- Resident Artists
Lea is taking our Summer Adult Education Class. We asked Lea to tell us about her experience throughout the class. Enjoy!
I have a confession to make: My name is Lea and I am not fond of modern opera. Feed me the familiar strains of repeating stanzas in an aria from the19th century, say, “Una furtiva lagrima,” and I’m in heaven. But my likes and preferences are changing, thanks to what I’m learning in this opera class.
Last week, we students wrote dialogue for a version of the Greek myth, Daedalus and Icarus. This week, Alexis invited the three professionals who had spent the week carrying our libretto to fruition: John Vergin, who composed the music, Hannah Penn (mezzo) who sang the roles of Icarus and Ariadne, and André Chiang (baritone) who sang the role of Daedalus.
You may remember Hannah during her tenure as a POSA (Portland Opera Studio Artist), when she had 24 hours’ notice before she had to perform the title role of Carmen—which she did to huge acclaim. You may remember André, also a POSA, who recently performed the title role of Galileo Galilei, spanning a 40-year age range—also to huge acclaim.
Hannah Penn and André Chiang
When John performed his freshly composed music on the piano, with Hannah and André singing the words we had written, I barely recognized our thin libretto. It’s as if we had given them a carrot, a stalk of celery, and a turnip, and they had magically turned them into a rich vegetable casserole, where every mouthful was a satisfying mélange of textures and flavors.
There was so much depth to John’s music. He had composed leitmotifs for each character and even for images such as the labyrinth. When the libretto called for feathers and flight, his music suggested exactly that. With their deep, rich voices, singers Hannah and André brought the vocal line to life. No question, it was modern music, but innovative and interesting, full of expression and emotion.
Now it was time for the students to ask the Fab Three some questions about the challenges and joys of performing this opera and opera in general. How does John begin composing a new piece, with the melody or the instrumentation? How does his experience as a singer inform his composing? When writing a vocal score, how does he imagine the full orchestration? Does he worry about being derivative? How does one compose music for film? How do the singers approach a new piece? How do they handle recitative vs arias? What are the challenges of singing modern opera? What is their experience working with a prompter or a language coach? How do they experience stage fright? And by the way, can anyone learn to sing, or must you be born with the ability?
Their answers were thoughtful and illuminating. André compared the excitement of singing modern music to the twists and turns of a movie like “Inception.” “You have a clean slate to tell a story,” he says, “but you don’t know where the music will take you.” Hannah spoke about her goal in performing opera. “It provokes a visceral experience,” she notes. “It’s the emotional connection with the audience that matters most.”
Next week we will continue on our whirlwind tour of the behind the scenes look at opera. Portland Opera’s design team, along with General Director Christopher Mattaliano, will speak with us about designing sets and costumes. I’ll be sure to report! Until then, I’d like to leave you with a question: Where do opera performers go on vacation?