Erwin Schrott returns to LA Opera for an extraordinary concert event, Cuba Amiga. Schrott will be joined by an ensemble of outstanding classical and jazz musical friends from around the world, including special guest José Feliciano, the legendary singer and guitarist. Taking the audience on a musical journey through Latin America, Cuba Amiga delivers a thrilling international spectrum of Latin rhythms: bolero, salsa, flamenco, timba, rumba, cha-cha, samba and tango. The performance will take place at 7:30pm on December 12, 2015, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, 90012).
“My dream is to become a little old lady opera director.”
– Anne Bogart
Norma is arguably Vincenzo Bellini’s masterpiece. It’s a vocal fireworks of an opera, where singers utilize every tactic in their vocal range to express the deepest of emotions: love. Director Anne Bogart and designer Neil Patel understand this implicitly. Their Norma is a version that removes the frippery, “the spectacle of the mis en scene” and in turn fuels the vocal energy at the core of Bellini’s storytelling.
This is a style of theater that Bogart advocates as the Co-Artistic Director of the famed New York theater institution, SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992.
In Norma, Bogart brings her minimalist vision and unique acting technique to the operatic world. It’s a medium that serves Bogart’s vision well. She believes that “the kernel at the heart of the theatrical experience is terror,” but in theater the struggle is “how do we create a moment that creates that ancient terror while also having some restraint?”
Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is arguably the ultimate girl power opera, with a fiery and dramatic plot that’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Norma tells the story of Druid High Priestess Norma (Angela Meade), who loves and has two children with her greatest enemy – Pollione (Russell Thomas), the leader of an occupying Roman army. It turns out that Pollione’s affections have shifted to a younger priestess named Adalgisa (Jamie Barton).
I know what you’re thinking – what’s so girl power about that? Well, after discovering that they both love the same man, Norma and Adalgisa put their differences aside, team up, and set out to unravel their tangled situation before their Druid tribesman revolt and declare war against the Romans.
To help everyone get in an empowering mood, we’ve put together a list of our top 10 girl-power anthems for you to listen to until the opening night of Norma this Saturday. Here’s a list of 10 stellar girl power songs.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Pat Benatar
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Fighter – Cristina Aguilera
Girl On Fire – Alicia Keyes
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
As I write this, Angela Meade, Jamie Barton, and Russell Thomas are on-stage rehearsing a scene from our upcoming production of Bellini’s Norma. It’s the end of Act I and Norma (Meade) has just discovered the affair between the man she loves, Pollione (Thomas), and Adalgisa (Barton), a younger priestess. If you think the story’s dramatic, you should hear their voices! Unbelievable voices – let’s call them vocal fireworks because of their equally explosive and yet restrained nature – are at the center of Norma. It’s compelling to witness.
You can literally feel their voices vibrate through the space, giving you goosebumps. It’s a heroic vocal energy that only opera singers possess and share with the world. While Norma is known as an opera lover’s opera, for the opera novice it showcases the beauty of the operatic voice. It reminds you that this art form is built on its power, and this cast’s voices are beyond. The combination of Meade’s soprano, Barton’s mezzo-soprano, and Thomas’ tenor voices surround you lovingly throughout this bel canto opera (learn more about bel canto here).
As I was reminded during last week’s Piano Dress Rehearsal, opera singers aren’t amplified. In other words, there are no microphones like you’d find at a rock concert. It’s these powerful voices that are blowing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion roof off. (Oh, and it’s not an El Niño either…I checked.)
Check out this short clip of Angela Meade discussing how demanding Norma is vocally:
The Nearly Perfect Partner
Librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865) was one of the central figures in early 19th-century opera, working with the most important composers of his time, including Bellini’s greatest contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti. (Verdi even recycled an existing libretto by Romani for his early comedy King for a Day.) Romani wrote the texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas. After their success with Norma, however, their relationship soured when an overcommitted Romani missed deadlines for their subsequent collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda. Bellini used a different librettist for his next opera, I Puritani, but the two men began to repair their relationship through letters and intermediaries. Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, however, made I Puritani his final opera.
