Santa Fe Opera, Interviews with the Principals

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Voices of a Summer Night

Santa Fe Opera, in repertory through Aug. 25, 2012:
“Arabella” by Richard Strauss
“King Roger” by Karol Szymanowski
“Maometto II” by Giaochino Rossini
“The Pearl Fishers” by Georges Bizet
“Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini

Interviewer’s note: I had an opportunity to speak with the leads for the five operas being presented this summer at the Santa Fe opera. These mini-interviews, originally for the Santa Fe New Mexican, presented an opportunity to ask them about their careers, their approach to the particular role they would be appearing in, and the operas themselves. —


Erin Wall (as Arabella, left, with Zach Borichevsky as Matteo; photo by Ken Howard):

“’Arabella’ has a happy ending. It’s a love story, a comedy. I was in a production of ‘Capriccio’ that was set historically right before World War II, but that’s not what we’re doing in this production. The Strauss sound is lush and romantic, my part just coasts and sweeps along the top. ‘Arabella’ itself is complex and difficult to learn, but rewarding.

“Arabella has good self-esteem, unlike most of the women I play. She wants to do the right thing. She has to help her family and marry for money, but she also wants to wait for love.

“This is my third Strauss opera. It is extremely well-written and flatters the soprano voice. Strauss was married to a soprano and wrote the part for her—there is an extremely beautiful final scene to sing. This role is beautifully paced and forgiving—the arias are all spaced throughout the night, it’s well-paced and you’re not onstage without a break. I love singing with Heidi (who plays her sister, Zdenka). We have two beautiful duets.”

Mark Delavan (Mandryka):

“Mandryka is Slavonian. He’s already an outsider, but he’s also a farmer. He happens to be rich, wildly wealthy with money he inherited from his uncle. The pressure is on him to reproduce, get a son, carry on the name. His first couple of lines are my favorites. He says, (referring to a letter he wrote): ‘I’m sorry it’s a little bloody. You might not be able to read it. I had an altercation with a she-bear and I got scratched.’ Actually the bear crushed four of his ribs and he was in the hospital for 14 weeks. He is a master of understatement.

“He’s blunt, honest, doesn’t mince words. I can relate to that. I’ve been told I’m the perfect Mandryka.

“There are places in this music that are so gorgeous you can’t believe they’re from this planet. In my second act duet (with Arabella) I get choked up. It is so beautiful, I couldn’t finish yesterday [during rehearsal].

“He calls Arabella a word we don’t have in English: allerschönsteall beautiful one. It chokes me up every time.

“The opera was written between WWI and WWII, but this production is only historical in the sense of ‘let’s move on. Let’s talk about the Danube. After that ugly war, let’s get away.’ It’s like the 1950s in America, after WWII—let’s have babies and get on with our lives.”

Heidi Stober (Zdenka)

“I love playing pants role, but this is a new challenge. In others, I am actually playing a man. Here I’m a woman dressed up like a boy. I try to keep in mind that there can still be some feminine aspects in how I play things—little touches of femininity.

“This is my first Strauss role and I couldn’t be happier. I’m ready to give my left arm away to do another. This music just fits the voice like a glove. Most of my role is chit-chatty, but there are moments where I get to open up.

“I don’t get to be a girl because we don’t have enough money to marry both Arabella and me off. In a duet (with Arabella) in the first act, I am trying to convince her to marry Matteo, but she explains to me how it works in your heart when you meet men. I come to a real understanding about love. She wants someone her equal, who will treat her as equal, not just a pretty little thing.

“Zdenka is selfless. She really is all about making everything work for everyone else. It takes a toll.”

Dale Travis (Count Waldner)

“Strauss wrote well for all voices. These days, composers must be writing at their computers, because some of the vocal lines are next to impossible. Strauss’s melodies stress the words perfectly. The meaning of words becomes that much clearer.

