• The Exclusive Opera Lively Short Interviews with the cast of Piedmont Opera's Madama Butterfly

    We have started our coverage of our partner company Piedmont Opera's Madama Butterfly, opening on October 31. For the full announcement, link to tickets, other information on fun associated events, click on this link which will take you to the main article: [clicky]. This article here is for the short interviews with the artists. We sent out requests to all four principal singers, and will be adding their replies here as they become available. Some of the questions are the same for all artists so that we get their different takes. Others are specific to their careers and lives. If this article doesn't have all four singers yet, bookmark and come back from time to time to read the other interviews.



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    Questions by Opera Lively Chief Editor Luiz Gazzola

    Opera Lively Press holds the copyright to these questions and answers but they can be reproduced elsewhere as long as full credit is given to our organization, the journalist's name, and a link to our website in general or to this article in particular is added.

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    Jill Gardner is Cio-Cio San, the title role. Jill is one of our favorite dramatic sopranos, and this is her third Opera Lively interview. We met her in person several times and saw her live on stage in various occasions, and she is always fabulous - like in her memorable Suor Angélica for Opera Carolina last season in January 2014 - her interview with us related to that role was so good that it occupies a prominent part of our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews - Volume 2" available on Amazon on paperback and Kindle (see links at the end of this article). Also, she is a very intelligent and cultured artist, and her elaborate answers are insightful and truly add to the understanding of the characters and the pieces. Again, Jill had some very interesting and deep things to say. Talking with her is a pleasure. Learn more about her by clicking [here]. Opera Lively interview # 142.

    OL - Jill, I know that you often engage in very detailed role preparation, including going to the sources. Have read the original short story from 1898 by John Luther Long? If yes, what have you learned from it that helps with your performance?

    JG - I have read the original short story by John Luther Long as well as David Belasco’s one-act play which Puccini saw in London in 1900. These historical and literary references feed the imagination as well as offer interior, psychological contexts in their respective formats which can be utilized in developing the character of Cio-Cio San. As I develop a character, I always enjoy the process of anchoring such a tragic heroine in my mind, heart and body by utilizing resources such as these literary forms as well as films, picture books about geisha life, Japanese culture and especially historical biographies of real-life geishas such as Mineko Iwasaki, Sayo Masuda or Madame Sadaykko. I even took lessons three years ago with a modern day Japanese geisha/dancer who resides in New York City, Saeko Ichinohe, to work on my walk, bow, kneeling and arm and hand movements to capture the essence of this specific character within myself.

    For, in the end, to truly be able to sing and act this character of Cio-Cio San is to inhabit her within myself as fully as I can. The American woman of Jill Gardner may be worlds apart from the Eastern geisha of Cio-Cio San but through lots of study and detailed research and work, I begin to feel like this creature actually “lives” within my own skin. And this allows the possibility of success in my own performance to then tell Puccini’s very specific Italianate approach to this wonderful heroine.

    OL - This story has been adapted to cinema several times, since the 1930's film acted by Cary Grant and Sylvia Sidney, all the way to Cronenberg’s more recent adaptation M. Butterfly. Also, Madame Saigon is based on it. How do you compare the cinematic and musical theater treatments of the story, to the operatic one?

    JG - This story of "East meets West” has been in the artistic annals for a long time and this duality has held the attention of writers, composers, film-makers and such for many moons. The meeting of such diverse cultures and the misunderstandings that develop can create a terrific backdrop and mirror to discuss human relationships and the basic human condition, especially in light of the fact that a story like Madama Butterfly actually happened during World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Foreign men stationed in these countries during these conflicts did fall in love, actually marry and sometimes bring these new wives back to the states. As well, history chronicles that some of these men maintained families abroad in addition to their American families.

    So, every telling of this story whether through film, music theater, biography, or opera seeks to present the plight of such diverse cultures meeting, falling in love and trying to overcome all the obstacles that go with such disparate places and people colliding. But for me, in Puccini’s opera, his main point of view lies in the true heart of his heroine which is composed from a deeply seeded Italian-mother heart. His compositional voice and style ever so eloquently reveal layers of love, compassion, soul-beauty and sacrifice not to mention all the expressions of nature (the sunrise, birds, the sea... even the Orient itself through the use of the pentatonic scale, orchestral color and rhythmic diversity) which I believe tell Cio-Cio-San’s story in the most unique way. It truly is hard to imagine her story WITHOUT his music.