The First Two Divas
Considered two of the greatest singers of all time, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi created the leading roles of Norma and Adalgisa in the 1831 premiere of Bellini’s masterwork in Milan. Pasta was Bellini’s favorite singer, treasured for her unusual vocal colors and passionate emotional range. Pasta encouraged her younger colleague to move up to the role of Norma. When she did so, in 1835, Grisi was considered by many critics of her day to be superior to her illustrious predecessor.
Ponselle and Callas
Two American-born sopranos, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, are considered by many to be the greatest Normas of the 20th century. Ponselle sang her first performances of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, when she was an established star; Callas’s debut as Norma came two decades later, in Florence, when she was only 25 years old. Revered Italian maestro Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was the conductor on both notable occasions. Ponselle confessed that “I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about how I was going to do in Norma.” Callas, who once described Ponselle as “her idol,” told a friend “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.”
Callas Feels Confident
On the eve of her 1948 role debut as Norma, a giddy Maria Callas wrote to her voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. “I pray that it will go well, that I’ll be in good health, because after those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed everywhere, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!” It was indeed a triumph, and Callas would perform Norma nearly 90 times, more than any other role. Still, as she told Maestro Serafin during rehearsals, “It will never be as good as it is now in my mind, unsung.”
Throughout his career, baritone Morgan Smith has portrayed everything from traditional roles (Escamillo in Carmen at Vancouver Opera) to exciting new contemporary work (Lassiter in Craig Bohmler’s upcoming Riders of the Purple Sage at Arizona Opera). In 2010, Smith originated the role of Starbuck in Heggie’s wildly popular Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera. He has subsequently portrayed Starbuck at San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and is currently taking on the role here in Los Angeles.
Starbuck is an interesting beast to tackle. According to Smith, throughout the opera, Starbuck seems to be the only character within Captain Ahab’s close circle with “a deep, gut feeling that something’s amiss.” This does not prevent the character from sinking into some of the madness that grips Ahab. This makes it even more interesting for Smith to portray Starbuck, because he can really get into the character’s levels. At first, Starbuck is this strong, family man, whose morality is heavily tested to the point where he considers murdering Ahab to spare his men from a whale of a fate. “We see Starbuck pulled away from the person he wants to be, pulled away from his identity,” says Smith.
This role hits close to home for Smith. Starbuck often sings about his wife Mary and his son waiting for him at home. It’s their memory (and the notion of providing for them) that keeps Starbuck going. When Smith originated the role, Starbuck’s connection to family was already personal. All these years later, it’s even more personal as Smith is now a married father of six. He truly relishes his role as a husband and father, something he brings to the role of Starbuck.
Lucia di Lammermoor. The Elixir of Love. Norma. What’s one major thing these masterpiece operas have in common? They are all part of the “bel canto” tradition of early 19th-century Italian opera. “Bel canto” directly translates into “beautiful singing,” but the movement is so much more than the beautiful arias that define it.
The titans of bel canto – Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini – composed music that requires performers to have a number of vocal skills at their command: full, rich and even vocal tone; smooth, fluid musical phrasing; and tremendous vocal agility (the ability to sing a lot of fast-moving notes in a single phrase). These abilities come more naturally to some singers than to others, but even for those gifted singers who were born for bel canto, it still takes a lot of hard work in the rehearsal room to make it sound effortless. The words we use to describe bel canto may sound like gibberish if you don’t study voice, but I can promise you that the difference is quite clear. Check out Maria Callas performing “Casta diva” from Norma below and then contrast it with a non-bel canto piece: Birgit Nilsson singing “Allein, weh ganz, allein” (an early 20th-century German aria with vastly different vocal challenges) from Richard Strauss’s Elektra.
Still hungry for more information on bel canto? We’ve collected some great reference material to give you a taste of the bel canto movement below, including our top 5 bel canto operas to know.
Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It? – via The New York Times
New York Times Chief Music Critic Anthony Tommasini discusses the history of the bel canto we know and love.
