Thursday, November 19, 2009

From the Other Side of the Curtain

“Kiri, these are the men who will be carrying you out of the window. Would you like to practice this a few times before the show begins?”

We had never rehearsed with the chorus or orchestra before the first performance. So here I was with my hair in rollers being carried down from the window on stage just a few minutes before show time! What a way to prepare for my mainstage debut as Adina in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love

I could hear students entering the theater as I returned to my dressing room to put on the rest of my costume. The entire cast was abuzz with adrenaline! I was nervous as I stood off stage waiting for my entrance … I could hear the audience talking in their seats and the orchestra beginning to play. At that moment, I remembered my elementary school days when I wished with all my heart that one day I would be an opera singer. I thought of all the students who would see their first opera today and be hooked just like me! Somehow, I found strength and tranquility in that thought. As I walked out on stage I expected to get even more nervous. I looked out into the theatre, and I could feel the audience’s presence. I took a deep breath, and I had an overwhelming feeling of peace. This is where I belonged. I knew that this was the chance I had been waiting for all my life. Today I was performing on the Houston Grand Opera stage, and no matter what happened afterward, no one could take that away from me. This was the chance of a lifetime.

As we began the show we were a little hesitant until the first outburst of laughter. As the audience began to respond to the actions on stage I could feel myself relax and just enjoy performing. I don’t really remember too many specifics about the show. I just know that we were all trying as hard as we could. It was all a blur up until the last scene. I told Nemorino that I loved him and then he dropped to his knees and hugged me. The entire audience gasped and began to clap. In that split second I realized that the students understood our story. They were with us on our emotional roller coaster. We had made a connection—that is what this is all about.

As we finished the last note and waived good bye to the audience, Nathaniel Peake and I looked at each other with eyes of relief and congratulations as we waited for our turn in the curtain call. He grabbed my hand as we ran out to center stage, and the reception we got was breathtaking. That was a day I will remember forever!

Kiri Deonarine- First-year HGO Studio Artist

Be Ready for Anything

This upcoming Friday night marks the opening of Wagner’s Lohengrin one week after L’elisir d’amore opened the entire 2009-2010 season in brilliant fashion here at Houston Grand Opera. The principle singers and chorus alike bring such mastery to this poignant opera but it certainly has not been without trials. There were and will continue to be many great lessons learned from this experience.
“I’m going to be in a Wagnerian opera!” That was my initial reaction after learning about my assignment as Third Noble in Lohengrin. After seeing the cast line-up which includes Adrianne Pieczonka, Simon O’Neill, Richard Paul Fink, Christine Goerke, Ryan McKinny and Günther Groissböck, I couldn’t wait to start! But everything would not unfold as smoothly as we would have liked.
A few days before our Elsa (Adrianne Pieczonka) was scheduled to arrive in Houston, she suffered a back injury and was doubtful to return to action in time to join our production of Lohengrin. Fellow studio member Rachel Willis-Sørensen stepped in for the rehearsal and staging process as she is the cover for Elsa. Soprano Marie Plette was hired to come in with short notice but health issues forced her to cancel. Shortly thereafter a meeting was called for the principle cast members to discuss the status of our Elsa situation among other topics. Adrianne Pieczonka made great progress with injury treatment and would perform Elsa as originally scheduled. Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich von Telramund) learned of a family emergency and would be out for a few days. Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) also had a family emergency earlier in the rehearsal process and had to travel back home overseas. After the dust finally settled, we were ready to fine tune this updated production of Lohengrin.

So what have I learned from this process?
1) You must always be ready to step-in when called upon. Rachel stepped in as Elsa with much more poise and than most 24 year old sopranos would have displayed. I commend my studio mate for how well she executed when called upon during this production period. Adam Cioffari, fellow studio member and Fourth Noble in Lohengrin has also been on call as he is not only Fourth Noble but the cover for Ryan McKinny (Herald). Ryan and his wife recently welcomed their second child, so not knowing when or if Ryan would need to leave rehearsal could only make for Adam being prepared at all times.
2) Flexibility is the name of the game. Director Daniel Slater made it here to Houston weeks into the process after everything was staged by assistant director and choreographer Leah Hausman. It was to be expected that certain things would have to change. As an artist you have to be willing to try things and quick to adjust to changes which will evidently happen. I’ve always heard that complacency is the death of an artist. I’ll also add that rigidity goes right along with complacency. Two very important lessons that can carry into any project I undertake in the near and distant future.

