Meet the Company

The Merry Widow

 

  Anna Singer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last season of SummerFest, Anna Singer wowed audiences with the fiery Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music and the meddling hotel manager, Miss Darlington, in Night Caps International.  

Singer has sung the leads in operas such as Tosca, Salome, Aida, Madama Butterfly, Susannah, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, La Boheme, Le Nozze di Figaro, Lohengrin, Die Walkure, Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, and The Consul. She has sung with the New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Cleveland Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Harrisburg Opera, Lyric Opera of Cleveland, Los Angeles Opera, Shreveport Opera, Fort Worth Opera, New Bulgarian Opera, and Boise Opera to name a few.

 Anna is not only a world-class singer -- she also serves as WQED fm89.3's Music Programmer and mid-day host!

What are you looking forward to most in the 2014 SummerFest season?
I am most excited about singing and performing. That is what I love most, being on the stage and pretty much having a blast!! And I hope the audience has a good time too. But as a teacher, I always enjoy watching and being a mentor for younger singers on the way up. I want to see them create great performances too. We should be passionate about what we do, otherwise why do it?

How do you prepare for roles?
To prepare a role, I do a lot of studying about the piece and about the character. And these days doing any sort of research is soooo much easier with the internet. I've heard that Hanna of The Merry Widow is based on a real person, so I'll have to "do some research" about that. I actually just saw that Renee Fleming will be singing The Merry Widow next season at the Met!

What unique challenges are there to playing Hanna in The Merry Widow?
There actually aren’t that many challenges with this role, not for me! I'm the right age to play Hanna, somewhat like Desiree in last year's production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. These ladies are age appropriate. They have lived a bit and I believe they really enjoy life. An older and wiser character who knows how to have fun! I don't have to be the ingénue.

So yes, I do identify with her. Not that I'm a widow but she's lived and enjoyed life and I feel the same goes for me. Passion, love, performing, joy. I hope that's what I will bring to her and what I try to bring to my life. That might sound a bit corny.

What is your favorite role to play?
There are way too many to narrow down to just one! I can give you a top five; Cio Cio San, Tosca, Salome, Magda Sorel, Elizabetta from Don Carlo and then Floyd's Susannah. I could go on and on....

What’s your favorite opera?
I could listen to Boheme and Aida just about anytime. Ah, and I enjoy singing those ladies too!

What have you been up to since the 2013 season?
I just sang a recital with a dear friend, baritone Richard Lewis. We get together every year and sing lots of different repertoire on a recital. This year it included Hamlet, Lucrezia Borgia, and Elixir. It involved magic and potions and what we will do for love… 

I also sang the role of the mother in Therese Raquin with Microscopic Opera, a piece by Tobias Picker. What an amazing cast and what a challenge to learn!  It was very rewarding but I was very relieved when it was over. And before that I was in Lizbeth. Now there's a crazy lady! I guess I kind of enjoy those gals!

 

Dimitrie Lazich


Dimitrie Lazich, who captured SummerFest audiences with such roles as The Devil in The Tales of Hoffmann-Retold and businessman Edwin Cheney in Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, will return this year as the flirtatious Danilo in SummerFest’s The Merry Widow. 

Since last year, Dimitrie has been kept busy with roles such as Schaunard in La Bohѐme and The Policeman in Orphée. In addition to his role in The Merry Widow, Dimitrie will be a part of SummerFest's new opera-in-the-making, A New Kind of Fallout. This opera, composed by Gilda Lyons and written by Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan, is inspired by the life's work of Rachel Carson, the Pittsburgh-trained scientist and author whose seminal 1962 work, Silent Spring, helped launch the environmental movement in the United States. 

At what moment did you realize that you wanted to be an opera singer? 
I have been around music and singing my whole life. My father is an opera singer, and my mother is a singer as well. I started out as a pianist; however, once my voice changed, I started singing with my father teaching me. I loved it, but the first time I was turned on to opera was when I performed in my first one. Opera is the combination of all art forms which I loved and luckily experienced from my first production in school.

What are you looking forward to most in the SummerFest 2014 season?  
I am truly looking forward to performing Danilo.  I always wanted to perform this role.

Since your performances in the 2013 season, what have you been up to? 
I sang another production in Pittsburgh (Therese Raquin) and after moving to NYC, I made my Pittsburgh Opera debut singing Schaunard in their production of La Boheme this past spring as well as singing The Policeman in their production of Phillip Glass' Orphee.

Do you remember your “First Time” (at the opera, that is)? 
It was Cosi fan tutte. I really didn't enjoy it and I was quite bored, but that was because of the production. Now Cosi has become my favorite opera. The story is charming, funny and also quite sad in a way. The music is truly put to the drama brilliantly, but then again it's Mozart so that is to be expected.

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?  
I love identifying with each character which I portray.  There isn't one favorite role, per say, but I loved playing Papageno, Guglielmo and Schaunard.  I also LOVED portraying the devils last year with Opera Theater.  

What excited you most about A New Kind of Fallout?  
When Jonathan asked me to be part of this workshop I thought it was quite exciting.  I really think it's important to know about to sing new opera and introduce it to the public, especially when this opera has roots in Pittsburgh.

Joseph Brent

After making his role debut as Nemorino in the UGA Opera Theater’s production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, Joseph Michael joins the 2014 SummerFest season. While Brent will be lending his talents to several productions this season, he is particularly excited to be part of our new ECO Opera Workshop, A New Kind of Fallout. In addition to discussing various aspects of his opera career, Joseph also explains why he thinks everyone should come see the world premiere of an ECO opera.

What was your first Opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? How did these two experiences compare?
It is difficult to pin-point my first opera experience. I, like most people, heard opera for the first time through speakers. Maybe my first experience was as a child: my father would play Mario Lanza's albums (on Vinyl) and movie-musicals on 16mm film. I was a bit spoiled in that sense. Those early experiences really bleed together in my memory because I attended a "magnet" school in New York City and we were exposed to all types of art, dance, music and drama from a very young age. I do remember the first time I bought tickets to the opera! I think my love affair started in high school, while I was attending the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. I saw Barbiere, Tosca, Dead Man Walking and Porgy and Bess and couldn't get enough of it - the entire experience enveloped me. On the other hand, my first performance in an opera also has a, some-what, convoluted story. I sang in musicals and solos in choir, but my first operatic experience was on stage at Carnegie Hall (NYC) with the Collegiate Chorale: I was in the choir for Benjamin Britten's War Reqiuem. The War Reqiuem is, however, a type of oratorio or mass and therefore "operatic" in nature but not a true "opera." Even though I had continued to sing with the Collegiate Chorale, who performed great concert versions of operas, I was earning a degree in orchestral performance as a double bass player and still had not performed in a fully staged opera production. It wasn't until I had started my graduate studies at the University of Georgia with Frederick Burchinal that I had begun to study voice. I discovered my voice and my deep desire to be on the stage, not below it. My first role was actually Camille in The Merry Widow, which is the role that I am singing here for OTP! Nothing compares to being on stage. There is a thrill that is beyond description that engulfs the mind and spirit. Performing in an opera, when things are really tight, is an out-of-body experience.

To what are you most looking forward this SummerFest?
I am most looking forward to contributing to this great art form. As opera singers, conductors, directors, designers, wardrobe and costumers, stage-managers et al. an aspect of our job is contributing to the 400 year history of opera. It isn't the purpose of our jobs. I would be remiss if I didn't include that there is something exhilarating about meeting new colleagues, hearing new ideas and working with new musicians. Furthermore, singing for the citizens of Pittsburgh. It is my first time in this city and it's exciting to see that there is a home for opera here.

You are performing in several productions this season, including the A New Kind of Fallout workshop. Do you relate to this Rachel Carson inspired piece in any way?
I think, as artists, we all relate to works like that being work-shopped this summer. Relate to both the content of the piece, Carson's book on biocide as it relates to activism and the trend in the 20th and 21st centuries to look into pollution and human effects on the natural world, and the process of creating, the Lyons and Rayn opera.

In your opinion, why should people come see the world premiere of A New Kind of Fallout next year?
I think that people should come see the world premiere of A New Kind of Fallout next year because it is history in the making. The days of Puccini, Mozart and Mussorgsky are gone and 21st century opera has a different and highly relevant connection to society. Where opera was about escapism, today it has a function of both activism and enjoyment.

What is your most memorable opera moment, either attending or performing in?
That is a very difficult question to answer. I think my most memorable opera moment was my Carnegie Hall (NYC) solo debut. I sang the comprimario roles Wagner and Nereo in Boito's Mefistofele with The Collegiate Chorale. It was a concert that, among many things, celebrated my 10th year anniversary since first singing with the Chorale. There are so many aspects of the experience that make it memorable. For example: I sang with Eric Owens, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, and Julianna Di Giacomo; a week after that performance I sang my first Don Jose in Carmen. It was a busy time and it was really my first professional (paid) engagement as a tenor. I have to say though, the time that I was flown out to sing the National Anthem for the San Francisco Giants, though not operatic, was a special and memorable moment.

