To introduce operamission’s Almira cast, we’re doing something a little different…
Being an unusual work, we thought we would expose to readers some of our preparation process, and also we wanted to share the performers’ and directors’ thoughts about Almira as an opera. Jennifer asked them each a couple of questions as a ‘mini-interview.’ Feel free to leave a comment if you have any other specific questions.
You can click the artist’s name to link through to their biography.
Christy Lombardozzi – singing the role of Almira, ‘Queen of Castile’ –
A: Learning a new role is always a very fun process…whether it is a character with whom you are familiar, or in the case of Almira, a discovery in process. As a part of the North American premiere, I have the thrilling opportunity to share this very complex queen with an audience that will be completely open to ideas about both her and the opera itself.
Q: You were mentioning to me that one of your very first teachers had a huge passion for baroque music/opera. Can you tell us a little about this influence?
A: My first voice teacher, Dr. Hunter Hensley, is an amazing wealth of knowledge for all early music. He has recorded Gregorian chants as part of Richard Crocker’s program for the performance of early music, and he was commissioned by the Italian government to write modern performance editions of solo cantatas by Alessandro Stradella.
Regardless of what style of music or opera I would someday sing, Dr. Hensley instilled the idea of finding and using my true voice. It’s very easy to be bound by performance traditions or expectations, and to let these ideas dictate how you want to sound. It’s encouraging to remind ourselves however, that these ideals were created by the singers of the time to suit their voices. While it is important to find out all there is to know about style, traditions, historical time periods and the like, I would never want to sacrifice a solid vocal technique or produce a manufactured or “affected” sound to suit those expectations.
Nell Snaidas – singing the role of Edilia, ‘a royal princess’ –
Q: Can you give us a glimpse into your preparation process for this wonderful role? Also, I understand you have experience with this particular period, in fact you’ve sung another opera which was premiered in the very same opera house in Hamburg where ALMIRA was premiered. Given this perspective, what are you finding to be special or unique about Edilia’s music?
A: When preparing for a role, or a concert, I begin by trying to immerse myself in the world of the language, in this case languages, of the music. How can I bring the flavor of the particular culture through the text by finding what the language uniquely has to offer. Which consonant clusters can be used to bring out the ire or sensuality of a word or phrase or general affect? What are the sounds that bring a particular language to mind? Sid Cesar had great routines employing ‘double-speak’ where he would carry on full conversations in a faux language, maybe throwing a real word or two in for good measure. It’s quite fascinating, as well as entertaining, to see how he isolates the cadences and sounds of these different tongues and brings them to life without actually saying anything.
Then there the is the layering of cultures. Consider Romeo and Juliet and all of the different operas which have been written on that theme… Italian couple, Shakespeare, in French…
For Almira we have Spanish royalty singing in the vernacular, German, with some Italian thrown in — so there is a lot to explore and investigate. Why the switch? When does it happen? Which character sings the most In the non-vernacular – Italian – considered the more ‘musical’ language. What does that say about each role?
Since it was the convention at the time in Hamburg to have operas in German and Italian, it is interesting to see how different composers handle the choice of when to use which. In an opera I once sang of Johann Mattheson (who coincidentally premiered the role of Fernando in Almira) from 1710, I found that he used German not only as a device to get from point A to B in recitatives, but also for themes of deception, ambition and revenge. Italian was used for more noble emotions like love and longing. I immediately see a difference in Handel’s Almira – my character, Edilia, has a great raging aria, “Proverai di che fiere saette,” which isn’t exactly sweet. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all fit together as we begin to rehearse this multi-culti opera in our own 21st-century melting pot of NYC.
Kristen Plumley – singing the role of Bellante, ‘Princess from Aranda’ –
Q: You are one of the cast members I’ve worked with before, and heard you sing wonderfully Gounod’s Juliette, Mozart’s Despina, and much more, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Zerbinetta. In your preparation so far with the role of Bellante, are you coming up with some interesting character ideas, just based on her music and the rather complex plot, or are you waiting to see where the director goes with her?
A: I always approach every character from within myself – so I’m trying to see if Bellante is going through anything, or feeling anything, that I myself have done/felt. I find that I can always find some kind of inner connection that way. I may have to substitute exact details, but emotions are universal. I also like to take character cues from the music, and not necessarily just what I sing. The orchestral parts before and during an aria can speak volumes about what’s going on inside the character. Of course, I’ll also listen to what the director has to say!
