• Exclusive Opera Lively interviews with the cast of Nabucco at Opera Carolina

    Verdi's Nabucco, with the great "Va, Pensiero" chorus will be performed by our partner company, Opera Carolina. We have interviewed five of the artists. [Opera Lively interviews # 133, 134, 135, 136, and 137]

    Opening night is Saturday, October 18, at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (Belk Theater) in downtown Charlotte. Click [here] for tickets. Take advantage of the opportunity to explore the brand new Opera Carolina website, which is strikingly beautiful and informative.

    Maestro Meena will lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (as usual, conducting from his prodigious memory without the need to consult the score).

    Nabucco - Production picture - Copyright Opera Carolina 2003

    The cast:

    Brenda Harris is Abigaille, daughter of Nabucco

    Gordon Hawkins is Nabucco, king of Babylon

    Andrew Gangestad is Zaccaria, high priest of the Jews

    Brian Arreola is Ismaele, nephew of the king of Jerusalem

    Ola Rafalo is Fenena, youngest daughter of Nabucco

    In comprimario roles, Kelly Hutchinson, Kenneth Overton, and Martin Schreiner.

    We have interviewed the five principal artists above one by one. These interviews can be found below.

    The season continues with Turandot (with international star Marcello Giordani) and Lucia di Lamermoor:


    The Opera Lively Interviews with the Nabucco Artists

    Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. We'll be repeating some questions for all singers to get their different takes, as well as asking some that are specific to their individual careers. Opera Lively holds the copyright to these interviews. Excerpts can be posted or printed elsewhere as long as credit is given to Opera Lively and a link is provided to this article.

    Nabucco - production picture, copyright Opera Carolina 2003

    Interview with dramatic soprano Brenda Harris in the role of Abigaille

    Ms. Harris has performed, among others, on the stages of The Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy, the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, the New York City Opera, and the Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg. Of her Elektra, Opera News said that she "delivered a stunning account of the vengeful Greek princess, distinguished by scrupulous observation of the score, including the marked pianissimos that are so rarely heard...." Opera News commented upon the singer's Turandot as well, calling her "a soprano of Wagnerian heft."

    Opera Lively - I believe that the role of Abigaille is arguably one of the top five most difficult in all of opera. Its tessitura is very high and wide, and it requires enormous power and projection. Famously, certain singers had their voices destroyed by daring to sing Abigaille, while others refused to sing it. Please describe for us the challenges in this sing, and the steps you take to protect your voice while singing it.

    Brenda Harris - Yes, Abigaille is rather infamous for just what you describe. But, the thing to remember here is that Verdi was just coming out of the great bel canto tradition and there is a lot of pure bel canto writing and singing to be found in this opera. That said, it requires a big vocal strategy and I do have one. It would be boring to go into here but for the most part, odd as it seems, she requires a light touch. Getting too caught up in the weight of the role, I believe, is what brings one to ruin. That's not to say it isn't dramatic. Oh no! But, it requires a lot of monitoring!

    OL - You were particularly successful in the role of Elektra, another tour de force for a dramatic soprano. How do you compare the difficulties of the two roles?

    BH - Apples and oranges. Elektra is a marathon. For me, probably just a tiny bit easier as I'm maybe a little more comfortable with German repertoire even though I've sung much more Italian and bel canto. I'd say the greatest difference is that soaring on the wings of Strauss is very different than the wings of Verdi. Strauss, when it's working, picks you up and carries you through the role. Verdi is pristine and transparent (particularly in this opera), and has a much more narrow margin of error.

    OL - If not just vocally fiercely difficult, Abigaille is also a complex character to portray, in terms of acting. She is rather unsympathetic, power-greedy and cold, and only switches to redemption and forgiveness-seeking at the end. Please tell me about your reading of the psychology of this character, and how you go about portraying her in a way that the public can relate to her.

    BH - I think she's completely sympathetic and understandable. She's been treated abysmally. When we meet her, she's doing her father's bidding as she's always done and she's rewarded by the knowledge that she's not really his biological daughter but furthermore, his "real" daughter, who is somewhat of a traitor, is being given the keys to the kingdom! I think we see her real soul and sadness in the gorgeous cavatina at the beginning of Act Two. This is where we witness her pain and then her choice to seek revenge. I also believe there are some directorial choices in Act Three (the duet with Nabucco) that allow us to see her vacillate and then to understand and accept her. Vengeful? Yes. But, to me, a very logical and sympathetic choice.

    OL - Did you look at some of your predecessors who sang this role, when you prepared for it? If yes, who are your sources of inspiration (I particularly enjoy Ghena Dimitrova)? If not, what other steps did you take to musically prepare for this role?