Do you have a favorite style of character to play?
I cannot admit to having a favorite character to play, but I can say that being Don Jose was one of the most rewarding roles. Jose's misogynistic  pathos and propensity for homicidal violence are not aspect of my own personality. It was a challenging and curious release of visceral, animalistic rage shrouded jealousy that I experienced playing Jose. It is not every day we are free to experience the very base and raw motivation of love and loss.

 

 

Mo Zhou

This is Mo Zhou’s first time directing for the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.  Before this, Zhou had directed operas at festivals such as the Vancouver Opera Conference, the Spoleto Festival, the Lincoln Center Festival, and the Glimmerglass Festival. 

This season, Mo will be the stage director for The Merry Widow, starring Anna Singer and Dimitrie Lazich.

When did you realize you wanted to direct?
In my first directing class in college. Within 5 minutes into the class, I knew directing was my calling.

What was your first time at the opera like?
Seeing Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky Theatre with my parents when I was a kid. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What are you most excited about for the 2014 season of SummerFest?
I am utterly excited about working on The Merry Widow with the most amazing cast and creative team.

Are there any unique challenges in directing The Merry Widow?
The Merry Widow is a tricky piece. Beneath the bubbly and glittering charm, there is a sense of utter melancholy. It's bittersweet, which makes the piece impeccably humane. However, we rarely get to touch this layer of sensibility because people tend to treat it as a stocky operetta comedy. I aim to unveil this part in my production.

Could you describe a little bit what the directing process for an opera like Merry Widow is like? 
I always believe directing is a two-way journey.In a way, you are trying your best to help the cast to get as close to your vision of the character; at the same time, I am also interested in finding the similarity between the character and this particular cast member as a person. The most ideal situation is we meet in the middle by the time of the opening night. In other words, I look for organic integration of the character and the actor. I will have my plan when I walk into the rehearsal room, but I tend to collaborate with the actors and find out the most visceral expression together. 

Do you have a favorite opera?
I always fall in love with the piece I am working on, so I have a long list. But among them, I’d say I put Don Carlo in a very special place, because that is the very piece that makes me determined to be an opera director. 

What was the last project you worked on, and how was it?
I just had a new workshop production of a new musical I am developing. All I can is I am very excited about it and it is great work!

What are your plans for the future?
I will head to Opera North in New Hampshire as soon as Merry Widow opens and I will be directing La Traviata there. I have three new productions coming up in China in the fall, two of them are new opera commissions from two major arts festival. I am really excited about all of those projects. I will also assist on a Broadway production next season. I can’t give you those details as they are not officially announced yet! I will keep you all posted once I am allowed to share. 

 

Bernard McDonald

Bernard McDonald conducts The Merry Widow-his first time at the podium with the piece- at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summerfest 2014. Before embarking on a freelance career, McDonald garnered wide-ranging experience as a vocal coach, chorus master, and assistant conductor at major opera houses in America, Europe, and the Far East. In addition, Bernard McDonald is an opera educator; he holds the G. Dewey and M. Maine Larsen Chair in Opera at Simpson College, where he directs perhaps the most distinctive undergraduate opera program in the United States. After Pittsburgh he makes his Canadian première with a gala program for Opera Kelowna in British Columbia.

Tell us a bit about what the audience can expect from The Merry Widow.
Love, unrequited love, coquetry, infidelity, flirting, gold digging, political infighting, flamboyant dancing, tarnished reputations, mistaken identities, and the finest, most hummable music in the repertoire. The potpourri of human emotions, foibles and beauty found in The Merry Widow has seduced audiences since it conquered the world after its 1905 Vienna première, becoming an immediate inspiration and model for the American musical theater.

The Merry Widow is a poignant evocation of a long-gone time and place. Written during the final period of Vienna’s long political and artistic centrality, the operetta evokes nostalgia for the certainty, stability, and a way of life that was destroyed, along with the nearly 1000-year-old Hapsburg Monarchy, by the First World War.

How does composer Franz Lehàr convey all of this through music?
Lehàr exploits the perceived dualities of European culture, East and West, to create a lavish, lighthearted entertainment ending in true love. The Merry Widow is Viennese, but set in Paris, and utilizes the two dance crazes of the 19th century, the Viennese waltz and the Bohemian polka. In their combination and juxtaposition with the march, the stately Polonaise, and evocations of Balkan folk music suggesting an exotic Eastern European ‘Other,’ the musical melting pot reminds us of the cosmopolitan world of Vienna’s golden age.

The Merry Widow’s lighthearted simplicity belies great musical sophistication. It is not easy to sing, play, or conduct. The piece calls for considerable tempo rubato (“stolen time”)—subtle speeding up and slowing of down of tempo to create the “swing” of the waltz, for example, and very precise ensemble work.

You have worked with Opera Theater many times before, correct?
Jonathan Eaton and I have collaborated on many productions, the first being Don Pasquale when I was a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. This is my seventh appearance with Opera Theater, productions include The Magic Flute, L’Incantesimo, The Marriage of Figaro, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Gianni Schicchi.                                                                                                                                                  

Gail Novak Mosites

 

Gail Novak Mosites returns to SummerFest ready to tackle her new role! Gail will be playing the flirtatious Valencienne in this season’s production of The Merry Widow.  Gail discusses this role and other various aspects of her opera career.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? How did these two experiences compare?
I feel like a poor opera advocate by divulging my first experience, but this is the truth: I can't even recall the first opera I saw. I have a vague recollection of sitting in the nosebleed section of the Benedum Center watching the Pittsburgh Opera perform something like Rigoletto. All I remember about the performance is that, to my surprise, I was completely bored. I was sitting so far away from the action, if there even was any 'action'!

Fast forward to my first experience actually singing in an opera. I was in the chorus of The Tales of Hoffmann with Undercroft Opera. I was barely ever on stage, but I got hooked... I loved the music, and the singers were so good and they could actually act! From then on I couldn't get enough, either singing or attending, or even watching live broadcasts.

To what are you most looking forward this season?
I am thrilled to be singing on the mainstage with Opera Theater Summerfest for the first time and with so many talented singers, many of whom are friends.

Have you always wanted to be in the opera/musical theater industry?
I've always been drawn to singing since I was a little girl, but singing opera never crossed my mind until after college.

What part of every performance do you look forward to the most?
Opening night always brings so much energy and excitement, but I most look forward to those special moments in a performance when everything locks and sizzles- the music, singing, acting- and you can feel the whole audience is being carried along with you.

Do you do anything special to get into character?
I try to be very literal and in the moment. I like to think about what just happened and what I'm about to do when I walk on stage.

What is your most memorable opera moment, either performing in or attending?
This is difficult because nearly every opera I have sung in, or seen, since The Tales of Hoffmann has been memorable for one reason or another. But my most memorable opera moment would have to be singing my first Violetta. A close second was hanging out with Rolando Villazon on stage at La Scala after his performance of Elixir of Love.

 

Raymond Blackwell

 As a man who wears many hats, the voice teacher, coach, accompanist, and conductor Ray Blackwell is a busy artist. In addition to his position at CMU, Blackwell is also the rehearsal accompanist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and Johnstown Symphony, where he has had the opportunity to play for such great singers as Jessye Norman, Kallen Esperian, Thomas Quasthoff, Sherrill Milnes, and Suzanne Menzer, made his conducting debut with Undercroft Opera. Between rehearsals, coaching, and performing, Blackwell shared his opera experience, inspiration, and how he manages his time.

What was your first opera experience?
I never went to an opera before I was in one. I had heard recordings and some TV movies like The Great Caruso and Svengali, but my actual first experience was as Guglielmo in the University of Delaware's production of Così fan tutte.

At what moment did you realize you wanted to work in opera/music?
Probably when I won a National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competition when I was 19.

What other projects are you looking forward to in the 2014-2015 season?
I have three productions at Carnegie Mellon: The Beggar's Opera (Britten's arrangement of John Gay's), Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna, and an opera scenes concert. 

Of the roles you've studied/sung, which is your favorite?
In the English repertoire, John Proctor in the Crucible, by Robert Ward. It's a great piece of theater and some beautifully haunting music. In the Italian, Rodrigo in Verdi's Don Carlo, what a genius Verdi was in writing for the voice. I'm more partial to German Lieder and French Chanson than their opera. Although I probably wouldn't turn down a Wolfram in Tannhäuser if it were offered to me and if I were a tenor. Gounod's Romeo et Julliette has to have some of the best music! 

You conduct, sing, and play-which do you really prefer?  
It would depend on the piece. I particularly like singing. But, I like the variety that being a musician brings. I don't think I would ever be happy only doing one thing. If you only ate steak, surely you would get tired of it. I think your musical diet has to include options. I have sung, played, conducted for opera, musical theater, pop, jazz, and blues. I do a lot of recital accompanying because I know the repertoire and what singers need to support them in a performance. Recitals create a very intimate collaboration while being in an opera is such a huge scale collaboration.