Q: You’ve done one operamission event in the Gershwin Hotel before. How do you think this will be different for an audience to experience this opera in this type of venue, as opposed to in a traditional opera house?
A: The Gershwin Hotel lobby is a very intimate space, so I think audiences will be able to get sucked right into the music and drama. Friends always tell me how much more interesting opera is when you can see the singer’s expressions. Plus, they can have a drink while watching the performance!
Michael Weyandt – singing the role of Fernando, ‘the Queen’s Secretary’ –
Q: The role of Fernando was written for a well-known (in his time) composer, singer, and author of many important treatises, Johann Mattheson. He was called a “tenor,” but this role is clearly too low for a modern tenor. Do you have thoughts on what you are finding in this character’s music, or any discoveries you’ve been making as you’re working on a role with so little performance history?
A: To be honest, I’m not a singer who gets too much into performance history for any role I do, whether it has one or not. I don’t like to listen to lots of recordings, unless I’m really stumped by something and need a few perspectives just to get my mind going. I check in with coaches and the conductor to make sure I’m not doing anything egregious, but then I do what I think the phrasing suggests. Also, since I came from an instrumental background, I tend to rely on my general sense of musical style rather than vocal performance history. So it comes down to score and text for me, much more than anything else.
As far as the tessitura is concerned, it’s clearly not a “tenor” part like a Rossini tenor would be. It is exactly–exactly–the tessitura of lyric baritone roles like Mercutio or Rossini’s Figaro. It is lower than Pelléas, which is more often done by baritones now, it seems. It is exactly the same as almost every Poulenc song written for Bernac. My personal take is that, technically, whoever was around and could sing sang these roles, and we’re talking about a much smaller pool of people back then. People weren’t Wagnerian singers, but since human physiology hasn’t evolved since 1700, whatever we’d be liable to call Wagnerian vocal cords must have existed in Handel’s era as well. Since the baritone didn’t exist as a voice classification either, I assume that any baritone who had an easy top was a low tenor, like Fernando, as was any heavier tenor voice with a more difficult top. So I have no problem singing what’s labeled a “tenor” role, since what tenor meant at that time and today cannot be thought to be the same thing across the board.
Q: Both you and Keith are also composers; are you conscious of the fact that Handel was only 19 when he wrote Almira as you’re working on the music? For the most part, do you find yourself critiquing him or admiring him?
A: What’s fun about the music for me is that, in contrast to later Handel arias I’m familiar with (both of them), Fernando’s music clearly shows a composer making strong choices, then playing with them to see what happens. It strikes me as music by someone excited by all the interesting textures, contrasts, etc. he can create, rather than someone focused on smoothly integrating different elements in a “mature” way. In that respect I think it’s a lot of fun to sing, as there’s a strong exuberant quality to the writing and the motives. Phrases take many unexpected and bold turns, and Handel is already clearly in possession of a technique strong enough to support these. I admire much more than critique.
David Kravitz – singing the role of Raymondo, ‘King of Mauritania’ –
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about why you enjoy singing baroque music and working wtih original instruments?
A: Baroque music is a big part of my musical DNA. For the last fifteen years or so, my musical “home” has been Boston’s Emmanuel Music, which for those who don’t know is a group that, among other things, performs a complete Bach Cantata with orchestra every week as part of the regular Sunday service at Emmanuel Church. That long-term exposure to such musically and vocally demanding repertoire informs the way I approach everything I sing, baroque or otherwise. If anyone’s interested, here is a page on Emmanuel Music’s website where I talk more about how the experience of singing Bach Cantatas week after week has affected me as a singer.
Emmanuel is not a period instrument group, so my experience with original instruments is not as extensive as with baroque music generally, though I’ve sung a number of times with Boston Baroque, the Handel & Haydn Society, and other period bands. For me, the biggest adjustment is the pitch: period instruments generally perform baroque music at A=415, or about a half-step lower than modern instruments would play it. That half-step can be surprisingly discombobulating because I’ve been doing this for long enough that I know pretty much exactly what it feels like to sing, say, the A below middle C at modern pitch. So when I look at a score and see an A, but am effectively singing a G# because we’re performing at A=415, there’s sort of a disconnect between the brain (which is thinking A) and the vocal mechanism (which is producing a modern G#). People who have perfect pitch have told me that they find it very difficult to perform at A=415, because their brain can’t “forget” what it expects an A to sound like. I don’t have it that bad – it’s easier to retrain the brain to expect a slightly different physical sensation when singing a baroque A than to forget that you have perfect pitch – but it’s still an adjustment.
