera and symphonic music, or do you lean toward one or the other?

LM: I love it all. It’s a very different agenda. Opera is something that you control much less as a conductor, a leader, a Kapellmeister. I very much agree with Christian Thielemann when he wants to call himself a Kapellmeister as opposed to a conductor. Kapellmeister has this resonance that we’re still musicians doing this as leaders or coaches as opposed to just an administrative role. In some ways opera puts you more into that skin. Conductor sounds very dry to me (Laughs). What I find extraordinary in opera, which I never experience in a symphony performance, is that when all the elements align wonderfully well something is being created at a level where you can just marvel at seeing this unfold so beautifully and naturally. You know you have a very small part in this ultimately, because it becomes exponential to what you’ve injected into it. I find symphonic music, because of the pattern of how we work - opera unfolds over five, six weeks of work when a symphony production is around four, five days if you’re lucky - really is much more dependent on what you as a leader can inject into the performance. There’s less time for all the different ideas to merge, and create this cohesive result. So I find opera much more satisfying when it works, but incredibly frustrating much of the time, because a lot of things don’t click for the same reasons that they can click. It’s not all dependent on you. A singer doesn’t show up on that day, or the chorus has to dance around 15,000 miles away from you or the orchestra. All kinds of things happen that can create a lot of frustrations. Ultimately when it comes to the music itself, opera and symphony, no big difference. The operas I love usually have this very strong orchestral craft. But I love the voice. The human voice is ultimately the only thing we can say we try to recreate as beautifully as we can with a violin, a flute, so I think possibly to work with the voice is much more natural and instinctive.

EM: I was so gratified to learn that you’ll be doing Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortiléges, which I first performed as a student at Tanglewood with Leinsdorf and then at the Met. It’s an exquisite, enchanting work, and close to my heart. What made you decide to program it with the Symphony this season?

LM: Ravel of course is a very special composer for me. I started talking to Seattle Opera because we wanted to have a bit of a platform to do opera in concert. So I went straight to Aidan Lang ( because I wanted to make sure if we do this we do it in a way that invites their audience to cross to the other part of town and encourage that adventure of people being curious and not feel like it’s one thing or the other. Our orchestra plays at the Opera, in the pit, so it’s very important for me to be able to capture some of this artistry and craft they have on stage. Ultimately I find opera performance is always more satisfactory in a concert performance musically when it comes to the artistry. Everyone hears one another better, emotionally you can gain in having productions, so I find it interesting to explore opera in concert. Ravel was not something Aidan was contemplating having in the opera house for some time. I felt it was the right move to start with this rather than with a big romantic opera. We’ll have it semi-staged somehow but I didn’t want it to be too complicated. I wanted to focus on the interpretation. It’s also one of my very fond memories of studying with Ozawa. My first summer as a Tanglewood Fellow, I was assistant on the Ravel double bill at the opera there. Seiji conducted L’Heure Espagnole and Robert Spano did L’enfant et les sortiléges. I was assistant on both. It brings great memories.

EM: Do you feel your affiliation with the University of Washington as Affiliate Professor of Music and Chair of Orchestral Conducting Studies integrates with your work at the Symphony, and what are your goals with the program?

LM: It’s a little selfish for me, a position like this, I’ll tell you why. I’ve never really believed that conducting was something you can teach. I think you can create this mentor-protégé relationship with young artists who you think have a voice and have talent. But I’m not a fan of the “traditional” conducting course where you conduct in front of a mirror and pianos. I wanted to be involved with a conducting program only if it could actually involve a real liaison and collaboration between the institution I work with, the Seattle Symphony, and the University program. The selfish point is that my only aspiration to teach, to be involved with conducting students, is because it’s a wonderful asset to learn about myself. By trying to help someone develop as a conductor I’m constantly facing a mirror. It’s like what you do with your kids at home. The minute you tell them to do this or that, you have to be pretty serious about what you’re actually trying to establish. Therefore you have to ask yourself that question - why would I be so convinced about he or she doing or not doing that when I didn’t even contemplate it for myself. This relationship from teaching is incredibly valuable for my own sake as a growing artist because I take it very seriously as what I feel I offer them I must contemplate for myself. This is in that sense a role I feel very privileged to be establishing here. I have a wonderful teaching partner, David Rahbee, who I invited from Boston to be involved as director of the orchestra program, which is very linked to the conducting program. We created together an orchestra on campus that meets weekly, where the conducting lessons take place. I wanted the conductors to be able to conduct a full size orchestra, not pianos or quartet. It’s all about creating a sound, and when you conduct pianos you don’t create anything in terms of sound. It becomes very technical and mechanical. Once we could create that platform for them to work with a live orchestra weekly, then I felt this the kind of conducting program I’m interested in. Of course the wonderful thing of doing side-by-side between the Seattle Symphony and the University orchestras is the great appeal of my own work with the young musicians. This partnership with David, creating this kind of environment, has been very strong and exciting.

EM: This season you will be conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for the first time. That must be very exciting.

LM: It is. It’s mainly new music, so there will be two commissions in that concert. Also classics like Ravel’s La Valse and some Ives, which I’m really fond of.

EM: Vienna and Ives - how interesting.

LM: It’s hard to define what will be the right program making your debut with an orchestra. I’m always being driven making those program decisions. It felt quite right to be approaching that debut with new music combined with the great masterpiece of Ravel. La Valse is very special to me. Of course it’s this great homage to Vienna, but as Ravel was writing it the war broke out. When he went back to the piece, not being able to finish it so graciously, it becomes war music, this kind of ugly, violent piece. So I think it’s interesting to do in that context with this orchestra. I’ve conducted quite a bit in Germany, but not in Austria. I’m eager to make my Vienna debut.

EM: I’m always a bit envious of conductors being able to decide on programs. It must be such an adventure.

LM: Oh, I lose sleep over programming. You can ask my family, my wife. I’m a maniac. The only frustration in getting to do eleven, twelve programs a year here is that it’s so difficult to narrow it down to those. Not only pieces of music I want to do but combinations of them that I want to explore. It’s fascinating. I have full books at home with programs. I could live for 600 years and still be unsatisfied about it (Laughs).

EM: I know the feeling. I can’t live long enough to write all the stories I want to write. Do you encourage your children to learn instruments, or do you just want to give them a love for music?

LM: Until they started school they were backstage at the Opera. They grew fond of not only the music but the whole business around it. As very young toddlers they would visit the costume department, the lighting would have an effect on them, or if someone started dancing somewhere. So they developed this as a language. I don't’ have any other aspirations for them but for music to be another language, so that not only they can communicate with that emotionally, but they appreciate it as something that leads to so many good things that can happen in their lives. Now that they’re moving into their teenage years they’re maybe a little less drawn to performances, but they once in a while not only enjoy but ask for it. That first memory I was telling you about has been very well founded. They also play instruments, violin, cello, sing in choruses, play piano at home. Clearly there’s a desire to be curious about and have music in their lives and will remain so at some level. That satisfies me very much. I have no special aspirations beyond that.

EM: Most importantly, they enjoy the experience of music.

LM: And the social element, kids in the neighborhood to play chamber music with. You can always debate about making music your life and profession. I find it’s more important they connect to it. If something leads them to be ambitious it would have to be their choice. It would be completely unnatural having music in the house that it wouldn’t become natural for them. That’s why I mentioned the language element. We speak French at home. I don’t see any other way for them to embrace the fact that French is part of their lives. Same with the music. And opera too.

EM: Children are the future audiences.

LM: And we’re being very condescending to them, saying, we’re going to have to play Peter and the Wolf for you 200 times before you can move to the next stage. It’s one of the most exquisite scores, a masterpiece so sophisticated it’s not for children but for everybody. My idea of how to engage the young people is to erase all the intimate dating factors about a piece, to come to it at the same level you and I do. That’s why I think new pieces and commissions and premieres are a really wonderful introduction for younger generations because they don’t feel they have a lack of knowledge or experience with it. They feel completely fresh, open minded as to what it can be. It translates more the environment or sound they’re used to. So it’s actually a better entry point for them. They will come to love Brahms and Beethoven as well but it sometimes is not the best entry point.

EM: Some music that will make somebody older cringe, kids are totally open to. Their ears and minds are not corrupted yet.

LM: They are a step ahead of where we are. If they don’t have this interactive, digital touch where they can control it, it’s like 1,000 years old already. Music is no different. If they identify with it emotionally because it’s what they taste everyday around them it becomes a very natural step for them, and they will push it further. As opposed to trying for them to embrace tradition and moving into this, they should come from the other way, back to tradition. It’s the same way in Sonic Evolution. If they see electric guitar in the middle of the orchestra, it’s not alien to them. It’s, why not. Even a DJ triggering sound effects, mixing with live violins and cellos, is no bother for them, and why should it be. As for us we have to digest it.

EM: I applaud you for all you’ve done so far.

LM: It’s courageous but I think if in my position I don’t make it happen it never will. We love our audience but we need to grow it. We don’t need to comfort the one we have more than we need to encourage a new one to come in.

