• Exclusive Interviews with the cast of Opera Carolina's Dutchman

    Our esteemed company Opera Carolina is opening this coming weekend in Charlotte their production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. As usual, Opera Lively's envoy will attend the opening night on March 22, 2014, and will be publishing a review. In preparation for what promises to be a great show given the quality of the cast, we are interviewing the singers.

    Below, we present Luretta Bybee in the role of Mary, famous international Wagnerian star Greer Grimsley in the title role (he has performed Wagner numerous times at the Met, Seattle Opera, and many companies around the world), and Elizabeth Kataria in the role of Senta. Greer and Luretta are husband and wife in real life. [Opera Lively interview # 126 with Bybee, a fragment of #103 with Grimsley, and # 127 with Kataria]

    All readers at driving distance shouldn't miss this show, given the consistently high production and musical values always exhibited by Opera Carolina. Supporting our great regional company is essential to its vitality since ticket revenues and donations are an essential part of a company's budget in these tough economic times. Keeping Opera Carolina healthy is a very important contribution to cultural life in Charlotte and the region. So, dear readers, let's wet our appetite with the savvy answers from these outstanding artists, and let's catch one of the three shows over the next two weeks. Tickets [here].


    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: these exclusive interviews are copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and are 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 interviews on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interviews can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. Photos used with permission from Opera Carolina and the singers' web sites and credited when credit is known (we'll gladly add more credits if they are sent to us); fair promotional use.


    Singer: Luretta Bybee
    Fach: Mezzo-soprano
    Role: Mary
    Web site: click [here]


    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - The character of Mary in The Flying Dutchman is somewhat on the severe side, a bit contrary to Senta’s youthful exuberance. Please tell us how you read the psychology of your character.

    Luretta Bybee - I personally feel that Mary is an integral figure in Senta's life. I also believe she understands Senta better than most because she could have had similar feelings when she was Senta's age. Clearly Mary has told her the Dutchman story with a great deal of investment on her part. Why, I wonder? Mary's character can be somewhat 2 dimensional without some forethought as to why she cares so deeply and continues to urge Senta to give up her dreams of the Dutchman. She is also obviously some sort of mother figure.

    OL - I’d assume that Mary’s music originally written for contralto sits low. Are there vocal difficulties in singing this role for a mezzo?

    LB - My low register has always been a strong part of my voice and as I have aged it has settled even more. When a full voiced mezzo understands how to mix head and chest voice and actually has the low notes to begin with, the transition to lower roles isn't a problem. It's actually fun.

    OL - What can you tell us about this Opera Carolina production? What is to be expected?

    LB - This production refreshingly tells the story in a straightforward way - the way I believe Wagner intended it. Certain operas lend themselves to 'updating' or 'concept' but our director trusts the text and her singer/actors and as a result, the Dutchman's story is told honestly and movingly.

    OL - After your early incursions in Rossini, Mozart, and Verdi, your career took a decisive Wagnerian turn, with several roles under your belt. What is that appeals to you in the music of Wagner?

    LB - I have loved every opera I've ever sung, to be honest. I believe each composer and librettist have something interesting to say. But Wagner is particularly fascinating because he writes his own librettos and as a result his orchestration and vocal lines can be more integrated. Wagner had a theatrical background and this influenced his writing too. He went so far as to build his own opera house to better tell his stories. I never lose sight of the fact that this is theater, albeit musical, but singers have stories to tell, and Wagner loved his stories.

    OL - On Opera Lively we like to hear about contemporary opera. You created the role of Joanna in the world premiere of Carly Simon’s “family opera” for youngsters, Romulus Hunt, commissioned by the Met and the Kennedy Center, directed by Francesca Zambello and available on CD. Would you please tell us a bit about the opera? Was it ever given again?

    LB - Romulus Hunt was a fascinating experience. Working with and meeting Carly Simon gave me a look into another world altogether. I have some background in pop and country music so it wasn't completely foreign to me which helped me - particularly through the recording sessions. I think of the piece more as music theater, honestly. I did it one other time in Raleigh, NC a few years after the premiere in New York. The young actor Paul Dano played my son Romulus. I don't think it has been done since.

    Carly didn't really read music but has a fabulous ear, so she had an arranger orchestrate the opera. This made for a complicated experience for the singers at times, but Carly wrote such amazing melodies, and that's where the strength lies in her opera. It's unfortunate it hasn't been done more. Perhaps it needs a bit of revising, but with that it would be a viable piece. It also needs to find just where it should live in the musical world. The role of the mother, a headstrong successful yet vulnerable woman, was satisfying in many ways and I throughly enjoyed it.

