Take a sneak peak into the making of an opera character!
Follow BOC Member Artist Sarah Shechtman as she takes you behind the scenes of our summer opera as “Cis” in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring.
Cis’ Diary – Part 2
Follow BOC Member Artist Sarah Shechtman as she takes you behind the scenes of our summer opera as “Cis” in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring.
Follow BOC Member Artist Sarah Shechtman as she takes you behind the scenes of our summer opera as “Cis” in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring.
Practice Makes Perfect…
Learning the part
Stephanie Scarcella is currently working with St. Petersburg Opera, as an Emerging Artist. She will perform the role of Margarita and is covering Anita in West Side Story. Stephanie is a proud member of Boston Opera Collaborative.
Mohammed Fairouz, born in 1985, is one of the most frequently performed, commissioned, and recorded composers of his generation. Hailed by The New York Times as “an important new artistic voice” and by BBC World News as “one of the most talented composers of his generation,” Fairouz integrates Middle-Eastern modes into Western structures, to deeply expressive effect. His output encompasses virtually every genre, including opera, symphonies, ensemble works, chamber and solo pieces, choral settings, and more than a dozen song cycles. Commissions have come from Rachel Barton Pine, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Borromeo String Quartet, Imani Winds, New York Festival of Song, Da Capo Chamber Players, Cantus, and many others. Recent premieres include his first opera, Sumeida’s Song, and his fourth symphony, In the Shadow of No Towers, both greeted with critical acclaim.
You have been hailed as one of today’s leading composers. How did you incorporate elements of Arabic and Western contemporary music?
I don’t see a conflict here. Having traveled the entire world as a kid has only emphasized to me how small of a place it is. The cross-pollination between Arabic and European culture is also something that has been happening for a very long time now.
Sharing creative ideas about astronomy, mathematics, medicine, the arts, and every other aspect of human invention and culture has enriched the millennia-old dialogue between Arabic and Western civilization. Maqam (the Arabic modal system), with its emphasis on melody finds a natural place of importance for me as I compose works that are largely driven by poetry and text. The Arabic love for storytelling and drama also heavily influences the way I write music.
I believe that music is intuitive, dramatic and communicative on the deepest level. This is something that both cultures share.
Sumeida’s Song was your first opera-what were some of the challenges of composing such a work?
Opera is hard. Naturally, there are a million and seven considerations when composing an opera beyond just the music itself. The libretto has to convey a sense of immediate drama and work together with the music to capture the audience and not let them go till the very end. The story has to be revealed without being overly expository or contrived. The drama has to work itself out in a way that seems natural. The singers and their many concerns, from the passaggio of a lead mezzo to the balance between the trombones and the baritone in his big number (for example), have to be taken into account.
Then come all the concerns of mounting a production: from working with lighting, costume and set designers to directors and musical directors and rehearsal pianists and tech crew and many, many others.
Opera, being the ultimate collaborative art form, is hard but the things that make is so difficult to pull off also make it deeply rewarding.
After studying at New England Conservatory, how does it feel to have one of your works presented in Boston?
I’m no stranger to Boston! My works have been presented and even co-commissioned by the important and great institutions on the Boston scene. But I don’t always get up to Boston for the performances. Getting to come and work with the special talents that make up the Boston music scene is such a treat and always feels a little bit like a homecoming for me.
What drew you to the play, Song of Death by Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim?
It’s one of the absolute classics of Arabic theater in the 20th century. Written in the early 1950s, its also one of Tawfiq al-Hakims earliest plays. I’m really taken by its straightforward classical architecture. al-Hakim said he was influenced by Sophocles and Euripides when writing these early plays. If opera had some early foundation in the formality of greek plays then I think we’ve come full circle.
The story of Sumeida’s Song doesn’t directly deal with politics of Egypt however, it’s difficult to ignore some of the correlations of recent events over the past few years. In what ways were you able to capture the feel of this time in Egypt?