Q: The character of Raymondo only shows up in Act II, but he has some of the most beautiful (and most seductive) music of the opera. I’m very excited about what you will bring to this role, both musically and how he will relate to the other characters. Do you have any initial thoughts about his personality, or general attitude, from what you can tell from the music?
A: With the caveat that our director, Jeff Caldwell, may have different ideas, I find Raymondo’s story within this opera to be quite funny. He certainly seems to be a guy who’s pretty confident of his abilities with the ladies – as you say, his music is often quite seductive, even in the recitatives. He shows up out of the blue, apparently expecting to sweep Almira off her feet and quickly marry her, only to discover quite a bit later (and after having tried hard to woo her) that, to his horror, she has been in love with someone else all along and apparently never even considered him as a serious suitor. Having made this distressing discovery, he almost immediately decides that he’s actually in love with Edilia, whom he has literally just met. Fortunately for him, Edilia eventually reciprocates after he sings a remarkable continuo aria in which one can easily hear foreshadowings of the mature Handel. So … mission accomplished, I guess! I’m very much looking forward to working with Jeff on bringing Raymondo to life.
Mark Risinger – singing the role of Consalvo, ‘Prince from Segovia’ –
Q: You are a hardcore Handel scholar, so I’d love to just ask you when and how you first became aware of this opera’s existence, and if you had ever thought of performing it, before I contacted you about it.
A: I actually first encountered this opera during my first semester of graduate school, in a seminar on historical methodology. We worked through Mainwaring’s biography of Handel, the first book-length biography of an individual composer, and each of us took one of the early works as the subject of a short report. I was not assigned Almira, but I still the remember the presentation I heard, and the piece has intrigued me ever since. I had never expected to have the opportunity to perform it, because it is such a rarity.
Q: I’ve been wanting to do Handel with you for years now. The role of Consalvo is fantastic, he really pulls all the strings in this show. Can you describe Handel’s use of the bass voice in this role as it compares with what he was to do with the bass voice in years to come? The singer who premiered the role, Gottfried Grünewald, I’m guessing didn’t have very good Italian, because he only sings in German. Can you tell us a tiny bit about what Handel learned from Italian singers, once he started working with them a few years later?
A: At the risk of gross oversimplification, it would seem that when he arrived in Italy a couple of years after Almira, Handel encountered singers with both a greater vocal range and a greater capacity for lyrical expression. Consalvo gets to do a lot of singing, but most of his music falls within a limited expressive range compared to characters like Claudius in Agrippina, or Argante in Rinaldo. In the Hamburg years, the phrasing tends to sound a bit choppier than in the later Italian works; certainly by the time we get to the Royal Academy operas of the 1720s, his “voice” as a composer has evolved enormously, and the abilities of his singers were undoubtedly greater as well. The expansive phrasing and the prodigious range required by some of these bass roles attest to this explanation.
Jeff Caldwell – Stage Director –
Q: You are the person in this production who has known me the longest. I’m thrilled we are doing this together, and would love if you could tell us some of the things that originally inspired you to pursue opera directing as a career.
A: I began directing while still a piano performance major at Oberlin. I was a charter member of their newest incarnation of the Oberlin College Gilbert and Sullivan Players, and after singing in the chorus of Trial By Jury, singing the Sergeant of Police in Pirates, and music directing Patience, I thought I’d try my hand as director/choreographer of Pinafore with a terrific collaborator, Donna May, and conductor Lainee Broad. I continued to direct and choreograph throughout the remainder of my college career, and when tendinitis began to limit my career potential as a concert pianist, I turned to direction more seriously. When I got accepted in the master’s directing program at Indiana University, I planned to make that my career, and was lucky to have facility with musical staging and choreography, which lent itself well to the light operas and romantic musical theater pieces I was directing in summer stock. I moved to Seattle for the DMA Opera Production program and completed two years until circumstances transitioned me into the actor training and musical theater world. I’ve enjoyed working with singers since high school, and since Oberlin didn’t have an accompanying degree when I was a student, coaching and directing has provided a rewarding outlet for creative collaboration.