    In my opinion, this juxtaposition of Puccini’s immense compositional writing with this specific story of Cio-Cio San is the TRUEST testament of East-Meets-West which I have ever seen or heard in all my experiences of this story in written or theater form, and I believe it is WHY this opera remains one of the greatest expressions of this cultural encounter in our collective opus of Western civilization.

    OL - Tell me about the psychology of the character Cio-Cio San.


    JG - Cio-Cio San (or “Butterfly” which I believe is her geisha name) is a wonderfully complex creature which I fashion upon a triangle of three deep over-arching motives: her desire for true love, her deep faith and resilience and her quest for honor. We learn through reaserch that these motives are clearly and specifically born and bred in her as a Japanese woman by her family (which attend her marriage to Pinkerton), her devout culture of faith (as referenced in the damnation scene by her Uncle the Bonze, who is a religious leader of faith in their community) and by her geisha lifestyle which she undertook in order to support and sustain herself as she reveals in Act I.

    She clearly came from a high-born family whose fortunes turned sour and thrust them into poverty, possibly around the time her father (who was a Samurai warrior) was ordered by the ruling Mikado to commit suicide in order to salvage his own honor in this life and beyond. Thus, Cio-Cio San is highly influenced by this very devout Japanese culture and faith whose elements of rigidity and conformity resonate within our own times today. This religious/cultural backdrop thus sustains the true CONFLICT for this character which I always seek to find in every character I sing — for Cio-Cio San, she desires deep in her soul to move beyond this culture, specifically by falling in love with an American and trying to release herself from the confines of her culture by truly becoming an American woman.

    She is a rebel in the truest sense of the word, on a path of true enlightenment. She wants MORE than her culture can give her — thus, her deep faith in God and the LOVE she feels for Pinkerton feeds her stubborn resilience to overcome her circumstances, her culture and fly freely like the butterfly-spirit she truly is.

    In the end, when faced with the greatest betrayal she could ever dream of facing, I believe her journey of faith and love which she lived for the 3 years while she waited for word from Pinkerton and his subsequent return, sustains her to give her child born by Pinkerton to him and his American wife and make the choice to take her own life for the true honor and respect she seeks.

    One can say that even as a Japanese woman who chooses in her death to follow in the path of her ancestors and her father specifically by committing suicide, she has fully accepted the words of her Christian God as well: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NKJV) Thus, she becomes a true heroine through the tragedy of her life and circumstances. We should all be so lucky.

    OL - Any considerations about the vocal demands of this role? Among your predecessors in this role, who do you uphold in high esteem?

    JG - The vocal demands of this role are immense and have caused even some of the greatest singers of our time, Callas and Freni for example, to not keep this role in their repertory because of how emotional the vocal and dramatic journey actually is, especially in live performance, since the title character rarely leaves the stage.

    As is the case for so many of Puccini’s leading sopranos, one must have a vocal color palette which can convey in the story of Madama Butterfly the youth of a 15-year-old geisha in Act I which culminates in a rapturous Love Duet, the ever developing beauty and maturity of the 18-year-old woman of Act II and then, the deeply emotional betrayal and sacrifice of Act III.

    The vocal range of this role is to me one of the most demanding as it requires full hot-blooded Italianate singing alongside moments of beautiful colors such as soft sustained singing, vocal fragility and, in the end, tears of great pain in Act III. It is a testament to vocal stamina and vocal color within a true Italian verismo approach.

    I have extensively worked this role with one of the best-loved Butterflies of our time, Diana Soviero, who sang over 300 performances of this role in her career. To study such a piece with a mentor such as Soviero has not only built my artistic approach to the role but has given me the necessary confidence in my vocal technique to be able to adequately meet the demands of this wonderful role. My other favorite soprano in this role was the indomitable Renata Scotto.

    OL - What is your recipe for a good Cio-Cio San?