“I auditioned for John Crosby in New York. I knew he loved Strauss, loved conducting it. I auditioned singing La Roche in ‘Capriccio.’ He loved it. He told me all the rep I should be doing. I’ve done three or four of them now. The ultimate Strauss role for bass is Baron Ochs in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’ I’m giving myself one or two years to learn it. We have to know when we’re ready to take on roles.

“I’ve been coming to Santa Fe for 20 years. When I’m not singing, I’m fly-fishing.

“The Count is an obsessive gambler, a retired cavalry officer. Arabella sums up the family well to Mandryka. She says, ‘Do you have any idea who we are? We don’t rank very high in society. We muddle along. We’re dubious characters.’ He can be like Jackie Gleason to his wife. He barks.

“I don’t have the most beautiful voice or the biggest voice, but I’m a chameleon, a character actor. I can be a father, policeman, doctor. I’m a consummate professional. I show up ready to go. My strength lies in communicating, I’m a performer who develops a rapport with the audience through characterization and words.”

King Roger

Dennis PetersenEdrisi):

“I play the spiritual advisor to the King. I am like Merlin to Arthur, Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker, Suzuki to Butterfly. I have no agenda other than his (King Roger’s) enlightenment. To get him out of his depression. Does the Shepherd lead us or were we open for an intervention? Does King Roger need to explore his sexuality or does he need to learn not to judge things? You can see what you want to see. The great part of this production is, it doesn’t decide anything for you.

“When I approach a new part, the text is the most important thing and that’s where I begin. Luckily, I went online and found a doctoral dissertation that was a performer’s guide to the opera, with a history and complete phoetic translation of the text. I also worked with a Polish pianist from the Chopin society who grew up in Krakow. Then, when I got here, our Polish diction coach taught us the difference between spoken Polish and the poetic nuances of a singer on stage. Of course, I had some resistance to her. When you get older, sometimes it’s easier to learn something new than to unlearn something. When you get two experts in one room, you get different opinions. In French, it’s worse. You can never get three French people to agree.

“[Composer Karol] Szymanowski has a particular musical vocabulary, like Janáček married Debussy and he was their musical child. There are all kinds of elements in it. It’s very romantic. There are long stretches in it that are lush and beautiful, and then you begin to feel like you’re in harmony but with a limp. It’s not quite what you expect.”

Erin Marley (Roxana):

“I started working on this opera a year ago. My hometown is Charlottesville, Va., and it turns out there is a lively Polish community there. I found a Polish faculty member at the University of Virginia who said he’d be happy to help. He hooked me up with an exchange student who happened to have been trained in Polish theater diction. They were really into getting people familiar with Polish. The professor and his wife are coming to see the opera.

“The music came much later. I worked on the words for months and months and then started on the music three or four months ago—a bad move. It’s so hard. It’s written in a style I’m not totally familiar with. There are references to Strauss, Wagner, Berg and lots of Debussy.

“This opera is so intense. The music doesn’t let up. There are no light moments. You are in it for 80-minutes straight. You have to be very focused. It’s one big sweeping wave of emotionally complex music. There no neat little pieces, like, ‘Here’s your aria’; ‘Here’s some entertainment.’

“The King and I are living in a marriage that is not totally healthy. He is struggling with whatever, sex, other things. It’s not that simple. I’m there every step of the way, almost running the kingdom for him. He can’t make decisions.

“Roxana is a voice of reason. She wants for the marriage to work, but it becomes apparent to her that it’s not going to work. He (the King) runs away with the Shepherd to find the balance in his life he needs. She needs balance too. At the end, she is still confused.

“The theme is control vs. lack of control. Which rules are you going to follow? It’s everybody’s challenge. I’ve been there myself. I think everyone has.”