    OL - You are an educator now, as the director of New England Conservatory’s Opera Studies Program. What is your take on the state of opera education in America, and what is your advice for young trainees approaching the field for the first time?

    LB - The question about education is a complicated one. The world is changing so quickly and opera must continually straddle the world of its historical old world roots and the new world that includes HD, etc. We must 'keep up' in order to thrive but we can't stray too far from the foundation upon which opera as we know it was built. Directors of companies struggle daily to change with the times while trying to preserve the magic of the traditional experience.

    The one thing that frightens me most is the tendency to move toward amplified opera. If we remove that visceral, unique experience of hearing and feeling the trained human voice completely unplugged, I think that will be the end of the art form as we know it. As for training young singers, nothing has changed regarding the technique of how to do what we do - be able cut through large orchestras in a healthy way.

    What is changing is that I believe there are more young singers who want to sing professionally, so things are becoming more competitive. The drawback is that with our culture's emphasis on youth and looks, we may be overlooking the great voices because we don't give them time to mature, and those voices don't always come in what the opera world now calls the 'HD ready' physical bodies. This issue is becoming a game changer in the opera world and I think it might prove to be a slippery slope. Experiencing the un-amplified, well trained human voice live is irreplaceable. We mustn't let that become less important than all the other factors presenters are now expecting from singers.

    OL - Thank you, Ms. Bybee.

    OL – I appreciated your incredibly astute questions. How refreshing!


    Singer: Greer Grimsley
    Fach: Bass-Baritone
    Role: The Flying Dutchman
    Web site: click [here]

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – The Flying Dutchman is a signature role for you. You've portrayed it all over the world even more often than you did Wotan. Tell me about some of its vocal challenges.

    Greer Grimsley – I think the biggest challenge is that in the first act you are asked to sing this huge declamatory aria full of angst and pain and regret, and then in the second act for the first part of the duet, you have to sing as if you are a Lieder singer, and really finesse these words. Then in the third act you are back to this huge declamatory rejection of Senta when you think she’s cheated on you. It’s managing to do those things while still keeping the beauty in the sound throughout all of it that is challenging.

    OL – When you sing a particular role so frequently, what do you do to keep the character fresh and interesting for you?

    GG – It happens by itself because I’m always looking for something new. In Tito Gobbi’s book about Tosca, he said he always found something new in his Scarpia. He must have done a thousand Scarpias. I remember reading that book as a young singer, and thinking ‘of course, you have to find something fresh, some different way. But with Wagner, it is so dense that you could sing it for twenty years and still find new things in it.

    OL - Wagner’s anti-Semitism has made him a more controversial figure than many other composers. Can we separate the artist from his or her views? Or does one necessarily influence the other?

    GG – Yes, that’s a much talked about subject. This is not to excuse anti-Semitism. It is awful in any age, but it was a time when in public it was a lot more acceptable, which as I said is never right or justified. He did have a grudge with the major Jewish composers in Paris whom he felt did not help him as much as he thought they should. Whether or not that was true or whether it was just his ego speaking, he felt very betrayed by Halévy and Meyerbeer. I think that colored his outlook. He spoke specifically about the “Jewish music-makers”. I’m not trying to excuse it, but I also touched mentioned earlier that I do think he managed to create things greater than that bigotry he carried. And then you have Parsifal, all through it he has this phrase repeated over and over – “through compassion you will know.” Through compassion! And this is from a man who has written those awful things and has behaved awfully, but at this point in his life perhaps he saw things differently. I hope so.

    OL - You’ve sung Wagner roles with a number of American opera companies, but also with houses in Berlin, Venice, Cologne, Prague, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Nancy. European houses, especially those in Germany, are known for their more adventurous stagings. What has your experience been with these Regietheater productions?

    GG – There have been some crazy things. You just have to say, “OK, people are going to come see this opera.” That’s what I start thinking. If something is completely, completely crazy I try in a very diplomatic way to talk to the director, because sometimes they have a very fixed idea about the interpretation, but as long as we are telling the story, the craziness that is around us really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what production I’m in, I try to keep the relationships between the characters as true as possible.

    OL – Your repertoire does weigh heavily in Wagner, but you have had a long list of non-Wagnerian roles as well, about in equal parts between Italian, German, French operas and a bit of Hungarian opera: Scarpia in Tosca, Macbeth, Amonasro in Aida, Jokannan in Salome, Don Pizarro in Fidelio, the villains in Hoffmann, Mephistopheles in Faust, the High Priest in Samson et Dalila, Escamillo in Carmen, and the fascinating Bluebeard, among others. I’d like to ask you as an opera lover that I’m sure you are beyond being a performer – do you feel a strong superiority of Wagner over the other operatic traditions? Or do you think that the Italians, French, and Eastern European composers are enough of a match?