    BH - I always listen to everyone I can when starting a new role...especially one of this breadth and lore. I, too, enjoy Dimitrova but I've also studied Rysanek, Suliotis and of course Callas. Callas is usually my preference simply because of her attention to detail and her ability to deliver the composer's wishes. Of course, I tried to find what I could biblically with regard to Nebuchadnezzar but the opera isn't directly from one source or another. Still, it was very helpful to refresh my memory of the biblical character, the miracle stories of Daniel, etc. Mainly, the preparation for me is vocal. Getting the role in my voice and developing a strategy.

    OL - This opera requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. What is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?

    BH - I rarely think about my expectations for a production. Mostly, because that's out of my control. I hope the company will be up to the challenge but I figure my best plan of action is to be as prepared and demanding of myself as possible. I am, however, looking forward to being back in Charlotte. I sang Countess/Figaro there many years ago and really enjoyed it.

    OL - On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with the woman underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. Why did you chose an operatic career, how do you define your personality, and what are some of your main interests besides opera?

    BH - Well, my story is an odd one. I grew up on a pig farm in a very small town in Illinois! No one in my family is musical and I didn't hear my first opera (Strauss' Elektra no less!) until I was in college. So, my journey is more of a calling, I think. I believe that if there's something you're meant to do, you'll find it or it will find you. That's what happened in my case.

    Because of my upbringing, I'd say I'm a pretty down to earth person. Oh make no mistake. I love being on stage! But, I love cooking, entertaining, working with young singers, pop music and many many things outside the opera world. I just feel very, very lucky to have been able to sing incredibly rewarding things my entire career...from Mozart to bel canto to Verdi and Puccini...to be sure, this career has given me much more than I could ever repay.


    Let's listen to a sample of the singer's voice, performing Rossini's Armida :


    Interview with baritone Gordon Hawkins in the title role of Nabucco

    Mr. Hawkins has had a long and illustrious career, and is acclaimed throughout the world for his in-depth interpretations and luxuriant baritone voice. Most recent engagements include Alberich in Der Ring des Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and at Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville; Kaspar in Der Freischütz at Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville; Telramund in Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper Berlin; Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera at the New Orleans Opera; Crown in Porgy and Bess at Cincinnati Opera; Scarpia in Tosca with Arizona Opera; and Amonasro in Aida at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cincinnati Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre. His discography includes thee opera recordings on CD (Of Mice and Men, Simmon Boccanegra, and Porgy and Bess) as well as two DVDs (Porgy and Bess, and Un Ballo in Maschera alongside Pavarotti) in addition to an upcoming DVD alongside Plácido Domingo (Iphigénie en Tauride). He is a former winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, together with other accolades.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Let’s start by the required acting for this piece. Nabucco is a particularly difficult role in terms of acting range. The king goes from proud and powerful, to mad (one of the few cases of a mad scene for a male, in opera), to humiliated and pleading, to finding his stride again. Please comment on this difficulty (if you agree), and how you plan to go about it.

    Gordon Hawkins - First of all, I must say that this is the first time that I perform Nabucco. This is my debut in the role so I’m still researching to do some of the things that you are asking about. I do have some references through other characters and with the help of the director I should be able to find the right way to depict what I recall of the dramatic arc of this particular character. What I do have is what Verdi does give me. The very first scene when Nabucco enters the temple is so strong! It is even written that he is supposed to enter on horseback, which I think is a very proud and heroic moment in a way, or let’s just say, very arrogant. The next scene after Nabucco leaves and comes back on stage he witnesses someone standing there with his crowd. He is still in a very proud position. Then, he is literally struck down, and in some productions they have lightning effects to symbolize that he is actually struck.

    OL – By God.

    GH – By God, yes, and immediately the music changes. His tone changes. He doesn’t understand what power or who did this. He almost cannot conceive that some person would have the audacity to do this to him. He realizes that it wasn’t a person. In fact, it was something greater than him. In that moment, he is completely shocked. I think that will be the key to start that emotional spiral. I wouldn’t consider it madness necessarily, but I would consider that his omnipotence is completely shattered. I might develop it differently with insight from the director, but the way that I’m seeing it now, is that. “I came to this temple, I defeated these people and their god, I am a god, I am more powerful, I am everything, and then in an instant, I am not everything.” I think for Nabucco the issue is: “I am not powerful; who am I? If everything I’m supposed to be up to this point is about power, and I’m not the most powerful force here, what am I?”

    OL – Do you try to find within yourself the same emotions? Do you try to get into the character’s skin?

    GH – Yes. For me it works better that way, because then I can draw from my own feelings instead of trying to pretend to be someone else. I know that singers can be very arrogant [laughs]. I think you need that power to be able to go on stage and deliver in front of an audience. I’ve been a professional singer for over thirty years so I can understand stagecraft. I can understand the pitfalls of it, and the tempo changes. That’s the beautiful thing about Verdi. When these tempo changes come, you find the right emotion to attach to it, and then you are true to the moment. In other words, I don’t have to impose anything. He has written everything right there.