Raymond Aceto (Archbishop; Aceto also plays the villainous Scarpia in “Tosca” this summer):

“None of us (except for Mariusz) speak Polish, but it’s the same process you go through with any language. You do phonetics. Vowels. You learn the difficult sounds. How to apply the vowels to singing. Polish seems closest to Russian, but it’s really its own thing. I’m fluent in five languages. Languages are my thing. Polish has a lot of consonants to get to before the vowels. Therein lies a challenge. I go through and translate all of it so I know what everybody’s saying. I was lucky to find a Polish pianist at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“My character is cool, religious. He’s the spiritual backbone. When the Shepherd shows up, it doesn’t sit well with him. There’s conflict. Unlike Scarpia, who is villainous, the Archbishop is more of a stern, pious man. He’s worried about the King. When the Shepard stumbles onto the scene, he’s a radical. The opposite of the Archbishop.

“[Stephen] Wadsworth is one of the great directors. This production is amazing in its attention to details. He talks about our hands, our feet, our arms. We spend a lot of time talking about things. It’s very intense.”

William Burden (Shepherd):

“The assistant stage manager at the Canadian Opera Company [in Toronto] is Polish. He would go through the text, reading my part. I would practice with my iPhone. The hardest thing with a language you have no natural facility for is getting the word for word connections, finding a link bertween the singing and the language. At rehearsals, we had to get everybody else’s part in our consciousness.

“The challenge with the Shepherd is that he uses very poetic language, but his physical actions don’t necessarily represent the text. When he uses flowery speech, the action is not necessarily in sync.

“There are these really long, extended scenes. It happens almost in real time. It opens with a big religious ceremony and ends with Roger leaving the comfort of the palace and going into the wilderness. It’s like a vision quest. He’s going in order to find some answers that satisfy him.

“The Shepherd is one of those people who becomes whatever he feels the person he’s with needs him to be. He’s a facilitator. That can be both a gift and a curse. I think he’s trying to find both his own human and divine sensibilities. Some will see this as a religious allegory, some as a human, social story. We hope that people will be talking about this piece. It requires you to pay attention.

“The Shepherd isn’t messianic. He’s more of a prophet. An apostle of Dionysian sensibility. As an actor, I’m struggling a little with the extreme of his position.

“King Roger is a tough nut to crack. Most people are willing to go with ‘if it feels good, do it,’ but he has this mantle of political power all the time. In him, the Shepherd finds a bigger challenge. I’m pretty mentally wasted by the end.

“The music is almost cinematic in its musical scope. There are exquisite romantic periods interspersed with music that is pushing harmonic boundaries. It’s what was being explored in early 20th century composition. It’s not your typical opera. The audience will be surprised by how moving the music is. The sound the chorus makes in the beginning of the opera is mind-blowing. You don’t get to hear choruses like you do in Santa Fe anywhere else.”

king_roger_santa_fe_8-12Mariusz Kwiecien—King Roger (Kwiecien [right, as the king; photo by Ken Howard] is not only the only cast member to have performed his role before, he is also Polish):

“I loved the Paris production. The critics weren’t so happy with it, but I thought it was strong. I had done ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Marriage of Figaro’ in Santa Fe, and I spoke with [company director] Charles Mackay about ‘King Roger.’ It’s unknown, modern, newer, the perfect opera to do here. I was so happy when he chose it. It’s not very well known in Poland. We had Moniuszko in the 19th century and there are beautiful arias, but it’s not really world class. Only ‘King Roger.’

“ ‘King Roger’ is one of those operas that a director can use to present his or her ideas in any kind of period. Although the libretto is set in the 12th century, you can treat it in a free way. This production is set in modern times. King Roger can be a leader of a political party, of a country, or he can be a regular man having his own problems.

“The King is having problems with people, with his wife, with himself. He doesn’t want to be King. He’s a man with a psychological private life. The Shepherd can be a psychological help or he can be Jesus coming to give the King what he needs to find, which is faith in love. At the end, he can die, take drugs, or find himself and his mental health. In our production he is finding himself, and how to judge himself and others.

“The music is fantastic. There are lots of beautiful phrases, and fantastic choruses, incomparable with other operas. The music is a combination of Korngold, Strauss— a mixture influenced by folk music. We [Poles] hear it. There are definite harmonies taken from Polish folk music.