    JG - Interesting question. As with any role, particularly the Puccini heroines, PREPARATION is key. I have lived with this role for 15 years and continue to study it as I would the Bible or any other great work of art. Not only do I continue to work the twists and turns of vocal prowess and nuance through continual study and coaching, but I travel with the libretti of all the roles I am currently singing to say and live and ponder the texts for even deeper meanings and intentions on a day-to-day basis.

    Then, once enmeshed in rehearsal, I work very hard as an actress to live moment-to-moment in telling the story, especially the arch of a story such as Butterfly's. Although I know the outcome of her story, I cannot give any of that away at her entrance in act one or through her journey in the second act. I want every person in the audience to live her life with me and therefore cathartically feel every emotion she lives in the piece as I portray her plight through live performance.

    This approach takes a lot of courage, stamina and hard intense vocal and dramatic work for years before ever landing in rehearsal or on the stage. But it is WHY I am an artist in the end — these characters teach me as much as I bring to them. It is an honor and deep privilege to be a vessel for their stories and ultimately to impact people’s lives in the process.

    OL - What do you expect of this Piedmont Opera production?

    JG - This Piedmont Opera production has a terrific cast of singers who not only sing well together but are committed to telling a very real and true story together. Cynthia Stokes, our director, has chosen to also include some elements from the John Luther Long short story to supplement the libretto, i.e. actual dancers to represent Butterfly's ancestry who appear on stage with me throughout the story as well as the visual representation of Butterfly as the true goddess of the moon and the hearth or home as Luther Long expands on in his novel. These touches add another almost subconscious dimension to the actual story-telling of the libretto and luckily, we have a cast who is willing to commit to them whole-heartedly as actors.

    The visual component of this opera will be expressly wonderful as presented by Piedmont Opera and of course the music-making under Conductor James Allbritten will be of a high standard as usual. Personally, I am very excited to be a part of this - my 5th production with my home company of Piedmont Opera, especially as the company enters a new era under the new General Directorship of James Allbritten. I expect wonderful things to come!

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    Here is a sample of Jill's voice, in "Tu che di gel sei cinta" from Puccini's Turandot :



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    Isaac Hurtado in the role of Pinkerton is a lyric tenor. He has performed in numerous regional opera companies in the United States, and abroad in Italy. He holds a doctoral degree in Music and is the founder and director of Utah Vocal Arts Academy. For more informations on the singer, visit his website by clicking [here]. Opera Lively interview # 140.

    OL - I believe it is fairly difficult, acting-wise, to portray a character like Pinkerton, who is frankly a despicable man, without falling on a cliché. How do you plan to portray him? And what is your view of the psychology of the character and his encounter with Cio-cio San? Do you believe he was genuinely in love with her?

    IH - Certainly Pinkerton's actions are despicable, but Puccini's music in Act 1 (some of the most sincere and beautiful music ever written) clearly suggests that Pinkerton does fall in love with Butterfly. If I were to play Pinkerton as a one dimensional cad, then Butterfly would be a fool to fall so deeply in love with him. In my mind Butterfly is anything but a fool; she is one of the most noble and heroic of operatic heroines. So I play Pinkerton as a man truly charmed by the exotic Butterfly and their magical surroundings. I think of Pinkerton as young and foolish, but not necessarily evil to the core. He doesn't understand the full ramifications of his actions, he makes awful choices that were commonly done by some in the military. He assumes that Cio-cio San understands that the arrangement is temporary. It is only when he returns in Act 3 that he finally sees the pain his actions have caused.

    OL - Vocally-wise, what is your recipe for a good Pinkerton?

    IH - I made a deliberate choice while preparing this role to embrace color and depth of tone. I wanted that lushness to be part of what makes Butterfly fall in love and at the same time honor Puccini's glorious melodies. I've tried to infuse velvet into his most romantic lines while preserving focus and core in the sound. I actually went to a new teacher in NYC to develop this aspect of my voice when I got this role.

    OL - Among your predecessors in this role, who do you uphold in high esteem?

    IH - Well, I am a bit of a tenor nerd so you would almost need to ask me which tenor sings a specific line the best! For phrasing I like Bergonzi, for technique it would be Jussi Björling, I love Gigli's voice and might have chosen him over everyone, but his vocal acting paints Pinkerton as too much of a pig. Anyway, the list goes on.