    OL – Yes, because you go from an almost shouty range to lower dynamics, when you sing “Chi mi toglie il reggio scettro?” and then you are really low and confused.

    GH – Yes, and then he asks for help. I shouldn’t say help. Up to that point when he talks about his daughter, he is completely self-absorbed. He says “I’m no longer a man, I am a God” and now he is no longer that. He is a father in need of a daughter to lean on for support. He is disoriented and needs to find his bearings again. I don’t think he finds his bearings until he has his duet with Abigaille. He then finds where he is going to stand: against her, and for his real daughter Fenena. Then, I think that the rest of the conversion happens for him.

    OL – Do you find this role to be a difficult sing, in terms of being long and forceful?

    GH – No, I don’t, because as I’m working on the music now, it becomes very clear what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. If I just look at the pitches, technically, yes. This is the early Verdi period and he writes partly in the Bellini and Donizetti style, but it is still Verdi’s style. He hasn’t completely established his mode of writing, which he will get to once Rigoletto happens. So, this is still almost pre-Verdi; he hasn’t developed his full voice that will come in 1851. Nabucco and Macbeth, these two pieces prior to Rigoletto, are the ones where you get glimpses of what Verdi is going to be. That’s what makes this one exciting. There are some clues there that I can use on how to pace it, and they hint at what Rigoletto and Iago are going to be.

    OL – Let’s compare the difficulty in this role with another one you did several times, Alberich in The Ring of the Nibelung. Is Wagner much more difficult than Verdi?

    GH – That’s a great question. I think that the dramatic and musical responsibilities are almost identical. The text in Wagner is different than the text in Verdi but how both composers use the text is very similar. They are dramatists who use the meaning of the word and the poetry to be expressed in musical ideas. So if you sing the text in Verdi and you sing the text in Wagner, and use the text as the vehicle to transport the emotions, then you are exactly where you need to be. You don’t have to change a thing. If you serve the text you will serve the music. Even though one is in German and the other is in Italian, with different linguistic and phonetic challenges, stylistically and orchestrally, emotionally, dramatically, all those factors are delivered through the text. That’s the key.

    OL – Interesting! In terms of preparation, Nabucco is tricky because the libretto doesn’t focus on a single biblical and historical character – King Nebuchadnezzar II – but is a composite of the mad king with Nabonidus and Cyrus who were actually the rulers who took some of the actions in the libretto, rather than Nabucco himself. Do you make a point of reading about all aspects of your character for your preparation, or do you rather focus on Verdi’s music with comparatively less attention to the libretto and its sources?

    GH – Again, that’s a great question. I can use the biblical references and that conglomerate to study, but my responsibility, I should say, is that I am interpreting a piece that has already taken those things into consideration. There is very little writing in Verdi’s letters to suggest that he had very much appreciation for the Church, but he was very much aware of the Bible and what is in it. When he scored this piece, as he did for other operas that relate to biblical texts, he synthesized how he would like it to be delivered, and it is not my responsibility to make a comment on that. It is my responsibility to make that come alive. Now, as an actor and as a singing actor, I can use all the outside resources that I want, but the issue is, how do I interpret this piece, based on the libretto that was given to him?

    OL – Great answer! Did you look at some of your predecessors who sang this role, when you prepared for it? If yes, who are your sources of inspiration?

    GH – I have looked at none of them. When I do a piece for the first time I don’t want to be influenced by that. I’ve seen a few different productions of Nabucco, but after I do it in Charlotte and in Seattle then I’ll live with it. Then I plan to go back and see particularly how Renato Bruson, Renato Capecchi, and Piero Cappuccilli have sung it. I’ll do that then, but I wouldn’t want to do that now, because I think I’ll be biased by what they do.

    OL – So, what other steps do you take for your musical preparation of the role, if you don’t like to listen to predecessors? Do you go first to the piano score with an accompanist?

    GH – I started preparing at the end of this past spring. I didn’t do anything musically at all, at first. I first went to the libretto and read it all, because the words are going to be what inspires the music, anyway, right? Verdi got the libretto first, and then he composed, so the first preparation that I’m going to have is with the meaning of the text and the poetry of the text. Once I feel comfortable with that, then I apply the musical part to it. I have an accompanist that I go to, and we work through the music. I use Verdi’s markings as guides but the first time I sing any of it, I have what the Italians call “intenzione di parole” – the intentions of the words that I am going to sing.

    OL - This opera requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. What is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?

    GH – I’ve worked in Charlotte before. I know James Meena very well. I know the quality of the work that he strives for and attains. I know that the chorus is very, very good, and they take their roles very seriously. I’m sure that they are very well aware of the big chorus piece in this. I want to see the relationship between the chorus and the director and what they feel that that particular piece represents for them. Whatever the “Va, Pensiero” meant in Verdi’s time, we are now in the 21st century, so there has to be a connection in the here and now, particularly for the chorus, of what it feels to be that group in this time. It is a fantastic piece, but it has to be an organic living piece now, not something that they are trying to reproduce as if it were a museum piece. It has to be relevant and spontaneous, now. They have to find that connection, so that it is real to them right now.