Please remember that Sumeida’s Song was finished in 2008-2009 before the events of the Tahrir square uprising began by a couple of years. Having said this, the themes of the opera are pretty universal. This could happen in a small village in rural Italy or the American South as easily as a small village in Upper Egypt. People standing for education against darkness and insisting on change for the better in their societies has happened again and again in every human society on the planet.
How were you able to project the humanity of the characters so that we the audience could connect with them on a deeper level?
I just stayed out of the way of the characters. It’s easy, when writing an opera like this, to be tempted to provide a sort of musical “commentary” on the characters of the opera but thats not really the point. It is ideal for the music to serve the purpose of furthering the drama of the opera. The music needs to help tell the story.
Just presenting the characters of Sumeida’s Song objectively as human beings goes a long way to making them more relatable to the audience.
What are the over-arching themes of your opera?
Education over darkness and illiteracy, peace and non-violence, a refusal to take up arms and kill, the value of both modernization and tradition and the conflict that arises between them and, of course, change vs the status quo.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!
I am thrilled that the Boston Opera Collaborative is taking the initiative to bring new works of opera to the Boston audiences. Boston has not had a really permanent opera house since the days of Sarah Caldwell so it is particularly moving to see the young collective of BOC doing ambitious and great things. I’m honored to join you in Boston for this production.
Mezzo soprano Gina Razón is from the Dominican Republic by way of New York City. She has performed with the Center Stage Opera, Opera Theatre of the Rockies, Opera Fort Collins, Loveland Opera Theatre and OpenStage Theatre. She is the Executive Director of the Operaverse project, Co-Manager of Opera on Tap Boston and the Director of Development for Boston Opera Collaborative.
“What’s left to say:
News of San Diego Opera’s closure this year and the subsequent movements of their Board, caused an explosion of commentary in music circles about SDO specifically and the survival of opera in general. Enough commentary, in fact, that we can probably stop fretting that opera is irrelevant or even dying (see Cindy Sadler’s awesome blogpost on the subject http://100lbs.typepad.com/mezzo_with_character/2014/04/index.html).
It seems that everything has been said and yet…
In all of tumult about what is to be done to save the genre, there is not enough being said about why. Why do we deserve to remain part of the conversation? It is that question that I don’t believe is being asked enough in the board rooms and rehearsal spaces of our opera houses. The public can be cultivated, polled and analyzed but if producing organizations don’t have a value proposition and a raison d’être then we are truly lost.
Opera costs money. Once you employ staff members and pay a living wage to the artists, we are talking a lot of money. In the panic to raise that money we can sometimes forget why we started creating in the first place. The truth is that powerful operatic experiences can be created by a couple of singers with a piano in a church basement. Opera is immensely flexible and highly scaleable which we see in a wealth of companies creating dynamic opera on what many would find an impossible budget—thank God for volunteers!
I suppose what I find lacking in our industry is vision. I don’t see the dreams and hopes of some organizations in their work. There are wonderful exceptions but they are out there quietly succeeding not making headlines for their fiscal woes. One such is Chicago Opera Theater whose stated mission (http://www.chicagooperatheater.org/the-company) is dynamic and specific. A quick look at their season (and their tax returns) seems to prove their mission is on track and working. Another is Gotham Chamber Opera (http://www.gothamchamberopera.org/about_us/) who has in just over a decade created a vibrant new voice for the future of Opera. Neither of these companies boasts anything near the 15 million San Diego thought insufficient. They do however stand in stark contrast to some of our most vaulted companies where it isn’t obvious that there is love and passion and Opera at work at all.
Mission and Vision statements cannot be museum pieces; they must actually inspire and drive an organization. This is exceedingly difficult to do and, not to beat a dead horse, the money required is a huge stumbling block. We cannot do the work if we don’t know how to pay for it, but no amount of money will save us if we don’t understand why we do the work. I tend to believe that true Passion always sells.”
Mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes performs throughout the Northeast and abroad, with recent performances in Europe and New England. Felicia has performed the role of Mrs. DeRocher in Boston Opera Collaborative’s acclaimed production of “Dead Man Walking”, Second Woman in Dido and Aeneas with Just Love to Sing, Diana (cover) in “Orpheus in the Underworld” with Boston Opera Collaborative, and Erisbe in “Ormindo” with the Harvard Early Music Society. Felicia sang the role of La Ciesca with the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra in Fidenza, Italy and recent recital engagements include performances at the Staatstheater Darmstadt and the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. Felicia earned a Master of Music with Honors from the New England Conservatory, where she sang the roles of Ora Tre in Cavalli’s “Egisto” and Gossip in “Angelique”. Felicia will appear next in the role of Asakir in Mohammed Fairouz’s “Sumeida’s Song” with Boston Opera Collaborative, and as Flora Bervoix in Opera Providence’s Summer production of “La Traviata”.
You will be performing the role of Asakir, who is the mother of Alwan. Asakir urges her son Alwan to defend the murder of his father by continuing an ancient blood feud. How are you able to connect with such a character who is so far removed from your personal experiences?
This was one of the biggest challenges for me when I began preparing for this role. It was also something I was eager to overcome so that I could connect with the character – even more so, that I could give the audience a chance to connect with Asakir and form their own ideas. I read the play (Song of Death) and some other works by Tawfiq Al-Hakim. I also read articles, news stories, and even blogs written about the tradition of blood revenge. I think, however, what has been most helpful was the ongoing conversations about these characters- during rehearsal and after rehearsal with my colleagues – I even made my husband read the play so we could talk about it! I’ve realized that these themes are not so far from our own experiences at all. Everyone struggles with family obligations and the fear of disappointing our parents or our children; the family member who goes away and comes home changed; the pain of letting go of the past.
Tell us about the rehearsal process thus far. What have been some of the challenges of putting this opera on its feet?
I have found the rehearsal process very supportive with a lot of space to explore and discover these characters and their music. One of the challenges has been that there isn’t a lot of physical action- the entire story unfolds in the interior of a small house- and yet we need to achieve intense drama within this limited space. This also allows for a lot of intimate, intense personal moments between the characters, which is exciting.
Could you describe the music of Sumeida’s Song? How has this dictated your representation of Asakir’s character?
The music is challenging! I think this music really exists to serve the text and the drama, and the more I get to know it, the more potential I see to really create a lot of exciting colors as we tell this story. I can’t wait to hear this music with orchestra!
What do you feel you have learned from being involved in Boston Opera Collaborative?
I have learned so much from being part of this group. In a lot of ways, BOC is the closest equivalent to the traditional European ensemble system, in which a company of singers work together throughout the season. It’s such a luxury to artistically explore and take risks with colleagues you know and trust under direction; like from Andrew Altenbach who also cares about our growth as individual artists. I’ve also really come to appreciate how much power we as artists have to push boundaries and ask provocative questions and I think a company like BOC is often more able to do that than larger, more established companies.
What were some of your personal breakthroughs during your time spent with Sumeida’s Song?
I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to boast about any major breakthroughs- check back with me on opening night!
What has been your involvement with BOC (i.e. roles, other performances, work experiences administrative, committee, etc.)?
My first involvement with BOC was playing the role of Monostatos in The Magic Flute in 2008. I then went on to play roles in Gianni Schicchi, La cambiale die matrimonio, Carmen, Le nozze di Figaro, Little Women, Falstaff, Orpheus in the Underworld, and finally Dead Man Walking. In 2010, I was nominated to for the position of Board Member-At-Large to finish a term of an existing Board Member who could no longer stay on the Board. After finishing that term I was again nominated for the position, and served a full term, leaving in 2012.
What was your favorite role you did with BOC?
