Faces of the Opera
Many of the opera singers that comb through the halls of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion never conceived of a career in opera. Some started their careers late in life, after having an epiphany that they loved music, while others began their careers after thinking they would play professional sports. But, for soprano Summer Hassan, it’s always been singing.
“When I was six years old, my mom took me to see The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The music and singing thrilled me and I found myself – even at that young age – wanting to be on that stage, singing, and knowing every single thing that was going on. I wanted to part of it,” recalls Hassan. She continues, “At the time, I thought The Phantom of the Opera was an opera. It wasn’t, but there was something about the word ‘opera’ that caught my attention.”
Director Phelim McDermott’s staging of Akhnaten is anything but ordinary. By instructing the singers and cast members to move slowly through the world of Akhnaten, McDermott creates an atmosphere that is hypnotic. It’s difficult to look away from such intensity, which is not unlike the intense intimacy you get from a film close-up. He further captures the pharaoh’s world through abstract use of juggling and a set greatly influenced by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics discovered by Egyptologists in the 1920s.
While McDermott is now comfortable in staging Philip Glass (Akhnaten is his third Glass production), directing Glass was not always on his to-do list.
In the below excerpt of a podcast hosted by Living with A Genius’s Omar Crook, McDermott discusses how he came to direct Akhnaten and his vision for the show.
Every year, LA Opera brings opera into schools through its Secondary In-School (SISO) program, through which students and teaching artist join forces over the course of 10 weeks to produce an opera. This innovative and influential program shares the art form with kids across Los Angeles. It’s an enriching experience for both students, teachers, and the artists involved in the program, including baritone Leroy Villanueva.
Continuing their family tradition of encouraging support for LA Opera during the holidays, Paul and Marybelle Musco have announced a matching gift challenge. Any donation received by December 31 will be matched $2 for every $1 donated up to $500,000.
For Paul and Marybelle Musco, supporting opera is an integral part of their lives. As a boy growing up in Rhode Island, Paul’s Italian immigrant parents were opera lovers and insisted that their children gather around the radio for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. “I guess it was osmosis, because I came to love opera and it has stayed with me personally ever since,” he recalls.
LA Opera chorister Omar Crook has appreciated opera since he was a child, spending summers roaming the creaky corridors of his grandparents’ house.
“My grandfather had a really nice tape player. One day, I came across the iconic Decca recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing Canio in Pagliacci,” says Crook. “I had just finished playing Billy Idol’s ‘Eyes Without a Face,’ and I was jazzed up. Then, I played all of Pagliacci and the music grabbed me just as much.”
Crook did not immediately pursue opera. In fact, he spent several years narrowing down the careers he wanted, taking a variety of classes from literature to marine biology. He ultimately decided on writing and was accepted into UCLA’s creative writing program. To transfer to UCLA from Santa Monica college, he needed to fulfill one more requirement. That’s how Crook found himself in a beginning voice class.
In the week leading up to the opening of Akhnaten, director Phelim McDermott watches singers rehearse a scene from Act III. In the scene, Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. The only thing that connects them is a lengthy blue fabric that they all handle throughout the scene as crowds gather restlessly outside the gates and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation. From his directorial perch, McDermott suddenly rises and holds up a white sheet of paper with a single handwritten word on it: SLOWER. In response, all the singers’ movements become hauntingly slower. The adjustment is mesmerizing and in tune with the atmosphere McDermott has created for Akhnaten
For Akhnaten, McDermott utilizes the movement qualities of renowned theater practitioner Michael Chekhov. The entire opera is staged in this way with all the cast members moving slowly, exploring the narrative moment to moment, and moving through visually stunning tableaus. The simplicity and flow is meant to entrance audience members, allowing them to get lost in this tale of a revolutionary pharaoh.
Akhnaten is McDermott’s third Philip Glass production (following Satyagraha and The Perfect American at English National Opera) and the director is a proponent of playing with rhythm and movement on stage.
“Doing things slowly is the most effective way of experiencing a Philip Glass opera, because the whole piece sits on a psychological level. Singers move to express what they feel in a single moment, not unlike what they do when they have an aria and sing about what it feels like to be in love for five minutes,” says McDermott.
It seems counterintuitive to marry the minimalism of Philip Glass’ score with jugglers. But juggling is an important aspect of Phelim McDermott’s staging for Akhnaten and sets the tone for the piece. An entire troupe of jugglers – under the leadership of world-renowned Sean Gandini – perform throughout the opera. We spoke with Gandini about his juggling life (a career that includes leading Gandini Juggling for the past twenty-five years) and work his troop’s role in Akhnaten.
What drew you to juggling?
When I was a kid, I always used to juggle three or four balls for fun, and I also used to do magic. As a teenager, I performed street shows in London’s Covent Garden and I saw someone juggling five balls. I got so hypnotized that I thought, “Well, I must learn to do five.” From that moment, I got addicted – kind of like playing the piano; I loved the beautiful patterns you can create through juggling.
What inspired you to form Gandini Juggling?