EM: So admirable, Maestro, and it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. I can’t wait to see you perform on September 17th (

LM: Thank you so much. 

Photos used with permission of: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc
Erica Miner can be reached at:
1 year ago |
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Seattle Symphony
Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Not many conductors have the privilege to be mentored by a living composer. Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot counts himself a part of that echelon. After studying contemporary master Henri Dutilleux’s (1916-2013) The Shadows of Time as a 2001-2002 Fellowship student at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home at the Tanglewood Music Center, Morlot sought out and met with Dutilleux in the composer’s Paris home.

The younger and older musician bonded together in a huge way. “He made an important era of 20th-century music come alive for me,” says Morlot, “And in the process deepened and enriched my understanding. I feel grateful to have known him.”

Since starting his tenure with Seattle Symphony in 2011, Morlot has championed Dutilleux’s music, and has made it his mission to promote the composer’s works, both in concert and in the recording studio. The resulting Grammy award winning 3-disc project, recorded with the orchestra over the past several years, has been a labor of love for the conductor.

Dutilleux’s finely detailed, impeccably crafted music shows him to be a master of atmosphere, and of exciting, pulsating rhythms: a rare combination of Pointillist imagery punctuated with a rainbow palette of orchestral color and timbre. It’s absolutely arresting to the ear, and despite its Stravinskian harmonic luster, recognizably French. Morlot says the beauty of Dutilleux’s music captivated him from the very first moment. “I wanted to start a journey with the orchestra because I believe exploring this music would generate for our musicians a different way of making music together,” he explains.

Volume 1, released in 2014 (, received three Grammy nominations: Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Instrumental Solo by cellist Xavier Phillips and Best Engineered Album. The second volume, released in 2015 (, received Grammy nominations for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album, and won the Grammy award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo by violinist Augustin Hadelich. The latest in the series, Dutilleux: Volume 3, releases on August 12 of this year, to help commemorate the centenary of the composer’s birth.

“This final installment encapsulates all that we’ve accomplished on this repertoire over my tenure so far, and I think Dutilleux would have taken great pride in the fact that his music is being played so often in Seattle and with such dedication,” says Morlot, who feels that the orchestra’s journey with Dutilleux’s music has helped the players acquire a fundamental understanding of the composer’s extraordinary body of work.

"From day one when we played the Violin Concerto back in 2011, to today in 2016 when we end up with a Grammy with the recording of the piece, I feel the 4 or 5 years have allowed us to understand this music with such intimacy.”

Indeed, Morlot’s crisp yet sensitive conducting, accentuated by the exquisite, impeccable orchestral playing on these recordings, reflect a keen grasp of the composer’s style. Grammy award winning violinist Augustin Hadelich holds a similar view. “When I came to do this recording in 2015 I was really impressed with how well Ludovic and the orchestra know the style. I can’t imagine a better orchestra to play Dutilleux with.”

“I feel the orchestra has fallen in love with this music, which is a big statement, because when you embark on something like this you take a bet,” says Morlot. “You say, ‘Look, I believe this music is something you’re going to be playing wonderfully well, that you have to know intimately. I want you to love it as much as I do, because I’d like to tell that story to the community and the world with you.’”
Seattle Symphony principal bass Jordan Anderson confirms Morlot’s sentiments. “I’m grateful to Ludovic for opening my mind to this new composer, whom I probably would have come across but not really explored,” Anderson says. “It’s really expanded my awareness of some incredible colors and sonorities I wouldn’t have heard before. It became this odyssey over years and years.”

Simon Woods, Seattle Symphony president and CEO, feels that the project’s focus on recording all of Dutilleux’s major orchestral works reveals much about the orchestra’s individual identity. “Landing on the idea of Dutilleux as a composer to focus on was probably a stroke of genius. The music was unknown here in Seattle…much less known in the US than it should be,” he says. “For Ludovic it’s been a tool to work with the orchestra to grasp the distinctive ‘sound world’ of French music.”

Woods is justifiably proud of the orchestra’s own recording label, Seattle Symphony Media, and feels fortunate in having world class recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay overseeing the process, especially in a radically changed recording industry atmosphere. “In the old days the orchestras were always subservient to the needs of the label. The advantage of having our own label is that we can use it to reflect what we stand for,” Woods says. “I think when you listen to the sound of these recordings they really capture the sensual feeling of Dutilleux’s music, the sound of the orchestra in Benaroya Hall, in a most wonderful way.”

Clearly Morlot’s personal and professional encounters with Dutilleux were life changing. He speaks fondly of the precious hours he spent in conversation in the composer’s typically small apartment on the Île Saint Louis in Paris, where the young conductor would sit with him at a grand piano, every inch of which was occupied with scores, photos and papers. “The first thing he would offer you when you walked into his apartment was an aperitif, a martini…he always was a very warm host,” says Morlot. “During those conversations we would talk not only about the music but also literature and the visual arts. Then I would ask about stories of Paris of the 30s, 40s, the era I never got to know.”

Just one brief question from Morlot would elicit a treasure trove of memories from the composer of his encounters with the musical greats of that time: Darius Milhaud, Honegger and more. “To hear him talking about Ravel and Roussel and Prokofiev, Stravinsky and so on, when he was in Paris - the musical heritage was phenomenal,” Morlot remembers. “It was like getting in that cab from Midnight in Paris and traveling back 50 years. Each time I would call him and say, ‘would you have a little time to see me?’” He would say, “Oh, I’m very tired… why don’t you just come for a few minutes.” And then a few hours later we were still having those wonderful conversations.”

Morlot’s fond remembrances extend to his very last encounter with Dutilleux, who despite his infirmities and the limitations of old age still preferred accompanying his guests down the flight of stairs of his second floor apartment to bid them farewell from the street. “I had to insist on that occasion that it’s not going to happen because he was suffering so much,” Morlot says. “I remember walking on the Île de la Cité in Paris and turning around. There he was in the window waving good-bye.

“Dutilleux was so much more than just this beautiful painter of sonic sounds and landscapes. I find that his music will change us because it has so much wealth. It grabs your heart, and imagination, on the very first listening.”

CDs may be purchased at Symphonica, The Symphony Store, at Benaroya Hall. Digital downloads and CDs are available through iTunes, Amazon, Qobuz, Primephonic, Acoustic Sounds and HD Tracks. Recordings can be streamed through Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Rhapsody and Microsoft Groove.

Photos used with permission of: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc
Erica Miner can be reached at:

1 year ago |
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Daniel Okgulitch (Giovanni) and Solomon Howard (Commendatore)

Santa Fe Opera
The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe
Don Giovannirivals The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera Mozart ever wrote. Yet it is only his fourth most-performed at the Santa Fe Opera, ranking after the enormously popular Figaro and Magic Flute, as well as (by virtue of its small cast) the economical Cosi fan tutte. After seven years, a new production revived Giovanni's cautionary tale on seduction, with a droll feel less "dramma giocoso" than the "opera buffa" Mozart himself tagged it. The Don's comeuppance bursts with comic energy, and though its amorality is admittedly dark, it's still cousin to that other salacious comedy, Falstaff.
After the claustrophobic sets of season opener Fanciulla del West, this one took place without much architecture save a large and effective centerpiece. Designer Riccardo Hernandez's massive bronze-glazed female head of flowing hair ascends early in the action from the end of the stage and draws forward and back during the proceedings -- a female dopplegänger keeping a judgmental eye always focused. Peter Nigrini's colorful projections emphasize its role as obsessive totem, a twisted version of the “eternal feminine” in Goethe’s Faust. When the Don’s fiery punishment approaches, the head transforms into a blood-red skull. The eternal feminine becomes an infernal feminine. That which attracts can just as easily kill.
Montvidas (Ottavio) and Crocetto (Anna)
The evening's action was framed on both sides of the stage with black Mylar and opened in the back to the New Mexican landscape, with little scenery other than Don Giovanni's boudoir bathtub and, in the penultimate scene the graveyard statues. As evening darkness descended on Santa Fe, its vast emptiness mirrored the existential void of Giovanni’s depraved world, particularly so in the final scene when the Don dines -- and dies -- alone. 
Director Ron Daniels relied more on his well balanced cast of  singing actors for credible character delineation than sets and props. A certain suspension of disbelief was required, but the near empty stage liberated movement for all, most tellingly for the libertine. The salacious Giovanni juggled simultaneous amatory intrigues in exposed corners as others pursued him and the much put upon Leporello covered for his actions.