As a multifarious artist, how do you manage/balance your time?
Time is always a challenge, but I find keeping a calendar and reviewing it every day helps. I try not to procrastinate because you never know what opportunities will arise and you want to be ready for them, not bogged down with a lot of things that could have been managed had you just gotten them out of the way to begin with. Prioritize. Doing what you love is a lot of hard work. I like to give my time to people and organizations that treat me well. 

 

Ariadne on Naxos

 

Elizabeth Fischborne

Elizabeth Fischborn is singing the spitfire comedienne Zerbinetta in Ariadne on Naxos for the 2014 SummerFest season. Elizabeth discusses this role and her future plans.

When did you first get interested in opera?
I owe my love of music to my mother. She exposed me to all things musical at an early age. I remember making up my own songs and capturing them on a tape recorder as early as age 4 and loved singing Raffi songs while my mom played piano. Specifically, he had this crazy song about cheese walking on its knees at the corner grocery store, and I would sing it while crawling around our living room floor on my knees!

My first interest in opera started when my mom gave me a recording of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing a live spirituals concert. I fell in love with their palpable connection to the live audience and the power of their voices bringing familiar songs to life.

What was your first time at the opera like, both as an audience member and as a singer?
I didn't attend my first opera until college. My school put on Little Women, and it was a powerful experience to observe. In my first opera, I played one of three knitters in A Game of Chance and actually got to learn how to knit. I'm not sure if I learned much of anything else, but that was fun!

What are you most excited about for SummerFest’s 2014 season?
I am beyond thrilled to be playing Zerbinetta. She is a dream role of mine. And I can't wait to meet everyone. My favorite thing about programs like this is learning from my colleagues and working with great musicians. I've never been to Pennsylvania and have heard it's beautiful! I'm extremely humbled and grateful for the opportunity!

Are there any unique challenges in playing Zerbinetta in Ariande on Naxos?
Having learned the aria first in German, I'm crossing my fingers that I don't accidentally let some Deutsch slip out! And some of the coloratura passages are a bit tricky, so I have to keep on top of them.

What is your favorite role to sing?
Any role I'm working on at the time is my favorite! I particularly enjoy doing outreach programs for elementary students and the freedom and fun it brings as a performer. So much of my lit has to be flawless and executed with technical precision, so singing for kids allows me to let go, laugh a lot and just focus on telling a story. 

Do you have a favorite opera?
Die Fledermaus.

What was the last project you worked on, and how was it?
I sang Frasquita in Carmen and had the time of my life.

What are your plans for the future?
Professionally, I will be lucky enough to sing Carmina Burana in the fall and am so looking forward to it! Personally, I will head back home to OKC to be with my awesome husband and ornery French bulldog. 

 

Erika Hennings 

Erika Hennings joins Opera Theater SummerFest for her first season! Singing The Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos, Hennings is a Texas native making her opera career in New York City. Between working abroad and rehearsing, Hennings discussed  her career and preseason. Visit her website at: http://erikahennings.com/

What was your first opera experience? 
My mom took me to my first opera, Madame Butterfly, when I was a junior in high school. At the end of it she asked me how I liked it and I replied, "It was nice, but it's not for me.” I was more into musical theater at the time. My mother still to this day loves telling that story.

As someone who sings in many contemporary operas, what is it like preparing and singing in a quintessential, classical piece like Richard Strauss's Ariadne on Naxos? 
Musically, Ariadne on Naxos is a lot like the contemporary operas I've worked on recently. All seem to be composed of demanding rhythms, complex tonality, and a very thought provoking story.

However, acting-wise, preparing new roles in contemporary opera allows me to create a character and know that I'm the first performer to breathe life into the role. So many wonderful mezzos have performed Composer in Ariadne before so I have some ideas already in my head from seeing it performed in the past. Therefore, I am influenced by what I've seen but also I want to make sure I use my own personal approach with the role.

You say that you love keeping the art form opera alive in fun and creative ways. How will this interest shape your performance of The Composer? 
I'm looking forward to making The Composer very sporty and active in addition to his normal brooding self.

Are you intimidated by “pants roles?” 
Not at all. Being tall helps me play pants roles as does being sporty. I think that having 6 nephews also helps. I try to evoke my oldest nephew when I play younger men parts. I try to remember how he expresses himself with gestures and then I try to make my gestures less feminine (which is tricky)!

You share a love for opera and basket ball. If you had to choose one, which would you choose? 
Opera. Less sprained ankles!

 

Benjamin Taylor

 

Benjamin Taylor, a frequent soloist with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, lends his talents to SummerFest 2014 as Harlequin in Ariadne on Naxos.  He’s captured audiences with his roles as Simone in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Anthony in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

What are you looking forward to most this season?  
There are a lot of things I'm looking forward to this season with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, like meeting new people, making new friends, and gain camaraderie from another place besides school. I think the thing I'm the most excited about is to obtain a higher level of musicianship, and to be a more polished singer/actor, and I know that working with OTP this summer will help me reach that level.

Do you have a favorite opera?
I don't really have a specific opera where I desperately need to see, but any Verdi Opera will make me run out to buy a ticket!

What was your first opera?
My first opera in general was The Magic Flute by Mozart with an opera festival in Italy, where I sang chorus. My first opera in which I had a role was Simone in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi while an undergrad at Morgan State University.

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?  
It's a tie between Don Giovanni, and Alfio from Cavalleria Rusticana because of the valuable lessons they taught me.  For Don Giovanni, it really pushed me to become a better actor, and develop a swagger and finesse that is paramount for the role, and Alfio taught me about pacing as a singer and reach deep on my emotional content to tell the best story possible.

What excited you most about Ariadne on Naxos?
I get to sing Zerbinetta ...I mean I love Harlequin! Strauss is also one of my favorite composers, so singing his music gives me a consistent sense of accomplishment and a satisfaction during the process and after the fact. I'm also extremely excited to work with Jonathan Eaton [director] and Brent McMunn [conductor], which I know that they are going to push me to the limit while having a wonderful time making music and giving the audience a stellar story!

 

Bethany Worrell

Soprano Bethany Worrell is a world-class singer who has performed in majors cities including Boston, Malibu, Chicago, Salzburg, and Florence. This year, Worrell makes her Opera Theater of Pittsburgh SummerFest debut singing Echo in the nymph trio of Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos. Worrell shared her past and current projects, her first opera experience, and what she is looking forward to most this SummerFest season.

What was your first opera experience?
My first singing operatic experience was during my sophomore year of undergraduate studies at Western Illinois University when I sang Paquette in Leonard Bernstein's Candide. I was fortunate to have been cast alongside all upperclassmen, and I learned so much from them during the rehearsals and performances. My first audience operatic experience was when my uncle and father took me to see Falstaff at the Chicago Lyric Opera when I was in junior high school. I remember that we sat in the last row in the orchestra section underneath all of the balconies and passed binoculars back and forth to better see the stage. I was mesmerized with the costumes, set, and sounds. Years later I found the program from the performance, and it turns out that we saw the great Bryn Terfel sing Falstaff, and it was the production where he made his Falstaff debut!

As an artist with Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you most looking forward to?
I am so excited to be a part of creating wonderful performances with excellent colleagues this summer! I am most looking forward to making my Strauss opera debut by singing Echo in Ariadne on Naxos. The music for the nymph trio is so lush and harmonically satisfying. It is a great gift to be singing it!

Of the roles you've sung/studied, which did you enjoy singing the most?
I was blessed with the opportunity to sing Pamina in The Magic Flute during graduate school at the New England Conservatory. I loved singing with Papageno and of course the boys during the second act "mad" scene. I am a big fan of singing Mozart, and I also loved singing Despina in Così fan tutte last summer at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Most enjoyable are Despina's cunning and frank recitatives and her wonderful character voices in the Act I and Act II finales.

What is/has been your most inspiring musical moment?
My most inspiring musical moment happened just this past spring. I am working with pianist Diane Braun in Boston on an initiative to bring American and English art song recitals to the homeless shelters of Boston. Singing for the sole purpose of serving and creating a connection between singing artists and those who don't have opportunities to hear high art music in the concert hall is deeply meaningful to me and is becoming a new passion.

 

Pierre Dehret
 

 Although a young singer from Belgium, tenor Pierre Derhet has already sung in several international singing competitions. Most notably, Derhet has won the grand prize of Young Opera Talents in Belgium (2010), second prize for the Jacques Dôme competition, and the SummerFest  Europe competition,  which includes an ‘all expenses paid’ trip to the United States to sing in the SummerFest Young Artist Program.  Between rehearsals and coaching, Derhet shared his excitement about being a YAP and singing.

What was your first opera experience? 
My first opera experience was in Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. I played Raoul de Gardefeu and it was really funny!

