• Così fan tutte at NC Opera - Interview with Jake Gardner (Don Alfonso)

    [Opera Lively interview # 120] Our partners North Carolina Opera are presenting a fully staged production of Mozart's delightful opera buffa Così fan tutte, ossia la scuola degli amanti (Thus do all women, or The School for Lovers) in Raleigh, on Thursday October 3 and Saturday October 5 at 8 PM, and Sunday October 6 at 3 PM, at the Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center. Tickets can be found [here].

    When visiting the NC Opera web site for tickets, do pay attention to the very interesting 2013-2014 season, which is truly remarkable, featuring public favorites, new music, and something as compelling as Rusalka (one of this writer's favorite operas).



    Our North Carolina readers must be, by now, familiar with the incredible evolution of NC Opera, still a young company, but definitely thriving and becoming very strong under the smart leadership of General Director Eric Mitchko and Artistic Director & Principal Conductor Timothy Myers. Each new season of NC Opera has been better than the preceding one, and the company is in meteoric ascension, bringing to the Triangle world class shows with a level of quality unheard of in the history of opera in our metropolitan area. Dear reader, if you haven't been to a NC Opera production yet, you'll be surprised.

    Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's outstanding work does not need introduction for the seasoned opera lover, given that it is one of the most beloved operas in the entire repertory, and a certified masterpiece. For the beginner, there is rarely a better introduction to opera, given that not only its music is sublime with one phenomenal melody after the other, but its high quality libretto is extremely funny, witty, and thought provoking.

    Our coverage of the show has already started. We first published a very interesting interview with the intelligent and insightful soprano Elizabeth de Trejo, who will be singing the leading role of Fiordiligi. Read her interview by clicking [here].

    Today, we are adding another phenomenal interview with the very experienced and knowledgeable bass-baritone Jake Gardner, who will be singing Don Alfonso.

    Opera Lively will interview all singers in the six roles of this opera, so stay tuned for more. We have planned for each of these mini-interviews, a core of a few questions that will be the same for all singers so that we'll get to compare and contrast their different takes on the same topics, and another handful that will be specific to the role and to the singer's career. We'll attend the first show, and publish a review.


    Mr. Jake Gardner's Artistic Biography

    Mr. Gardner has enjoyed a rather prestigious career, with numerous roles in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Not only his voice is admired, but he is also very much praised for his acting ability, having been described as someone who "becomes" his characters.

    He's been busy in his 2013-14 season, adding to his appearance at NC Opera, his debut with Eugene Opera as Giorgio Germont in Verdi's La Traviata. We'll have the pleasure of seeing him again in North Carolina, since later this season he makes his role debut in the title role of Wagner's Die Fliegende Holländer with Piedmont Opera, a company we also partner with. He returns to Virginia Opera as Musiklehrer in Ariadne auf Naxos and in his role debut as Judge Turpin in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. He returns to Mill City Summer Opera in the summer of 2014 to sing the role of Scarpia in Tosca. He is already booked for 2015 at Houston Grand Opera to repeat his Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd.

    His repertory boasts no fewer than 50 roles!

    Mr. Gardner has sung for major US national opera companies such as Washington National Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and numerous regional companies all over the country.

    International engagements have included a tour of Japan with New York City Opera, and roles in prestigious houses such as Glyndebourne, Théâtre du Châtelet, Komishe Oper Berlin, Deutsche Opera am Rhein, and other companies and festivals such as Wexford, Budapest, Cologne (numerous appearances at Oper Köln), Bonn, Dresden, Vienna, Vancouver, and cities in the Netherlands and Australia.

    In the recital and concert circuit, he has appeared at Lincoln Center alongside Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Marilyn Horne, and at Carnegie Hall alongside Plácido Domingo and Grace Bumbry. He sang with the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, and the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, and was also featured in the Proms.

    For more details on his career, please visit his web site at www.bassbaritonejakegardner.com

    Mr. Gardner is the husband of lovely soprano Jill Gardner, who is familiar to our readers due to her charming interview with Opera Lively, which you can read by clicking [here]. This was one of our best pieces, thanks to Ms. Gardner's deep knowledge of all the implications of the role of Tosca. Her very interesting words about this major character made the cut to figure in our selection of the best Opera Lively journalism for the calendar year of 2012, published on paperback by Opera Lively Press [this book can be purchased by clicking [here]). So, we are happy to add now to our roster of interviewees the other half of the glamorous operatic couple!


    Mr. Gardner's discography includes several items.

    In addition to the CBS/SONY recording of his 'Live at Lincoln Center' concert, Mr. Gardner can be heard on a recording by BMG of Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots. Another Musgrave work, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which was broadcast over BBC and subsequently aired throughout the United States on National Public Radio, was released commercially in April 2011 by NMC Recordings, Ltd. He may also be seen in the original 1983 released film version of Peter Brook's La Tragedie de Carmen and on the CD entitled Afrika Songs composed by Wilhelm Gross with the Matrix Ensemble conducted by Robert Ziegler. Another DVD featuring Mr. Gardner is Salieri's Falstaff, recorded in the Schwetzinger Festspiele 1991 and released in 2000 by ArtHaus Musik.