Adding hyper-real luxuriance were Marcus Doschi’s lighting projections and Emily Rebholz's sumptuous costumes, color-coded to reflect the moods of each of the protagonists and shimmering in stark contrast to the pitch black stage.
Alkema (Elvira) and Ketelsen (Leporello)
The singing throughout was superb, well balanced between the principals and consistently stylish. Tall and handsome, Daniel Okulitch’s Don Giovanni, initially dressed in heartless black but later in devil-red and brimming with callous ego, was to his mellifluous seductive manner born. Sporting a naked torso, the Don bathed in a bathtub while eagerly chatting about his next conquest. Kyle Ketelsen’s dark and smoky bass squirmed, protested, and spit metaphoric nails in the best carping Leporello manner, especially when his master insisted they exchange outfits.
Leah Crocetto’s vocally nimble Donna Anna and her fiancé, the Don Ottavio of elegant tenor Edgaras Montvidas, were decked out in funereal black, mourning the fate of her late father. Solomon Howard's Commendatore was the tallest and most fearsomely stentorian at his second coming of any this reviewer has encountered. Keep an eye and an ear out for future engagements of this singer.

Keri Alkema’s jilted Donna Elvira, still stuck on the Don, sported envy-green as she doggedly pursued him at every virtuoso turn. The virtuosic fioritura of the two Donnas and Ottavio were models of style. Only the latter’s “Il mio Tesoro” moved at perhaps too rapid a pace for full vocal comfort.
Rhine Lois (Zerlina) and Ensemble
Dressed in virginal white for her wedding, Rhian Lois’s Zerlina was perfection as the petite peasant girl of good, if somewhat pliable morals under the Don’s seductive tutelage. Jarrett Ott’s much put upon Masetto, betrothed defender of male peasant virtue to his Zerlina, seemed a little too easily hoodwinked by her as he good-naturedly bestowed his  forgiveness.
Veteran John Nelson maintained fine classical momentum in the orchestra. As called for in Mozart’s score, a woodwind and brass contingent felicitously performed the dance sequences  on stage.

This was an inventive, handsome, and worthy Don Giovanni to round out six decades of Mozartian elegance and élan at the Santa Fe Opera. 

Performance reviewed: August 1, 2016. Photos by Ken Howard
1 year ago |
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Opening scene of Fanciulla del West at the Polka saloon

Santa Fe Opera
The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera celebrated its 60th anniversary season without the hoopla the round number might imply. The company shored up gaps in its roster with works neglected in the past, a treasure hunt that uncovered some real gems and a couple others worthy of at least occasional release from obscurity. All five productions will be considered in this and subsequent reviews. The opener, opera’s original spaghetti western, is an intriguing if flawed rarity on today's stages.

La Fanciulla del West enjoyed a spectacular 1910 debut at the Metropolitan Opera and made a lot of money for composer Giacomo Puccini, who considered it his best work for the stage. Santa Fe had produced it only twice, in 1991 and 1995, before reviving it in this year’s co-production with the English National Opera, where this run was produced first.
With its backdrop in California’s Gold Rush days, the story (an adaptation of theatrical producer David Belasco's eponymous play from a century ago) has self-reliant tomboy Minnie, beloved of the miners, redeeming good-hearted outlaw Dick Johnson, while warding off the amatory advances of tough-guy sheriff Jack Rance. It's fun, but the work’s momentum is weighed down with a large cast of eighteen and a tad too much in the way of distracting local-color. It lacks the taut sweep of Puccini’s best work, and its reputation as a curiosity is not redeemed in a production that takes its laconic time building dramatic steam, while missing opportunities in both staging and casting. 
The action’s wide-open Western setting is tailor-made for Santa Fe’s Crosby Theatre stage, open (unless blocked) in its backstage area to New Mexico’s plains and mountains. But the sets here hid the natural landscape of America’s actual Golden West. The opening scene’s Polka Saloon had the anachronistic look of a mid-century Route 66 pit stop, located somewhere between Barstow and Las Vegas. Into its limited space were crammed a large cast and so many supernumerary miners one could barely discern individual action. Designer Miriam Buether’s saloon is complemented by Minnie’s dollhouse log cabin, in whose claustrophobic space Johnson and Rance had to navigate without bumping heads on the ceiling or knocking over the furniture. 
Jones (Johnson-Ramirez) and Racette (Minnie)
Soprano Patricia Racette’s game Minnie was energetic and empathetic, but she hardly had room in the crowd scenes to reveal her character’s full potential. Mark Delevan’s Jack Rance, dressed in bad-guy black, fully exploited his swagger and barking baritone as the smitten sheriff. Hero Dick Johnson (burly, blond-whiskered tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones) is supposed to be a Zorro-like Mexican bandit named Ramerrez whose family lost their lands to the rapacious gringos, but he looked here more like a beefy Jeremiah Johnson. With such a rich New Mexico history of Euro-American and Latino cultures existing side-by-side, the production inexplicably passed over its gold-plated opportunity, unique in this opera, to play off the dual American identities of its male lead.
And then there were those cigar-store Indian cameos Wowkie (Kristen Choi) and Billy Jackrabbit (James Harrington), whose cartoon pow-wow behaviors made more than a few in the audience squirm.

Racette, Jones and cast in final crowd scene
Fanciulla advances its penny-novel plot with a ten-gallon score. It is one of Puccini’s most ambitious, employing the Wagnerian technique of continuous thematic development, an earnest advancement in the composer's use of the orchestra. No question that Puccini stretched his creative powers in its music, if not quite  convincingly enough for the work’s would-be setting. Colorful touches included Western minstrel music (sweetly produced by Nicholas Davis) and Stephen Foster tunes. Yet the score’s pentatonic melodies and musical idiom, so characteristic of Puccini’s work, suggest more a way station between Madame Butterfly and Turandot than the American West. Only those brief cameos of the Native Americans in Minnie’s cabin would seem to fit the score's sound-world.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s musical action lumbered in the first act, but later on produced more than a few glowing sonorities.
Performance reviewed: August 2, 2016. Photos by Ken Howard
1 year ago |
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By Erica Miner
From his early youth in Staffordshire, UK, Barry Banks had a burning desire to sing. Since then he has fulfilled that aspiration on the stages of major opera houses and concert halls in the US and Europe. Now based in New York, and a frequent performer at the Met Opera, Banks takes to the Seattle Opera stage on Aug. 7 in the title role of Gioachino Rossini’s delectable farce Count Ory.

EM: It’s a pleasure speak with you. How long have you been in rehearsal?

BB: A week and a half now.

EM: And it’s going well?

BB: It’s a genius concept, magnificent. Very exciting. It’s very British in its concept. Monty Python meets Black Adder, a sitcom based on the Elizabethan era, with Terry Gilliam-type sets. Great fun. 

EM: Sounds terrific. It must be exciting to make your Seattle Opera debut starring in a new production.

BB: Yes, I’ve never been here before. Of course I know of Seattle Opera because of its fantastic reputation. One of my good friends at Conservatory, Jane Eaglen, who’s worked here, speaks very fondly of it. What I didn’t realize was what an incredible, beautiful city this is. You hear of a city, hear the name, and you say, “Oh, yes, over there on the west coast.” I’m not shocked but so pleasantly surprised at how beautiful it is.

EM: Yes, this place can be very enchanting. I never got to perform Count Ory in my 21 years as a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera. And I just missed your debut, sadly.

BB: I’m great friends with a lot of the orchestra. It’s obvious that Levine has an amazing rapport with them. It is the greatest opera orchestra in the world, always a joy to be there, to work with those people. They love what they do.

EM: I read that you’re not to be confused with the rugby-playing Barry Banks. Do people mention that now and then?

BB: [Laughs] Yes. I don’t know which I’d rather be, actually. [Laughs.]

EM: Pavarotti played soccer. It could be a tenor thing.

BB: He was a goalkeeper, wasn’t he?

EM: He had a great deal of promise. Luckily for us he chose to be a tenor instead. But you were always musical, from your days as a boy soprano soloist. Do you feel becoming a musician was preordained for you?

BB: I don’t’ know if it was preordained, but from a very early age it’s all I ever wanted to do. In those days the only place to ply your wares was as a boy soprano in church choir, although I could just feel that these adults didn’t like that I was taking the solos all the time [Laughs]. I fell out of love with the church very early on in my life, because I was very sensitive. I just didn’t feel that it’s somewhere I wanted to be. My mum and dad stayed in the church choir, so they were still active. But I didn’t enjoy singing there. I was this musical kid, although I didn’t play anything, I was just musical.

EM: Singing is playing your voice, yes?

BB: Absolutely. But as a six, seven, eight-year-old kid you don’t know that. One of my overriding memories as a child, when I was around eight, was when I said to myself that when I went to the big school I was going to play trumpet. I was so excited the first music lesson when they brought in the peripatetic brass teacher and he asked, “Is anyone interested in playing?” So I got my wish. I started to play the trumpet straightaway. It’s what I always wanted to do, and everything I hoped it would be.

EM: The right instrument for a singer, especially for a tenor?

BB: They breathe in slightly different ways, but yes. I actually didn’t have any formal singing lessons till much later, at eighteen, nineteen, though I did sing in youth choirs from the age of thirteen to nineteen. In Staffordshire I was in the County Youth Choir and brass band. My formative growing up was once a week going to the big city and singing with my mates. It was fun, a wonderful time. I just loved and still do love magnificent wealth of English choral music. I formed lifetime friendships. A bunch of about 12 to 15 of us from those days are still very much in touch with each other. We’ve all gone to different places, walks of life, but get together often.