Talk Like an Opera Geek: Savoring The Bel Canto Sound – via NPR Music
It’s easy for opera fans to toss around the term “bel canto.” It’s much harder to actually define it. Literally, bel canto means “beautiful singing” in Italian, but it’s so open-ended that it’s come to mean anything from the lyrical trend in Roman cantatas from the 1640s to any particularly lovely snippet of vocalizing from any era. And then there’s the inverse of bel canto — “can belto” — a handy put-down to be flung at any singer who just stands and barks.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, you’ve probably heard that the great Ron Howard is releasing his next film, In the Heart of the Sea, on December 11. You probably also know that it stars Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, and Brendan Gleeson, and that it’s based on a true story of a whaling ship terrorized by a giant sperm whale in 1820. But, did you know that this story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick?
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One of the most celebrated artists of her generation, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has burst into the international spotlight after a string of successes. She makes her LA Opera debut as Adalgisa, a role she has previously performed at the Metropolitan Opera (opposite the Norma of Angela Meade) and at San Francisco Opera (with Russell Thomas as Pollione). Here’s our Jamie Barton edition of questions.
You have won some huge awards and were named the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World. Is it possible to say what that experience did for your career?
The Cardiff has completely changed my life! I talked to the BBC about it in June.
As the Richard Seaver Music Director at LA Opera, James Conlon has been a driving force within the company since his arrival in the fall of 2006. His wealth of musical expertise and passion has led him to successfully conduct a plethora of productions, including Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. We spoke with Conlon about Moby-Dick and why the production has what the Los Angeles Times deems “staying power.”
What about Jake Heggie’s score drove you to want to conduct Moby-Dick?
It is very important that we continue to present operas by contemporary American composers here at LA Opera. It was in that spirit this already highly successful opera was chosen. I threw myself into it as is my custom and have found the effort very rewarding.
How is it different conducting a contemporary versus a traditional operatic score?
The only thing that is different is the musical content. The preparation, the rehearsing, the reflection, as well as the physical, emotional, and intellectual engagement is the same for all music, regardless of the genre, the period in which the work was written, and the culture out of which it was born.
What do you think makes Heggie and Sheer’s adaptation so powerful?
Both are masters of their craft and they have succeeded in an impossible task, which was to select out from this massive novel the necessary parts to create a coherent, dramatic musical entity.
Have you ever listened to an opera recording and longed to perform it? Have you ever watched a production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and longed to act? LA Opera wants to make those dreams come true. We are working with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to produce a community opera production of The Festival Play of Daniel, conducted by James Conlon, LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. The Festival Play of Daniel is an inspiring medieval musical drama, a retelling of the beloved Old Testament story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
Imagine that we lived during the time of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and the other great composers of the classical repertoire and we could hear them share their thoughts and feelings during the final rehearsals of their operas before opening night. Thanks to today’s technology, we have the opportunity to hear composers, directors, artists and production team members share their thoughts about new operas being created right now.
I am a volunteer Community Educator for LA Opera, traveling through Southern California talking opera to civic and social organizations, philanthropic groups, and schools. One of the best parts of volunteering is that we get to do our own research and write our own talks about Opera. For the company’s current production, Moby-Dick, I thoroughly enjoyed learning not only about Melville’s classic (did you know that American artist Rockwell Kent designed cover images for the 1930 edition of the novel?), but also learning more about Jake Heggie’s adaptation. Heggie is a young contemporary American composer who has created a great new opera based on the book that has been praised as “the great American novel”—no simple task. He has given many interviews describing his approach to presenting the story in operatic form, and many are available on-line. In Heggie’s interviews, he explains the choices he made in composing music for the various parts of the story, the arc of the music from the start of the first act to the dramatic conclusion of the opera, the music he chose to create for each of the main characters, and other insights into the work.
Many opera lovers today approach contemporary opera with trepidation, preferring the familiar stories and music from operas they have been exposed to for years. The resources now available on the internet can help make contemporary opera more approachable, by providing insight into new operas by the composers, directors, and performers into the music. LA Opera’s current production of Heggie’s Moby-Dick offers you a chance to see a great production of an epic American opera, and the internet can provide you with a wealth of information you can review before you head to the opera house to enhance your experience.
“Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma is one of the most recognizable soprano arias, found in pop culture from many soundtrack appearances (Mildred Pierce, anyone?) and legendary renditions by the likes of Maria Callas (see below), Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills. Norma takes place on a Druid temple mountaintop during the Roman occupation of Gaul. It follows the heartbreak of Druid priestess Norma, who unbeknownst to her followers, fell in love and has two children with Pollione, the leader of the Roman forces. The Druids call for her to declare war on the Romans. Yet, Norma does not want to destroy the man she loves. During “Casta diva,” she prays to the Goddess for peace.