    OL – Very nice. I got curious about some items I saw in your biography. The first one is the Gala Concert you did for the US Supreme Court. How did that experience go, for you? Are the Justices big opera fans?

    GH – [laughs] Bless your heart! This was back in 2006. I did two roles at the time for the Washington National Opera. I am a Washingtonian so I have a long history with that opera company. I sang Porgy and Bess in the fall and the Ring cycle later that spring. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia are big opera fans, and Ruth came to the Porgy, we met, and we hit it off. She has a regular recital series at the Supreme Court. She invited to me to participate in it.

    [pauses] I’m getting quiet a little bit, because as I think about it, it was a tremendous honor, not only to do it, but for the fact that this extraordinarily brilliant woman from New York City with a public school education who has strong connections to the arts and to the community deals with the Constitution in a manner that is sympathetic to my beliefs and thoughts, and we could actually connect and become friends through music. I really did marvel at how it came about. If I had planned to create something like that I would never have been successful, but the sheer fact that we were brought together in a friendship through music, I consider a blessing.

    OL – Wow, nice! I was also curious about your performances at the Met with Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni in La Bohème, and with Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo in Un Ballo in Maschera. These are legendary singers. It must be something, to perform and interact with them.

    GH – To be fortunate, you have to do a lot of hard work, and you have to be prepared when the opportunity arrives. With that in mind, yes, I was prepared to sing Bohème; I had studied it and performed it, and was eager to do it. The circumstances were nothing that I expected. I got a phone call from the Met that day of the live broadcast that goes not only to the United States by all over, telling me that the baritone that was supposed to sing Marcello was ill, and that I would do that performance. I had done two performances before at the Met that I was contracted and scheduled to do, but I was not scheduled to perform at the live broadcast. So, I got that call at 11 AM for a matinee that started at 1 PM.

    To tell you the truth, most of it was a blur. I remember it all now, after the fact, but during the performance I was just trying my best to be Marcello, and just trying to relate to Rodolfo and Mimì, but I’m looking at Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni, and I’m thinking “these are the greatest singers on the planet and I am on stage with them!” It was a challenge. It was fantastic, but it was a challenge to see these great artists and try to make myself see Rodolfo and Mimì and not Plácido and Mirella. I don’t know how successful I was with that!

    I continued my relationship with Plácido over these twenty something years. He was the one who brought me to Washington to sing my first Ring cycle, and to LA to sing the Ring there too. I just did the Iphigénie with him at the Met in the last couple of years. They are going to release that this fall on a DVD. He is generous. As talented and as much of a superstar that Plácido and Mirella were – Plácido still is – he is an even better colleague, Luiz! He is nothing but supportive, nothing but present, nothing but giving. You hear stories about singers and egos and all of this, and of course he has an ego, but as a colleague you couldn’t want anything better. That relationship continues today.

    With Luciano, I was, again, very fortunate that when we did Rigoletto together, I had a small part but he literally liked the sound of my voice. He asked me if I was going to be in Europe that following summer, and I said yes, I was, he said, “OK, you come to see me in Pesaro.” He had a home in Pesaro and I went there in the summer, and I studied with him. I prepared opera roles with Luciano Pavarotti, by his invitation. After that he invited me to do his international vocal competition in Philadelphia of which I was a winner, and I got to sing two more roles there.

    These were and are the greatest artists of our lifetime, surely. I had an intimate relationship with them, not only working with them but being able to be colleagues with them; just buddy with them, and there is nothing else I could have ever wished to have in my career.

    OL – You also won the National Council Auditions. How was that moment for you, in your career?

    GH – Oh, I think I was just young. I don’t think I understood what it was. I knew it meant to compete, I knew the significance of it, but a competition is not the same as a career. You have a couple of arias to make your impression, and everyone at that level is very talented and can be impressive but not everyone can have a career and sustain the singing for an entire opera and for years. I think the competition at that age brought me to the attention of a lot of people, and there is a lot of pressure regarding what you do with that attention, but it is not the same as having a career for thirty years. I’m appreciative that the competition brought me to the light of some important people in New York City, but I’m more appreciative of the work that has been done for the last twenty-five to thirty years.

    OL - On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with man underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. How was your encounter with music?

    GH – I always loved music. I studied the piano and mostly the clarinet. I sang in Church. My father was a minister. For me singing was associated with faith, community, and family. I didn’t make the association toward a profession until maybe my graduate school, later. What sticks, what remains from that, is that I always associated singing with an expression and celebration, more than I thought of it as a pedagogical or academic endeavor. I was connected to making those sounds in my community as opposed to standing on a stage. Maybe that’s a different type of love or appreciation of what music is, and certainly later I expanded my feelings toward music, but at the core of it, it really is a validation of who you are as a person and how you relate to sharing it with people.

