Carmen. Manon. Pagliacci. Name almost any opera and George Sterne has probably performed in it. The current production of The Tales of Hoffmann marks the LA Opera Chorus member’s 150th production with the company – a milestone that no other chorister has yet to achieve.
Sterne always wanted to sing. As a boy, he toured the United States and Canada with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and fell in love with performing. Yet, it was only after seeing two productions at San Diego Opera that he thought opera would be a great way to make a living. Those two productions? Faust and The Tales of Hoffmann, both starring Norman Treigle and the latter also starring Beverly Sills. Sterne’s desire to sing led him to pursue choral singing at Chapman College and ultimately to auditioning for and joining the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
When asked why he chose to pursue choral singing Sterne says, “I love ensemble singing – making music in a group. I also like harmony. When I grew up, I became a second tenor and still mostly get the harmonies.”
Sterne’s passion for singing in a group led to his interest in being part of the LA Opera productions.
“When I started working with the LA Master Chorale, LA Opera did not have its own chorus. The master chorale supplied the choristers,” recalls Sterne. “John Curry was the director of the master chorale at the time and when he auditioned people, he would ask, ‘Do you want to be in the chorale, the opera company, or both?’ I said both, but Curry didn’t put me into the opera productions until two years into LA Opera’s existence – 1988.”
Verdi’s Macbeth was Sterne’s first LA Opera production. Sterne recalls that the production was done with a Japanese set – a design choice based on the 1957 Akira Kurasawa film Throne of Blood (which is a Samurai version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
“It was very interesting to do an adaptation of an English play, by an Italian composer, set in Scotland, updated to Japan in our production, sung in Italian, and directed by an Australian man,” says Sterne. “It was very international in scope.”
When you’ve been with the company as long as George Sterne, it’s likely that you’ll do the same productions more than once. It took 28 years, but the company staged Macbeth again last fall (this time in a Scottish set production) and Sterne’s LA Opera experience came full-circle.
While Sterne has been in so many productions, he can pinpoint a few favorites, including Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd in 2000.
“I wasn’t familiar with Billy Budd, before we staged it, but I found that the music greatly affected me,” recalls Sterne. “Most of the time, when I finish a show, I hang up my costume, take off my makeup, and don’ take the show home with me. Billy Budd was not one of those shows. It stayed with me and haunted me every night that I did it, because the music is phenomenal and the production was fantastic. Before the chorus returns near the end of the opera, I would come up just to listen to last half hour of the piece. It affected me that much.”
As for a favorite moment on stage, Sterne immediately discusses his role as The Propagandist in Grendel. While Sterne’s role wasn’t a singing role, he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I got the role of the Propogandist the day before the sitzprobe, because the original person set to play the role backed out. The composer – Elliot Goldenthaal – saw me get mad during a rehearsal and he asked me to read for the role. He liked my mad energy,” says Sterne.
He continues, “The opera – like Beowulf, the play on which it is based – is written in Anglo-Saxon. So, I had to memorize all my lines in Anglo-Saxon in three days before we opened. I must’ve spoken those lines 1000 times in that time – in the car, in the shower, cooking in the kitchen. It was worth it, because I got to be on stage screaming Trotsky-like anecdotes into a megaphone in Anglo-Saxon. It was really fun.”
Despite being in so many productions, Sterne’s excitement for the work has never faded. When asked why, Sterne says, “I love it. I love performing opera, singing, and being on stage with the greatest singers in the world.”
He continues, “This is my 28th season – now, you can call it a career. That even amazed me that it’s been my life. This and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. They have been monumentally important in my life.
Sterne is not ready to hang up his hat just yet. Not only is he in both The Tales of Hoffmann and Tosca, he is also in all the mainstage productions next season. While he’s excited for all the productions, Sterne is most looking forward to The Pearl Fishers, because he’s never done the role and cannot wait to expand his repertoire.
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