    OL - What do you expect of this Piedmont Opera production?

    IH - Cynthia Stokes (our director) has come up with some absolutely beautiful ideas which bring out so much emotional depth to the story. Wait until you see how she punctuates the Japanese connection to their ancestry and how she weaves dance into the production! I expect this to be a really memorable and believable production. And, oh by the way, Jill Gardner is a force of nature in the role of Butterfly! And Jamie Allbritten will lead our fantastic orchestra with a level of sensitivity and passion seldom seen. It's gonna be good!

    OL - As the founder of the Utah Vocal Arts Academy and by virtue of being in the vocal faculty in two colleges, you are very involved in teaching. What advice would you have for a young singer trying to make it in the cut-throat (pun intended!) opera business?

    IH - Today, young singers are going to hear from plenty of people how hard the business is and how much work it will take. So, I want to instill in their minds the idea that they have been given a gift to sing, and it is their job to find out how to best use that gift for the good of others. It is that higher purpose that should fuel their desire to improve and work. I feel strongly that climbing the career ladder and seeking accolades in the business should be secondary to bringing good into the world unselfishly. Success often comes when those priorities are in line.

    OL - What a great answer, thank you! Now, tell us about your personality, take on life, and your extra-operatic interests and hobbies.

    IH - I am husband to an amazing woman and father to 6 (soon-to-be 7) incredible children. I collect old-school skateboards, almost worship the 1980's, and enjoy basketball and football with my buddies. I read a lot of geeky teen sci-fi books with my kids, and love to play word games with my wife. I'm also one of those crazy Mormons, and I love it!

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    The videoclip below contains a rather remarkable example of the tenor's beautiful voice, singing Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön form Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - readers, you need to hear this!




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    Stephanie Foley Davis in the role of Suzuki is a a rising young mezzo with notable performances at Glimmerglass, who was praised by Opera News as warm of voice and presence. For more information on her, visit her website by clicking [here]. This is Opera Lively's interview # 141.

    OL - Is there a way to make of the relatively small role of Suzuki, something more remarkable? What can you tell us about the psychology of this character?

    SFD - Actually, the role of Suzuki is pretty substantial. She is constantly by Butterfly's side assisting, observing and serving as a confidant. Every character has the potential to be remarkable; in Suzuki's case, Cynthia and I talked about how she has probably cared for Butterfly since she was a child, so there is definitely a motherly quality about her. In Act 3, Suzuki wants to protect her "nest" so to speak, when Sharpless asks her to talk to Butterfly about Sorrow and Kate. Suzuki knows that the news will kill Butterfly both literally and figuratively, and that is what sets Suzuki apart from other servants - she will do all she can to protect Butterfly.

    OL - How is this production coming along, in rehearsals? What makes it unique?

    SFD - Things are going well. We had our sitzprobe yesterday and to finally sing this show with orchestra is wonderful. I think the set will be a great one to work with; we have been using music stands to represent all the sliding doors, so having real doors now is nice. I appreciate working with someone like Cynthia Stokes as a director because she will ask us to speak our text in English to get a dialogue going; you don't always get that kind of attention in a rehearsal. That is always helpful. It's also a pleasure to sing with a colleague like Jill who has sung Butterfly before; she is supportive, encouraging and brings experience to our scenes together.

    OL - You performed in two contemporary operas, at Glimmerglass. We are very much interested in contemporary opera, so please described them to us and tell us about your appraisal of them. First, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck.

    SFD - Blizzard was a wonderful experience because it was a premiere one act with composer, Jeanine Tesori and librettist, Tony Kushner. Two brilliant people with so much vision is what made that opera so rewarding. The opera is about a day in the life of playwright Eugene O'Neill and his wife Carlotta. O'Neill had a tragic life, which is the subject of his play "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" and it's referenced several times in the opera. Jeanine and Tony worked hard to reveal the O'Neills' tumultuous marriage. Being able to work with a living composer and playwright is something I never took for granted. Vocally, it was challenging, especially covering the lead role of Carlotta. Jeanine captured Carlotta's varying personality in her vocal line; it had its lyric moments and its erratic moments with large leaps. The drama was great - I hope Jeanine and Tony can add more to it in the future to become a full opera.