    OL – From instrumental music with the piano and the clarinet, how did you get to opera? What was decisive to push you in that direction?

    GH – I don’t know! It came rather late. My initial connection to classical music was playing the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. Opera, I honestly can’t tell you what the specific thing that led me to it was. It was more of a continuation of my musical growth. I sang in choruses but they weren’t operatic. When I took voice lessons in college and my mentors said “You know, you really can do this,” I think that support and that reinforcement led me in that direction. I can’t say I went to college to achieve that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t. I went to college on a scholarship to play baseball!

    OL – Oh wow, that’s interesting. How do you feel now about opera, looking back at those thirty years?

    GH – I’m 55. You know what I know now, what opera is? Your audience should know that I’m the youngest of seven, so I have four older brothers and two older sisters. If you come from a large family or know anyone who comes from a large family, you will know that when you are the youngest, you are the last one who is heard. Everyone has a voice that is bigger and stronger, and they have more to say. You’re just the youngest; you have to wait your turn. Psychologically, I think part of the reason why I became a singer, is because I had something to say.

    OL – That’s interesting. I am the youngest of five, so I can relate.

    GH – I just have something to say. I have something to communicate. Maybe the reason why you write is that you also have something to say, maybe.

    OL – Yes. So, how do you define your personality?

    GH – [laughs] I don’t know how to answer that. [laughs] I’m pretty easygoing. Hm… that sounds boring, doesn’t it? It’s like a generic answer. [thinks] I started it all looking to belong, to be part of something, because I came from a big family so I wanted to be part of another big family. As I get older, though, I have more of an appreciation for space and for time and silence. I live in the Sonora desert, and I like the quietness of it. I’m not a city person, although I lived in Milan and London and Berlin, all those major cities. Right now I like the quiet of not being in those cities. I like going to visit them and working in them but I like not living in them at this point in my life. That might change, but Luiz, right now, I like not being in the city.

    OL – What are your main interests outside of opera and classical music?

    GH – I do like sports very much. I’m a very avid golfer, so if there is anyone there in Charlotte that has a golf course that they’d like to take me to, I’d love that. I love reading. I don’t talk politics, although I am very clear about what I am: a liberal Democrat and very proud of it, but I know that there are different interpretations of how things should be, and I respect people for that. I like the fact of being part of a community, that we live off of each other. Maybe a little bit of the 60’s is in me. Philosophically, I believe in that we really are part of the same community, and that’s what I am going to live.

    OL – That’s what we had. It was a pleasure; your answers were very interesting. I look forward to listening to you and meeting you in person on October 18th!

    GH – Definitely, please make sure you come backstage! Luiz, thanks; I enjoyed speaking with you and appreciate your time.


    For a sample of the singer's voice, see this duet with soprano Mary Wilson in Rigoletto:


    Interview with bass Andrew Gangestad in the role of Zaccaria

    Mr. Gangestad has performed in both Wozzeck and Lulu for the Metropolitan Opera, and has had appearances in important American houses such as New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Cleveland and many others, including an international appearance at the Welsh National Opera. He has returned every season to the Metropolitan since the year 2000, with no fewer than 16 different productions there including Les Troyens. He has been heard in concert at Carnegie Hall under James Levine, as well as in Poland and Japan.

    Opera Lively - I like the role of Zaccharia very much, given that it displays for longer than usual the bass voice and it is written in its typical solemn fashion, but also turns to great delicacy for example in a piece like “Vieni, o Levita!” which is an aspect that not all bass roles include. I mean that it is not mono-dimensional, and it gives more opportunities for nuances. Please tell me if you agree with what I’m saying, and then comment upon the musical and acting aspects of this role.

    Andrew Gangestad - I would have to say that I agree with you to a certain extent. The role is indeed well written for the bass voice and is definitely not mono-dimensional. Yes, there is the prayer that you mentioned that is not of the usual character for this role. There are other bass roles that have that sort of nuance but this role also has such diversity. It is shown just in the beginning of the opera. Zaccaria comes out and tells everyone to have hope. He goes on to how God made Moses on the shores of Egypt. It is slower paced and of the solemn nature. But, after Ismaele comes in and announces what has happened, the cabaletta "Come notte" really picks up the pace and is the real show stopper. With more of the solemnity though, the end of the third act is also especially powerful for Zaccaria. "Oh chi piange" starts solemn and ends very powerfully. There is such a wide range of singing AND acting involved here. Zaccaria has to be such a strong and powerful force to lead everyone!

    OL - You have performed in stylistically wildly different pieces like Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu versus this early Verdi . Please contrast the difficulty of a modernist vocal score to the more linear 19th century roles.

    AG - I would have to say that the hardest thing for me is having to learn the counting and actual pitches! The more linear roles definitely are easier to pick up and learn. When I was learning Wozzeck, I couldn't believe that it was Berg's first opera. It was actually more difficult to learn than hhis Lulu (at least the specific roles I was working on).

