Our esteemed partner company Opera Carolina is continuing its season, and after the success of an excellent Barber of Seville, we are being treated to another crowd favorite: La Traviata
. Due to prior commitments we won't be able to attend the opening matinée but will attend the last show on January 28th to publish our review. We are doing three mini-interviews with the principal artists: in the title role of Violetta, the great soprano Elizabeth Caballero, our three-times interviewee who is already a favorite of the Charlotte public (she sang Nedda in Pagliacci
and Zemfira in Aleko
last season); tenor Sean Panikkar as Alfredo who commands an impressive career, and baritone Reginald Smith Jr, the 2015 National Council Auditions winner, in the role of Germont.
The opera will be given in Italian with English surtitles. The run has three shows: Sunday January 22, 2017 at 2 PM, Thursday the 26th at 7:30 PM, and Saturday the 28th at 8 PM at the Blumenthal Performance Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. For tickets, click [here
]. We've been covering Opera Carolina for years and the company always presents compelling productions, well sung and well conducted (Maestro Meena will be at the podium which accounts for guaranteed quality). In terms of casting, it doesn't get any better than that! So dear reader, don't miss it! For more information on the show, click [here
Let's start with Elizabeth (followed by Reggie and Sean). This spectacular soprano has given some extensive answers to Opera Lively in the past in her first and second interviews with us (read them [here
] and [here
]) so this time we kept it short with four questions, which we'll go ahead and reproduce now without further ado, since by clicking on the two older interviews above the readers can find all the information about this talented singer (including many pictures).
All questions by Luiz Gazzola. Copyright Opera Lively. Reproduction for promotional purposes is authorized as long as the source is quoted and a link to it is provided. For other purposes, please contact us to submit a request. These are Opera Lively interviews #219, 220, and 221.
Interview with Elizabeth Caballero in the role of Violetta
Photo credit S. Richards Photography - use authorized by singer
Opera Lively - The acting for Violetta is very taxing given that she goes through at least two pivotal moments. The first one is when she goes from mocking Alfredo's feelings and resisting the lure of love to falling for him heads on. The second one is when she is fierce and combative with Papa Germont but rapidly capitulates when he pulls the emotional cards of his daughter's fate and Alfredo's future. Tell us about your favorite acting and singing parts of this role.
Elizabeth Caballero - The role of Violetta is not only a beautiful role to sing but also a wonderful acting role. In my opinion, the most powerful moments for her are in the final act when she realizes that not even Alfredo's return can save her from death and she goes through almost all the stages of death. She has anger, bargaining and finally at the very end, she accepts her fate. While not a truly natural death, it is quite beautiful especially in the final moments when she "sees the light." Act 3 are my favorite moments to act.
To sing, definitely the duet with Papa Germont. It is the heart of the opera. Verdi had a real gift in writing gorgeous duets for baritones and soprano. This one is one of my favorites to sing.
Opera Lively - La Traviata is one of the most performed operas worldwide. It is extremely popular for a reason - its stratospheric operatic quality with great music and fabulous libretto - but the other side of this coin is that it becomes hard to keep it new. Given that Violetta could be called your signature role, what is your recipe for keeping each performance of La Traviata unique and compelling?
Elizabeth Caballero - I wouldn't call Violetta "my signature role." I'm just lucky to frequently perform as Violetta. I love the role very much. The recipe in keeping each opera I perform fresh and new are the new folks surrounding the opera. The new cast members, the new maestro, orchestra, chorus and set and costumes. While we are performing yet another Traviata, it is with new people and faces and we all have our ideas or take on all these characters and music. It's what makes live theater always fresh and exciting.
Opera Lively - As the saying goes, one needs three sopranos to properly sing Violetta. A coloratura for the first act, a lyrical for the second, and a dramatic for the third. This is an exaggeration, of course, but please tell us about the vocal challenges in the role.
Elizabeth Caballero - I just sing Violetta with my voice. I sing everything with my voice. I never try to sing with a "Puccini voice" or a "Verdi voice" or a "Mozart voice." I make sure I use my instrument and change the style accordingly. I don't agree that you need a soprano with 3 voices to sing Violetta. The Aria in Act 1 is a true tour de force
of an aria. It is long with lots of fioritura and coloratura and many high notes. Maestro Verdi is smart in setting this aria in the top of the show because it's a great warm up for the remainder of the opera. Once the curtain goes down after the Act 1 aria, you have some moments to recover to sing a very long and dramatic duet, followed by the confrontation at the party and finally the death. If anything, Violetta is much more an acting role than it is a singing role.