    OL - What about The Tender Land ? Tell us about the music, and the character Ma Moss.

    SFD - Tender Land will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my debut at Glimmerglass with an amazing cast. Everyone was a Young Artist and we came together to create a beautiful show because of the tremendous support and respect we had for one another, and the final product. The opera itself is challenging because Copland did not write well for voice, and he'd be the first one to tell you. The drama leaves much to be desired, especially in the last act when Laurie decides to leave; Copland didn't leave a lot of room in the score for emotional development. That being said, I enjoyed every moment of Ma Moss. I have a much younger sister, so I tapped into some of our relationship when playing Ma. During the long summer at Glimmerglass, Lindsay Russell (Laurie) and I developed a deep friendship, so that made the end of the opera very emotional for me. Whenever I hear "The Promise of Living," I reminisce about that magical summer.

    OL - What made you become an opera singer?

    SFD - In undergraduate college at SUNY Fredonia, my voice teacher, Sylvia Sharp, pushed me to go to graduate school for performance. I was a Sound Recording and Voice major then, with plans to be a recording engineer and sing on the side. I had just begun scratching the surface of opera. At her insistence, I went to graduate school at UNC-Greensboro and learned a lot more about opera. I distinctly remember having a lesson with my teacher there, Robert Wells, and I was singing an aria. He helped me find a place in my voice that felt amazing; I thought to myself, "I want to sing like THAT all the time." It's a feeling that is hard to describe, but I imagine it's like being a super hero. After being in my first UNCG Opera, I was officially hooked. Who wouldn't want to wear costumes, amazing make-up and sing for a living?

    OL - Please tell us about your personality, take on life, an extra-operatic hobbies and interests.

    SFD - I enjoy meeting new people with every opera I do; the camaraderie is something I look forward to.

    Someone said "Opera is alive and well because I say it is" - I think that's great. There is a lot of negativity floating around about opera being on its death bed because of companies closing their doors and low attendance at performances. It's hard to resist that negativity sometimes, but if we can flip it around to a positive, I believe we can change the perception of opera as an art form. Opera is relative, beautiful, fun, evocative, comical, sexy, scary, mystical and magical.

    I am a Beatle fanatic, reader of books, and Chair of Voice at a nonprofit community music school called The Music Academy of North Carolina in Greensboro.

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    For a remarkable sample of the mezzo performing contemporary music entitled EvenStar, see the video clip below (this is a very good voice and lovely music):



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    Robert Overman
    in the role of Sharpless is a very experienced baritone who trained at the Salzburg Mozarteum, won first prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, has had a fantastic career in Europe, singing in Germany for many years and in most important European houses; he is now in the vocal faculty of High Point University. To learn more about the singer, click on this link [here]. Opera Lively interview # 143



    OL - Your character is a wise man who functions as a sort of reality anchor. Please tell us about what you find compelling in this character, either vocally, or personality-wise.

    RO - I have always enjoyed the role of Sharpless. Some baritones have eschewed this role because it doesn’t have a wonderful aria or much opportunity to showcase the voice. It is, however, a great portrait of a man who has great affection and hope for his younger friend but becomes very disenchanted with his treatment of a very special lady. The opportunities for character study are plentiful, which more than compensates for the “missing” aria. Sharpless is a man who is torn between what is right and what is accepted.

    OL - The character Pinkerton seems to consider Japanese culture as sort of inferior. Sharpless maybe doesn’t share this view. What would you guess was Puccini’s view on the cultural aspects of this opera?

    RO - It’s always seemed to me that Puccini, who loved America, was sending a message about the Amerian culture and it’s tendency to overwhelm the cultures of even the most ancient civilizations. He showed us the consequences of a headstrong, take-no-prisoners attitude and how it can crush a delicate flower before its beauty can even be recognized.

    OL - Tell us what to expect of this production of Madama Butterfly.

    With Jamie Allbritten at the podium, you will hear great music from orchestra, chorus and cast. The director has brought some interesting ideas to this production which should keep it fresh even for those who have experienced Butterfly many times before. This is my 6th or 7th production of Butterfly and after more than 30 performances I have discovered new and unusual things in this production.