Maometto II

Leah Crocetto (Anna):

Crocetto said her role was written by the composer for his wife, and, as Crocetto puts it, “it’s just one flourish after another.” Bel canto opera is all about the voice, but for Crocetto, a highly acclaimed young soprano appearing in her first Rossini role, it’s like starting out at the top. “I’m assuming this is the most difficult Rossini role. There’s the most coloratura singing. My (singing) muscles are being worked like never before.” The singers had the opportunity to work with Phillip Gossett, a musicologist and Rossini expert who helped “glue together” the different versions of this opera which had been done over the years. “It was a gift to work with him because he was open to our interpretations, but always offered a sense of historical accuracy.” Although the part is a challenge for Crocetto, one gift from the composer is the built-in warm-up in the part. “I sing from the start to the last minute, but the first act starts in the middle voice, so I’m ready for the top floaty bits in the second act.”

Patricia Bardon (Calbo):

The reason Maometto is so seldom produced is that it’s such a challenge for the singers, according to Bardon. “He (Rossini) must have hated the mezzo,” she said. Bardon’s major aria in the opera is by far the most difficult she has ever done. “It’s essentially unsingable. You need three voices, soprano, mezzo and contralto, and that’s within two bars.” Why take on such a part? Crocetto, sitting across the table from Bardon answered for her. “When she succeeds no one will mess with her.” “One needs challenges in a career,” Bardon added. “Besides, it has only been done once before in the States, and that’s something.” In preparing for the role, which contains a lot of vocal ornamentation, Bardon said “Maestro [Frédéric Chaslin] would send ideas but there was a lot of flexibility. He gave us total freedom because it has to suit your voice.” Before each performance, it won’t be just about warming up the voice and getting “in the zone” for such a challenging role. “There will be a lot of looking at the score.”

Bruce Sledge (Paulo):

For Sledge, the role of Paulo is unusual in several ways. “I have a very featured character, but I don’t have my own aria.” There is also a lot of recitative to contend with. At this point in his career, Sledge, a lyric tenor, said he isn’t as interested in the comic Rossini roles, but Maometto is “serious Rossini. The part doesn’t sit as high, it was written for a baritone-tenor, so it’s quite different.” Sledge’s warm-up routine involves getting his tenor voice higher and higher. “When I get up to the top note in a piece, I warm-up to one note higher.” Because there is so much recitative, he says he will speak through the lines, concentrating on the facial muscles and tongue. Sledge called Gossett, “the Indiana Jones of musicology.” He marveled at Gossett’s nearly obsessive focus on the opera and how the musicologist even travelled to Brazil, where he found scraps of music from a very old production of Maometto that had been designed to fit onto the trumpet holder of the horn player. “It must have been far enough away that he (the Brazilian trumpeter) just didn’t return it.”

Maometto_Santa_Fe_8-12Luca Pisaroni (Maometto):

Many of the singers in the opera can be found at local gyms between rehearsals. “My role is very high,” said Pisaroni (pictured, left, with Leah Crocetto as Anna; photo by Ken Howard). “Running helps. I don’t have time to warm-up on stage. I have to be on top of my game right away. The day of a performance I will sleep in the afternoon, sing a little bit, until my voice feels light and easy, and certainly go for a run. Twenty minutes on a treadmill will wake my body up and make me feel right.”

Pisaroni first saw the eminent bass Samuel Ramey perform Maometto at La Scala in 1994. “I was with my father and I told him, ‘some day I want to sing that role.’ ” He said he jumped at the opportunity to take the role in Santa Fe, “and then when they gave me the score I said, ‘What was I thinking?’ I never sang anything so difficult in my life. You need an incredible range, the ability to sing a bel canto line, as well as the technique to do coloratura and fast passages. Plus, dramatically, it might be easy to just sing loud, but this calls for unbelieveable colors.”