Michael Sumuel

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Working with Idols

Here it is the middle of the seventh week since I began my incredible journey as an HGO Studio Artist. I’m that kind of person who finds meaning in experiences, seizes opportunities, and is grateful for everything in his life. I have to say it, even though it may sound trite, but I honestly, never thought I would be here, in the studio of one of the world’s best opera companies. Many Houstonians are surprised to find that their opera company is one of the top in the country, with great companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and San Francisco Opera. Some of the biggest stars have had their debuts here, and the Studio has been a home for some of opera’s biggest stars. It is humbling and exciting for me to have walked where so many of my idols have walked.

I remember our week of auditions like it was yesterday, and I think I’m still on cloud nine from the whole experience. I was nervous about our week of auditions, and yet, I felt strangely at home. Even if I had not been granted a spot in the studio, the company is a place of southern hospitality and most importantly a family. The music staff is world renowned. The company’s long history shows it is a company that not only survives floods and fires, but a company that grows and thrives within its community.

Week seven, and while I have been having the time of my life, I’m ashamed to say that I still have boxes I’ve yet to unpack in my apartment, only because we’ve been so busy getting ready for this season’s opening shows, L’Elisir d’Amore and Lohengrin. Being busy is a definite perk for the life of an artist. I would much rather not have time to do anything but work, and my parents and friends would say the exact opposite about their lives, but my work truly is my life’s passion. I eat, sleep, breathe opera.

Around week 4 of the program, I got the incredible opportunity to rehearse with the main cast of L’Elisir. I am performing the role of Nemorino in the student matinees and high school night performances of L’Elisir, but I got to jump in and get my feet wet in what is a new role for me, with the best possible situation. John Osborne (a phenomenal tenor!), the principal Nemorino, could not be at rehearsal until October 2nd, but staging rehearsals for the show started on September 21st. All of the other singers were here and ready to rehearse, but there was no Nemorino. This was my opportunity to help out the cast, and to learn from incredible stars and musicians. Eduardo Müller is one of the most famous conductors in the world, especially in the world of Bel Canto (the style of music/singing of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore). Ekaterina Siurina is the Adina in the show and performed the role in Glyndebourne, where the production originated. Alessandro Corbelli, is quite possibly the most famous Dulcamara of opera today. Liam Bonner is Belcore, the egotistical-ladies-man Sargeant, who is Nemorino’s rival for Adina’s affection. Mezzo-soprano, Catherine Martin, who is also a fellow studio member, sings Giannetta (usually cast with a soprano). The cast was complete minus a Nemorino, who, if you know the show, is quite central in most of the drama.

For two weeks, I got to rehearse and absorb as much as I could in the best of all possible casts for this show. I would be lying to say I wasn’t sad to bow out when John Osborne arrived to take his place as Nemorino, but I will forever be grateful for that opportunity. Now, I get to watch John work in this role. One of the fantastic things about opera is that different people bring different qualities to a character, and those differences can change often, sometimes from show to show. I love live theater for that very fact. Working with the cast as Nemorino, and now watching John work with those same people, I feel as though I have a well-rounded perspective of not only this role and this opera, but how opera companies produce a show.

This week we begin rehearsing the music for the alternate cast of L’Elisir d’Amore. Having worked with all of those fantastic people for that short period of time, has really prepared me for truly exploring this role and this opera. I am so excited to get to work with my fellow studio members. I am sure it will be a great show. Hope to see you there!!!

L’Elisir d’Amore opens on October 23rd, and if you can find a way to get tickets to the matinees (Nov. 4th and Nov. 6th) or the high school night (Nov. 9th), come see a cast of HGO Studio members. This is a fantastic show for first time opera goers. It is a comedy of a boy who loves a girl and will do anything to just get her to notice him.