    OL - You had a very significant career in Germany. Tell us about your best memories of that period in your life.

    RO - The highlights of my career are difficult to put in a couple of sentences, but I’ll start with the opportunity to sing with (and surreptitiously study) great singers like Sherrill Milnes, Placido Domingo and many others. Also, to coach roles with great musicians who knew the repertoire so intimately was a true gift. The son of the great Italian tenor, Mario Del Monaco, Gian Carlo Del Monaco, was a director I worked with in more than 25 productions. He grew up with opera in the home and traveling with his famous father all over the world and his productions (many of them at the Met and every other prominent opera house around the world) were based on some of the finest experiences in the world of opera imaginable. He understood every word and note of every opera he directed and woe be unto the singer who came in unprepared. My work with Gian Carlo was a lesson in preparedness.

    OL - I’m particularly fond of Waltraud Meier and own several of her operas on DVD, but never had the pleasure of seeing her live. I was thrilled to learn that you performed with her. Do you happen to have memories to tell us, of your interaction with this great singer?

    RO - When I worked with Waltraud, she was a stunningly beautiful woman with a fearless attitude about every role. We did a couple of operas together but I remember Cavalleria Rusticana most vividly. She was captivating and strong and also pityingly sympathetic and vulnerable. I always admired her acting as much as her voice.

    OL - As a professor of voice at High Point University and having taught students throughout your career, and having participated in your own training and career in both American and Viennese apprenticeships, and then having worked in both the German system (they hire singers as permanent employees for the whole season) and the American system (companies hire their cast for each specific opera), how do you compare these systems, and what do you tell your students about the best path to take?

    RO - The path a student takes depends a lot on what their career desires are and how they want to work. I chose Europe because I knew I still needed to learn and as you said, European opera houses and especially those in Austria and Germany were (and I suppose still are) an excellent place to gain a lot of experience. You have to know how to protect yourself and your instrument. But if you can sing and if you have stamina, you can perform roles 20 or 30 times rather than 2 or 3 times as is the case in many of America’s smaller houses. I would recommend Europe to those strong enough to be away from home and family and friends for a long period of time and for those who have sufficient training not to become “used up” by the system there. In the States, you have the advantage of always being somewhere where a good teacher can be found. There are advantages there as well.

    OL - Please tell us about your personality, take on life, an extra-operatic hobbies and interests.

    RO - Surprisingly, when I retired from full-time singing to be a father, I never expected to relish the role of husband and day quite so much. I have two incredible daughters and an equally incredible wife, two dogs and two birds in a very lively, happy home. I wouldn’t go back to singing full-time for any amount of money and miss one day in the lives of these lovelies, but I do truly enjoy the opportunity to sing in a professional environment in this area – especially with Piedmont Opera. I teach at a fantastic school, High Point University, where artistry and experience is appreciated as much as academic credentials and am privileged to work with some really incredible students and faculty. I am also the music director at Starmount Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, where I can follow my recently acquired passion for sacred choral music with some truly extraordinary folks. Other than that, I enjoy sports and photography and spending time with interesting and amazing folks who enrich my life!
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    For a sample of the singer's voice, see this fragment from Lucia di Lammermoor in the role of Enrico (he starts to sing at 1'37" into the clip). This recording has a lot of audience noise but we do get to listen to his beautiful voice.



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    Bookmark our site and come back for more - several new and exciting interviews are always coming to Opera Lively - recent ones have included Greek National Opera's principal conductor Myron Michailidis, the great mezzo Sarah Connolly, Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, star tenor Juan Diego Flórez, Isabel Leonard, and others. Upcoming, Massimo Cavaletti (being transcribed), Tim Mead, Christopher Maltman, Ian Bostridge, and stage director Katie Mitchell.


    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      This article has been updated on 10/28/14 with Jill Gardner's interview, in the title role of Cio-cio San. Scroll up, since we placed it first, given that it is the principal role. Jill as usual delivered very insightful and deep answers, in this third Opera Lively interview with her.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      The article has been updated on 10/30/14 with the last interview that was still missing, with Robert Overman.


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