    GG – They are all inspired and inspiring. There are operas that are just as satisfying as Wagner’s operas, and I’m grateful to sing them. I was just talking about this. Bluebeard’s Castle is an amazing work. It is fascinating, and this was the only opera Bartók wrote. It was for a contest. I remember when I was learning it, I kept thinking, ‘why didn’t he write more? This is an amazing work, and he understood how to write for the voice so well and instinctively!’ The psychological part of the piece is also amazing.

    OL - As opera singers, you and your wife have careers that take you all over the country and even to other parts of the world. So you’re faced with even more challenges than most dual career couples. How do you balance the demands of your careers with the needs of family life?

    GG – The challenge was committing to spend the money to see each other. We always find a way to see each other within a certain time frame. It was challenging, especially when our daughter came along. I wouldn’t change any of it.

    OL – Now let’s talk about your beginnings. How did vocal classical music come to your life? Was music in your family background?

    GG – No, I say I’m an anachronism in my family. My father liked to play guitar and sing Country songs. I did not grow up in a family of musicians; not at all. I remember in sixth grade, we had the option to pick an instrument and we learned the basics with little simple songs, and I picked the trumpet. And then this program ended, and I kept the trumpet and kept teaching myself how to play until High School. I got into the High School Marching Band and I was also in the choir. I liked to sing as well but didn’t think that this would be my career. All through High School I was thinking that I wanted to be an archeologist. And then when I was a junior in High School, I got to see my first opera. The first opera I saw, I was in, because they called the school and asked for some volunteers to be extras. Oddly enough, this opera in New Orleans was La Juive with Richard Tucker singing the only performance he sang of it in the United States, because he died before the Met got to do it for him. I remember being so impressed and so inspired by Mr. Tucker! This new art form that I found, combined two things that I absolutely loved, singing and acting.

    After that I started to explore a little bit more. Then in my senior year a friend of mine, Anthony Laciura who is a very fine character tenor but is now an actor in Boardwalk Empire on HBO, told me, “You know, you have a good voice, you should go study with my teacher at Loyola.” So I auditioned for the Music School at Loyola University and got a scholarship. It started me on my way.

    OL – Nice! How did you get interested in the music of Wagner?

    GG – I had dear friends who kept saying, “You are going to sing Wagner one of these days.” And I would say, “No, no, no, I don’t think I ever will.” And they would take me to operas to convince me, and it actually did work. My interested was sparked by going with my friends who insisted I should be singing some of this, and yes, I ended up doing it. [laughs]

    OL – What are your interests outside of opera?

    GG – Archeology is now a hobby, so if there is anything of interest where I am, I usually try to get out and go to it. It’s easier to do that in places like Rome, and Tel Aviv, and Greece, and in many other European cities there are museums to do that. I love fishing when I can have time to do that. And also I love to just get out in nature and hike.

    OL – How are you as a person? Can you describe your personality?

    GG – [laughs] That’s a very good question. I would say, I am curious, accepting, pretty much most of the time trying to look on the brighter side of things.

    OL – So your daughter is interested in singing. Do you take her with you to your performances?

    GG – She has been going to them all her life. She is 21 years old and is a junior now at the college where I went, down in New Orleans, Loyola University. She just sang the role of Cunégonde [Candide] in January. She is an English major and a music minor and has a real gift for singing.

    OL – Genes from both sides.

    GG – I think so, but how we got a coloratura, I’ll never know, from a mezzo and a bass-baritone. [laughs]

    OL – Thank you for a lovely interview.

    GG – Wow, wonderful, wonderful questions. It was a pleasure.

    OL – The pleasure was mine, and our readers’.


    Let's listen to the singer in Der Fliegende Holländer:


    Photo Credit The Photo Ninja

    Singer: Elizabeth Kataria
    Fach: Soprano
    Role: Senta
    Web site: click [here]

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Let’s talk about Senta, the character. You are having your second one, after your role debut last year in Utah. The idealistic young woman in love is a recurrent character in the history of opera. What makes Senta special for you, and how do you read her psychology?

    Elizabeth Kataria - I feel that Senta is a young woman who up to this point has been very disconnected from those around her: from her father who was often and for long periods away at sea; from the girls around her whose connections to each other and whose desires she doesn’t relate to or fully understand; from Mary, who obviously cares about her and would like to be there for her but cannot break through; and from Erik who projects what he wants her to be and believes that fantasy in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary.