Working with Gossett is like working with Rossini himself, according to Pisaroni. “I’ve been in contact with him for the past year while he’s been working on the Critical Edition. He knows so much about the tradition. You ask him what Rossini was doing on January 4 of such a year, and he knows.” Gossett was influential in helping Pisaroni with his two major arias. “You have to find tempos that suit your voice, just the right mixture between slow and fast.”

While some of the other singers are challenged by the amount of recitative, Pisaroni thrives on it. “I’m Italian, I can invent on the spot. I spend a lot of time making it seem like a real conversation.”

Pearl_Fishers_Santa_Fe_8-12The Pearl Fishers
(Due to illness and scheduling conflicts, Cutler, Cabell and Magiera responded to questions via email)

Eric Cutler (Nadir):

Some day, Cutler (standing, right, as Nadir, with Christopher Magiera as Zurga; photo by Ken Howard) would like to sing “Guillaume Tell” by Rossini. It’s the last opera by Rossini and includes one of the most difficult tenor music ever written, he said. “It’s like standing at the bottom of Mt. McKinley and thinking, ‘I can make it to the top of this mountain.’ You’ve got to be a little crazy to even try.”

Nicolai Gedda, the Swedish tenor, was not only a role model for Cutler in the part of Nadir, but in many other parts, he said. “He was a champion of the French style, and, more importantly, the use of mixing registers or ‘voix-mixte.’ Nadir’s famous aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” might just be the perfect example of that kind of singing, he said.

Gedda was also a polyglot, able to sing in six languages. “He was a student of the technique of singing his entire life and showed us lyric tenors that there really is a progression and a timing involved as to when we should take on heavier parts.” So Cutler was able to sing everything from Monteverdi to Wagner, starting out in early music and ending-up singing Wagner without any vocal problems.

“My breakthrough role was probably Leopold in Halevy’s “La Juive” in 2003 at the Metropolitan Opera with one of my great tenor idols, Neil Shicoff.”

Christopher Magiera (Zurga):

The role of Zurga includes the friendship duet “Au fond du temple saint,” one of the most well-known pieces of music in opera. Magiera listened to many, many recordings of that piece, although the opera itself, historically considered too-early Bizet, has not been recorded as widely. He picked out two singers to mention as favorites. One, Ernest Blanc, offered “a smooth, large, and styled voice from half a century ago,” he said. “His singing is full of class and the way he crafts the French language is beautiful,” Magiera said. Another baritone, Gino Quilico, also impressed Magiera. “He gives true emotion and meaning to the character in the recording.”

A role model alive and working today is Simon Keelyside. “His acting is so realistic and captivating,” Magiera said. “He is very athletic and brings that to the stage in a great way…He has a unique ability to really become the character he is portraying, something I find rare on stage at times.” Magiera also admires Thomas Allen. “His singing is always beautiful and moving. I have been fortunate to see both of them (Keelyside and Allen) on stage multiple times. Allen is a truly intelligent singer.”

“The role I’ve done the most performances of is The Captain in The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. It is hardly ever performed, but I’ve had the luck to have sung it in the US and London and hope I’ll have chances again in the future.” Magiera made his professional debut “just a couple of years ago” in the title role in Eugene Onegin at Opera Theater of St. Louis.

Dream role? “Pelléas from ‘Pelleas and Mélisande’ by Debussy. I saw it for the first time last year and the music really captures something different about our hearts that I haven’t felt in other operas. It really spoke to me. It’s a bit dark and twisted and yet still has moments of sheer beauty. And I love the high tessitura of the role. I think it’s a role I’d really get lost in preparing, and I’d love that.”

Nicole Cabell (Leila):

“This is one role I try to bring a completely unique interpretation to.” The full-length recording Cabell listened to featured Barbara Hendricks in the part of Leila. “Most voices I hear in this repertoire are bordering on coloratura, of which I am not.”