    OL - Your repertoire is quite impressive. What pieces do you believe are the most suited for your voice? In other words, what are your signature roles?

    AG - My signature roles...I would have to think about that for a little bit. The two roles that I have performed the most are actually very widely varying: Ramfis in Aida and Leporello in Don Giovanni. I have started to perform Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro and would love to start performing it more. So I would have to say Verdi and Mozart roles.

    OL - Did you look at some of your predecessors who sang this role of Zaccharia, when you prepared for it? If yes, who are your sources of inspiration? If not, what other steps did you take to musically prepare for this role?

    AG - I would have to say that I have looked and/or listened to a lot of the great basses. Sam Ramey, Cesare Siepi just to name two. I am fortunate enough to have the same voice teacher as Sam has had so it makes a little more sense to me listening to him and hearing my voice teacher in my head at the same time. Other then that, I translated everything as well so that I knew what I was actually saying to help with the interpretation of the role in my own way.

    OL - This opera requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. What is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?

    AG - I am very excited and very much looking forward to the upcoming production. I know a couple of the other singers and have worked with them as well. It will be good to see them again as well. It should be a great production all around.

    OL - On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with the man underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. Why did you chose an operatic career, how do you define your personality, and what are some of your main interests besides opera?

    AG - I guess you could say that I didn't choose an operatic career but rather it chose me. I went into college originally as a pre-law major. Corporate law and Criminal Law always interested me. I always sang in choirs throughout middle and high school. Where I went to college was close to where I graduated from High School. We did festivals at the college so when I started there, I received a letter stating that I had received a scholarship for voice lessons. I had NO idea or clue what that meant so I met with the choral professor there and he suggested a new voice teacher who had started. We were introduced and are still friends to this day.

    I think my wife would be the best person to describe my personality though. I can be all sorts of personalities, depending on the day, I guess! Some of my main interests other than opera would be to spend time with my family and to be outdoors. I grew up hunting and fishing and really love to get back to Minnesota and do that whenever I can. I also like to cook. It is a good outlet for me and even though it looks like I am stressing out when I am actually cooking, it is the end result that is the most satisfying for me.


    Let's listen to the singer in "Vi ravviso" from La Sonnambula :


    Interview with tenor Brian Arreola, in the role of Ismaele

    Brian Arreola has been described as a “robust Italian tenor” by the Washington Post, and his 2008 debut with The Minnesota Opera in Roméo et Juliette had the Pioneer Press praising his “fiery Tybalt.” Arreola was a founding member and co-artistic director of Cantus, a full-time professional touring group described by Fanfare Magazine as “the premier men’s vocal ensemble in the United States.” The Charlotte public knows him from past Opera Carolina productions of Carmen, Otello, and Fidelio. He is current an Assistant Professor of Voice and Opera at UNC Charlotte.

    Opera Lively - For once, the tenor role in an Italian opera is not as prominent for Ismaele in Verdi’s Nabucco. The opera is rather driven by the lower voices and the female roles. So, how do you make your Ismaele interesting for the public?

    Brian Arreola - Verdi lavishes the same wonderfully evocative and vocally idiomatic music that the titular characters receive on his secondary characters. For example, when I first saw Il Trovatore, I was surprised that the first singer the audience heard, with a terrific scene and aria, was not one of the characters central to the plot, but "just" Count di Luna's captain. Nevertheless, I was captivated by Verdi's terrific music and the great singing and acting of the Ferrando. So, as a singer in a supporting role I feel first and foremost grateful to Verdi, who has done most of the work of creating a compelling character.

    OL - You must have some interesting stories to tell about your period touring the country with the vocal group you founded, Cantus. Is there something about this time of your life you would like to share with our readers?

    BA - Cantus was a blast! I tell people that I was in sort of a classical boy band for a while. Funnily enough, there actually are a few groups that really do fit that description now, Il Divo, Ten Tenors, 3 Mo' Tenors, etc.: groups that are auditioned and assembled by music industry producers. We were not a boy band in that sense, we were actually just a bunch of friends in undergrad that enjoyed singing together. There are countless stories from that time, mostly sort of in-jokes and nothing too rockstar or interesting… Imagine touring around the country for up to a month at a time with eight of your best buddies from undergrad, with many stops at college campuses, for seven years.

    Good stories? We all got food poisoning in Iowa once, started the concert with 11 singers and ended with 7. For a number of years 8 of us were obsessive basketball players and so our rider included access to a gym with a basketball court. We played on our first day in Snowmass and got altitude sickness. The presenter had oxygen tanks/masks for us backstage (they said it was standard practice) and several of us were sucking air at the intermission.

    OL - You are involved with teaching voice, as a professor at UNC-Charlotte. What would be some of the advices you have for youngsters who want to approach an operatic career?