In 2008, you decided to dedicate to singing, what were you doing before singing?
Before singing, I spent three years studying to become a primary teacher.  I taught for one year and in that time,

As a YAP with the Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you looking forward to this season?
This summer festival is a really big experience full of meetings and opportunities to study some roles in different productions. But the most important thing I would do here is improve my English.

Of the roles you’ve studied and/or sung, which is your favorite to sing or perform? 
The most important role I played was "the prince" from J. Massenet’s Cendrillon. It was a really good opportunity for me to progress and that role was so romantic and full of passion! I love it!

 

 Xiaozhong Wang

Xiaozhong Wang, baritone, is excited to make his Opera Theater SummerFest Young Artist debut. A native of China, Wang has received music degrees from China and Belgium, and is a  laureate of many international voice competitions. Despite his traveling, he has never visited the United States and is excited about his first trip. Between working abroad and rehearsing, Wang shared his opera experiences with us.

What was your first opera experience? 
I began singing when I was 18 years old. But my first real professional opera experience took place in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège in Belgium in March 2013. I sang the roles L'horloge comtoise and Le chat in the opera L'enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel. It was my first time to sing in an opera house. And it was really unforgettable. 

As a YAP with the Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you looking forward to this season? 
What I'm looking forward to this season of SummerFest is the experience on the stage. At the same time, I will work with the different conductors and different directors. And I have never been in U.S.A. so I can also explore the culture [and] the art of the American. For the young singer, we need to sing and perform on the stage in the opera house. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t have many chances, especially Asian singers. So it is a good and great opportunity for me. Thanks to the Concours de chant lyrique SummerFest in Verviers! I'm really lucky!

Of the roles you've studied and/or sung, which is your favorite to sing or perform? 
Among the roles what I have studied or sung, my favorite role is Rodrigo from Don Carlo by G. Verdi-especially the scene that Rodrigo died for Don Carlo. It's really moving and impressed.  I wish I could perform in an opera house one day!

 

The Fantasticks

Walter Morales

Walter Morales, Conductor of The Fantasticks, discusses this charming musical and his experience of conducting from the piano.  

 "Only the hard-hearted could not love The Fantasticks!  This musical combines trickery, pretense, deception, resentment, and of course and most important by far, youthful and enduring love that is lost by chicanery and regained by its discovery.  No wonder Fantasticks is the longest-running and, perhaps, most popular and endearing musical in history--more than 17 thousand performances during the 42 years it ran off Broadway.  There have been countless other performances in 67 countries outside the United States,  and many more in far-flung venues ranging from high-schools to regional theaters throughout the world. The show’s popularity continues with its revival, in 2006, at the Snapple Theater Center in New York.

"The show ends with love as the triumph of youthful enthusiasm and persistence leaves the audience with the warmest and tenderest of feelings, with a reprise of the unforgettable and hummable song: Try to remember the kind of September, When life was slow and oh, so mellow ...Try to remember when life was so tender...The intimacy of the Twentieth Century Club is the ideal venue; The Fantasticks was conceived to be played in small theaters by a small orchestra--in this case, only a pianist, a harpist, a drummer, and a bass player. It was also designed for a small cast: Only eight players, seven of whom sing and one mute who 'acts' as wall between two houses.

"I'm familiar with the challenges of conducting operettas and short, light operas --such pieces as, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and Bernstein's Candide, but this is my first Fantasticks and only my second musical after conducting Sondheim's A Little Night Music last summer for Opera Theater Summerfest. Coming from the world of symphonic music and traditional opera it is a refreshing challenge to work in a musical. The intimate setting and charming simplicity of the score calls for a feeling for chamber music. In this regard I don’t function as the conductor but as the leader of the ensemble from the piano. A big part of my job will be to create an atmosphere for each scene and set the tone for the actors to tell a story.  I am very much looking forward to working with the actors and the director in finding the subtleties in the score." 

Walter Morales is music director and conductor of Pittsburgh's Undercroft Opera and the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra. He was previously head of music at Opera Theater Pittsburgh, where he conducted nine diverse productions. In addition, he has performed as a concert pianist throughout the United States and in Central and South America. He has appeared at New York's Steinway Hall, Weill Recital Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and Lincoln Center; Severance Hall in Cleveland; and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC.

In addition to conducting The Fantasticks this summer, Maestro Morales conducts the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra at the Bach, Beethoven, and Brunch Music Series, featuring soprano Anna Singer. Later in the summer he travels to Costa Rica to conduct the Central American premiere of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti with the Heredia Symphony Orchestra. Upcoming productions with Undercroft Opera include Verdi’s Aida, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

For more:www.waltermoralesmusic.com and www.youtube.com/user/wms15217

 

Rachel Eve Holmes

Rachel Eve Holmes debuts with Opera Theater this season. After recently ending her first tour with Opera for Young artists, in which she played Rosina in Barber of Seville, Rachel joins SummerFest to portray Luisa in the iconic musical, The Fantasticks. Rachel fostered a love of opera from a young age of five, watching Great Performances on Public television, and at the age of six declared to her parents that she wanted to be an opera singer. Now, Rachel is living her dream!

 What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? How did these two experiences compare?
The first live opera I experienced was Puccini's Madame Butterfly in my late teens. The first opera in which I performed was that same year. I was Dido in Dido and Aeneus. Watching and performing were so very different! Spectating was and still is loads of fun, but nothing compared to inhabiting my first real opera character, especially a character as different from myself as the suicidal Queen Dido! 

 What are you most looking forward to this SummerFest season?
I am so excited to dive into a story that I believe is an important one, and grow close to this small cast! I am also looking forward to this special production with Attack Theatre! Nothing beats the feeling of the last bow of opening night. Knowing that all of the hard work paid off with a great product is a fantastic feeling! 

Do you do anything special to get into character? 
I try to do as much research as possible. If there are books that the opera or musical are based on, I read them. If there is literature pertaining to the history of the time period in which the show takes place, I check it out. I look at the type of clothing people wore in the time period, how they might have spoken differently than we do now, etc. I also watch as many versions of the show that I can get my hands on, both professional and amateur, to take a look at the scope of interpretations of a character that are out there.

How do you transition from each opera/character? What is your process when starting a new role?
I try to treat each show and character as completely separate and unlike anything I have ever done before. Making too many connections between character "types" often leads to my stereotyping and generalizing. I try to find the ways that this person is unique, as unique as you or I. 

What advice would you give aspiring opera singers/performers? 
No matter what, keep singing! If you have no opportunities to perform, create them. Always singing leads to being a more happy and confident performer, and often will guide you towards more work. No matter what, no one can take your voice from you. It is yours for life, so treat it well and let it bring you joy!

 

Brian Hupp

Performing as Matt’s father, Hucklebee, Brian Hupp joins Summerfest 2014 in this season’s musical The Fantasticks. Brian talks about his role and his first opera experiences.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? How did these two experiences compare?
I remember going to see a small production of some opera about Adam & Eve when I was about 12 years old. My sister was singing in the chorus. Let's just say that I was not emotionally mature enough to see a tenor in a flesh-colored body suit belting out high notes. I would like to think that I might enjoy it a little more now.

As a performer, the first opera I was a part of was Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe during the first year of my undergrad. I was able to share the role of young Strephen, who struggles with being half-human and half-fairy. I would love to do more Gilbert & Sullivan in the future.

To what are you most looking forward this season?
I love the whole process of summer theater. It is exciting to throw together a large group of people who have never worked together before, and see what kind of art they can make together. It is a wonderful opportunity to meet and learn from so many fellow singers.

Have you always wanted to be in the Opera/Musical Theater industry?
Not at all! I originally planned on studying engineering or going to Medical School. 

What is the one thing you hope the audience takes away from The Fantasticks?
This was a groundbreaking musical at the time it was premiered. It took a drastic turn from other successful musicals of that time (Rodgers & Hammerstein) that often had huge casts, big ensemble numbers, and expensive sets and instead focused on the performers on stage. At the heart of the show, I think that everyone can relate to the theme of growing up and how our view of the world changes as children and as adults.

What is your most memorable opera moment, either seeing an opera or performing in an opera?
My most memorable operatic moment to date would probably be the first time that I had the opportunity to sing as a soloist in front of a full symphony orchestra. I was invited to sing with the Amherst Symphony Orchestra last fall in Massachusetts, along with 3 other colleagues. It was also my first experience singing Verdi, the theme of the concert. I had to put my big boy pants on for that one.

What part of every performance do you look forward to the most?
The part that I always look forward to, are those moments that I get lost in my role, and I mean that in a good way. As a performer, there can be innumerable things to think about while on stage (words, blocking, what you are going to eat after the show, etc), but when that all melts away, it is just you on stage as part of a story. 

Do you do anything special to get into your characters?
I think that every character is different, so I might not always prepare in the same way, but I think that I simply try to ask myself as the character, "What is my goal for this song/scene/opera?" and then attempt to depict that through my voice and body.