Neither is her voice an obvious choice for directors to cast as Mimi in “La Boheme.” “I realize that my voice is a light lyric soprano, but if I could sing this role, I would be happy to do so in a smaller house. It feels natural to me, both musically and dramatically. This is a role that Mirella Freni was also very well known for, which perhaps influences my decision, but this is my dream role for sure.”

Freni is a role model because “her particular approach to vocal production as well as artistic style resonate with me. She seems like a singer who truly sings from the heart, not full of ego.”

Cabell said she is still waiting for her “big breakthrough,” but perhaps a breakthrough moment in her career was winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005. She has sung in many productions of “The Magic Flute” as Pamina, and “La Boheme” as Musetta. Her solo debut album, “Soprano,” was named “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone magazine.

Wayne Tigges (Nourabad):

Two summers ago, Tigges stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing singer in the part of the Devil(s) in “Tales of Hoffman.” He stayed on for the entire run. “A lot of people saw it. It gave my career a huge boost,” he said. “It was very scary. It was like a Bible of words. The (Kaye) version had a lot of extra spoken dialogue, which is way more difficult to remember. There is no reference, it’s not like you hear the violins and say, ‘OK. That’s where I’m at.’ ”

This is his fifth season appearing in Santa Fe, and in addition to playing Nourabad in The Pearl Fishers, Tigges is understudying the title role in Maometto II. “I’m only 39, a baby for a lot of bass-baritone roles,” he said. “Mostly I play villains, priests, soldiers or fathers. I have a long way to go.” In the part of Nourabad, “I walk on and scream and curse,” he said.

Tigges has role models in different categories. For Rossini, he admires Samuel Ramey and Cesare Siepi. “”Ramey for simple, beautiful, gorgeous sound. Siepi, for a relaxed, resonant, round sound—classy.” In the Verdi bass repertoire Pierro Cappuccilli was old-school Italian. He had a way with long lines, and great legato, he said. In the bigger, Strauss/Wagner roles, Tigges raves about Greer Grimsley, the American singer just starting to take on roles like Wotan. “His voice is HUGE,” he said. “He’s the best John the Baptist in the world. His voice can cut through anything.”

“I’m dying to sing ‘Scarpia,’” he said. “I’ll be doing it in two years in Austin. I’ll start with a smaller house to see how it goes.” It has a middle-to-high tessatura for a bass/baritone, on top of heavy orchestration. “It’s hard,” he said. “For now I’m trying to stick with Rossini, Handel and Mozart to keep my voice healthy and young.”


Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi):

Brian Jagde (pronounced Jade) is making his Santa Fe Opera debut as well as his first performance in the role of Cavaradossi — stepping in after Andrew Richards pulled out of the production last week due to severe allergies. Ironically, the opening aria he will sing in Santa Fe, (“Recondita armonia”) was the opening piece he sang last month in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia – The World Opera Competition in Beijing. Jagde took the second place award for men and a special commendation for his performance of an aria from Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” “This is my year,” he said. (He is pictured, left, as Cavaradossi, with Amanda Echalaz as Tosca; photo by Ken Howard.)

“This is the role I’ve been dying to sing,” he said. “’Tosca’ is my favorite opera. The music is perfect, the libretto makes sense. Every second is plotted out well.” He began working intensely on the role last January, for a scheduled San Francisco Opera engagement in the fall. One of Jagde’s favorite Cavaradossi’s was Franco Corelli, the Italian tenor who died in 2003. “He was a beast up there,” Jagde said. “There is a video all over the Internet, a live recording in which he holds a high note for 16 seconds. He was kind of a show-off.”

Jagde spent the first 10 years of his career as a baritone, and only made the switch to lyric tenor three years ago. “I was better at the high notes, not so great at the low notes,” he said. “I went to a teacher in New York. He listened to me for a few seconds and said, ‘You’re a tenor.’” Three weeks later he was auditioning in his new voice part. “It was the repertory I wanted to sing,” he said. “I love the verismo operas” — a style of Italian opera that began with Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” in 1890 and featured stories based on real people and real life— “I love the romantic operas. I try to make music as much as I can with every note I sing.”