EM: Music is a very uniting force.

BB: I grew up in a very poor family, a wonderful, loving family home, but other kids might not have been so lucky. Looking back years later I can see how it gave a lot of other poor kids an escape from some not very nice times for three hours once or twice a week. For me I didn’t have to escape, I loved it. It was where I was happiest. Friends of mine have asked me to teach their kids or say they desperately want their kids to go into music. If I meet the kids and they don’t have that same fire in the belly I had but are just doing it for the parents, I have a quiet word with the parents and say they just don’t want it. I just had that fire as a kid.

EM: When did you first become aware of, and transition into, singing opera?

BB: Actually I studied trumpet. In Britain you have to have a second instrument. I didn’t play the piano - that’s my one big musical regret, that somebody didn’t take me in hand early on and say, “You need to play the piano.” I auditioned as a trumpet player with second study in singing. I got into two conservatories on trumpet. My teacher said I should audition at his alma mater, the Royal Northern College of Music. I turned up with my trumpet and they said, “No, the school of wind and percussion closed two weeks ago. You’re here for a singing audition.” What I didn’t know that I was auditioned by the head of vocal studies there. I only knew three songs: Delius to Daffodils, very tough song for a kid. “Comfort Ye…Every Valley, from the Messiah. And La Donna è mobile. Those three songs were my entire repertoire. At the end of the audition the head of vocal studies, Alexander Young, said, “Come for a full audition and could you sing La Donna è mobile in the correct key.” Apparently I was singing it a fourth down, from one of those anthologies. They put them in strange keys. I went back, had a full audition and got offered a place. My trumpet teacher gave me the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given me though I really didn’t want to hear it. He said, “You’re a good trumpet player but I don’t think you’ve got that one percent that you need to be a pro. Go to the Northern, it’s the best conservatory in the country, and see how it goes.” For the first two years of my training I just played brass and sang for a bit. Then I got very serious about singing. I changed teachers and things started to happen. I totally dropped trumpet. The breathing is slightly different for a trumpet player than for a singer, the pressure that builds up in your throat when you’ve blowing through a mouthpiece. I do still play for fun sometimes but I had to make the break completely. It appears I made great strides very quickly at college. It became obvious that it was the way to go.

EM: You’ve specialized in bel canto and Mozart. Have you branched out further?

BB: I have now. I was in the Glyndebourne Chorus when I was 23, when I was still at college. It was grounding, a great education. By the time I left the National Opera Studio when I was 25, I was still incredibly young. I was very lucky. I got work that didn’t ruin my voice, a lighter voice that lent itself to lighter stuff. I did my debut at Covent Garden, Beppe in Pagliacci. I was lucky enough to be able to make my career from singing, from the get go. I’ve never been out of work. There were some smaller Rossini roles like Signor Bruschino and things that all younger singers do, like Wozzeck and Alberich. But because I’m a small chap I had to guard against doing character roles. I knew my voice didn’t lend itself to those. I had to be very careful in what I chose. A lot of it is luck. I was just in the right place at the right time on some occasions. I was studying Magic Flute at Glyndebourne and the tenor went sick. It was my first day there. I’d driven for 8 or 9 hours from Glasgow. I was having breakfast and got called to the stage. I had to sing the orchestral dress at the side. That afternoon the conductor took me for a walk in the gardens and offered me Tamino in Leipzig, just straight off the bat. It was in 6 weeks, so I didn’t have time to get nervous or say no. From that I got Tamino in Brussels and Salzburg. That’s what really shot me forward. Before that I’d been covering Barbiere at English National Opera and went on the second, third and fourth night. That also shot me forward. Both those roles were the two I did when I was at Conservatory, so they were the perfect roles to step into when I came into the profession. They were two instances of right place, right time.

EM: Count Ory is quite a demanding role, one high note after another. Do you find that very challenging?

BB: Yes, of course. Any tenor who says they don’t, they’re lying [Laughs]. You said had I branched out. Yes. Three or four years ago I added Mitridate to my repertoire. I did it in Munich and recorded it. I’m glad I didn’t do it before I was 50 because I wouldn’t have had the technique or stamina. I’ve also added Hoffmann and Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua. Concert repertoire, my first Mahler 8. Repertoire is changing now. I did Guillaume Tell a couple of years ago. That’s not really Rossini, that’s Puccini and Verdi.

EM: And Wagner.

BB: [Laughs] Yes. It’s everything other than Rossini. Ory is interesting indeed, because I think even more than Barbiere, Italiana or Cenerentola, Ory requires bel canto elegance. It’s such incredibly elegant music. Coupled with it being in French it has an even greater level of elegance. I was talking to the conductor (Giacomo Sagripanti) yesterday about these things and how the French makes it more elegant. Fille du Regiment is a much more elegant piece than Figlia del Regimento. La Favorite is much more elegant than La Favorita. The language lends itself to elegance. It’s got to be very “easy.” So there’s the difficulty. Doing the difficult music but making it appear easy. It’s not the easiest thing to do [Laughs].

EM: What about the dramatic-comedic aspect, the farcical nature of the story? Do you enjoy playing such a bad boy?

BB: Absolutely! Doesn’t everybody? [Laughs.]

EM: So I’ve heard. I’ve never had the opportunity.

BB: [Laughs] I’m known as a bit of a joker in real life, so comedic aspect is just natural. I’ve spent my career doing comedies. I’ve been doing Rossini comedies 30 years now - goodness gracious, I’ve stopped counting the years, because they start getting too big. Of course techniques of acting changed over the years. It has to be much more subtle. There’s a section where the boys are dressed as nuns and we get drunk. That’s just bawdy. But some of the other comedy is subtler than it used to be. It really is a joy to do. Barbiere, maybe because I’ve done it hundreds of times, I find much more enjoyable, maybe because I’ve not done it very often. Ory is not done that much because it’s not really known that well. But I think it should be.

EM: Maybe it will, now that the Met and Seattle have done it.

BB: It’s a genius score, very elegant. The two casts they’ve got together are fantastic. I think the public are going to love it.

EM: This opera depends a great deal on the relationship between Ory and Adele.

BB: Rather more important than my relationship with Adele as Ory, is the relationship with Isolier. Much more of the opera is done with her/him and me together. There’s only really act two with Adele, but really the crunch relationship is with Isolier because Ory’s always a caricature with Adele, the hermit or the nun. It’s only when they get to the trio that he’s sort of himself. In any case the four girls doing the parts are fantastic. Bravo to Seattle Opera for getting two casts like this. It’s quite an achievement.

EM: What is it like to work with your director, Lindy Hume?

BB: She’s amazing. She has so many ideas. She gets me in that she’s asking for very British humor, borne out of the 60s and 70s. She’s doesn’t have to do too much to get me to know the ideas she wants. She’s also very detailed, knows exactly what she wants. If you don’t get it, she won’t let you off. She just keeps hammering away, which is fantastic. I like her vision very much. She knows how to move a crowd, which not every director does, how to work with a chorus and more than two or three people on stage. She’s obviously got this great vision in her head. Although she says she doesn’t do stagecraft, she knows exactly what she wants in that regard.

EM: Two of the most important characteristics of a good director are knowing what they want, and being able to move a crowd.

BB: And not all directors can do it, by a long shot.

EM: You’ve been doing orchestral performances such as Carmina Burana and Mahler’s 8th. You also have a background in oratorio.

BB: My oratorio experience is vast. Going back to what you were saying earlier, I was one of the lucky ones, in that I got on the oratorio circuit just at the right time. But then opera gets in the way. Since I got my green card, the orchestral world has opened up in America now, much more than it was. I’m getting a lot of offers of orchestral work.

EM: Do you feel a greater love of one over the other?

BB: Orchestral work is my great love. I like being on stage, but I really love doing orchestral music. It’s a different discipline. You’ve got to enjoy doing it, otherwise it will destroy you. You fall or survive purely on what you can do vocally. You can’t hide. I get a massive kick out of working with orchestras. Mahler 8 is just mind blowing [Laughs]. Coming up I have a Beethoven Missa Solemnis with Cincinnati. I do thrive on that stuff. I’ve also got quite a lot of Donizetti and Rossini coming up the next 2 or 3 years in Vienna and Paris. I’m very lucky.

EM: You’re doing what you love, and so much of it. And it’s so exciting that you’re here in Seattle. 

BB: I’m so happy to be here. My apartment is 4 miles away from the Opera and I walk home every night. It’s such a joy. Gorgeous weather at the moment.

EM: I think if you were here in November you wouldn’t be walking home.

BB: [Laughs.]

EM: Barry, I’m delighted to speak with you. Thank you so much for your time. 

BB: Thank you.