That’s a very difficult question, as I enjoyed each role I played for different reasons. However, my most memorable experience is as Remendado in Carmen. He’s dirty, cunning, violent, yet fiercely loyal to his friends. I still think he’s the kind of guy who would buy you a drink and then steal your money to pay for it!
How has your BOC experience helped in your career as an opera singer and as a teacher?
BOC has probably helped me in more ways than I even realize. Doing the myriad of roles I played, from character roles like Remendado and Mononstatos to leads such as Laurie in Little Women, greatly broadened the list of skills I can bring to the stage, skills I have used recently as George Gibbs in Our Town with Monadnock Music Festival and as an ensemble member in BLO’s production of Rigoletto. I teach those same skills to all my students, including how to interpret a role, how to stand and move onstage, etc. Watching my students absorb and then show those skills onstage is a joy, and I am incredibly grateful to BOC for helping me become the singer and teacher I am.
As an active administrative member of BOC, how do you feel your “behind the scenes” work helped you in your life and career thus far?
Working as an administrator for BOC helped me learn how to work with many different personalities and opinions. Not all administrative decisions are easy to make; more often than not, they can take longer than anticipated. As a result, learning how to deal with those sticky and difficult situations and decisions in a positive way is crucial to ensuring that the mission of the company continues moving forward. My time on the Board gave me the opportunity to learn how to negotiate and work towards a middle ground that all can agree on, even if that middle ground does not include ideas that I might have really believed in. My confidence in my abilities to work on the other side of an arts organization grew exponentially as a result of my working on the Board.
What’s the most surprising skill that you gained while in BOC?
That’s a very good question! I did not expect to get the administrative experience I gained while a member. I honestly thought I’d avoid that if possible, but in hindsight I’m grateful for the opportunity!
What advice would you offer to young opera singers coming out of college or conservatory, and considering membership in BOC?
I would recommend that all potential BOC members take advantage of every opportunity BOC presents. Membership in BOC is very much like a residency in that there are multiple performing opportunities as well as masterclasses on musicianship, handling finances, etc. It also gives singers an appreciation of how to run an opera company, something that schools cannot provide. All in all, BOC members become incredibly experienced, well-rounded musicians that companies want.
What’s your favorite piece of music (opera, song, theater or otherwise) and why?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I am drawn to songs that have a story to tell, that are more than just beautiful music – I guess that’s why I’m drawn to character roles. I love “Kennst du das Land” from Little Women; it is absolutely gorgeous and does a wonderful job of exposing Professor Behr’s love for his home and art. The quintet from Carmen is also a favorite of mine. It’s incredibly difficult to master, but is such fun!
What made you decide to pursue a career in teaching along with your singing career? Any tips you’d give to singers trying to get into a teaching career, and wanting to balance that with a performing career as well?
Teaching is something I have always wanted to do. It actually runs in my family; both my mother and paternal grandfather were teachers. Teachers have always inspired me, and I continue to look up to the ones who introduced me to music as a high school student. I get a huge rush from teaching, especially when I see my students have those “light bulb” moments when they begin to really understand what singing is all about. If a singer is interested in teaching, unless you get a job as a chorus or general music teacher at a public or private school, do not expect overnight success. It has taken me years to get to the point that I can financially support myself as a voice teacher, and I teach at three different locations. There are many ways to attract students; Craigslist ads work for some, as does putting your name on the list of teachers at the BSR website. Also, keep an eye for job listings once the summer comes on both Craigslist and hireculture.org.
Once you begin to get a few students, word of mouth will help. However, the first decision to make is how you want to balance your commitments. It is extremely difficult, if close to impossible, to have a 50/50 balance of teaching and singing. One side has to give, otherwise you’ll be completely burned out. While I still sing quite a bit, I now put more focus on concerts instead of full operas simply because they require less time. If singing is something you’re not willing to tone down, keep your roster of students low. With a little time and patience, a singer can find that balance.