Raymond Aceto (Baron Scarpia):

“I’m a bass, not a baritone,” he said. “Scarpia was probably written for a baritone, but it’s all about the technical approach. I have a darker colored voice. It has a more menacing quality.” Aceta listened to George London and Samuel Ramey, two other leading Scarpias. “I love the color and style of London. He was ‘it’ in the 60’s and 70’s. And Sam is a friend, we study with the same teacher. I can hear the technical blueprint in his approach.”

As for acting the part of the villain, Aceto says there is no vocal coach or previous performance that gives him guidance. “You pull that from somewhere inside yourself. I don’t go into rehearsal with any preconceived notions. There’s so much in the libretto of what you’re trying to do. The music is a great place to start.”

“I think of myself as an organic actor, I love to collaborate with my colleagues, the director and conductor. I’ve done it (the role) in different places with different attitudes. I don’t have a standard Scarpia.”

Cesare Siepi was an influence for Aceto. “He was a great bass in the Italian style. He probably didn’t sing Scarpia, but I like his approach.” Aceto says he is dying to sing King Philip in Don Carlo. “It’s the absolute pinnacle of Verdi, and of bass roles. Great drama, and beautiful vocal writing.

“Bass is the last of all voice types to mature. There is a certain arc to a career. I’m 44 and I’m coming into the big roles. I’ve had a lot of success as Escamillo in Carmen, Zaccaria in Nabucco and Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra.”

Amanda Echalaz (Tosca):

Echalaz is from South Africa, but her father is British, and her last name is Spanish (“from centuries back”). She has been talked about in the opera world as the leading Tosca of her generation, but she says, “I will always be in the shadow of Maria Callas. I heard a recording of Act 2 of the Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden, and I froze. It was gripping.” Callas was the whole package for Echalaz. “It was the most complete performance in terms of dramatic intensity and musicality. In a role like Tosca, it’s so important to have a balance of the two.”

Leontyne Price, Lucia Popp, Eleanor Steber and Eileen Farrell are all sopranos whom Echalaz admires. “It isn’t one part that draws you to someone’s voice, it can be the way you react physically when you hear it. It’s the raw instrument,” she said.

She would love to take on the role of Katya Kabanova in Leoš Janáček’s opera of the same name. “For me, it’s the perfect marriage of drama and music—extraordinary music. It’s very touching, real. It’s painful, which draws me to it.” Salome would be another part Echalaz would love to take on. “It’s a juicy role.”

Dale Travis (Sacristan):

Travis can’t say enough about his teacher, the Italian bass, Italo Tajo, who died in 1993. “He was a great singer, and a great coach. It was his whole philosophy in general,” Travis said. “He taught me to pay meticulous attention to the music and words. If we use that as basic preparation, no matter what production you are in, you still have that as your anchor.”

“I’m playing the part of the church janitor, basically,” he said. “It’s not that big of a role, but it represents the oppression of the period, the cause of an uprising against the church and state.” When he was in Rome, Travis visited some of the historical locations used in Tosca. “At the Castel Sant’Angelo (the prison where Cavaradossi is locked-up) you enter and then go down about 150 feet into a dank, dark area. Everything is in a big circle. You can picture prisoners just rotting there.”

In addition to Tajo, Travis, a bass-baritone, admires Paul Plishka and Sam Ramey. “Plishka could do Dulcamara in ‘The Elixir of Love’ or Banquo in ‘Macbeth,’ and then do a Verdi opera the next day. I admire that versatility.”

“If you’re smart you can sing for 50 years. I’ve been at it for 27 and I can see at least another 15. It’s not unheard of to do 70-80 roles.”

“I’d love to play Scarpia. Everybody would. It’s that great a role. It’s fun to be bad, and he’s pretty bad.”

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Alexander Pushkin knew intimately the world of which he wrote in his novel-in-verse  “Eugene Onegin.” He was raised by nannies...