    And in addition, perhaps she even feels a bit ancillary – her father leaves her behind, Erik has decided who she is and sets about forcing her to be that… but there is no real purpose for her, she has no mission. Whether she realizes it consciously or not, Senta has been searching for someone with whom she can truly connect and to whom she will truly matter. As she has not yet been able to find that in her life, she has fabricated a very real and intense fantasy of someone that would be all she needs – someone to connect deeply to her, love her and truly need her.

    As far as my connection to her, I can understand her desire for a connection and search for a path to something more meaningful for herself – I was painfully shy when I was young and it was exceptionally difficult for me to make friends and connections. I spend a lot of time alone and read a great deal. Had I been aware of this tale when I was in my sullen purple-haired goth-girl phase, I am sure I would have felt it was all about me. When I first started studying the role, I chuckled seeing my younger self in her … minus the extent of the drama and the tragic end of course.

    OL - She spends a short time with the real Dutchman although she has been dreaming of his picture, and this is enough for her to jump to her death in order to rescue him. Sure, as a romantic character, that’s what is expected of her, but do you read anything deeper in her rescue/suicide?

    EK - As I mentioned above, I think it is her intense need to truly and deeply matter to someone else that makes her decision. She has also experienced a physical awakening as a woman upon meeting him that she had never experienced before – he is not only what she dreamt of innocently as a girl; he is more: the deep emotional connection that she’d been looking for in addition to this new physical longing that she had never known and doesn’t understand – it’s all too intense and overwhelming to NOT be decreed by God. Combine the first flush of sexual attraction with what he represents to her as her dream made flesh, and she can do nothing else.

    OL - Musically, what are some of the vocal challenges involved in singing this role? The duet with The Dutchman is quite difficult, isn’t it, maybe more than your opening ballade?

    EK - You are correct that the duet with the Dutchman is very challenging – to meter the intensity so that you convey all the longing and every wash of new and overwhelming emotion, while still having someplace to go is indeed very challenging! But for me personally, the ballade is actually more so in that it sits rather low in my voice. I never met a high note I didn’t like and I enjoy anything that sits above the staff, so I have to prepare very thoughtfully when something sits lower in my voice.

    But as with all things that require care and thought, you grow as a musician and an artist whenever you tackle something that doesn’t come as easily to you. I have come to love the ballade as much as the rest of this role; it allows me to express myself musically in ways I hadn’t appreciated before. But I will always have a soft spot for the finale of Act 3 where I can really let it rip – there is nothing more fun for me than that!

    OL - What can you tell us about the concept in this Opera Carolina staging of The Flying Dutchman?

    EK - This production is really very interesting. It delves much more deeply into Senta’s psyche than I have seen before, which is obviously compelling for me. The entire overture is set as a series of Senta’s memories from her point of view at different ages. There is a sense of the abandonment and isolation that create the woman she becomes. Then throughout the opera, the audience sees each character first in silhouette as an idea, an archetype before going deeper and discovering their inner workings through the music and staging. Projections are a big part of the storytelling. They illuminate characters’ inner thoughts and feelings as well as helping to shape the changing moods and establishing place and time.

    OL - You’ve been turning to Wagner relatively early in your career. Are you planning to focus your career on Wagnerian roles from now on? In what direction would you want your career to evolve?

    EK - People largely seem to hear me singing German repertoire I would think based on the color of my voice and perhaps my temperament. I love Wagner’s glorious music and I would be delighted if it turned out that I was able to make a career of it. But I personally have always seen myself singing a wide variety of things – there are roles in every genre that I would love to sink my teeth into, either for the first time or again, from Verdi to Mozart to Puccini to my deeply beloved R. Strauss, and back to Wagner.

    OL - You participated in a reduced version of the Ring cycle in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. We’ve been seeing similar initiatives recently, in Minneapolis and Buenos Aires. What is your take on reducing the Ring? A good thing to make it more accessible to the public, or not?

    EK - In this country, typically only the largest houses in the largest cities would ever even consider mounting the Ring – and with good reason – as written, it’s a monumental undertaking. Which is well worth making if you have the resources at hand, but many communities do not. Reductions such as the one I participated in with Opera Louisiane in Baton Rouge can be a lovely way for audiences in a variety of communities to experience Wagner’s music live.


    Here is the singer performing Senta's ballade:


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    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Clayton's Avatar
      Clayton -
      OL – The pleasure was mine, and our readers’.

      Yes, another good interview and now I've got to go listen to The flying Dutchman again and I am very interested in Bluebeards Castle!
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      This article is now complete with the inclusion of Elizabeth Kataria's interview, which was finalized one day after the first publication. Those who haven't read her answers will find them in the final third of the article. We thank all three singers for their interesting insights.

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