What’s something that you wish you would’ve known about a singing career when you were leaving graduate school? In other words – what DON’T the conservatories tell you?
Conservatories and colleges tell you very little about how to manage a career. They don’t really have time – there are too many other skills they need to teach, and so they will rely on masterclasses to do that, if there’s room in the budget for that sort of thing. However, in my experience, I learned nothing about how to manage my finances, how to look for performing opportunities, how to advertise myself, how to read a contract…I could go on. Schools therefore inject the market with numbers of wide-eyed singers who expect to make it big but know nothing about what to do next. It’s a shame, but it’s the nature of the academic beast.
Do you think the nature of making a career of singing opera changing? If so, how to you think the experience of BOC can help a young singer prepare for their next stage?
I think the nature of making a career has already changed, and we’re seeing the effects. How many opera companies have closed in the past few years, and why? From what I’ve read, it appears to be purely financial – the old financial model of grand opera can barely get by. Look at the Met – it consistently runs in the red even though it rakes in money hand over fist from donors, advertisers and live broadcasts. YAPs and residencies are honestly no longer training programs – they’ve instead become waiting rooms filled with singers who really should be at the next level but can’t advance because the number of opportunities has collapsed as the number of singers has grown.
So, where does BOC fit in all this? Its uniqueness sets it apart because it provides training on both sides of the stage as it were. Members learn how to be professional – how to master a role on your own as well as how to behave in rehearsals. Members also learn arts administration, which I think will become more valuable as time goes on. I honestly believe that the most valuable musicians are those who come to rehearsals prepared and professional, and also are willing to pitch in off the stage whenever possible.
What’s next for you?
Well, right now I have a full load of voice students as well as three show choirs I conduct, steady work as a church choir section leader and BLO ensemble member, and a number of gigs lined up. This April, I return as a judge at the WERS All A Capella Live! competition. In May, I’ll perform with the Greater New Bedford Choral Society and also be a preliminary judge at the MetroWest Opera high school competition. Beyond that, I’m looking into doctoral programs in voice as well as picking up bigger concert gigs. Outside of that, I plan on doing some traveling with my wife, soprano Katrina Holden (another BOC alum). We’ve even talked about putting together a concert at some point, so stay tuned!
The news of San Diego Opera’s closing has made some serious waves in the opera community. This is the third in a series of posts about BOC’s personal reactions to the news.
Sometimes opera companies will fail, and that’s OK. Opera itself will live on.
I am struck by the fact that the Facebook page for Save the San Diego Opera has attracted more “likes” in the 3 days it has been up than has the actual San Diego Opera page since joining Facebook five years ago. The online petition has nearly three times as many signatures as the company has Facebook followers. Perhaps if the company had that kind of support before its recent announcement, San Diego Opera might still have a robust future.
I don’t share the position that a $15M budget is always too high, or that the General Director’s salary should never be so generous. But that kind of spending has to be justified and it does have to be sustainable. A non-profit opera company is a business, and any business has to know and serve its customers (audience, donors) very well. It seems clear that part of what happened in San Diego is that somewhere along the line, the Board and General Director lost touch with what its audience and donors were able (and willing) to support.
If you are a General Director and you can’t figure out how to give your audience and community what they want within the limits of what your ticket sales and donor base will allow, then it’s time to step aside and give someone else a chance to do the job. Don’t implode the company and then walk away.
If you are a Board member and you can’t figure out how to appropriately rein in spending to a sustainable level, given your audience and donor base, then once again it’s time to step aside. As long as there is some money, a loyal audience, and donor support (San Diego by all accounts had all three), then new leadership and a fresh approach could make all the difference.