Opera Lively - Another aspect of the opera's popularity is that the greatest sopranos in all of opera history took up this role in their careers, leaving us great recordings in audio and visual media. Please share with us some of your favorite Violettas, the ones you consider as great inspiration, and tell us the reasons for your choices.
Elizabeth Caballero - My favorite modern Traviata is Angela Gheorghiu. Her recording with Solti that made her famous, is one of my favorites. Another favorite recording is the one with Ileana Contrubas and Carlos Klieber conducting. He's one of my favorite conductors. Of course I love listening to Renata Scotto and Maria Callas because I love them for the singing actresses they are. The way that they use the text when they sing almost makes me forget that they are singing.
Interview with Reginald Smith Jr. in the role of Giorgio Germont
Photo Kristin Hoebermann
A Grand Finals winner of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a recent graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. has been praised by the New York Times as “a passionate performer” and by Opera News for his “powerful and attractive voice.”Learn more about the singer by clicking [here] to visit his website.
Opera Lively - Let's talk first about the psychological arc of your character. The listener is compelled to condemn Germont for his heartless destruction of a vulnerable woman’s life, while at the same time getting some understanding of what compelled him to act like this, not to forget that at the end he tries to correct his approach to her. Please tell us what you think of the character Germont and how to best act him.
Reginald Smith Jr. - I find the character, Giorgio Germont, to be very compelling. There are several different ways to interpret this character. In the operatic setting of this story, there seems to be no real protagonist. With this interesting challenge, many have made Germont to be a very stern, militaristic, and even uncaring father figure. Contrastingly, as a way to combat the previous portrayals, people have made this character incredibly sympathetic. I believe that the truth of the character, and the real interest of the plot, lies between both of the aforementioned interpretations.
To me, Giorgio Germont should be a relatable character for his reasons and purpose, but he should also be someone who is disliked for his manipulative tactics. By the end, we see the full arc of the character and the change in this man, really starting with the final scene of Act II. Like so many of us, he looks back and realizes the error of his ways, and he tries to reconcile them. When portraying this character, I think it is important to be as humanistic and realistic as one possible can be, so that the everyday person can see themselves in the character.
Opera Lively - Papa Germont is a role I consider very essential to the success of a Traviata performance. People will focus on Violetta and Alfredo but actually the most pivotal moment of the opera's arc is the long scene between Germont and Violetta in act II.
In the first movement, Germont and Violetta have been singing “at” each other, with no real harmony of voices or thoughts. However, after the transition into the second movement, the cantabile, “Ditte alla giovine - si’ bella e pura,” Verdi begins to bring them slowly together. When Germont understands the sacrifice Violetta agrees to make for his daughter (and the joy she feels at making it), the composer recognizes this moment by allowing them to share a cadenza. The third movement, "Tra breve ei vi fia reso", brings them even closer as Violetta asks Germont to embrace her as if she were his daughter.
The cabaletta is what follows. Germont and Violetta no longer spar with different music; Verdi gives them the same melody and allows them to harmonize for they have reached an agreement - all this through one of the most psychologically rich portrayals Verdi ever composed. The ability to display musically these conflicting emotions is a striking example of the power and beauty of Verdi’s music.
Germont's music is particularly expressive in this scene, beginning lyrically, turning harsh, sinister, and manipulative, and ending by being encouraging and loving. This scene must be intense for the performer, not to forget that it is long. Please share with us your feelings about it, and the challenges in singing it well.
Reginald Smith Jr. - In this scene, we truly experience the genius of Verdi's compositional style and his keen understanding of drama. It begins rather abruptly for Germont. We experience Violetta in her home, when Giorgio Germont enters and interrupts her calm demeanor. When he notices that she will tolerate his rude behavior, only then does he change his tone, but only slightly. After the shock of her discovering that he has two children, he really begins to lay it on thick! Even in the mellifluous beauty of his music, one can still feel the undercurrent of manipulation.
The key to the scene is to never give in until you get what you want. Germont uses several different tactics, and Verdi brilliantly underscores each of them with a new musical idea, until she finally concedes. The drama and the stakes must stay high throughout the entire scene.
The same tip can apply for the singing of this scene. With so many stirring and rhapsodic melodies, you must be careful not give in vocally, or over sing, because you still have a very difficult, and quite familiar, aria coming up.