Count Ory premieres on Aug. 6. and runs through Aug. 20 at McCaw Hall (

Photos used by permission of: Christian Steiner, Philip Newton; set designs by Dan Potra
Erica Miner can be reached at:
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NDR Symphony Orchestra at Laieszhalle Hamburg                                           © NDR / Marcus Krüger
NDR Symphony Orchestra
Laieszhalle, Hamburg


Whether heard as background music in commercials or listened to in concert halls, the opening melody of Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt will be familiar to nearly everyone. It was actually the second time the enchanting tune had been put to good use by Grieg. An earlier work that featured it, his Piano Concerto in A minor, was one of several interesting works on a series of programs the NDR Symphony Orchestra presented last month in the Hanseatic cites of Hamburg and Lübeck.

That magical tune of Grieg's piano concerto enters on the flute, passes to the oboe, and is eventually reprised by the entire orchestra at the climax of the movement. Creating his own magical atmosphere as he performed the work was the young Russian pianist Nikolai Tokareva. His downward cascade of massive chords and double octaves after the initial dramatic tympani roll had appeared rather austere and sober. But he soon settled in to a very tender and intimate reflectiveness, especially in the second movement Adagio, which he achieved without undue melancholy. It is the subtle deliberateness with which Tokarev created this enchanting mood that reminded one of scenic, nature-filled Norway. Most of Grieg’s compositions reflect his country’s landscape and integrate its folk music. In like manner, the music and national identities of Antonín Dvorák in Bohemia and Jean Sibelius in Finland are also intertwined.
He might not compose with ‘unfathomable profundity’ but his music touches people’s hearts because it is ‘deeply human’: With these words none other than the Russian composer Tchaikovsky  described Grieg’s character. The animated performance of Tokarev and the NDR Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michal Nesterowicz proved that. With a profound and sensitive interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, op. 3/2 Tokarev formed a smooth transition to the following Russian composer: Sergei Prokofiev and his Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, op. 100.

Nikolai Tokarev                                              © Felix Broede
As early as in 1945, shortly after the world premiere, Serge Koussevitzky, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had already raved over his fellow countryman’s opus: ‘The Fifth Symphony is the greatest musical event in many, many years. The greatest since Brahms and Tchaikovsky! It is marvelous! It is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.’ Koussevitzky should be proved correct – alongside his first symphony, the fifth remains the most popular of Prokofiev’s symphonies and is one of the most frequently performed symphonies of the twentieth century.

Introduced in the first movement’s theme, the  lyric melody runs like a golden thread in multiple variations through the whole symphony and revives eventually in the finale, the Allegro giocoso. The festive theme is contrasted by Prokofiev’s modern approaches with dissonant and keen harmonies. The NDR Symphony Orchestra’s performance made this ambivalence of the various layers vividly audible: The clarinetist’s buoyant way of playing when introducing the theme in the second movement. Feathery cello and viola tunes. Rhythmical provocative reversal of the leitmotif in the brass escalating in a fierce chord with the strings. – All this carved out the different faces of the composer that he attributed to himself: A classicist and modernist with a love for lyrical melodies and a distinctive fondness of the grotesque and scherzo-like rhythms.
For more information on this concert and those of May 26-29, 2016, see the website
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Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen at Stadthalle Heidelberg 

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Stadthalle, Heidelberg


The final concert of the Heidelberg Spring Festival on April 30th, 2016, with classics like Beethoven and Mozart on the program, rounded off the festival's twentieth season. The concert at Stadthalle Heidelberg at once marked a first cornerstone in the festival’s history and a new break-off into more centuries of musical springs to come.
Robert Schumann himself celebrated his twentieth birthday in the town by the Neckar – that was in 1830. But just like back then, Heidelberg – as a city of the Lied and of romanticism - remains true to itself, even in 2016: During master classes singers like Thomas Hampson and Brigitte Fassbänder worked with young artists on the development of their voices, whereas pianist Igor Levit and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, among others, trained scholars in chamber music.
A special surprise awaited the audience of the final concert with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen: The Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla stood in for her diseased colleague Paavo Järvi – a young woman, who, at the age of barely 30, follows in the footsteps of Sir Simon Rattle and Andris Nelson: She was named Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from the following season on. Gražinyte-Tyla was a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 2012-13 season, became Assistant Conductor with the Orchestra in 2014, and was promoted to Associate Conductor for the 2016-17 season. Coming to Heidelberg brings her back to an earlier phase of her career – the young musician had served as second Kapellmeister at the Theater und Orchester Heidelberg in the 2011-12 season.
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has been taking the festival’s stage over the years – and the closing concert was the perfect opportunity for the Director of Deutschland Radio Kultur Hans-Dieter Heimendahl and the President of the Bundestag, the parliament of Germany, Norbert Lammert to present the award ‘Orchestra of the Year’.
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen at Stadthalle Heidelberg The musicians of the Hanseatic city made the ‘Spring’ a present of a classical music mix – Beethoven and Mozart. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie’s acclaimed interpretation of Beethoven’s orchestral works have won numerous awards for ‘its Beethoven’ recording on the RCA label which critics have described as groundbreaking – with the New York Sun praising the ensemble as: ‘the authoritative Beethoven orchestra of our day’.
As was to be expected, the ‘Beethoven orchestra’ gave an extraordinary performance of his Symphony No. 6 Op. 68, in F major, also known as the Pastoral Symphony, vividly following the composer’s descriptive subtitle ‘memories of country life’. The composer explicitly underlined the programmatic content demanding ‘more (the) expression of feeling than painting’. One could lively imagine the emotions the composer could have had on his walks that inspired him to this wonderful opus. Watching the dynamic of the orchestra and the interaction with its’ conductor, whose body tension and dance-like movements radiated the joy she had making music with such responsive musicians, made the audience even more enthusiastic about the performance.
Opera tunes with Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No.3, Op.72b from Fidelio and the concert aria ‘Ah perfido!’ from Pietro Metastasio’s Achille in Sciro, starring South African soprano Golda Schultz, who trained at Juilliard School in New York and is now part of the Bayerische Staatsoper ensemble in Munich, concluded the Beethoven part. The singer stirringly, dazzlingly interpreted the last aria of the evening - Mozart’s ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ from Don Giovanni and delighted both the audience in the concert hall and in the garden of the university’s dining hall where a live broadcasting site had been installed. Live broadcast of the concert in the garden of the university’s Marstall dining hall 

Live broadcast of the concert in the garden of the  university’s Marstall dining hall

Setting new focuses on tried-and-trusted approaches and finding answers by questioning tradition – this dualistic character appears to be the connecting element of orchestra and festival bringing the four weeks of classical music to a successful conclusion.
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By Erica Miner
EM: Can you talk about the interaction between your two characters?

FVS: We just have one adorable duet, kind of a trip down memory lane. Just dear.

EM: Like the Countess-Susanna letter duet in Figaro. That’s as sweet as it gets, even with the undercurrent of what’s going on.

FVS: Yes. Basically my character is a singer but not professional, who never went there and had the goods. But mainly I’m just in awe of this kid, what she’s done and accomplished, and care about her and want her to succeed but be happy too. The way Jake has written it, my character is very happy. She’s married a rich man who’s devoted to her and she’s found a wonderful life. In Dallas there was a woman who’s very much like Winnie. She was the wife of the guy who owns the football team.

KA: Oh my gosh.

EM: Did Jake base your character on her?

FVS: No, he didn’t, but it was fun because she had artwork installed in the big new stadium in Dallas so the people going to these games can enjoy beautiful art at the same time. She wants the best. As an older opera singer I want the best for these kids. I know the pitfalls, I’ve done it. You want to save them if you possibly can.

EM: What do you two most look forward to about this west coast premiere?

FVS: I’m looking forward to hearing Kate, and this wonderful gal (Joyce El-Khoury) who sings the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. She’s hysterical.

KA: She’s so funny.

EM: What a great role.

FVS: Wonderful role. And this marvelous countertenor role. Really there’s not a bad role in the whole thing. I’m looking forward to a triumph for Jake. Not because I think he needs it (Laughs). 

EM: Kate, what role have you not done yet that you would like to do? True confessions.

KA: That’s one of those questions that gets asked a lot. I would have my list and then I’ve started to check them off (Laughs). I had Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena and now I’ve done it. Then Rosenkavalier, La Favorite. I’d love to do La Favorite again. Then a French Don Carlo in a couple of years. I would love to get back to Werther. I think it’s my best role but I’ve only done it twice.

EM: I think Flicka can relate to that.

KA: The other night we were talking about repertoire, Rosenkavalier. I have her recording with…

FVS: Evelyn Lear. Oh my goodness.

KA: It’s a great recording. I love it so much.

FVS: Thank you!

KA: I listened to that so much when I was preparing my first Rosenkavalier. It means a lot to me.

FVS: That was one I learned in 10 days and suffered ever since. You know that (Sings) “Wass heisst du, wass du…” I thought, is it three, is it two, is it one?

FVS, KA: (Sing in unison in German, laughing.)

FVS: That’s just where I thought, “Please let me get it right.”

EM: I sat in the first fiddle section right by the (Met) pit wall and got to watch it. I can’t tell you how much fun we used to have.

FVS: Did you ever go on tour?

EM: Oh yeah.