But most importantly of all, are you a fan, an opera-goer, or someone who believes that opera and the arts makes our city, our region, our society and our world a little better? Then do your part. Don’t wait until it’s necessary to launch the next “Save the Opera” petition. Volunteer, attend a fundraiser, facilitate outreach, host a fundraiser, join the Board, chair the Board, whatever you are able to do. Take a child to the opera. If you can, help take the whole school class. Make a donation, large or small. Find a way to support local opera in your budget the way so many of us do for our sports teams or Netflix account. You get the idea. And do it now.
We are so fortunate that the Boston area is home to a healthy variety of small, young, nimble, and dynamic opera companies, featuring hugely talented and trained artists, and operating prudently on very limited budgets. The Boston Opera Collaborative is just one. I urge you to get out and see and hear what they are doing – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And then find a way to support your local artists in what they do for all of us. Don’t wait until it’s already over and they too have to be saved.
The news of San Diego Opera’s closing has made some serious waves in the opera community. This is the second in a series of posts about BOC’s personal reactions to the news.
By Allison Provaire, Soprano & Financial Officer
The last year has been a devastating one for opera. Opera companies seem to be closing their doors every day, but the news of the demise of New York City Opera initiated the gasp heard round the opera world. It made the vulnerability of our art form seem much more real. If a company like City Opera couldn’t rein in their finances and inspire their donor base, how are smaller companies, ones with a passion for creativity and innovation but without deep-pocketed donors, to survive? Now with the folding of San Diego Opera, we are all starting to get a little jittery. Another well-established company is closing its doors and musicians are beginning to ask themselves if their company is next.
However, this closing is different, as pointed out by Jennifer Rivera in the Huffington Post, and it has me upset and frustrated with where we are headed, or have already gone. Opera has garnered a reputation for being an art form for the elite, with opulent sets, lavish costumes and depictions of patrons dressed in gowns and tuxes entering ornate opera houses to take in the finest works of opera’s most famed composers. However, opera has and will always be an art form for the people; from the nationalistic pride of “Va, pensiero” to Mozart’s poking fun at the hierarchical establishment, it is an art form that has always drawn from the struggles and triumphs of everyday people and I feel it is high time that we reunite the public with this very accessible art form that was always meant for them.
The seeming frustration with the closing of San Diego is that by all accounts, they were not in trouble. They have an operating budget of $15 million and most other companies of their size are operating on budgets a fraction of the size. Sure, they may have to rein in salaries and production costs, but I would be hard pressed to believe the argument that this would significantly impact the level of their productions in a way that would be felt by their patrons. I have seen the things that artistry and ingenuity can do and I can tell you that those are the things that keep people coming back. Yes, stunning sets and visual effects are wonderful and can be breathtaking, but if we are continuously pushing the art form in a direction in which each production must be more expensive and “cutting edge” than the next then we may price ourselves out of the art form. Opera was always meant to be grand, to be a coming together of all art forms, but when that begins to mean spending exorbitant sums on one production, then maybe we need to rethink what “grand” was supposed to mean.
No doubt that the overspending of opera companies comes as a direct result of the American appetite for “bigger and better” and I am by no means suggesting that companies should not try their hardest to produce opera that is both musically and visually appealing to their patrons as well as employ high quality talent. However, if we have come to the point where a $15 million budget cannot sustain a season, how are we serving the art form if we can no longer afford to produce it?
Unfortunately, the generation that has made up the bulk of opera patrons is now aging and for whatever reason, we as a community have been unsuccessful in engaging the younger generations to the same extent. While I do think that things like the Met HD broadcasts have helped make the art form more mainstream and bring it to an audience that might not normally go out to see opera, I think it has also created an atmosphere in which every production must be “HD-ready.” Companies are now trying to produce productions with the same appeal and effects as a Hollywood movie, without the same financial backing.
I do not know what the answers are here. However, I do think that if we try to get back to what the art form was always meant to be, a coming together of art, music and drama, and focus not on the extravagance of each production but rather on the quality and the passionate contributions of those involved, then maybe we have a shot at sustaining this historically important art form.