    Here are covers of some of the above items, which can be found on Amazon.


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Jake Gardner

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Photos of the singer are recovered from his website; fair promotional use. Photo credits unknown to us, will be added when known.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this NC Opera production of Così fan tutte? What makes it unique?

    Jake Gardner - I look forward to bringing my experience of this opera in collaboration with Director Michael Shell and Conductor Timothy Myers to the NC Opera. Michael is a young director with whom I have not had the privilege of working but whose work I have known for several years through his collaboration with my wife, Soprano Jill Gardner. And Tim Myers’ reputation as an exciting young musician precedes him. This artistic combination aligned with a young talented cast makes for an exciting project.

    OL - Mozart’s music in this piece has a sensual beauty. He also does ensembles in this opera at his best – this is the quintessential ensemble piece. “Soave sia il vento” is arguably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Please comment on the music of Così fan tutte.

    JG - I agree that “Soave sia il vento” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Comparable to Wotan’s “Abschied” from Die Walküre and Schumann’s piano solo, Traumerei. In fact, Don Alfonso’s line in this beautiful trio is a part of my daily vocal exercise. It requires a seamless legato and perfect blending of all the registers. Singing these amazing ensembles is about as challenging and as much fun as a person can have. I look forward to living in them again.

    OL - Don Alfonso’s halting phrases in “Barbaro Fato! Vorrei dir,” seem difficult to sing. What are the vocal challenges of your role?

    JG - In many ways, the vocal challenges in Mozart are the same as for any role I sing: to embody the character within the musical structure, to deliver the text, and to allow my personal experience to speak through the music. But unlike later repertoire, Mozart requires that regardless of the emotion, it ALL must be sung beautifully. It is also worth mentioning that one of the major challenges in singing Mozart’s music in general is the issue of modern tuning. In Mozart’s time, the tuning of the instruments was nearly a half-step lower than today’s standard. This seemingly minor alteration in tessitura actually makes singing his music even more demanding. I had the privilege of singing Guglielmo with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing period instruments and the difference was dramatic.

    OL - What in your opinion is Don Alfonso’s motivation for the game he plays? Is he a voyeur, some sort of pervert? Is he doing it just in order to narcissistically prove that he is the wisest one? Is he just truly interested in teaching these youngsters a lesson that will serve them well as they go on with their lives?

    JG - For me, the character of Don Alfonso is neither narcissistic nor voyeuristic. He is a realist, resolute, a man who is just trying to raise the awareness of his young friends. And I certainly don’t think there is any hint of misogyny. I feel he gets pushed into this wager by the insistence of the boys to prove the fidelity of Fiordiligi and Dorabella.

    Friendship is for me one of the most important and strongest elements in the telling of this story and the reason that the stakes become so high. The duos of Guglielmo and Ferrando and Fiordiligi and Dorabella are best friends, meaning that they are as close to one another as one can get. Don Alfonso is an older friend/mentor to the boys and is certainly fond of the young ladies.

    At the top of the opera, the three gentlemen are having drinks and dinner when a discussion of fidelity and the human condition erupts into an argument which terminates in a wager. This wager and the question of fidelity is what drives the action of the opera, not Don Alfonso’s narcissism or misogyny. Alfonso does his best to dissuade the gentlemen but once the wager is made he resolves to pursue it to the end. Thus, the depth of the friendships make this a very serious matter and tests everyone’s values and beliefs.

    OL - Or is it a question of rationality? This piece involves the stripping away of romantic illusions. It pleads for rationality, for the age of enlightenment. Alfonso’s tactics are brutal. But he is a man of reason. He says “happy is the man who looks at everything on the bright side and allows himself to be guided by reason.”

    JG - Not only is Don Alfonso a man of reason, he is also a man of heart. He learned “happy is the man who looks at everything on the bright side” by having experienced the dark side of life surely. He is certainly impacted by memories of his own past and the mistakes he probably made. And like most “parents”, he would hope to spare the lovers the disillusionment that is inevitable given their blind faith in fidelity. Maybe if he had known how the wager would play out, he would have never entered into it. But as a man of reason, he is now committed to putting HIS principles to the test and seeing the young lovers to the end of the road.

    OL - After the opera's events and all the turmoil the characters go through, they are not necessarily put together again at the end. How do you interpret the end of Così fan tutte? What do you think would happen next to these characters, if the opera continued in real life?

    JG - I think if Don Alfonso has done his job and embodied his point of view, the original couples will stay together as Da Ponte implies: “V’ingannai, ma fu l’inganno disinganno ai vostri amanti, che più saggi omai saranno, che faran quel ch’io vorrò. Qua le destre: siete sposi. Abbracciatevi e tacete. Tutti quattro ora ridete, ch’io già risi e riderò”. [Opera Lively's free translation: I have fooled you, but the deception was disillusionment for your lovers, who will now be wiser and will do what I want. Hold hands, be spouses. Hug each other and don’t talk. All four of you now laugh, because I’m laughing already, and will continue to laugh.”