FVS: Weren’t they crazy, those tours? And they would just wine and dine you to death. I always got in trouble because I was really skinny then and looked like one of the ballerinas and they would be like, “We didn’t invite the ballet.”

EM: As Cherubino you sure looked like a boy.

FVS: (Laughs) That was fun.

KA: I’ve been meaning to tell you this. My husband was mad for you in Cenerentola when he was like a little boy.

FVS: Really!

KA: It’s one of the things that got him into classical music. You rocked his world.

FVS: That is so cute. Thank you.

EM: Flicka, you’ve done it all. Is there anything else you want to do?

FVS: No, I love if I’m asked to be part of it. I told Jake, “Listen, if there’s a certain amount of decay (Laughs), you’re not going to hurt my feelings. Just don’t worry about it.” I did this piece of Ricky Ian Gordon’s last year, which I really had fun, I played a 92-year-old woman, so it was a little closer to home. I had a ball doing it. Now my basic goal is to get money for these young kids. This wonderful organization called YMCO, Young Musicians Choral Orchestra in Berkeley, a youth program to get kids into college. We help 80 kids, all low income. It makes me sad that so many kids of color and Latino kids don’t get a chance. Not for lack of ability, they just never have had the exposure to anything. Music solves so many problems in their lives. It’s just extraordinary.

EM: Music as an outlet is such a creative force for kids.

FVS: If you go to a lot of the performances of the youth orchestras you’ll see six African-American kids. You have to go after them in the communities. The success rates are incredible. Whether they end up in music or not doesn’t matter. They just get so much from what they’re doing.

EM: They can discover something about themselves, find something they never knew existed.

FVS: Yes.

EM: Will you be singing any recitals?

FVS: I have a couple with Jake, here and there. That’s fine. Even now I feel like I’ve abandoned my husband. It’s not that much fun for him to come and sit around in a different city.

EM: Kate, what’s next for you after this?

KA: I’m doing a rarely performed work, L’Olympie by Spontini, at Théâtre Champs Elysées in Paris, then Carmen in Poland, in Naples and Verbier Festival.

EM: Do you still enjoy doing Carmen after having done so many?

KA: I go through periods where it’ll fall into a lull but it has less to do with me and more to do with a production that’s ordinary and non-thought provoking. The way these guys wrote opera…every phrase is dense with information about the character and plot. Even the way words are set - a single word gives you all the information you need. So I love to play around with that. You can do that in a role like Carmen I’ve done so many times.

EM: So your comfort level is pretty high at this point.

KA: There are moments, of course. Like the fact that the hardest aria is the very first thing you sing, the Habanera.

EM: It also must have a lot to do with your Don José.

KA: Yes. Last summer I sang with Jonas Kaufmann. I’m loving it right now, but… 

FVS: (Laughs.)

KA: I know. It was so difficult to work with him. And we had to kiss, even.

FVS: Oh, right, really tough.

KA: And I had to listen to him sing, “La Fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” That was also difficult.

FVS: Is he nice, too?

KA: Oh, he’s heaven. I adore that man. He’s a decent, good person who defends himself when he needs to, his personal space and musical choices. Very smart, very instinctive actor, which I love. We didn’t necessarily do the same thing from night to night, and he was all about that, just let’s make it real as it comes. So that was fun. He’s such a great Don José.

EM: You guys are amazing. I cannot wait to hear you sing this opera.

FVS: We can’t wait for you to hear it. I think that’s how everyone feels about it. “Wait till you hear this, you’re gonna love it.”

KA: And that scene…

FVS: And then that scene.

KA: When my brother came with my kid and his wife and two kids to see a rehearsal and they left after my first scene and I said, “No, no, you have to stay because there’s that scene, and that scene is really funny and that scene is touching and the thing that happens when the thing falls.”

EM: I’m sure the audience will be pumped. Also because it’s in English. So accessible.

FVS: Jake’s music is easy on the ears, much easier than with piano. When you hear it with the orchestra, it’s… (Sighs). 

EM: Kate and Flicka, I’m so thrilled to meet you both. Toi, toi for Saturday. 

KA, FVS: Thank you!

(Great Scott is performed May 7, 10, 13, 15, 2016, at the San Diego Civic Theatre.)

Photos used with permission of the artists
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By Erica Miner
Excitement reigns at San Diego Opera this week in anticipation of the May 7 west coast premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott (, directed by Jack O’Brien. I caught up with stars Kate Aldrich and Frederica von Stade (as Arden Scott and Winnie Flato, respectively) during a rehearsal break at the SDO offices downtown. 
EM: Flicka, I feel so honored and privileged to have performed with you in all of those amazing roles at the Met, from Cherubino to Melisande. 
FVS: It was so much fun. It’s great now, too, but back in the good old days it was different. It wasn’t all bulletproof. It’s changed. I was very lucky to be a part of it. I just treasure it. Mr. Bing. He was something else (Laughs). 
EM: Kate, I left the Met before you sang there. I’m totally psyched to see and hear you in Great Scott. Would either of you like to venture a description of the opera? 
KA: It’s so elusive, because you think you know what the story is about. Then the next day after a staging rehearsal you realize, no, it’s more about this theme. I think it isn’t really about any one thing. It’s about a lot of things in the life of an artist but also of people. 
FVS: It’s very “person” oriented. About getting older… 
KA: Yes, within the context of what an opera singer’s life is, but it’s not restricted to opera. 
FVS: Right. It could be anybody. 
EM: So it’s universal. 
FVS: Yes, in the types of people. The baritone doesn’t really represent baritones - he represents a man. 
EM: Sounds fascinating and complex. 
FVS: It is. What's marvelous about it, too, is that every character is portrayed with an enormous amount of affection. There’s nothing damning, sarcastic. It doesn’t have to go as far as forgiveness. It’s great understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make up this particular world. Our world but also the world of the stage. 
KA: Also love and admiration for human frailty and vulnerability. How when you allow yourself to go to that place, which in this opera happens to my character. She’s pushed to her limits to the point of coming unraveled. She lets herself go inward to find out what’s happening and rises out of the ashes as a result, which again is not exclusively for musicians or opera singers. It’s life and we are all capable of going down to the dark place if pushed. 
FVS: It also doesn’t give you solutions. The piece is not like Law & Order, with a wrap-up at the end and you’re either convicted or not. It’s open ended. That’s really how life is anyway. There’s no resolution. 