    BA - [The singer gave us a "must read" precious piece of advice that was lengthy and would likely be of little interest for patrons attending Nabucco, but is essential for current and prospective voice students and their parents, so we decided to omit it here, but publish it in its entirety in the Educational Section of our site; click (here) if you want to read it.]

    OL - This opera Nabucco requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. How is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?

    BA - I expect that this production will be an incredible experience for the audience. Opera Carolina is a remarkable company. Using a terrific mix of headlining industry superstars, up-and-coming talents, and gifted local professionals they produce opera at a very high level. I hope that at least a portion of our Charlotte audience gets out of the region to see opera in other parts of the country and thus knows how good we have it here.

    James Meena, besides being a fantasitc, old-school opera maestro, is a real innovator in community engagement, constantly finding new ways to make the arts generally, and opera specifically, indispensable to the culture of our region.

    The importance of having the Charlotte Symphony in the pit cannot be overstated: a full-time, professional orchestra has a level of musical responsiveness and cohesion of sound that cannot be achieved by other means.

    Maestro Meena and the orchestra have a very good relationship, and it really shows when they sound top notch on tough rep like this past season's Flying Dutchman. Pair that with a world-class voice like Greer Grimsley and you have the sort of operatic magic that aficionados live for and that can make life-long fans out of newbies.

    OL - On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with the man underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. Why did you chose an operatic career, how do you define your personality, and what are some of your main interests besides opera?

    BA - As a musician and artist opera presents me with so many wonderful challenges that I cannot imagine a more fulfilling musical endeavor. As a music professor at UNC Charlotte I get to share my love for the form with my students, and so I am doubly enriched.

    Personality? My students say I am passionate but could be more organized, my wife can see my students' point of view, and my two daughters (a toddler and a three-month-old) still think I'm the greatest man alive.

    Other interests: books, science, social justice, fitness, cooking, futurism, alternative energy and transportation (my wife and I are having geothermal HVAC installed in our Harrisburg home this fall, and with an eventual rooftop solar photovoltaic system and electric car plus our existing solar hot water system we hope that our home will be nearly carbon neutral.)


    For a sample of the singer's voice, see the clip below.


    Interview with mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo in the role of Fenena

    Rising star Ola Rafalo has a voice that the Palm Beach Arts Paper has called “attractive, dusky, and powerful”. In additon to Opera Carolina, she is performing this season with Syracuse Opera, Lyric Opera Baltimore, the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center, and Opera Tampa. Recent engagements include Leonora in La Favorita with The Opera Atelier; as well as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Fricka in Die Walküre, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and the title role in Carmen with the Lyric Orchestra. She was a member of the Young Artist Program at Sarasota Opera and Palm Beach Opera, where she recently performed the title role in Catan’s Florencia in El Amazonas. She was awarded Grand Prize of the Elgin Opera competition and First Prize of the Sherrill Milnes Opera Idol competition, and the Audience Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

    Opera Lively - I think the role of Fenena is very sweet and delicate. How do you read the psychology of your character, and how do you plan to portray her?

    Ola Rafalo - In contrast to Abigaille I can see that, as far as her delivery, but she is very strong and fortified as a person, not fragile at all. To me the two young women are both very strong archetypal representations of femininity. Abigaille reacts to life's upsets with fire, fury, action, and vengeance - she's very aggressive. And Fenena is more the darker side of the feminine power, the unseen, the mystical, and she responds to life's challenges by going inward into spirituality and religion. Its a wonderful contrast of the two, and Verdi actually wrote those colors into the music for the two women, which is so genius!

    OL - It is unusual for a young mezzo to have already performed Fricka in Die Walküre. Would you tell us more about that experience? Did you approach it with a lot of trepidation?

    OR - Honestly, If I had any trepidation about it I would not have sung it. I think in order to do a role, one must honor the music completely, and hesitation or uncertainty can only interfere with that. I approach all my repertoire with the same technique. If one is born with a dramatic instrument and it is developed correctly technically, then a role like that is nothing to fear. For someone like me, repertoire that is too light can be more dangerous because the tendency is to shut down resonators, and lighten the voice which is extremely damaging.

    The tools are the same for singing Verdi and Wagner in my opinion. Both require a rich lush sound, and a palette of many different expressive colors and textures. They are just used in different ways. Verdi gives you more range to stretch out into and keep the voice always moving up and down. Wagner is different in that it is less of a huge range, pitch wise, but within that, a lot of variance of colors and dynamics can be explored. It's more important to focus on staying buoyant and not drive the voice in Wagner, whereas Verdi kind of bounces you all around already!

    Wagner is a joy to sing- it's just like reclining into a warm bath - very flowing! I was so excited to play a part in the deep philosophical narrative that Wagner created in these characters! And the music is so very expressive of each smaller idea within a scene, as well as the overarching threads of plot. Its just fantastic! Embodying the Matriarch of the Gods was fascinating because as a person, I had felt more sympathetic to Wotan in their confrontation, yet as an artist, I had to delve into the plight and truth at the core of her character.