I met my wife Katia Ylä-Hokkala and she had just retired as a rhythmic gymnast at the age of 19. She’d spent all her life throwing and catching clubs, balls, and ribbons and then all of a sudden they said that’s it. So, she came to London to be an au pair and we bumped into each other accidently in Covent Garden. She picked up two of the clubs that I had and started juggling them, and I said, “Oh!” Then, the gym we used to practice in had contemporary dance classes, so right from the beginning our juggling was filtered through this dance aesthetic. Our juggling also had structure – which opera and dance have a lot of – and from the beginning we wanted to be part of that world. We knew juggling could be structured like notes in a musical composition.
How did you get involved with Phelim McDermott and Akhnaten?
A lot of Akhnaten is Phelim and Tom [Pye]’s dream realized and Phelim imagined juggling in the opera. My troupe and I had experience with contemporary classical music and I was so excited when Phelim contacted me and asked if we could choreograph juggling to Philip Glass music. I told Phelim that the first recorded images of juggling are these wonderful hieroglyphics of women juggling.
The 2016/17 season is a big year for J’Nai Bridges. She recently made her San Francisco Opera debut as Bersi in Andrea Chenier (a role she will later reprise at Bavarian State Opera in Munich), Bridges will make her LA Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten on November 5. She has become one of the most sought after mezzo-sopranos of her generation, but she didn’t always long for a career in opera.
Bridges was well on her way to becoming a college basketball star when she discovered a passion for singing that couldn’t be ignored. She joined her high school choir, started taking private voice lessons, and eventually made the decision to become a singer.
“My parents said, ‘You just started singing classically, are you sure you want to do this?’ I told them I had this feeling in my gut and in my soul telling me I need to pursue opera” recalls Bridges.
The choice to sing opera came a little later. She recorded four songs for a pre-screening tape to apply to music schools. Surrounded by her family, Bridges heard herself on tape for the first time.
Constance Chesnut grew up in the performing arts. Both of her parents were classical musicians. Her mother occasionally performed in her hometown opera’s orchestra and was its first female French horn player. “That was a time when women weren’t encouraged to work,” she said.
Ms. Chesnut’s exposure to opera at a young age cultivated a love for the art form that carried over into adulthood. She and her husband, Sheldon Benjamin, have been enjoying performances at LA Opera for many years, and one of her favorite operas inspired her to become a donor and provide financial support above and beyond the cost of her tickets.
Making his company debut this season in the title role of Akhnaten is one of today’s foremost countertenors: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Akhnaten was also the role of his English National Opera debut earlier this year, in the celebrated Phelim McDermott staging that now comes to Los Angeles.
How did you discover that you were a countertenor?
I had been singing on Broadway and in theater for years as a boy soprano, but at 13 I reached a turning point: I was asked to sing Miles in The Turn of the Screw. I was immediately drawn to the depth of expression and the complexity of opera. Some of the opera crowd hanging around the production said, “your speaking voice seems to have changed and you have hair on your arm—maybe you’re a countertenor.” I had no idea what a countertenor was, but I soon found out and I’ve continued singing in the treble clef ever since.
Countertenors seem to spend their careers in two very distinct musical worlds: baroque/early music and contemporary music.
I love occupying these two ends of the spectrum simultaneously. It’s amazing how well the technique and approach required for baroque music serve the contemporary repertoire I’ve done, and similarly the openness, creativity and daring required for contemporary pieces serve the baroque. I do often dream of singing the operatic repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century, and I have found opportunities to explore some of those composers in recital and concert. While I will likely never get to sing Wagner (in public), I can say that Akhnaten is a lot closer to singing Wagner than it is to singing Handel.
One of the hallmarks of the score for Akhnaten—like much of Philip Glass’s music—is a continuous repetition of musical motives and patterns. It’s so beautiful, but it sounds really tough to learn.
The patterns are incredibly difficult to learn because they do not repeat exactly, but rather one phrase will repeat twice, alter slightly, and then repeat three more times, alter slightly again….etc., etc. At first, I thought I would make charts with letters and numbers, and memorize those charts, but the charts looked like advanced calculus, and I soon decided they would be harder to memorize than the music itself.
I finally realized that the only way to keep it all in my head was good old practice. It had to become part of my muscle memory. It took me about four months to internalize the music, but now that I have, it is euphoric to perform—even addictive. I can get into a groove with it that is unlike any other music I have performed. As fun as that groove is, it also requires a tremendous amount of focus. If I let my mind wander for a split second, I could find myself far out of sync.
Dr. King, it is a privilege and honor to have the opportunity to share your career highlights with our audience. As an internationally recognized teacher, you fly into L.A. to work with our young artists three days every month.
How do the great vocal teachers get great? May we recap a bit of your formal academic path?
I was hooked nearly from the beginning. I went to college at Auburn University in Alabama and began by studying biochemistry. When I made the critical discovery that it would never be my passion, I joined the choir and auditioned for the voice program. After acceptance, I started intensively studying voice. Within six months, I was on stage singing in my first show, Gianni Schicchi. I cringe when I think of how I must have sounded then! After that, I entered graduate school at Florida State University and began singing.