Opera Lively - Next, "Di Provenza il mar il suol" is in my opinion one of the most outstanding baritone arias in the repertoire. The opening theme, played by woodwinds, has a folk-like quality which describes the rural setting of Alfredo’s childhood home. The aria has the structure of music written a generation before Verdi, and therefore is appropriate to represent the point of view of the older generation. Verdi “lengthens” the lines by setting each as they are written but then repeating them again, this time placing the second phrase first. For example, the aria’s first line is sung as follows:
Di Provence il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancello?
Chi dal cor ti cancello, di Provence il mar, il suol?
This setting effectively makes the poetic lines sound longer. It also gives the aria a particularly “stable” or “square” sound: each line, composed of half phrases, perfectly balances the other. Dramatically, Germont is the father who attempts to re-establish balance in his son’s life, persuading his child by repeating his arguments with the slightest of variations. The aria continues to give this idea of the old-fashioned "square" person, by continuing to employ the structure above described.
It is also arguably the signature aria for Germont, the one the public is waiting for. This likely puts some pressure on the performer, not to forget the weight on his shoulders of all the outstanding predecessors he's likely to be compared to while he sings this wildly popular aria. Please tell me about this moment for you, as a singer on stage.
Reginald Smith Jr. - Speaking of the familiar and difficult aria, it is always an immense honor to sing such glorious music. When I perform this piece, my goal is never to think about the many outstanding predecessors that have performed this aria. Instead, my goal is always to express the musical and dramatic intent of the composer and the librettist.
I wish that I could say I have one set way of performing the piece, but the interpretation can change based on the direction of the show, the musical intent of the conductor, and even, how one is feeling physically that day. So, I guess if you want to know how the piece will truly be interpreted, you would have to come to each performance! :-)
Opera Lively - Sure, but I can only attend one of them, unfortunately (I don't live in Charlotte and I'll travel to the city especially for this). But which singers who took up the role of Papa Germont in the past and/or present do you consider to be have been most inspirational to you, and why?
Reginald Smith Jr. - There have been so many tremendous performances of this role, that it is hard to narrow down the list to a few. For me, I love listening to Robert Merrill and Cornell MacNeil sing the role. It is stunning, full-bodied singing that you really can't teach. One can only aspire to be as great some day. Of course, I enjoy the singing of Sherrill Milnes in this role, but I also love the edge that he brings to the character. Ettore Bastianini is one of my favorite singers, and his legato and style of delivering the language is mesmerizing.
The recording that I listen to most often is from a live broadcast in 1957 from the Metropolitan Opera with Leonard Warren as Germont (and Renata Tebaldi is amazing as Violetta in that recording!). The sensitivity to the music while delivering a warm, rich sound throughout the emotional and vocal dynamic ranges of this character is nearly unparalleled! Nevertheless, after it is all said and done, one must take those nuggets and wisdom and beauty and learn from them. You can admire others, and even learn from them, but at the end of the day, you have to develop your own interpretation of the character.
Opera Lively - You won the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, arguably the most prestigious award in all of opera in the United States and among the world's most prominent contests. Please tell us about this special moment in your career, the likely nerve-wrecking step-by-step survival rounds, and the jubilation of winning it all. What doors opened up for you after you were granted this outstanding recognition of your talent?
Reginald Smith Jr. - I consider myself to be very blessed and fortunate to be one of the winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. It is a truly wonderful and humbling experience. Some might have thought that I only applied and moved on in 2015. Actually, I participated in the MET Auditions 5 or 6 times. I made it to the Regional level twice before, but I did not make it to New York until 2015. (To clarify, there are 4 levels of the competition: District, Regional, Semi-Finals, Finals. The Semi-Finals and Finals both take place in New York City, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; the latter with the MET Orchestra.)
After making it past the Georgia District, in Atlanta, and the Southeast Regional, also in Atlanta, I went to New York to sing on the stage at the Met! I had seen performances there before, but it doesn't compare to actually stepping on that stage. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. I just kept in mind one of my favorite mantras from my undergraduate professor, "Reggie, you must always sing to Express; never to Impress." I still believe in that phrase, and I try to abide by it no matter where I am.
I could go on and on about my experience during the auditions. Everyone was so welcoming, I had amazing support from so many people, known and unknown, and I was blessed to have my family and friends in the audience cheering me on.