    I find that within each character we play we must find ourselves, or find them within us... whichever way it turns! Channelling Fricka's experience of the story through my emotions and expression was profound. It surprised me how much depth of feeling her musical lines provoked in me, and I had to work to contain my emotion within the expression of the singing. I didn't expect that when I first took on the role. She's an amazing figure, and I understand her pain and her strength, and hope that I was able to express that to the audience, and I hope that I will get the opportunity to do so again in the future!

    OL - Fantastic answer, thank you. I noticed that you once had a coaching session with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. That must have been something. What kind of advice or take-home line the great singer delivered to you?

    OR - Yes! I was a young artist at the time, singing soprano repertoire--- I sang in Fredericka Von Stade's masterclass and she was very impressed with my performance, and she introduced me to Kiri Te Kanawa, so that I coach with her for a week while she was teaching at the Met. It was a huge validation to be acknowledged by Von Stade, and also to get to coach with Te Kanawa; it was a great experience!

    I remember arriving at the Met and being so intimidated by the history of that building itself! I was very nervous to sing for her, and there, of all places! It was intense!
    But she was extremely down to earth and personable, just as Von Stade had been. It was actually Kiri that was the first person to tell me, or to discover, after vocalizing me, that I am a mezzo! So it was a HUGE take-away!

    OL - I’m very interested in contemporary opera. You’ve performed the title role in Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas. Would you please describe that experience? It is actually, I believe, a role for a soprano. Was it a difficult sing?

    OR - It was a fantastic experience! The music is challenging, Florencia is a dramatic soprano role that is vocally similar in a way to the role of Salome. The character however, is very different. She goes through a fantastic emotional transformation. I found a lot of myself in her, as I think most of the women who sing it may. Like Tosca, Florencia is an Opera Singer. It was the last role I sang as a soprano, before switching to Mezzo.
    The music and drama of Florencia en el Amazonas are great and I am so happy to see that opera is now being performed more frequently. It's truly a fantastic work.

    OL - You are in the first few stages of your rising career. Please tell me about some of your career goals and expectations.

    OR - Of course I do have my dream roles and dream situations, which I am always working towards! More generally though, my goal is always to honor the music. I am very old-fashioned and I like to study a role thoroughly and give it time in my psyche to come alive before I present it. I try not to have any expectations, but simply to participate in my life as fully as possible, and share my gifts wholeheartedly. I feel that Fenena in particular is an excellent first Verdi role as a mezzo, and hopefully she will open the door to Amneris, and Azucena in my future, which I have been studying.

    OL - On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with the woman underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. Why did you choose an operatic career, how do you define your personality, and what are some of your main interests besides opera?

    OR - Well, I played classical flute since the age of 9, and fell in love with classical music through my experiences as a young instrumentalist. I was fortunate to have a fantastic music teacher in High school, Terry Redford, who knew how to introduce young people to classical music in a way that created a deep and fulfilling connection. Many of my classmates from that high school band experience went on to be classical musicians professionally, and I am certain that the ones who didn't still listen and enjoy it. We were playing fantastic works like Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherezade, Russian Easter Overture, Dvořák's New World Symphony, and all kinds of fantastic stuff, in high school! So I guess deep down, I will always be a band geek!

    But I also started to listen to opera at the end of that time period, and fell in love with the voice of Maria Callas, and that was the beginning of the rest of my musical life. The last piece I played on the flute was François Borne's Fantaisies Brillantes on themes from Bizet's Carmen, oddly enough. And now, many many years later, Carmen is one of my main roles!

    Coming from an instrumental background, I suppose my singing path has been unconventional. I had the honor to sing for brilliant violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi, of the Vermeer Quartet. He taught me expressive phrasing techniques and musical ideas that I still use and think about all of the time. He said that as a young violin student, he listened mostly to Maria Callas, and Fischer-Dieskau in order to learn how to make the violin sing. I was really struck by that, because I was listening to Heifetz all the time, and learning about musicality that way. So the circle continues!

    Outside of music, I am a wife and mother, and I love spending time with my family and being in nature. I am a big animal lover. I am also a tea connoisseur! Every city in the world that I travel to I always go to their tea shop!


    For a sample of the singer's voice, click on this video with "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La Favorita:


    If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', tenor Jay Hunter Morris', and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among over 125 artists, scholars, conductors, directors, etc.), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using our new clickable content index [here], or the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese).

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    You might also consider the purchase of ours books "Opera Lively - The Interviews" volumes 1 and 2 - full announcement and links to sales points [here] for volume 1 and [here] for volume 2, just released. Also don't miss the very funny book by famed Met tenor Jay Hunter Morris, "Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger" published by Opera Lively Press; click [here].

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