Moby-Dick is an epic production with some pretty impressive numbers to back it. The Moby-Dick set weighs approximately 95,000 pounds. This number includes the masts, rope, sails and cyc (what’s a cyc, you may ask, find out here) – all of which come together on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage to form the Pequod. The Pequod’s masts on stage are 36 feet tall, towering over the opera stage, making the ship come to life (click here to learn more about the anatomy of the Pequod).
Everyone knows the Pequod wouldn’t be complete without 1 fiery cauldron to render whale blubber. Speaking of whale blubber, there are 85 pounds of fabricated whale blubber used in the production of Moby-Dick. There’s no whale blubber without harpoons and other weapons the crew aboard the Pequod use to hunt.
“By faith I shall learn this music and by faith I shall execute it.”
– Musa Ngqungwana
This past Saturday, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana made his LA Opera debut as Queequeg in Moby-Dick. With his sincere portrayal of this pivotal character, the South African born Ngqungwana adds another role to his list of operatic achievements that include being a Grand Finals Winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as well as playing Colline in La Boheme (Washington National Opera) and Zuniga in Carmen (Norwegian National Opera).
Musa Ngqungwana’s life has always been filled with music. Growing up in Port Elizabeth and later Cape Town, Ngqungwana’s culture was infused with music. There were songs sung at births, weddings, celebrations, songs sung at death, and even gender specific songs sung perhaps to a sweetheart. With the advent of Christian culture and dogma introduced by the British missionaries in early 20th Century South Africa, a huge choral movement swept through the nation and a slew of community choirs and plays opened up. By the time Ngqungwana was born, it had become customary to have community choirs and neighborhood plays. It was at middle school that a young Ngqungwana joined the choir to be close to a girl he loved at the time. While Ngqungwana says he “failed miserably” to win the girl’s affections, the choir stole his heart and he kept singing in the years to come.
Musa Ngqungwana singing Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue from Massenet’s Don Quichotte at WQXR presents The Metropolitan Opera National Council Award Winners
Our upcoming production, Norma is a phenomenal production that displays Angela Meade’s and Jamie Barton’s electric vocals. But Norma is a huge production in more ways than voice. There are some rather impressive and interesting numbers to note that an opera goer might not think about during the show.
Before opera fans even see the show, a crew of 46 people helped load in the set.
The giant set includes a unique assortment of props, perhaps the most notable being 1 giant full moon.
Let’s talk about costumes for a second. Norma’s bronze and elaborately beaded bodice alone required 18 hours for a very talented seamstress to assemble.
The story of Norma features 2 fiery divas, not battling out for the love of one man, but instead joining forces in this ultimate girl power opera. The show features a total of 6 principal artists, 43 chorus members, 12 adult supers, 2 child supers and 7 dancers.
Norma opens November 21st and runs through December 13th. Be sure to grab tickets to the performance that the New York Times states is an opera “that every opera lover should hear.” Keep an eye out for the giant moon!
Soprano Angela Meade, who made her LA Opera debut in 2012 as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, returns as Bellini’s Norma, a role that catapulted her to prominence when she first performed it in concert at the Caramoor International Music Festival in 2010. She has subsequently performed in productions of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera. Shortly after rehearsals began in October, we sat down with her to get her take on this famously challenging role.
Let’s talk about Norma. It’s a big, giant, iconic work.
Indeed. Let’s call it Mount Everest.
Many opera lovers associate Norma with Maria Callas and a whole host of other great singers.
I’ve listened to all of them and, of course, I find great inspiration in many of them. But I try to make it just Angela’s interpretation, rather than anybody else’s.
Between performances, auditions and competitions, how many times do you think you’ve sung the entrance aria, “Casta diva”?
A bajillion. I really don’t know! I did a total of about 60 competitions, and I probably sang it for all of them, and I’ve also sung it in concerts, private functions and other things, not to mention within the role itself and, of course, rehearsals for performing the role. I’m sure it’s well over 250 times, probably more than that. I should have kept a tally of it.