Since the auditions, I have definitely been busy. Fortunately, I won the auditions as I was leaving the Studio at Houston Grand Opera. So, I was able to take advantage of upcoming performance opportunities. Winning the auditions is sort of like having a magnifying glass put on you. People seem to know who you are all of a sudden! I don't worry about those things though. I strive to work hard, be humble, and trust that God will open the doors that need to be opened and close the ones that need to be closed. So, as I continue along this journey, we will see where the path leads.
Opera Lively - What a nice answer! Now, please, to finish, tell our readers and public a bit about you as a person. What made you embrace an operatic career? What's your personality like, and take on life? What do you like to do when you are not engaged in studying, rehearsing, and performing opera?
Reginald Smith Jr. - You know, I am a pretty chill person. I love to kick back and have fun. I truly love opera and this career, but sometimes it is good to just relax with friends. Most people who know me will tell you that I love to laugh and make others laugh, I unashamedly love animated Disney movies (Robin Hood
is my favorite), and I love to cook. When I am not rehearsing or studying, you will most likely see me trying out a new recipe, relaxing with friends, or enjoying my family.
As for embracing an operatic career, I like to say that opera chose me! I begrudgingly saw my first opera in high school. We attended a final dress rehearsal of this happy piece called Tosca
. I didn't know anything about the show. I just knew that I would get out of school for most of the day. What more could a kid ask for, right? Well, after seeing this show, I was hooked! I looked up each singer, the show, the composer, and all things related to what I had experienced. I had officially been bitten by the opera bug, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Interview with Sean Panikkar in the role of Alfredo
Photo by Kristine Sherk
Sean Panikkar is not only an outstanding operatic tenor with a remarkable career with roles in many prestigious houses and several world premieres, but he is also known to the larger public for having been a finalist in America's Got Talent. Learn all about the singer by visiting his website: click [here
]. His answers below are very interesting.
Opera Lively - The role of Alfredo is everything a tenor can dream of: young, impetuous, passionate, tortured... It is a beautiful arc. Please tell us about the psychological aspects of your character and how you approach them in terms of walking the fine line to avoid overacting while connecting with the public through the emotional side of this young man.
Sean Panikkkar - I completely agree. Alfredo as a character has a really nice arc and Verdi's writing really lends itself perfectly to the characterization. The most important thing is that all of Alfredo's emotions are very genuine and relatable so I approach the character in a very real way.
Opera Lively - One of my favorite moments in all of opera is "Un dì felice, eterea", the moment when Alfredo declares his love at first sight for Violetta, telling her about the day when he saw her passing by for the first time. In this aria, his halting, self-conscious phrases expand after 40 seconds into a lush melody that comes to represent their love and which reappears throughout the opera. He says that his love is mysterious and noble ("misterioso, altero" – the love Leitmotif). I melt when I listen to it, every time. Please tell us about your relationship with this aria and how you go about singing it. Add if you will to your answer any other vocally challenging or special moments you see in this vocal score.
Sean Panikkar - This particular moment is one of the most beautiful sections in all of opera. Verdi wrote it in such a simple way, but it really resonates emotionally. My children are 8 and 5 and I even catch them singing it while playing. It's that kind of accessibility that really makes La Traviata so special.
Whenever I sing any role, I try to find relatable moments and, as I mentioned earlier, the character of Alfredo is full of them. I met my wife on the first day of freshman year at The University of Michigan. It was love at first sight across a choral rehearsal room so I can completely understand what Alfredo is experiencing emotionally in this moment.
On the flip side of that, when emotions feel so real, it is easy to allow that emotion to negatively affect the way you sing, particularly in angry and tortured moments. I try to allow the emotions to color my sound in a healthy way. It's also so hard to cry and sing, but La Traviata really pulls on my heart strings in Act 3.
Opera Lively - One of the problems with singing Alfredo is the fact that the role is victim to its own wild popularity. It is done so much all over the world that it is hard to make it new again and unique. How do you handle this issue?
Sean Panikkar - The thing I always try and remember is that there are audience members who have never seen a particular show. Whether I am doing a world premiere where nobody has seen it, or I am doing The Magic Flute
and only ten people in the audience are newbies, it is a new experience for somebody. In opera, and live theater in general, the cast is always different. I have performed La Traviata
before, but with different singers, a different conductor, and in a different production. We all have unique voices and no two singers sound exactly alike, so while the music may not be "new," any live performance of La Traviata
will always be unique.
