Listening Party Podcast Episode 4
Apr 17, 2020 1:00pm
Pacific Opera’s production of Carmen was supposed to open April 16. Instead, everyone is hunkering down at home. But we’ve been in touch with the artists who were to sing the roles of Escamillo, Carmen, and Don José in our production. Today, instead of singing, they’re talking – about how they found their way to opera and about roles that have been particularly meaningful to them.They are also sharing musical moments for our latest Listening Party Playlist. And, as a bonus, all three artists sent us photos of themselves with their perfect companions in isolation!
Baritone Erik van Heyningen was scheduled to make his role debut as the dashing toreador Escamillo – a character Erik had really looked forward to diving into: he sees in Escamillo a playfulness and a rare gift of always being authentically himself.Erik trained as a jazz musician – an upright bassist, who gravitated to voice lessons because his bass teacher wouldn’t let him play anything he wasn’t able to sing! Then, while he was in high school, he heard Bryn Terfel in concert. It was a revelation: Erik suddenly knew what he wanted to do.
In his conversation, Erik recalled one of the first times he was really moved by a piece of operatic theatre. He was in a production by Opera Theatre of St. Louis of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline – an American retelling of the Oedipus myth from the mother’s viewpoint. While waiting in the wings near the end, Erik was completely overcome by the sense that no spectacle was needed here: the people on stage were real people saying real things and experiencing real pain and real joy.
Erik also talks about singing Jochanaan in Salome at the Spoleto Festival – and how performing that crazy difficult role at a dark time in his life brought home to him the fact that he was no longer a student, but a grown-up professional artist doing what he was meant to do.
Mezzo soprano Carolyn Sproule first sang the title role in Carmen two years ago and was looking forward to re-exploring and re-discovering this iconic character.
Enthralled as a child with The Sound of Music, Carolyn grew up singing, practising piano, and making plays. It was as a teen, listening to a cd of Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva”, that she saw the light and realized what she really wanted to do with her life was to be an opera singer.
Carolyn also talks of the challenges and excitement of singing at the Metropolitan Opera. Following five seasons in small and cover roles, this February she sang Dorabella in Così fan tutte. Shockingly she had to perform without the luxury of rehearsing onstage with the orchestra.
Carolyn also has fond memories of her European debut as Erika in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa at the Wexford festival (to rave reviews). Operatic legend Rosalind Plowright was the old Baronness, who spent most of the opera silently painting – and created a lovely portrait of Carolyn.
Tenor Jean-Michel Richer was to have made his role debut as Don José, the naïve young soldier who is madly, jealously in love with Carmen. He talks about the scene he was most looking forward to performing in Pacific Opera’s production, and he discusses a few “role-model” tenors.
Jean-Michel also recalls the role that launched his professional career – Count Vallier de Tilly in Les Feluettes – a new opera, co-commissioned by Pacific Opera and Opéra de Montréal and based on the brilliant play by Michel-Marc Bouchard. This was Jean-Michel’s first role in a professional house (he was still in school while rehearsing it) and certainly his first big lead. Jean-Michel recalls how powerful an experience it was for him and what an emotional trip it was for the audience. And he emphasizes how important it is to keep creating new opera even as we delight in revisiting old favourites.
I spoke to Erik Van Heyningen from Santa Cruz, California. He is a big fan of classic baritone recordings and came from a family that all had low voices, so it was natural for him to follow his singing passion as a baritone. You will find on the playlist some great voices that he listened to growing up: Pavarotti, Domingo, Hermann Prey, Hans Hotter.
You will also find the final two tracks from an opera he talked about which is likely new to you – Emmeline – and you can check out a video of the opera on Youtube.
Erik talked in detail about his recent experience at the Spoleta Festival singing his first Jochanaan in Salome. When he sent me his preferred recording to share with you, I couldn’t resist listening to the whole opera. It’s one of my favourites. He has chosen the recording with Cheryl Studer and Bryn Terfel – the baritone whose recital performance was central to Erik’s epiphany about becoming a singer. Erik works hard to engage in concert and recital work, which is so different from singing opera, but which can be an incredible experience for an audience, though it is under-appreciated in North America.
Erik’s love of text and intimacy in performance is also evident in his choice of José van Dam for his Toreador recording. José van Dam, as I remember him in his prime, was well loved for his text delivery and his intimate performance style, but he did not possess a big park-and-bark kind of voice. He was better known for concert and recital than opera. It makes complete sense to me that Erik would be attracted to this particular baritone. I hope you enjoy hearing this fine artist in an operatic role.
Carolyn Sproule came to opera through the great soprano Maria Callas, but to singing itself through The Sound Of Music and Julie Andrews. I had to include a track from Ms. Andrews, the wonderful singer and artist who originally inspired Carolyn. I chose the lesser known piece “Something Good,” because it is well worth hearing.
Carolyn also named many other mezzos that she loves, all on the playlist. There are tracks from Christa Ludwig, Olga Borodina, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I also confess to adding in the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Così fan tutte (featuring Christa Ludwig again) because it is one of the most divine pieces ever written: if it doesn’t calm your spirit, then what possibly could?
There are many Carmen recordings to choose from, and Carolyn chose the incredible Tatiana Troyanos, whose rich, full, dark voice is a great fit for this role.
There are some enjoyable offers from Jean Michel Richer in this week’s list. He confessed that he listens to opera in his work world, and so often seeks other kinds of music. Lately he has been going back to music of his past. I’ve included tracks from two Québécois artists he is currently listening to: Daniel Bélanger and Jean Leloup.
I’m particularly thrilled with Jean-Michel’s recommendation of Nilla Pizzi, who is a discovery for me. Jean-Michel also mentioned some of the voices that sing Don José, and we include, one after the other, Jonas Kaufmann and Neil Shicoff so that you can compare these different voices and approaches to the character. Part of the joy of exploring music is to discover your own palate and what you love in a particular role. The more you explore this way, the more exciting it is to go to the theatre and hear different singers interpret a role. Jean-Michel also included two exquisite Lieder that pay tribute to his days as a baritone, featuring Hermann Prey and Simon Keenlyside.
It’s a pretty eclectic mix this week – I hope you find some new music that lights up your soul. And don’t forget to send your opera stories and selections to Listeningparty@pacificopera.ca. You might hear your story on a future podcast! Happy Listening!
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