 

Adam Hill

 

Joining The Fantasticks cast, Adam Hill plays opposite Rachel Eve Holmes. Together these young and talented singers bring the star crossed lovers, Matt and Luisa, to life. Adam discusses his new role and this upcoming season.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? 
My first opera experience as an audience member was seeing Aida at Pittsburgh Opera my freshman year of college. Although I had already decided to study voice in school, I still hadn’t seen a full production until then!

As a performer, my first opera experience was performing in a final performance for a high school summer program called “Opera Academy,” where we loosely created a story using different scenes and arias from different operas and operettas. The first full operatic production I was in wasn’t until I played the Jailer and Thierry in The Dialogues of the Carmelites at Carnegie Mellon.

To what are you most looking forward this season?
I have always loved the The Fantasticks, both musically and story-wise, and I am so looking forward to telling this story and creating a truly memorable production. I also love meeting and working with new artists, as every production brings a completely unique experience, not to mention a wonderful new group of friends.

Have you always wanted to be in the opera/ musical theater industry?
The first time I heard the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, specifically Oklahoma!, I was immediately drawn to music theatre. There is something so special and so unique about telling a story through this type of classical music that is unlike any other art form. As is also the case with opera, the music and lyrics depend upon each other to communicate the story – neither element is more important than the other. It is an art form that has pulled me in and I hope to never leave.

What is the one thing you hope the audience takes away from The Fantasticks?
Don’t resist the wonderful things and people in your life, and remember that in order to succeed, sometimes you must fail and be “burned.”

What is your most memorable opera moment, either seeing an opera or performing in an opera?
For me, the most memorable opera moment to date was recently seeing Mariella Devia perform the lead soprano role, Queen Elizabeth, in a concert version of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall in New York. To have been able to see her perform this role so beautifully and effortlessly, even at the age of 66, was a remarkable experience.

Do you put any personal flare into your performances or your characters?
With each character and performance that I do, I always try and put as much of myself into it as I can. I believe every character that you do is an extension of yourself in some way, whether it is big or small, and it is part of your job to pull that part out of yourself and put it into the character.

What is your process when starting a new role?
Every time I begin working on a role, I feel so lucky to be taking on a new project. The first thing I do is start to familiarize myself with the character, music, and script in any way that I can. After that, once I have the score and/or script in hand, I begin learning all the material, figuring out all of the technical adjustments that need to be made, and then try to determine what the character’s objective is in each scene. Then I begin the memorization process, so that I can be free to explore the character while learning the staging and creating the production as a whole.

 

 

James Critchfield

Pittsburgh native James Critchfield, whose talents extend from performing to directing, joins SummerFest this season as Luisa’s father Bellomy in The Fantasticks. He looks forward to, “creating a wonderfully entertaining show for our audiences, cast, crew, and Opera management staff.” No stranger to the stage, James has performed with such companies as Civil Light Opera, Pittsburgh Playhouse, and Pittsburgh Symphony, just to name a few. While Pittsburgh holds James’s heart, he has also worked with the Great American Melodrama & Vaudville Theater Company of Oceano, California. James talks about his first opera experiences and other aspects of his career.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? And how did those experiences compare?
As an audience member I remember my senior year of high school (1979) no math needed... I'm 52... we took a New York field trip to see Ain't Misbehaving with the original cast including Nel Carter (from TV's ~ Give Me A Break and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper and the Broadway dance show Dancin'. Well... we also saw some crazy opera about a rooster at - I think - the Kennedy Center. I really didn't understand what the h... heck was going on in this wacked opera. As a performer my first experience was the mega fun and rolicing Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance in the Summer of 1981 (math?... I was 19) playing the Pirate Lieutenant Samuel for the Pittsburgh Savoyards. Later I joined the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus for their 1990 production of Mefistofele. In all honesty I much prefer to perform in an opera than to see one.                          

Have you always wanted to be in the Opera/Musical Theater industry?
I guess I caught the "bug," when I was in our senior class musical at Carrick High School (1979... 17 yrs. old) with my friend, Raymond Very, in the Rogers and Hart musical Babes In Arms.  

What is your most memorable opera moment, either seeing an opera or performing in one?
In remembering during Mefistofele at the Benedum Theater when the chorus crescendos to a triple forte and the orchestra - with the kettle drums blaring to a mass cacophony - made me think of an airplane on its takeoff.  Pretty cool!!!

Do you do anything special to get into character?
I look for clues throughout the story.  I find out what the playwright says about my  character; what all the other characters say about my character;  and what my  character says about himself. Then I go from there.

What is your process when starting a new role?
I always approach each role the same by gathering all the variables including the entire environment (place, time, etc.) and then answering the Stanislavski "Magic If" question... "What would I do IF I where in this situation?"  I believe that acting is not "playing someone OTHER than yourself... I believe that any true portrayal of a character is to find the motivations from within.

What part of every performance do you look forward to the most?
Sure, performing the shows are always fun, but I always most enjoy the creative process during rehearsals and meeting new friends while catching up with past cast mates.

 

 

Sean Cooper

 

In past seasons, Cooper captivated audiences with his roles in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Der Jasager, and The Ballad of Baby Doe.  This season, however, Cooper shifts gears and lends his talents to this season’s musical The Fantasticks by playing the mysterious narrator El Gallo.  Sean talks about his favorite roles and what he is most looking forward to this season.

What was your first Opera Experience, both as an audience member and as a singer? How did these two experiences compare?
My first two interactions with opera included a Met Broadcast of Verdi's i Lombardi, which captivated me, even at fifteen years old, and a broadcast of Baz Luhrmann's Sydney production of La Bohème. This latter experience was significant in that it showed me that opera was more than chain-mail, spiked helmets, and wooden gestures, and in the fact that I had the actual dream come true experience of being part of the same production when it came to Broadway some ten years later.

What are you most looking forward to this SummerFest?
This summer I'm most interested in this specific treatment of The Fantasticks!

I'm much more concerned with the similarities between musicals and opera than the differences and this has the look and feel of a true crossover project. Working with a choreography team and taking a movement-based approach to the process is very exciting as well. Right from the onset, this has the makings of a special production.

I'm also very excited to return to Pittsburgh. I received wonderful instruction at Carnegie Mellon, got my Actors' Equity card at Pittsburgh CLO, and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh was the first opera company to ever hire me. I've got a lot of fond memories of this city and I'm thrilled to be back.

What is your most memorable Opera moment, either seeing an opera or performing in an opera?
I'm going to project that this moment will happen in the bit of a perfect storm that is Toledo Opera's 2015 production of Susannah. I'll be directing, my wife (Jennifer Goode Cooper) will be singing the title role, and my all-time favorite bass-baritone, Samuel Ramey, will be singing what may be his final performance of the preacher, Blitch. Yet another dream come true!

To what part of a performance do you most look forward?
I really love that hour or so before curtain when there's so much energy in the building. The crew setting up the stage, actors warming up, stage management running their checklists, individual orchestra members arriving in the pit and beginning to tune and warm up, the ushers setting out the programs and chatting. It really sheds light on how much of a team it takes to put on an evening of theatre. Even when the production misses, it's still a small miracle. 

Do you put any personal flare into your performances or your characters?
I'm not sure I'd call it flare but there are definitely aspects of yourself that find their way into your characters. Because of my size I tend to be cast as powerful characters, but I love it when I get a chance to play against type; to be funny or vulnerable, etc. 

What is your process when starting a new role?
When preparing a role I like to resist the temptation to make character choices too early. It's really easy to settle into acting beats even as you memorize your lines, but it's a trap.  That's what the rehearsal process is for. I've played El Gallo before but it'll be different with this Luisa, this Henry, or especially this Mute. That's what keeps this job exciting; even when you repeat a role there's always some new corner to explore and new light that's shed on the part by virtue of working with new people.

You do a good bit of directing. Have you always had an interest in directing, or did it stem from your performances?
I think I've always been pretty interested in directing. My older brother went to film school and he helped me develop a critical eye from a very early age. I've also spent a lot of time as a stage technician, so that helps in working with designers. There is no substitute, though, for just interacting, as an actor, with a lot of different directors. That is the best training for a director. You can always tell when a director has performance experience. When they do, they're often giving you direction with a kind of kinesthetic "what does this feel like in the actor's body?" approach, rather than "Does this look right?" Of course that's an oversimplification and there are many, many fine examples to the contrary. That's what makes the beginning of the rehearsal process exciting: feeling it all out. 

Do you have a favorite type of character to play?
I play a lot of villains and have to admit it's pretty fun. Villains are rarely evil for no reason so you have to be a detective and figure out what made them the way they are, why they've made a compromise in their relationship with the world, and what exactly it is that they want. Usually they've been hurt in some way, very much prior to the story, and that hurt has bloomed into the vicious face you see in the present. Finding and exploring those nuances is a really interesting part of the process. On the down side, we do very little kissing.