Joshua and his sister, Gloria were not always opera fans. The closest to opera they came was watching Andrea Bocelli specials on PBS as kids. It was not until adulthood that they both fell in love with the art form and found a home at LA Opera – Joshua as an up and coming tenor and Gloria as a rising star in the costume shop.
“I got into opera later in life and Gloria was a huge part of it,” says Joshua, who led an eclectic pre-opera life that included studying theology and a stint as a gondolier on the Las Vegas strip and abroad in Macau.
Joshua was always a singer, and adds, “We’re close and she was really the only family member who saw the whole process of becoming a singer.”
As Gloria saw Joshua pursuing a career in opera, she decided to pursue her dream of studying fashion.
Ted Hearne’s The Source is not your typical opera. The Source is about how we deal with the massive amounts of classified information leaked by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks in 2010. The piece allows audience members to experience this information not by watching the news or sitting in front of a computer where they may become distracted, but instead, through the all-encompassing magic of opera. The Source is not staged in the way you would expect and it is not a biography of Chelsea Manning’s life – choices that director Daniel Fish championed from the beginning.
“Macbeth is a comedy if you’re a witch and a tragedy if you’re anyone else.”
The dancing witches in Macbeth are not your pointy hat, black-wearing, broom-flying witches. As the agents that drive the story, they are onstage virtually the entire time, lurking during every sinister choice that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make in the opera. They move props. They haunt all of the characters and bring them to the darkest moments of their lives. We spoke with the nine women who play the witches about how they bring their hellish characters to life.
It all started at the audition.
While most dance auditions involve an incredible amount of specific movement and counting, the auditions for Macbeth were all about becoming witches.
Like many musicians in the LA Opera Orchestra, French horn player Daniel Kelley plays on the soundtracks for some of the world’s major films. He’s played in the orchestra for scores of blockbuster movies from Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean, and even worked with his hero, composer John Williams, on ten films including the Academy Award-winning JFK. Since the 1993, Kelley has worked at LA Opera first as a freelance French horn player and then as a full member of the LA Opera Orchestra.
“Out of all the jobs I do, opera has become my favorite,” says Kelley. “I just love being here and all the members of the horn section get along. It’s almost like going home to work with the other three players.”
“I love the oboe for its many colors and expressiveness. On very rare occasions, when the reed and the instrument are working just right, the instrument becomes an extension of myself. I feel vulnerable, yet I stay in the moment as nerves and distractions disappear. It is an incredible experience!”
The oboe itself is finicky. A screw can come loose, a crack can form, a pad can break off or an adjustment may shift. During performances, Jennifer keeps a tool bag under her chair with screwdrivers and superglue for just those occasions.
Thirty years after its founding, the opera legacy first established by Peter Hemmings lives on – literally.
That sweet, albeit heartbreaking and starved face you’ll see at the center of the Scottish Refugee’s chorus in Act IV is Amelia Hemmings, granddaughter of the late Hemmings.
By day, Amelia is your regular 7th grader. Besides singing, dancing and performing, she loves baking mini cupcakes (plain vanilla especially) and crafts (she even has her own glue gun). But then again, she might not be so regular after all. In LA Opera’s last two seasons, she’s been in several productions, carrying on the family’s opera tradition. (Her older brother Rory made his LA Opera solo debut as the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd in 2014 and has also appeared in several other productions.)
Before he ever conceived of a career in opera, renowned tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz still spent most of his week singing. While studying engineering in his hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico, Chacón-Cruz sang with local trios, mariachis, and even as the lead singer serenading women for other men who were proposing. He was so passionate about singing that his mother signed him up for a voice lesson with an opera coach. At first, Chacón-Cruz protested, but the 15 minutes he spent with his first coach changed the course of his entire life.
“I told my mother, ‘Nobody likes opera. It’s so antiquated,’ but like a good son, I went to the lesson. The teacher – Jesus Li Cecilio – had me wait and I heard him working with another student. I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ Then it was my turn and after hearing me sing for a few minutes, Li Cecilio said that I have a future in opera,” says Chacón-Cruz. He continues, “Those 15 minutes turned into the rest of my life and I couldn’t be happier.” … Continue reading
As an addendum to my essay “Why Verdi’s Macbeth Is Important,” I want to add a very personal note about why this opera, which has been with me for my entire professional life, has been so important to me.
For no particular reason, it has turned out that I have done more productions of Macbeth (this will be the eighth) than any other opera. Whereas it is hardly a rarity, it is also not a work that is so popular that it comes up every other season.
Ever wonder how an artist steps off stage, then minutes later magically returns in a whole new get-up? While they’re in the wings, they’re in the hands of a dresser, that’s how. You’ll find dressers backstage at most large-scale live performances.
We spent a few minutes with Shelley Graves-Jimenez, one of LA Opera’s dressers, who told us what it’s like to be a dresser in the wings during an LA Opera performance.
Dressers make sure that the performer they’re assigned to can focus on their performance and not whether their costume is right. From head to toe, Graves-Jimenez and her colleagues ensure every piece of an artist’s costume is on, secure, and comfortable before they hit the stage. “Nothing they’re wearing should distract them,” she says.