Q: What intrigues you about mounting a work written by a very young composer?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by early works of composers. If I’d ever written my doctoral dissertation, it might have been on early Mozart or Sullivan; more recently it might be early Sondheim, Loesser, or Ahrens and Flaherty. While there are often significant problems to manage, the idea that these hot-shots are trying to solve an artistic or commercial problem AND show off their abilities makes the problem solving a lot more intriguing. Before they knew what the answers were, they butted up against conventions of form, structure, harmonic language, even society, and produced works full of imagination, although not full of consistency, and not always successful. I’m enjoying Almira as an opportunity to present Handel’s first opera before he had become the popular standard for Italian opera seria.
Jennifer Peterson – conductor for Almira, director of operamission –
Q: Can you tell us briefly about your interest in bringing Handel’s operas to U.S. audiences?
A: I have actually been keen on producing all 39 of Handel’s operas for quite a few years now. You could say it was one of my ‘missions’ for founding operamission, and for many reasons I find it one of the most important contributions I can make in the opera genre. I noticed at some point that the music for all of his operas was equally gorgeous and dramatically vivid, and suspected that this was thanks to the composer’s love and skill in the genre, rather than some other turn of events or lining up of the stars. I dug and dug to find any with less successful music, and was entirely unsuccessful. I keep coming back to a phrase baroque oboist Gonzalo Ruiz and I once accidentally spoke in unison, “they’re all good.” And they are. To do a little confirming check of this at one point, I obtained and played through the scores for his first (Almira) and his last (Deidamia), and became obsessed with the goal to produce them all, in order. I figured at the rate of three per year, it would take me thirteen years, so I had better get started. That was in 2007. Now it’s 2012.
Being based in New York is both good and bad, when it comes to fulfilling this mission. It is the most difficult place to find a venue, but the pool of talent of both singers and baroque players is rich. I have dozens, maybe hundreds, of colleagues, who have recognized my vision and have encouraged and helped me not lose sight of the plan.
If Almira is the first of thirty-nine, its time is due, and all of us involved are so excited to be making this happen.
And that is only scratching the surface of answering this question.
All of Handel’s operas have been recorded, mostly in Europe, and are performed by all sizes of opera companies, again, mostly in Europe. The ‘old standards,’ i.e. Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Rinaldo, Serse, etc., are not necessarily better pieces, but are more convenient sells than others, perhaps. But all 39 have musical and dramatic arcs worthy of being presented.
Just as almost everyone enjoys The Messiah, I’m fully convinced that there is an audience for his Italian operas, most of which were originally performed in London for English speaking audiences, with printed libretti to help them through the stories. My mission or dream is to present them in straightforward and viable productions. I firmly believe that the music speaks directly and carries the drama. Stereotypes that Handel is anything less than vivid and wonderful are not acceptable to me, considering the inspiring heights that classical musicians and those trained in historical performance have reached in this age.
Q: Do you have a theory as to why ALMIRA has not yet been produced outside of Germany and Austria?
A: Actually…no. The first time I opened the score, I remarked on the charm of the music and the variety of characters, fully fleshed out by Handel’s clear melodic textures. This is a quality you find consistently in Mozart and Verdi. You can tell how beautiful the prima donna and her soul are the first time she opens her mouth, if not before. Great opera composers always capture the characters’ souls in the music, and I was impressed, and frankly surprised, that Handel already had mastered this at the age of 19.
I think one reason it has not been produced more could be due to the fact that the roles of Almira and Edilia are both incredibly challenging. But then again, that has never stopped impresarios in the past, so I’m not so sure. Also, the leading romantic male role (Fernando) was written for a tenor, but is clearly too low for any tenor I know. My first read-through of the role led me to the conclusion that this would be castable as a baritone, which is what we are doing in our production.
I’m also surprised that the simple ‘curiosity factor’ has not led more opera companies to produce Almira. It was done in Germany for both the Centennial and Bicentennial of Handel’s birth, making it his only opera to be produced in the 19th-century. But this ‘curiosity factor’ has not, for whatever reason, inspired producers outside of Germany or Austria to date.
The three soprano roles are difficult but gorgeous. The three tenor roles and two bass roles are also tricky in places, but rewarding for the performer, as they all portray clear-cut dramatic types which offer their respective performers plenty to work with. I keep coming back to a statement which was pretty much my first impression of the piece: “I can’t find anything wrong with it.”
By now of course, I have grown to love it, and I am finding more and more to treasure in the way Handel has finessed and textured this wonderful libretto, the more I work on it.