EM: That’s very unique for an opera. 
FVS: Yes. It’s the resolution of, this might happen, that might happen. That’s not the point. 
KA: Right. It’s irrelevant whether or not the baritone, Sid Taylor, and Arden end up together. That’s not really what it’s about but a means to tell the story. 
EM: How do you think the audience will react to something without a clear-cut resolution? 
FVS: They absolutely adored it (in Dallas). I don’t think they were expecting to have such a good time. It’s a lot of fun. They’ll talk about it. Like when you go to certain movies - what did you think? What was that all about? You talk about it and even then you don’t really come up with a period on the end of a sentence. 
KA: But you’ve felt something you can’t put words to. It’s moving and touching and real. Jake as a composer is addicted to reality and portrays it beautifully, symphonically as well. Jack (O’Brien), the director, is the same. 
EM: And Terrence McNally’s words - a great deal of the structure comes from him. 
FVS: Very much Terrence. He has incredible passion for opera, way before Master Class. Opera speaks to him. It seems to speak to men in a way it doesn’t to women - in a very specific way, which I don’t understand. I don’t know whether it’s the sport part of it. 
KA: We’re more comfortable with talking about emotion. In opera…the words are the words, but the music is the emotion underneath it. In a way it’s visceral for men. Larger than life. Usually exaggerated. 
FVS: Exactly. My husband and stepsons never talk about anything except, we need to put five screws in that and it will hold. It all comes down to some sort of mechanical thing they put together that isn’t really what they want to talk about. 
EM: That’s how their brains are wired. Men need action. 
FVS: And events. And that’s opera. This opera is different from anything we’ve experienced. 
KA: From anything I ever sang. 
FVS: Absolutely. And you cannot label it a comedy. It’s not like Rossini. 
KA: They say dramatic actors are often the best comedic actors. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum, but in the end they’re kind of akin to each other. It’s similar with this opera. It’s so funny, so heartbreaking at moments. But really funny. 
EM: So you’ve go the gamut of emotions from one end of the spectrum to another. 
FVS: At one point Jack talked about it being too funny. There were too many jokes. They’ve actually taken some out (Laughs). 
EM: Since Dallas?
FVS: Yes. 
EM: Since you sang in Dallas, Flicka, does it feel really different to be performing it here? 
FVS: One of my favorite operas ever was Marriage of Figaro, because all the people in it were so real. Every time you did it, it had that large safety net of humanity around it. It was very different every time, but always as magical. I’m really happy to find that out about this piece. I’m happy for Jake. Because to me it means this has durability, lastability. It’s different but it feels great. It’s as magical, as full, as it was. We were all like going on vacation together in Dallas. It was the first time, and that’s a bit like a class reunion. It has that element. That was wonderful, but this feels like the essence of the work is there. Jake did it. I think for a composer to cut some of his lines is really hard. It takes as much work as creating them in the first place. 
EM: Yes. Writing is rewriting. Every word is like your baby. Every note, in Jake’s case. 
FVS: Exactly. 
EM: How is it for you, Kate, not having sung it in Dallas, and especially coming in virtually at the last moment, has it been a big adjustment, with people who’ve already done it? 
KA: No, because it’s such a warm, lovable cast. There’s not a lemon in the group. I don’t even mean vocally but personality wise. Everyone is just lovely to work with. There’s been none of the, “Last time we did this.” Some operas like Marriage of Figaro, you might experience this. I’ve done a lot of Carmens. Sometimes the tenor is like, “When I do Don José, this is how I do it.” Less ability to adjust and try, discover new things. There’s none of that in this group. There was occasionally, “This is how we did it in Dallas,” or, “We can try it this way.” But overall I’ve never had that feeling. 
EM: It sounds like a joyful experience - for you, Kate, being new to it, and for you, Flicka, having already done it. 
FVS: It’s really fun. And today with the orchestra (San Diego Symphony). Ooh. Jake’s orchestrations are incredible. His melodies, and how he moves from one place to the next. Pretty darn amazing. I think everybody is especially elated today, because we heard the orchestra. 
EM: We’re big fans of Jake’s here. It’s also interesting, you’ve done the opera before and Kate hasn’t, but Kate has sung here before and you haven’t. How does it feel, Kate, to be back? 
KA: I love it. I’m originally from Maine. To come to a place like this with this climate… 
FVS: (Chuckles.) 
KA: Sometimes you do these long rehearsal periods, like, I don’t want to be in Berlin for five weeks. But here it’s like, “We can have a longer rehearsal period, I’ll clear my schedule. I’ll stay as long as you need.” 
EM: Flicka, this is your debut with SDO. 
FVS: (Laughs) I know. 
EM: How does that feel, after everything you’ve done in your career? 
FVS: I’ve loved Jake’s stuff from the day I met him. I believe in him so much. I’m just thrilled that he and Terrence asked me to do it. I didn’t expect it. I thought, he does not owe me this - he’s written enough pieces for me that I’ve had the joy of doing. So when they asked me I was just thrilled. I don’t get much chance to be with all the young artists who are around. I’ll never stop loving it. It’s the most fun part. It’s almost sad when it opens and everybody goes back to their life. This is when it’s the jolliest. Just heaven. 
KA: Rehearsal period is so fun. 
FVS: Oh, I just love, love, love it. I get to hear these incredible young artists. My jaw dropped over Kate, how beautiful her voice is and how she has put this together in such a short time. It’s incredible. There’s not exactly nothing to do in this piece. It’s opening doors and putting on things and…I’m just so admiring. And I love the spirit. I went to Butterfly here, and was blown away by the performance. The orchestra is so good here, the chorus so fantastic. And that soprano, Latonia Moore! I thought, it’s like a Martina (Arroyo) voice, just exquisite. The performance was amazing. But the public - there were a lot of young people, all so excited to be part of it, and it was jammed. You don’t get that, you know? It’s just thrilling.
EM: When I interviewed Jake (, he said something about you, Flicka. “Seeing her perform in Cenerentola at L.A. Opera when I was just starting out made a huge impression on me.” His songs written for you have become a key element in your repertoire, correct?

FVS: Oh, totally.

EM: What is it like to create this pivotal role in his new opera?

FVS: Jake’s operas are so well written, you really don’t have to do a whole bunch. I did the mother in Dead Man Walking. He had asked me to do Sister Helen and I said, “Jake, I’m too old. You’ve got Susie Graham. But I’d love to be in it, thank you.” Then he wanted me to play the mother of one of the kids who were murdered. I said no, I’d love to play the mother of the murderer. It enabled me to see a whole part of motherhood I hadn’t been aware of, choices you make for your children that aren’t always the best ones, that have cost them, especially when you throw poverty into the mix. So for me it was this extraordinary exploration of being a mom. In this one, too, it’s an exploration of being the “senior.” I love being the senior - a mother-like figure in the opera house that is not there because of her expertise in opera but her passion for it, who feels this extraordinary connection to this young, magnificent singer whom she has mentored and is so proud of. You’re proud of young singers the way you’re proud of your children. I mentor in that I help raise money for young kids. In one organization we have a girl, seventeen, who just got a full scholarship to Oberlin, $280,000. She’s been homeless for the last three years. You just want to burst, it’s so exciting.

EM: But difficult as well.

FVS: When you’re raising money you’re dealing with a lot of elements you have to get your head around to a certain extent. That’s a bit of who Winnie is. There’s a lovely scene where Winnie thanks the public, but it was so confusing because we went out in front of the curtain before the opera was over. I think the public thought the opera was over. There was no way to make it work. Jake said, “Do you mind if I cut it?” I said, “Oh, Jake, just to be here is my Christmas present. You can cut everything, it’s fine. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.” I believe in him as a composer. As a human being, he’s extraordinary, a most beautifully educated man, so dear. There’s no end to superlatives as far as Jake is concerned.

EM: Kate, I know Arden goes through a lot of changes. Can you describe her transformational arc?

KA: At the beginning of the opera she’s probably at the peak of her career. She’s agreed to do this opera she just discovered from the 1800s, to help raise money for her hometown opera company, where Winnie Flato is the artistic director, to keep the company afloat. Going home and rediscovering her turf. She was probably the most herself when she was making music, but there’s the part that’s the little girl, the simple life of her hometown, that shakes her up.

EM: Unexpectedly?

KA: Unexpectedly. She thinks she going to go in there, have a great time, be the hero, everyone’s going to love it because the audience that already loves her, an opera no one knows, so there’s no comparisons in terms of, “So-and-so sang it better,” but still her repertoire from the 1800s. She didn’t expect to be slapped across the face by seeing her ex-boyfriend from high school, the water tower where they had written their “Sid and Arden forever” little love note. It’s happening right at the crux of her career where she’s reached the top and wondering what’s next. She’s recently been divorced, has no children, like, “Okay, I’m here, I made it to the top. Now what?” It causes a slight downward spiral. That’s where she starts to question a lot of things. She’s under pressure to do this modern opera written for her and afraid to go into it because it’s too intense. So there’s this other story that she’s afraid to go artistically to the full depths of what she’s capable of, for fear of losing herself entirely. In the end that’s what makes her go mad. She sees the ghost of the composer of the opera she’s singing that night - for me, in her mind - telling her telling her to go for it, to do the modern opera, to take risks, take chances. And because she goes for it and throws herself into it 100% she actually comes out stronger and better. That’s where she becomes “Great Scott.”

EM: So she starts out not a risk taker.

KA: I think she’s a career machine. The sure, safe thing. But she’s attracted to the danger of the stage and theatre - you don’t know what’s going to happen from one night to the next - but never able to give herself fully over to her artistic capacity.

FVS: Anybody who’s a superstar the way she is, is taking risks all the time. Coming back and tapping into a part of you that you forgot about for so many years. The world out there when you’re at that level has got to be hard.

KA: You can’t do anything without scrutiny. We can all identify with themes in this opera. Even if I’m not Arden Scott, or my career is not at that same level as the character I’m playing, it’s kind of intimidating on some level.

EM: Art doesn’t always have to imitate life. You’re going through your own transformation, taking on this role, which is great. 

[Next, Part 2: Aldrich and von Stade Get Inside Great Scott’s Characters]

Photos used with permission of the artists
Erica Miner can be reached at:
2 years ago |
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By Erica Miner

From king of the gods to wicked nobleman to villainous prison warden, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has impressed audiences worldwide with his astonishing vocal and dramatic range. On May 7 he reprises one of his signature roles with Seattle Opera: the tormented mythical mariner who finally finds redemption in a remarkable young woman obsessed with the legend surrounding him. Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

EM: Greer, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you again. I feel terribly spoiled, being able to interview you twice in as many months. How lucky am I? Have you started rehearsals?

GG: Yes, we’re about a week into rehearsal.

EM: Since your Seattle Opera debut in 1994 as Telramund in Lohengrin you’ve sung more Wagner roles with the company (Dutchman, Wotan, Kurwenal) than any other composer’s. Does this have more to do with your own choices, the company’s repertoire choices, or a combination of both?

GG: It’s a combination. I think when the repertoire is there, then the opportunity is there. There’s a Wagner clause in the company’s Mission Statement, which is to be on the forefront in this country of Wagner and The Ring and be ambassadors for that particular repertoire. That goes back to the founding of the company. Speight (Jenkins, former general director) took it and ran with it. In part Seattle has been my artistic home for seven years because of all the Wagner that was done, but also the other repertoire I was asked to do.

EM: Since you first performed the role of the Dutchman for Seattle Opera in 2007, has your view of the character and/or your approach to the role altered or evolved in any way?

GG: You know, Erica, you always have great questions. [Laughs.]

EM: And you always have great answers.