 

A New Kind of Fallout

 Lara Lynn Cottrill

Lara Lynn returns to SummerFest in the workshop of excerpts in A New Kind of Fallout as part of her full line up this summer. At the beginning of June, Cottrill played Panima in Undercroft Opera’s production of The Magic Flute. Less than a month later, she competed in the finals of the first annual James Toland Vocal Arts (JTVA) competition in California. No stranger to competitions, she has acquired several honors over the years including first prize in the 2014 Coeur d’Alene Symphony Competition, second place in the 2013 National opera Association Vocal competition, and an honorable mention in the 2012 Mildred Miller International Vocal Competition. Soon after the JTVA finals were complete, Cottrill released her very first CD called “Language of Romance.” Accompanied by Marie Libal-Smith, Lara Lynn recorded Joseph Marx and Bellini art songs to create a CD that celebrates romance through music. 

Though based in Pittsburgh, Cottrill has worked with various operas including Sarasota Opera, Opera New Jersey, Pittsburgh Opera, Undercroft Opera, and Quantum Theater. Performing in such productions as The Magic Flute, Tales of Hoffmann, Shining Brow, Susannah, Madame butterfly, The Consul, Le nozze di Figaro, and many more. She has also held recitals around the world, from The United States to Italy, Austria, and South Africa. 

To continue her summer line up, Lara Lynn returns to Opera Theater SummerFest. Last season, she mesmerized audiences with her roles as Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann and Mamah in Shining Brow. 

Lara Lynn Cottrill portrays Alice Front in SummerFest’s eco-opera A New Kind of Fallout. Her character is an expectant mother who becomes aware that the very chemicals her advertising executive husband is marketing could endanger individuals including their own child. Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring informs Alice and her friends that even song birds could be endangered by the effects of pesticide pollution. And they decide to take a stand. 

Lara Lynn will appear in the world premiere of A New Kind of Fallout during SummerFest 2015 following other site-specific developmental workshops leading up to the full production. 

Follow her online at laralynncottrillsoprano.com

 

Daphne Alderson

Daphne Alderson, who captivated audiences in the role of Madame Armfeldt in the 2013 SummeFest production of A Little Night Music plays the older Alice in A New Kind of Fallout.

In 2014, a free workshop features excerpts from SummerFest’s new opera, which is inspired by the life of Pittsburgh environmentalist Rachel Carson. The opera’s world premiere will be featured in SummerFest’s 2015 season.

To what do you most look forward this season?
I’m excited about this new opera, A New Kind Of Fallout. And, I am looking forward to working with our amazing cast.

Since 2013, what have you been up to?
Well, I am releasing an album of cabaret songs later this summer, which was recorded last summer (immediately after we closed A Little Night Music), I have been touring a series of concerts with Norma Weintraub Meyer, an amazing pianist from Philadelphia, touring my cabaret A Piaf Songbook, and I was in the world premiere of Todd Goodman’s Night of the Living Dead, a big thrill. So, apart from my work as an adjunct professor, it’s been a wacky, rewarding year. When I have time, I hang out with my cats and try to see my husband and some friends.                                                                                                                                                                

Do you have a favorite opera?
I have a soft spot for Dido and Aeneas.

What was your first opera?
La Boheme (on television)

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?
In recent years, I have been doing a lot of character parts and I’ve loved them all:  Miss Baggott, Madame Armfeldt (because she’s so warm and funny), Agnes the Digger in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Helen in Night of the Living Dead was challenging and interesting, Mere Jeanne in Dialogues.

What excited you most about A New Kind of Fallout? What do you think is important about this new American opera?
Rachel Carson is such a pivotal figure in environmental history issues, and it’s certainly a time to be questioning how we treat the earth, our home; those issues are important.  I am excited because it is a new piece of music and theatre by an incredible playwright and composer…that intrigues me and offers a real challenge.  It’s important to get new operas up and running in the world, and I love contemporary opera. Also, I am happy to be working with Lara Lynn Cottrill again…she’s a wonderful artist and colleague.

 

Happy Hour!

Roger Zahab

Roger Zahab is a local composer, musician, and frequent Opera Theater collaborator. But his work and experience reaches far beyond western Pennsylvania. Zahab’s work has been performed throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia by such soloists and ensembles as cellists David Russell and Lawrence Stomberg, kayagum artist Heesun Kim, violinist Nathalie Shaw, flutist Lindsey Goodman, pianists Robert Frankenberry, Eric Moe and Bennett Lerner, guitarists John Muratore and James Marron, and The Furious Band, California EAR Unit, IonSound Project and PNME.

Roger Zahab is also the composer of SummerFest’s original Happy Hour! program. Happy Hour! takes you into the minds of average Pittsburghers as they contemplate, in musical fashion, a meet-up in a local bar. From first dates to break-ups, to drinks with the girls or guys' night out, we've commissioned this series of "bar arias" that allow you to eavesdrop into the personal lives of the characters. Roger Zahab discusses Happy Hour!, composing, and his future plans.

When did you get interested in composing?
I was absorbed in music from a very young age and somehow managed to memorize the colors and designs on record labels so I could ask for certain records to be played even before I could actually read. I would improvise for hours as a child, first singing and banging on drums, and then after I started lessons I played the violin constantly. My first attempts at “written” music were some very pretty designs which my cousin Rosemarie obligingly played on the piano. She finally admitted that I might need to know a little more for it to actually mean something as music.

What was the first piece you fully composed, and how was that experience?
I think my first composed work for the public was an overture to a play about the Red Cross, in fourth grade. It took a few more years for me to really have some idea about how to compose, and that was due to the patience of friends who tried out things with me and then offered helpful comments.

What work have you done with SummerFest in the past, and how did you enjoy it?
As a composer I’ve written two "Nightcaps" with librettist Robert Handel called the Presidential Suite and the Penthouse Suite. It was great fun, and much easier to do than the larger operas I’ve written. So I guess for Opera Theater I’ve gone from a couple of short drinks to a full Happy Hour – which has turned out to be a more intricate affair.

What was the first opera you attended?
La Traviata, I think. I was astounded at how she could be dying and yet sing so passionately and at such length!

What was the process for composing something as collaborative as a Happy Hour?
The first thing – as any musician knows – is that one must listen carefully to what people are asking for, and to identify as clearly as possible how I could provide that. My request of the librettists was that they write what they know and are most comfortable with, and that they should write dramatically (and not worry about being “operatic”) so that I could find my own way through their work. We knew that it would be a series of incidents or scenes and that they were naturally tied together by occurring in a bar.

You wrote a libretto as well, correct? How did the idea for that story come to you?
My libretto is called Full Service Menu. It reveals the inner life of the bar through its wait-staff and allows me to tie all the other scenes together. I have tried to find the intersection where the staff serve – and comment on – their customers even as they find themselves caught up in their own dramas.

What are you looking forward to most this SummerFest season?
I’m going to enjoy the great range of work that is possible in a festival, and hope our Happy Hour will provide good company!

 
Pierre Dehret
 

 Although a young singer from Belgium, tenor Pierre Derhet has already sung in several international singing competitions. Most notably, Derhet has won the grand prize of Young Opera Talents in Belgium (2010), second prize for the Jacques Dôme competition, and the SummerFest  Europe competition,  which includes an ‘all expenses paid’ trip to the United States to sing in the SummerFest Young Artist Program.  Between rehearsals and coaching, Derhet shared his excitement about being a YAP and singing.

What was your first opera experience? 
My first opera experience was in Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. I played Raoul de Gardefeu and it was really funny!

In 2008, you decided to dedicate to singing, what were you doing before singing?
Before singing, I spent three years studying to become a primary teacher.  I taught for one year and in that time,

As a YAP with the Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you looking forward to this season?
This summer festival is a really big experience full of meetings and opportunities to study some roles in different productions. But the most important thing I would do here is improve my English.

Of the roles you’ve studied and/or sung, which is your favorite to sing or perform? 
The most important role I played was "the prince" from J. Massenet’s Cendrillon. It was a really good opportunity for me to progress and that role was so romantic and full of passion! I love it!

 

Benjamin Taylor

 

Benjamin Taylor, a frequent soloist with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, lends his talents to SummerFest 2014 as Harlequin in Ariadne on Naxos.  He’s captured audiences with his roles as Simone in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Anthony in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

What are you looking forward to most this season?  
There are a lot of things I'm looking forward to this season with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, like meeting new people, making new friends, and gain camaraderie from another place besides school. I think the thing I'm the most excited about is to obtain a higher level of musicianship, and to be a more polished singer/actor, and I know that working with OTP this summer will help me reach that level.

Do you have a favorite opera?
I don't really have a specific opera where I desperately need to see, but any Verdi Opera will make me run out to buy a ticket!

What was your first opera?
My first opera in general was The Magic Flute by Mozart with an opera festival in Italy, where I sang chorus. My first opera in which I had a role was Simone in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi while an undergrad at Morgan State University.