Nathaniel Peake - HGO Studio Artist

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ah, veglia donna

Well ladies and gentlemen, I'm smack dab in the middle of doing two shows at once. One, is completely new: Brief Encounter by Andre Previn (more on that later), and the other, Rigoletto (by Giuseppi Verdi), is a standard. Almost everyone coming to see this or stepping into rehearsal has seen and heard Rigoletto for years. It's just one of those operas that, if you're in this career or if you're an opera fan, you just know it. Its definately one of those that you could hear a snippet of the music and be able to identify it.

Except for me, of course. I'm one of those weird opera singers that had yearly subscriptions to Rolling Stone Magazine and flat out refused to commit to opera and singer-geared magazines until somewhere in the last year. (I still read my RS.) And, I don't come from an opera background, so I don't automatically know the plots of these time honored operas that thousands of people have already fallen in love with. But, there's no time like the present, and in my opinion, there's no better way to fall in love with an opera than coming at it from a completely fresh point of view.

I'm performing a very small role in this production at Houston Grand Opera, and her name is Giovanna. I've done a lot of maid/servant roles (and I'll do many more yet as a mezzo), but this is the first one that shows a truly nasty side. Forget this mezzo being the soprano's best pal from years of living in the same house... Giovanna, as small of a sing that she is, plays an important role in moving the plot along: she lets the Duke into the house, which in turn gets Gilda abducted. You know the rest. And, if you don't, I'm not going to tell you! :)

The other show that I'm doing right now, Brief Encounter, is a brand new opera by a wonderful team of creators. Andre Previn, as previously introduced, is the composer. John Caird is our director and librettist. These two men, with countless others, are leading the way to making something that only exists on paper into something living and breathing on stage. I've done several world premieres before, and I have to note... to me, it's not very different from doing a standard rep opera (mostly for the reasons above). There are a few key differences though... for one, the composer is living. Which means that, in a sense, so is the score. I workshopped this piece about a year ago, and from that time until this point, this score has undergone probably hundreds of changes. And that was probably just before the singers got into town. A real luxury in having a live composer and a librettist who also happens to be the director is that when something doesn't work, it gets changed. If a note is too high, or if a word just doesn't work in a certain spot, the problem is discussed, and in most cases, fixed right there in the rehearsal. Of course, that makes for an interesting challenge in remembering all of the changes and unlearning what you put a lot of time in the first place to learn, but it's worth it for the ending product.

So, as you can see, it's quite busy around here right now! But, I'm looking forward to opening Rigoletto on April 17th and to getting into dress rehearsals with Brief Encounter. Both shows should result in one heck of a sending off for the end of my time in the HGO Studio!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Keystrokes with the Maestro

About a month ago, we HGO Studio pianists received some exciting and slightly scary news. We were going to get three conducting coachings with HGO Music Director Patrick Summers. We had only a few weeks to come in ready to conduct, play, and sing through Acts II and III of Rigoletto. It was an enormous amount of music to learn amidst other major projects, such as learning an entirely new opera, Previn’s Brief Encounter. But there was no question it would be worth it and somehow we crammed it all in. We used every bit of extra free time we could manage to be prepared for the Maestro—I know I managed to amuse some kids in the Boston airport, waving my pencil at an imaginary orchestra. Hours before our first sessions, we were still at it, pounding and caterwauling Rigoletto simultaneously from three practice rooms. After getting together to do a little preliminary conducting of each other, we went off to meet the Maestro.
It was no surprise that the sessions were great. We covered many topics such as “to subdivide or not to subdivide”, how much rubato (a fluctuation of tempo within a musical phrase often against a rhythmically steady accompaniment) can one use and where, and Verdi’s frequently ignored metronome markings. We also explored the crucial issue of exactly what our ear should focus on while conducting. For instance, at the beginning of Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani” our impulse was to listen to the fast and furious violin lines, and to shape them through our conducting. Yet when the Maestro urged us to turn our ear and baton to the sparse bass line, the piece opened up, breathed, and even became easier to play.
Now that we are in rehearsals for Brief Encounter, which Maestro Summers is also conducting, I feel that the lessons continue. As I respond as a player to his beat, I’m also analyzing it in light of all that we discussed during our Rigoletto sessions. It’s inspiring. Every beat has a clarity that not only indicates “make sound here” but what the quality of that sound should be.
That these continuing “lessons” are part of my daily work at the opera make me feel very fortunate to be a part of one of the best professional arts organizations around.