Opera Lively - Another aspect of the well-deserved popularity of La Traviata is the fact that literally hundreds and hundreds of the greatest tenors in all operatic history have sung it at one point or another in their careers. It is always a fun exercise to talk about one's favorite recordings in audio or video, and why. Who are your favorite Alfredos across history, the ones most inspirational for you, and what are the musical reasons for your choices?
Sean Panikkar - I am such an opera junkie so I have heard pretty much every recording of La Traviata
. When I first discovered opera in college (I was late to the game), I checked out every recording at the library. I love different things about different singers performing the role, but my favorite recording is probably of Bergonzi singing with Prêtre. I am also partial to di Stefano, Gedda, Kraus, and Domingo. The great thing about Alfredo is that it has been sung by such a wide variety of tenors and each tenor brings something special to the role. With some singers I love listening specifically for the emotion that translates, even in a recording, and for others I listen to the technical mastery. It's also fun to hear how each of these tenors, who are of wildly different vocal weights, tackle different sections using their unique strengths.
Opera Lively - Oh boy, your performance history is so incredibly interesting that I'd love to ask you thirty questions about it, but unfortunately we need to keep it short for the sake of your time and to keep this mini-interview focused for the readers. I am a big lover of contemporary opera and music, and I'm very pleased to see how active you've been in keeping the art form alive. Often the audiences crave the classics and are slow to warm up to contemporary music, which is a pity but is a phenomenon that every musical movement had to face when it was introduced to the public (everything was new at one point before becoming familiar and accepted). Among your various performances of contemporary opera, please recommend to our public a couple of the ones you consider to be most accessible and likely to be well received. I see for example that you were part of Silent Night, an opera I love (I attended it live in Philadelphia and interviewed the composer extensively). Another one I uphold in great esteem is The Death of Klinghoffer - it must have been very interesting to be part of its Met recent performance with all the controversy surrounding it. I'm highly curious about CO2, Shalimar the Clown, The Summer King, and JFK.
Sean Panikkar - I absolutely love singing modern music, but it is unfortunately hard to recommend shows to an audience because so few companies are willing to do a new work unless it is a world premiere. It's really a shame, but new operas don't often get performed a second or third time which is why so few settle into the repertory. Silent Night
is an exceptional piece of theater that is powerful in ways that need to be experienced live and it is fortunate that so many companies have done it and now there is even a second production. My two most recent world premieres, Shalimar the Clown
are musically and dramatically stunning which gives me hope that they will have legs.
The real problem with modern music is that all too often composers seem to be allergic to writing beautiful melodies. People like Jack Perla, David T Little, and Ricky Ian Gordon write beautiful melodies that enhance the drama onstage which is why I love singing their works.
Opera Lively - Your tenor group Forte is described as combining voices from different cultures. Please describe this effort to us, and why you think it is important to engage in this initiative.
Sean Panikkar - I fell into Forte in a very lucky way. Forte is a tenor crossover trio that competed on season 8 of America's Got Talent. I was not initially part of the group, but after their first round of competition one of the singers was disqualified from the competition due to being on a student visa instead of a work visa. Josh Page, one of the other tenors in the group, went on a mad scramble to find a replacement and stumbled upon me while digging around opera management websites. I had never met either of the other two tenors, but I thought it would be fun to sing on national TV in front of an average of 10-12 million people so I agreed and in a matter of days we were singing together for the very first time. It ended up working and we made it all the way to the finals.
We walked off of the Radio City Music Hall stage after being eliminated in the finals and were literally signed in the wings to a recording contract. One day later we started recording our first album on Columbia Records, the largest division of Sony. That album spent months on the Amazon Best Sellers list for all music, reaching as high as number two only behind Lady GaGa. Since then we have toured all over the country and met incredible people including singing for President Obama at The National Tree Lighting.
I personally thought it was important to perform with the group because of the wide reach AGT has. So many of the AGT audience thinks that anybody with a vibrato is an opera singer and that isn't their fault. The opera community overall has done a terrible job of reaching real people. When Josh found me for the group, his priority was to have a working opera singer in the group because he knew how important that could be for the art form. It really has worked as a number of AGT fans took their first step into an opera house specifically to see me sing in an opera. One of the best experiences was when I was singing The Pearl Fishers
with Fort Worth Opera. Darren Keith Woods hired Forte to play the same stage the day after opening night and that led to a lot of people experiencing their first opera and then finishing up their weekend with a Forte performance. That was truly a "crossover" experience.
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