Many different types of singers have sung Norma.
It has ranged from lyric coloraturas to mezzos. It’s different for everybody, as it should be.
Angela Meade singing “Casta Diva” for the Giordani Foundation Gala in 2009
It seems like you weren’t intimidated by the role.
I guess I never gave it much thought. When I first started singing “Casta diva,” I didn’t realize the sort of implications that went along with singing the role. I think plenty of people around me did, but I thought it was a beautiful aria. Clearly, I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
When the LA Opera first presented Rigoletto in 1993, David Young was the second chair bass player in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that played for most performances during the company’s early years. The opera features a prominent solo for the double bass—at the fateful moment when the troubled jester first encounters the assassin Sparafucile—which went to LACO’s longtime principal bassist, Susan Ranney. But by 2000, when the company next offered Rigoletto, Young had become the principal bassist for the LA Opera Orchestra, and it was finally his moment to shine after years of waiting for that rare opportunity. He asked Peter Hemmings, who would soon retire as LA Opera’s general director, if a promotional poster had been made for the production, explaining how much it meant to him. “Of course,” replied Hemmings. “I’ll get you one.”
Hemmings delivered the poster a few days later. Not only was it signed “Best wishes, Peter Hemmings,” it also boasted the signatures of the major stars in the cast. That framed treasure hangs on the wall of Young’s studio today. Hemmings passed away two years later, making his thoughtfulness especially poignant to Young. “Peter Hemmings really cared about everybody,” he says. “He loved this company and he gave his all to our founding years.”
Young’s story is indicative of the atmosphere that Hemmings fostered, with artists, administrators, staff and volunteers all working in close collaboration toward a common goal. Fondly remembered for his warmth, British wit and jovial nature, Hemmings was also greatly respected for his high expectations, imagination and loyalty. With a background that included bringing the Scottish Opera to prominence, he was more than up to the challenge of building a massive opera company—virtually overnight.
This is the time of year when things get spooky – horrific even! It’s also that time when people scour various pop up Halloween stores in search of the perfect costume. Here at LA Opera, we don’t have your typical witches (Hocus Pocus, anyone?), vampires (Dracula), and ghosts (do you see dead people Sixth Sense style?). While these are all good options, consider taking your costume to an operatic level with these 9 opera Halloween costumes.
The Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is a force to be reckoned with, dead or alive. With her obsession about keeping the secret of what makes her constantly win at cards, the Countess is more fun and regal than other aristocrats (looking at you, Cleopatra!).
Dressing up as Don Giovanni, the title character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is guaranteed to charm.
When most people think of October, visions of fall and Halloween come to mind. Here at LA Opera, this October has been “The Month of the American Composer.” Three of our events involved some of the most important American composers of our age – Missy Mazzoli, Philip Glass, and Jake Heggie – working at the height of their powers. To celebrate how vital opera is to our nation culturally, we’ve curated a few articles below where you can learn more about each composer and listen to some of their masterful music.
Jake Heggie, The Man Behind Moby-Dick
Composer Jake Heggie Brings Moby-Dick to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – via Los Angeles Magazine
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the classic tale of one man’s pursuit of an elusive white whale, has over the years been turned into films and television miniseries. Now, it has been turned into an opera. Jake Heggie, whose Dead Man Walking was performed earlier this year at the Broad Stage, is the composer of the show, which opens Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Jake Heggie On Why Opera Is Here To Stay – via Los Angeles Times
Don’t tell Jake Heggie that opera is a dying art form. The composer of the opera Dead Man Walking “thinks it’s alive and kicking — he even uses an unprintable term to describe a recent batch of articles declaring that “Opera is dead.” And while his passionate words in defense of the operatic form are convincing, the trajectory of his own career is perhaps his best argument.
Music Monday: Moby-Dick Overture – via LA Opera Blog
This weekend, Moby-Dick opens at LA Opera. Melville’s tale of obsession, the nature of good and evil, and the search for the elusive, titular, white whale is set to an evocative score by famed American composer, Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). When Heggie describes tackling the mammoth tale, he speaks of finally finding the music of Moby’s universe in four simple chords. These chords capture the spirit and yearning inherent in Melville’s story and resurface throughout the rest of the score, in a haunting fashion.