GG: [Laughs] I would like to think that the more you live with the music, with the character, there are lots of things that you see as you gaze deeper into the character and the music and what Wagner put together in his music theatre sense - that the music and words and drama and emotional life are all there. The more you live with those things, the more you hear the emotional life of the character differently. So with the text and through different productions you can delve deeper into the whole idea of predestination, how the Dutchman got there, what sort of character he is. It’s a fascinating and interesting journey. I think if you’re a committed craftsman and artist that you can’t help but look at it differently. The last time you and I talked I shared the little Zen axiom, “It’s the tree that does not bend in the wind that breaks.” I believe it’s the same thing with performing artists and musicians, that it’s being supple, not just in your body but also in your thinking about all kinds of ways to approach music and characters. They can’t help but grow in that sense, because you’re constantly adding things. Some things grow and others drop along the way.

EM: Do you feel you’re also approaching the role differently vocally as well as dramatically?

GG: Yes. From the first time I sang Dutchman years ago to this point, there’s a bit of water under the bridge. I’ve talked to other singers about this, that if you haven’t touched the role for a bit and have two or three years in between, it’s not that it’s more difficult. Certain things are easier, other things just need more attention as you progress through your career. I’m sure instrumentalists feel the same way about a piece that they haven’t touched. For example, this run in the (Dutchman) overture I know is really difficult to put together, especially the fingering. Having done it and struggled with it the next time you pick it up it’s a lot easier.

EM: It is and yet it isn’t. Certain passages in the Ring, for example.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: I talked about that in my recent lecture for the Wagner Society in New York, what it’s like to prepare a Wagner opera at the Met. At first it was overwhelming but as I got more familiar it didn’t become any less difficult. The stuff is just plain difficult to play. I imagine as a singer there must be some similarities for you.

GG: Yes, it is always a challenge. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tempo that maybe oddly enough could be just a little faster than the last time.

EM: Getting back to the Dutchman’s character, in our interview last February (, we discussed your penchant for playing villainous roles to the hilt. Do you see the Dutchman as a hero - that is, a victim of his eternal curse - antihero, villain, or all three?

GG: He’s all three. If he can’t find this woman who will redeem him he’s calling for the end of the world, which he knows will be the end of humanity. That’s the conundrum - whether it’s greed, trying to get around the Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, with his cargo, or trying to get everyone safely back as well. I know just from being a Navy brat that most captains are also concerned with the men on their ship. That’s also an aspect of the Dutchman. It’s a very human thing - selfish and greedy but also responsible. He wants to get that cargo back and be paid for it as well as save the lives of his men. No one wants to be responsible for losing lives. It’s such a human condition, he was trying to do the best he could.

EM: And Senta?

GG: Even though he says to Senta as he meets her, “This is the face I’ve seen throughout this firmament,” he knows if she says yes as it’s happened all these years before, when he has explained to other women that they have to die, forsake their youth, to be his redemption, it hasn’t worked out. When Senta says all the right things to him in the midst of it he also wants to know if she really understands what is involved, because he can’t believe this is true, someone so willing to go with him. In essence that is the villainous part is that his character just wants to be released from being a person who’s damned every seven years to come ashore, who can’t die. Everything he’s been familiar with is gone. The heroic part, I believe, is that he’s trying to do the right thing, to get where he needs to go, much like the modern conditions you see people get mixed up in. The Coen Brothers are great with these characters that for one reason or another are trying to do the right thing. Like in Raising Arizona, the baby needs Pampers, and it turns into this police chase where the guy’s getting shot at (Laughs).

EM: Wagner meets the Coen Brothers. Brilliant.

GG: Wagner heard the Dutchman’s story as he was leaving Riga because the creditors were coming after him. At the same he was frustrated he couldn’t pay them, he was also indignant that they wouldn’t understand his genius and who he was as an artist, so that he had to flee. That’s very close to who he was at that time. So Wagner’s Dutchman is not a black or white personality, he’s very conflicted and mixed. As I said the last time we talked, Wagner is a perfect example of someone who created something artistically incredible, greater than himself, greater than his experiences.

EM: Well, they say to write what you know.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: The Dutchman’s choice to abandon Senta turns out badly for her. I see that as a parallel to Lohengrin’s choice to abandon Elsa, though for different reasons. Do you think these plot points are analogous?

GG: Once again, the minute you said that, I thought, that is somewhat of a parallel. He misinterprets what’s happening with Senta and Erik, but at the same time I know he will feel guilty seeing someone give up her life. I think there’s a huge conflict there. Not that he wouldn’t be angry - he would, but he also doesn’t want to cost anyone their life for his salvation. That’s how he got into this predicament in this first place. It’s such a Hobson’s Choice for him. I can’t say I’ll feel this way two years from now in thinking about it, but for her own good he’s saying, I’m going and I spare you the everlasting damnation. So there is a certain heroic quality. That’s also part of the hero myth that Joseph Campbell talks about, that the hero has to separate himself. A heroic nature that Wagner gives to the Dutchman that you hear in the music.

EM: That’s Wagner’s brilliance. To be able to say something without really saying it, just using the universality of music. You mentioned the word “human” - which brings up the fact that Wagner remains relevant, even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is a stretch, but do you feel that the Dutchman’s “undead” aspect makes him more relevant for 21st century audiences because of all the current interest in that kind of character?

GG: I think we’ve always been fascinated as humans, from the first time we were conscious of dying, wondering what it would be like not to die, and what cost it would have on you. I think it is a very potent and valid point because in our society - not to sound like an old fogey - we’re so disenfranchised from daily interactions because everyone’s retreated into social media. We’ve separated ourselves from personal interactions, to connect in that way. That’s why I think the whole “zombie” craze has taken hold, to wonder what that would be like. It’s some part of our psyche saying you have to reconnect to humanity and what that means. Sometimes by being fascinated by what it takes to become a zombie or fight against it, that is in essence our unconscious need to reconnect. We were much more connected to the life cycle, the earth cycle, in the 18th and 19th century.

EM: Going back to your roles: Scarpia, Pizarro, Telramund and Jack Rance, vs. Jochanaan and Kurwenal. Your “bad guy” portrayals seem to dominate. Is this by design, because of vocal concerns, or just the way things have evolved for you over the years?

GG: It is a combination of everything. There are a lot more roles written for my voice type in the bad guy realm. That seems to be from when opera was first set down, that you had the lower voices associated with the more sinister side of humanity and the more clarion voices, sopranos and tenors, seem to be a natural selection for heroes, for a good guy.

EM: Basically it proves that quip that if a baritone thinks he’s going to get the girl, he has another thing coming.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: Your wife Luretta (mezzo soprano Luretta Bybee) is singing with you in this production. It sounds like a lot of fun to keep it in the family, so to speak. Her role is a comprimario one, but are you enjoying having her on the set?

GG: Oh, yes. We’ve always worked really well together. We always were each other’s champion when it came to what we were doing, even when we’re not both in the show we’re each other’s eye and ear. That’s held us in good stead. It goes both ways for either one of us if we say, “You might want to think about how approach this a little better,” and it doesn’t turn into a scena. It’s been a boon to me as an artist.

EM: When you can find that balance and tell each other like it is and still be able to work and profit from it, that’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see the two of you in the production. What’s next for you after Dutchman?

GG: Once again, it’s Bybee-Grimsley combination at the Glimmerglass Festival singing Sweeney Todd together. She’s Mrs. Lovett and I’m Sweeney Todd.

EM: Quite a contrast from the Dutchman.

GG: Yes [Laughs].

EM: The characters’ conflicts are quite different, certainly vocally, but it must be a tremendous change for you to go from Wagner to singing a musical. Is that a big switch of gears, or does it fall easily for you?

GG: I wouldn’t say it’s an easily done transition. We debuted these roles last year in Vancouver together. I’ve always known this from the first time I saw Sweeney Todd - I was at Juilliard when it premiered in New York - but the thing I discovered, the thing that struck me is that Sondheim’s a musician to begin with and he loves words - oddly enough like someone else we’re talking about [Laughs]. It’s the same intent I believe, the use of words, and it just happens to manifest itself in Sondheim’s particular form. I so respect him as a musician. Musical theatre is not something you toss off, something that you just go, “Here I come.” It does require a great deal of thought and work. It’s fascinating. Sondheim doesn’t like to call his works operatic, and I don’t want to do that, but he does do some of the same things as Wagner. The style is the American musical, but with his signature. It’s unmistakably his music.

EM: It is indeed.

GG: There are so many musicals now that all start to sound the same. They’re dipping from the same well, whereas with Maestro Sondheim, it’s just like with Wagner. Once he found his musical voice, it’s definitely him. When you hear his music you say, “That’s Sondheim.”

EM: And they’re both geniuses. I’m so looking forward to seeing both you and Luretta in this Dutchman. And it’s always such a great opportunity to speak with you.

GG: Thank you. My pleasure.

Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman will set sail with Grimsley at the helm May 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 at McCaw Hall. (

Photo credits: Rozarii Lynch, Wah Lui, Gary Beechey
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