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?  
It's a tie between Don Giovanni, and Alfio from Cavalleria Rusticana because of the valuable lessons they taught me.  For Don Giovanni, it really pushed me to become a better actor, and develop a swagger and finesse that is paramount for the role, and Alfio taught me about pacing as a singer and reach deep on my emotional content to tell the best story possible.

What excited you most about Ariadne on Naxos?
I get to sing Zerbinetta ...I mean I love Harlequin! Strauss is also one of my favorite composers, so singing his music gives me a consistent sense of accomplishment and a satisfaction during the process and after the fact. I'm also extremely excited to work with Jonathan Eaton [director] and Brent McMunn [conductor], which I know that they are going to push me to the limit while having a wonderful time making music and giving the audience a stellar story!

 

Bethany Worrell

Soprano Bethany Worrell is a world-class singer who has performed in majors cities including Boston, Malibu, Chicago, Salzburg, and Florence. This year, Worrell makes her Opera Theater of Pittsburgh SummerFest debut singing Echo in the nymph trio of Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos. Worrell shared her past and current projects, her first opera experience, and what she is looking forward to most this SummerFest season.

What was your first opera experience?
My first singing operatic experience was during my sophomore year of undergraduate studies at Western Illinois University when I sang Paquette in Leonard Bernstein's Candide. I was fortunate to have been cast alongside all upperclassmen, and I learned so much from them during the rehearsals and performances. My first audience operatic experience was when my uncle and father took me to see Falstaff at the Chicago Lyric Opera when I was in junior high school. I remember that we sat in the last row in the orchestra section underneath all of the balconies and passed binoculars back and forth to better see the stage. I was mesmerized with the costumes, set, and sounds. Years later I found the program from the performance, and it turns out that we saw the great Bryn Terfel sing Falstaff, and it was the production where he made his Falstaff debut!

As an artist with Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you most looking forward to?
I am so excited to be a part of creating wonderful performances with excellent colleagues this summer! I am most looking forward to making my Strauss opera debut by singing Echo in Ariadne on Naxos. The music for the nymph trio is so lush and harmonically satisfying. It is a great gift to be singing it!

Of the roles you've sung/studied, which did you enjoy singing the most? 
I was blessed with the opportunity to sing Pamina in The Magic Flute during graduate school at the New England Conservatory. I loved singing with Papageno and of course the boys during the second act "mad" scene. I am a big fan of singing Mozart, and I also loved singing Despina in Così fan tutte last summer at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Most enjoyable are Despina's cunning and frank recitatives and her wonderful character voices in the Act I and Act II finales.

 

What is/has been your most inspiring musical moment? 
My most inspiring musical moment happened just this past spring. I am working with pianist Diane Braun in Boston on an initiative to bring American and English art song recitals to the homeless shelters of Boston. Singing for the sole purpose of serving and creating a connection between singing artists and those who don't have opportunities to hear high art music in the concert hall is deeply meaningful to me and is becoming a new passion.

 

Erika Hennings 

Erika Hennings joins Opera Theater SummerFest for her first season! Singing The Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos, Hennings is a Texas native making her opera career in New York City. Between working abroad and rehearsing, Hennings discussed  her career and preseason. Visit her website at: http://erikahennings.com/

What was your first opera experience? 
My mom took me to my first opera, Madame Butterfly, when I was a junior in high school. At the end of it she asked me how I liked it and I replied, "It was nice, but it's not for me.” I was more into musical theater at the time. My mother still to this day loves telling that story.

As someone who sings in many contemporary operas, what is it like preparing and singing in a quintessential, classical piece like Richard Strauss's Ariadne on Naxos? 
Musically, Ariadne on Naxos is a lot like the contemporary operas I've worked on recently. All seem to be composed of demanding rhythms, complex tonality, and a very thought provoking story.

However, acting-wise, preparing new roles in contemporary opera allows me to create a character and know that I'm the first performer to breathe life into the role. So many wonderful mezzos have performed Composer in Ariadne before so I have some ideas already in my head from seeing it performed in the past. Therefore, I am influenced by what I've seen but also I want to make sure I use my own personal approach with the role.

You say that you love keeping the art form opera alive in fun and creative ways. How will this interest shape your performance of The Composer? 
I'm looking forward to making The Composer very sporty and active in addition to his normal brooding self.

Are you intimidated by “pants roles?” 
Not at all. Being tall helps me play pants roles as does being sporty. I think that having 6 nephews also helps. I try to evoke my oldest nephew when I play younger men parts. I try to remember how he expresses himself with gestures and then I try to make my gestures less feminine (which is tricky)!

You share a love for opera and basket ball. If you had to choose one, which would you choose? 
Opera. Less sprained ankles!

 

Happy Hour!  Writers

Barbara Jwanouskos, Stephen Webb, and Josh Ginsburg are just three of the young librettists lending their talents to the world premiere of Happy Hour!  These three artists, in addition to their fellow writers, are all members of the graduate program in dramatic writing at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. In collaboration with composer Roger Zahab, the Happy Hour writers bring an operatic twist to local bar scenes. Barbara, Josh, and Stephen discuss the process of creating these unique bar-arias. 

What year are you?
Barbara:
This is my last year, actually. I’m about to graduate.
Josh:
Same with me. Barbara and I just got back from our senior trip to LA, and after this week we’ll be heading to New York City to do some more work.
Stephen:
This is my first year.

Tell me a little bit about your vignettes.
Barbara:
My little Happy Hour! vignette is called Time to Wine. It’s a comedy about three different women at a bar who just want to drink alone, but they keep on being hit on and judged by other patrons. So they end up banding together to drink alone... together.
Stephen:
Mine is called Ms. Irvine. It’s a dark comedy, like a lot of what I write. The story is about an off duty female firefighter, who is revered in the town for what she does. But this night she’s at the bar to drink alone and drown her sorrows after being unable to save an old lady who had crawled up a tree.
Josh:
My little opera is titled Desperately Seeking. It’s a story about a woman who is getting drinks with a man who she’d met on an online dating site. As it turns out, the man was not entirely truthful in his profile, to the woman’s disappointment. So the man hopes his personality will win her over.

How did you get involved in this project?
Stephen:
Rob [Handel] has been involved with SummerFest in the past. He approached us and asked if we’d be interested in working on this as a fun side project.

How did you come up with the idea?
Barbara:
Well, we were originally given the prompt by Roger [Zahab] to write something that could take place in a bar. Roger mentioned that most of the artists who would be able to sing were female. That got me thinking about what situations could come up in a bar setting with mostly women. That’s how the idea came to me.
Stephen:
Jonathan Eaton gave us some general ideas about what we could write about. We were in contact with Roger very frequently. We would bounce ideas off of him and he would let us know how he would tailor his music to our writing styles. That helped me hone in on my story. Roger was very open to ideas.
Josh:
Jonathan gave us a list of possible storylines, one of which was “the online date”. I thought it would be fun to take a twist on the traditional blind date trope about lying about your persona online. Jonathan wanted us to be entertaining. The story needed to work in a bar setting and in a larger venue.

What was your process for writing your story?
Stephen:
We originally worked independently on a story and a plot. But we frequently ran our ideas by Roger to discuss how feasible our stories were. He was very nurturing of ideas.
Barbara:
Roger was very accommodating and knew what to do with our stories. You could email him or talk with him and he made himself very available. Rob also helped us with the process of writing libretti. We had an intensive workshop where Rob taught us what we would need to know about libretto, since none of us had written one before.

At what point does the music come in?
Josh:
The music will be a surprise to us! We haven’t heard it yet. We wrote the libretto, now it’s in Roger’s hands.
Barbara:
I can’t wait to hear it. Although we haven’t heard the Happy Hour! music, Roger showed us a lot of his work so we could get an understanding of what it might sound like. Roger explained that what we write would inform the music he made, so a lot of the power was really in own hands, with Roger just interpreting. This is the first libretto I’ve ever written, so it’ll be exciting to hear for the first time!
Stephen:
In a way, it’s exciting not knowing what the finished product will be.

What challenges are there to this specific form of writing?
Josh:
It was completely different from anything I’ve ever done before, and completely unlike playwriting. One of the biggest challenges I had when writing was thinking about how my words would sound musically. As part of the opera workshop that Rob gave us, he explained what words sound awkward when sung and how to pay attention to the musicality of sentences and phrases. It was difficult at first. I went through several drafts because I had to keep simplifying the speech and letting the music do the communicating, rather than the words.
Barbara:
That was the biggest challenge for me as well. Roger and Rob were both very helpful with that. I would show them something I had written and they would point out words that would be very awkward to sing and would sound odd to the audience. I needed to be extremely conscious of word choice. It was actually very fun for me to play around with words in a musical context.

What was your first time? At the opera, that is.
Barbara:
La Boheme was the first opera I ever saw. However, I grew up listening to a lot of classical music. The first opera I remember hearing over and over again as a child was Aida. I loved it. I loved the largeness of the opera.
Stephen:
My first opera was Madame Butterfly. It was visually stunning. It’s amazing what emotions can be communicated through song.
Josh:
My first opera was Carmen.