    OL - The issue of misogyny of course comes back every time we talk about Così fan tutte. However I don’t really agree that this opera is misogynistic. What Alfonso demonstrates is that if we apply to people different standards than the ones we apply to ourselves, we run into trouble. He says “everyone accuses women, but I excuse them even if they have a thousand changes of affection in a day. Some might call it a vice, others a habit, but to me it seems a necessity of the heart.” Alfonso’s message in my opinion is that we are all human. I think it’s rather an avant-garde view, for Lorenzo da Ponte’s time. What is your take on this?

    JG - I whole-heartedly agree. Don Alfonso for me is a humanist and has accepted the inconsistencies of the human race, both men AND women. When he agrees to this wager, he has no idea how it will play out or how he is going to go about it. Perhaps it actually goes further than he could have anticipated. But he is tenacious to the end in his endeavor to raise the awareness and acceptance of these young people guided by the belief that they should accept and appreciate one another for who they really are and to trust in their love. As he says, “Questa è constanza”: constancy is what you feel, not what the exterior appears to be.

    OL - Conductor Iván Fischer, talking about Così fan tutte, says “everybody is seducible, all of us, regardless of what we think about our own morals.” What would you say to this?

    JG - What I would say is that as hard as we may try not to be, we are all inconsistent and it’s ok. Così fan TUTTI... [Opera Lively's note - here Mr. Gardner employs the plural in Italian that applies to both genders, not just to women as the title of the opera implies. Thus do them all, not thus do all women.]

    OL - Of your predecessors singing your role in this piece, which one would you find outstanding and a source of inspiration (assuming that in your preparation you are in the habit of listening to predecessors, which some singers like to do, others do not).

    JG - In my years singing Guglielmo as a young baritone, I absorbed many different aspects of Don Alfonso from everyone Alfonso with whom I collaborated, especially Claudio Desderi at Glyndeborne and Carlos Feller at the Oper der Stadt Köln. On CD, my two favorites are: Jose Van Dam for the absolute beauty of his singing and Sir Thomas Allen for his impeccable artistry.

    OL - What is the key to singing and acting a good Don Alfonso?

    JG - For me, the key is to portray a man of warmth and sincerity and to have the sense that he is discovering this story along with every other character. He is in no way pedantic or dogmatic; he endeavors to be a man of reason. The ultimate welfare of the lovers is his goal -- not to prove himself right. It is from these ingredients that I try to shape my vocal interpretation as well.

    OL - You have directed opera, Madama Butterfly at your home company in Binghampton, NY. Please tell us about this experience of stage directing opera. What did you bring to it, being a singer yourself? Was it difficult to direct and have a singing role in the piece (Sharpless) at the same time?

    JG - It was great to go to my hometown and direct an opera with which I am so familiar. And then with my wife, Soprano Jill Gardner, in the title role. My experience of directing is that it is as exhausting as it is invigorating. I am used to being responsible for only one part of the operatic process as a singer, but as the director you are involved in everything. For me, the director’s most important function is to describe first and then convince each cast member of the story we are trying to tell.

    I am always amazed by the power of listening on the stage to make a scene real. It is a lesson I learned working with Peter Brook on tour in La Tragedie de Carmen. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many very talented conductors and directors in my 40+ years on the stage. My continued enthusiasm and devotion to the art is what I have to offer.

    OL - You’ve had roles in several new American operas – for example, John Musto’s The Inspector, and many others, including world premieres. What can you tell us about the state of the art form in America in terms of vitality of new operatic creation?

    JG - New works have always been an important part of my career. My first trip to Europe was to create the role of James Earl of Moray in Thea Musgraves’ Mary, Queen of Scots at the Edinboro Festival. I also premiered her BBC Radio Drama, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and the opera Pontalba, a commission to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase with New Orleans Opera.

    Working on a role with the composer has changed the way I have approached all of my work. I have never worked with a composer who wasn’t extremely open to the suggestions and reactions of the performers as we created the work together. I think it has made me much less anal and pedantic when addressing the work of the great composers (channelers) of our Western Civilization, for whom I have such respect and awe. They were all involved in collaborations to bring their ideas to life and I try to collaborate with them even now.

    Probably the most exciting project I have been a part of was the 50th anniversary commission of William Bolcom and Robert Altman’s A Wedding at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004.

    I am very encouraged by the vitality of the contemporary opera scene. The uniqueness of the art form continues to inspire the most talented among us, the composers: John Musto, William Bolcom, Jake Heggie, Phillip Glass, Mark Adamo, Tobias Picker, and John Adams to name only a few.

    OL - Talking about new American opera, how was the Little Women tour in Japan received?

    JG - The biggest surprise on the NYCO tour of Mark Adamo’s Little Women was just how familiar the audience was with the story. It wasn’t what we expected.

    OL - Thank you Mr. Gardner for sharing with us your insights and experience!


    Let's listen to this impressive singer, in this truly excellent rendition of "Pura sicomme un angelo," one of Papa Germont's aria in La Traviata :

    Here we can see him as Scarpia in Tosca:


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