 

Rachael DeAnne Crossman

Rachael Crossman joins SummerFest this season to partake in a collection of Bar-Arias that we like to call Happy Hour! Rachael talks about her upcoming role and the concept of opera in local bars.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? And how did these experiences compare?
Thanks to my family’s love of music and theatre, I have been singing and performing since childhood, but my first genuine opera experience did not come until my first year of college! I will never forget- the opera was a performance of Met Live in HD- La Traviata, and it was so beautiful that I cried!

Later that year, I performed in my first opera- well, operetta, technically. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers was somewhat of a far cry from the moving tragedy of La Traviata, but there was so much fun and excitement on the stage that I never dreamed of complaining!

To what are you most looking forward this SummerFest?
While I’m certain that all the training this summer (vocal, technical, and business-oriented) will be incredibly helpful, the first thought that sprang to mind when I read this question was how excited I am to bring out my inner can-can dancer in The Merry Widow!

Happy Hour! is full of fun little bar-arias. What do you think about the unique concept of bringing opera into bars?
I think the current generation (of which I am a proud, opera-singing member) is one that is genuinely curious and fascinated by art in all mediums, and I think that opera is one of the ones that is most deserving to be explored! For too long, opera has been an exclusive art form, accessible primarily only to those who had the time and money to know where to look- but the stories, emotions, and experiences that are explored within opera are universal, whether on a grand scale of love and loss (as in La Boheme), or within modernly contextualized pieces, like Bridal Party and Karaoke Disaster. These are moments that happen in real life, and they should be explored and celebrated and accessible to anyone, in any place! I think bars are a great place to introduce opera, demonstrating that beautiful music can be relevant, humorous, heartbreaking, and comprehensible to anyone in any place at any time.

What is your most memorable opera moment, either performing or attending?
That is an easy one! My favorite moment performing was as Cinderella in Cinderella (Rodgers and Hammerstein) in 2011. Not only did I love performing the show, I ended up falling in love with the Prince, Wade Crossman, and married him 2 years later! He proposed to me in Time Square with a glass slipper, and we’ve been working on “Happily Ever After” ever since!

Do you do anything special to get into character?
I have what you might call a “ritual” that I do, regardless of the character I am playing. After warm ups and stretching, I have music that I listen to with a lot of nature sounds (ocean waves, babbling brook etc.) and no lyrics. It helps clear my mind of all the Rachael-ish emotions and helps me set myself to a more neutral space, where I can understand and connect to my character more clearly. I also drink my favorite pre-show drinks, like apple juice or tea, and begin doing my hair and make-up as my character. It is a very serene process, like a form of meditation before the spotlights.

 Have you always wanted to be in the Opera/Musical Theater industry?
Yes! My dad is a singer and my mom always encouraged us kids by bringing us to see shows like The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Bringing art to life is so beautiful; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else! My sister chose to focus on dance, and I began to specialize in singing. We always wanted to perform, but we lived on a farm in the middle of Idaho. There was nowhere to do it! So we made-up our own little musicals and performed them for our animals- it must have been some form of good practice, because here I am today!

 

 

Megan McConnell

Soprano Megan McConnell is excited and nervous for her adventures as a YAP with Opera Theater SummerFest. Covering the part of Luisa in The Fantasticks and singing FrouFrou in The Merry Widow, McConnell is grateful for the opportunity to meet new people and learn from their artistry. Between this season’s busy rehearsals and coaching, McConnell discusses her opera and YAP experiences.

What was your first opera experience?
My sophomore year of College I decided to audition for my school’s Opera Scenes Program.  At that point I had never seen a live opera before but I figure that a new experience would not hurt me.  I was cast in Rossini’s Duetto Buffo Di Due Gatti (Duet for two cats) as Primo Gatto (Kitty Number One). When I auditioned I definitely didn’t expect to be cast as cat. The scene was absolutely hilarious and so much fun to perform.I had to Meow, hiss, and fight over cream with a grumpy cat. The experience was so much fun and I have been hooked on the art of opera ever since.

As a YAP with the Opera Theater SummerFest, what are you looking forward to this season? 
I am really excited and nervous because this is my first YAP and I’m overjoyed to dedicate a whole month to performing. I know that I will grow as a performer and professional through this experience. Also, I am grateful for this opportunity because I will meet new people and be able to learn from their artistry.

Of the roles you've studied and/or sung, which is your favorite to sing or perform?  
In the last semester of my undergrad I was cast as Miss.Worsdsworth from Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. I only performed a portion of the role but had a blast developing the character and learning the music. I really connected with the characters humor and hope to someday perform the entire role.

 

 The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

Hyery Hwang

South Korean native Hyery Hwang, has performed for opera companies such as Yewool Music Stage, The National Opera Company of Korea and Mercury Opera Rochester. She lends her talents to SummerFest this year as the conductor and music director for the children’s opera, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, she is on the YAP faculty, and is the principal music coach of the Young Artist Program.

What are you looking forward to most this season?
Our OTP is not only working with professional artists, but also finding talented young singers and supporting them to help all the participants to hone their gifted abilities through our SummerFest. As a faculty member and an assistant of YAP director this year, I would like to find ways to help our young singers to prepare their future professional career. I am sure for some of our Young Artists, our SummerFest would be the first professional involvement and I am willing to share what I know, what I have experienced, what I learned from my past experience in many ways. I myself learned so much from our first Summerfest as a resident artist, so I would easily communicate and understand them.

Since last season, what have you been up to?
I have worked with Undercroft Opera as a guest vocal coach, also coach/pianist for Red Moose Opera, am a conductor and music director for the Jumping Frog, and also the music director at a Catholic church in town where i started the concert series toward the project of refurbishing the organ.

Do you have a favorite opera?
The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro by W. A. Mozart, La Boheme by Puccini

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?
Cleopatra from Giulio Cesare by G. F. Handel, Gilda from Rigoletto by Verdi

What excited you most about The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County?
I hardly find good operas for children and this is the perfect one. It is based on the story by Mark Twain, one of the greatest American Novelists, and has a lot of humor, and lessons. These days, many kids mostly have experience for the musical theater, because there is a lack of children's opera. One of our OTP's great projects is Opera Tots, an outreach program for toddlers, children. I personally invited more than 100 students of the 2nd grade through 6th grade from our church school to this opera performance, and they loved it. Most of them have never seen the opera in actual performance before and they were so into it. 

 

James Critchfield

Pittsburgh native James Critchfield, whose talents extend from performing to directing, joins SummerFest this season as Luisa’s father Bellomy in The Fantasticks. He looks forward to, “creating a wonderfully entertaining show for our audiences, cast, crew, and Opera management staff.” No stranger to the stage, James has performed with such companies as Civil Light Opera, Pittsburgh Playhouse, and Pittsburgh Symphony, just to name a few. While Pittsburgh holds James’s heart, he has also worked with the Great American Melodrama & Vaudville Theater Company of Oceano, California. James talks about his first opera experiences and other aspects of his career.

What was your first opera experience, both as an audience member and as a performer? And how did those experiences compare?
As an audience member I remember my senior year of high school (1979) no math needed... I'm 52... we took a New York field trip to see Ain't Misbehaving with the original cast including Nel Carter (from TV's ~ Give Me A Break and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper and the Broadway dance show Dancin'. Well... we also saw some crazy opera about a rooster at - I think - the Kennedy Center. I really didn't understand what the h... heck was going on in this wacked opera. As a performer my first experience was the mega fun and rolicing Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance in the Summer of 1981 (math?... I was 19) playing the Pirate Lieutenant Samuel for the Pittsburgh Savoyards. Later I joined the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus for their 1990 production of Mefistofele. In all honesty I much prefer to perform in an opera than to see one.                          

Have you always wanted to be in the Opera/Musical Theater industry?
I guess I caught the "bug," when I was in our senior class musical at Carrick High School (1979... 17 yrs. old) with my friend, Raymond Very, in the Rogers and Hart musical Babes In Arms.  

What is your most memorable opera moment, either seeing an opera or performing in one?
In remembering during Mefistofele at the Benedum Theater when the chorus crescendos to a triple forte and the orchestra - with the kettle drums blaring to a mass cacophony - made me think of an airplane on its takeoff.  Pretty cool!!!

Do you do anything special to get into character?
I look for clues throughout the story.  I find out what the playwright says about my  character; what all the other characters say about my character;  and what my  character says about himself. Then I go from there.

What is your process when starting a new role?
I always approach each role the same by gathering all the variables including the entire environment (place, time, etc.) and then answering the Stanislavski "Magic If" question... "What would I do IF I where in this situation?"  I believe that acting is not "playing someone OTHER than yourself... I believe that any true portrayal of a character is to find the motivations from within.

What part of every performance do you look forward to the most?
Sure, performing the shows are always fun, but I always most enjoy the creative process during rehearsals and meeting new friends while catching up with past cast mates.