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Jess Crawford

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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera. Jess Crawford is our primary blogger. Jess spends much of her time eating enormous amounts of cake, making long lists of books she'll probably never read, and challenging people to arm-wrestling contests. During the day (and sometimes at night) she is Portland Opera's music librarian. She writes more about her escapades at her personal blog: http://bravissimi.blogspot.com

40 years of Portland Opera: Reflections on retirement

 

The season is over! Forgive my absence last week; to be honest, I was just plain old worn out. It seems every year we forget that just after the season closes, we could all use a few days to catch our collective breath. I often say we claw our way to closing night, because by the end of the season we're all very tired. With the seemingly constant Falstaff hijinks, 'tired' was kind of an understatement this year. Sorry to see the season go (no opera until the fall?!), but also happy to have a normal schedule for awhile.

 

And hey, three-day weekends! Those are great. Watching movies! Being home for dinner! Sometimes it truly is the little things.

 

As the season closed, we said farewell to a few beloved, long-time opera folks. Our principal accompanist, Tom Webb, leaves us to move about as far away as possible -- Australia! -- to be with his partner. Rae Minten, who has been a much beloved face in our costume shop -- and also, incidentally, our awesome yoga teacher! -- leaves to pursue a new career in the healing arts. Long-time violinist Dolly Clarizio retires this season, having been a member of the orchestra since 1966. 1966!!!! Finally, one of our choristers, Martin Tobias, has just retired after 40 years singing with us.

 

Marty has written us a synopsis of his time here, which I find profoundly fascinating, having only been with the company for 8 seasons. It seems kind of trivial to say, but things have changed a lot in 40 years! I'm particularly struck by the number of remarkably cool/weird productions we've done over the past four decades. Menotti directed here! Who knew?! And I am so sad I wasn't here for Love for Three Oranges, which is so totally up my alley.

 


 

40 YEARS OF PORTLAND OPERA

as seen by retiring chorister Martin Tobias

 

PREFACE: I started my musical life as a bassoonist. As a freshman at Western Washington University in 1965, I played in the orchestra for The Ballad of Baby Doe.  There was no orchestra pit, so I could watch the show while counting measures of rest.   I knew from that moment that I wanted to be up there on that stage someday.  

 

A few years later I started to become interested in vocal music, since to be a great bassoonist, you have to be all fingers, and I was not that.  I saw my first opera from the audience:  Berlioz's Les Troyens in San Francisco.  Not exactly one of the standard chestnuts. Nevertheless, I loved it (partly because Regine Crespin sang the lead.) Again, I wanted to be on that stage. 

 

By June 1973 I was living in Portland, and saw a notice in the Oregonian that Portland Opera needed new choristers.  I auditioned for chorusmaster Bill Shookhoff and was accepted. 

 

And so it began. I debuted in Tales of Hoffmann in September 1973. I never imagined that I'd still be doing this 40 years later. But at 25, we don't think of the distant future. I have sung in the Portland Opera Chorus ever since, plus several small solo roles, except for an absence from 1986-1994 when I went to graduate school and earned a DMA in vocal performance and choral conducting at University of Oregon (Go Ducks!). 

 

Until 1984, Stefan Minde was general director and artistic director, and conducted all productions, except the “exchange” productions with Seattle Opera which took place between about 1976 and 1983.  Once each season, a Portland production was performed at Seattle Opera, and one of theirs was performed here, with the same director, costumes, sets, and cast but with the local chorus and orchestra. The Seattle productions were all conducted by Henry Holt and directed by Lincoln Clark. 

 

In the 1970s, there were three performances of each opera, on Thursday, Saturday, and Monday.  Portland Opera also mounted an annual summer outdoor production in Washington Park.  This gave choristers such as myself some solo opportunities. 

 

People often ask me, What’s your favorite opera? To this I reply, it’s usually whatever opera I’m involved in at the time (with a few exceptions!).  But here are ten that I have performed, or seen, or listened to repeatedly, and never tire of. Listed alphabetically by composer:

 

         Beethoven: Fidelio

         Britten: Peter Grimes (I hope Portland Opera does this sometime!)

         Mozart:  Cosi fan tutte

         Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

         Mozart: The Magic Flute

         Puccini: La bohème

         Puccini: Turandot

         Verdi: Otello

         Wagner: Lohengrin

         Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (all four!)

 

But if the question was What’s your favorite opera chorus part to sing?, the top 10 is considerably different. (This obviously includes only operas I’ve sung in.)  Listed alphabetically by composer:

 

Beethoven: Fidelio

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Puccini: La fanciulla del West

Puccini: Turandot

Verdi: Aida

Verdi: Il Trovatore

Verdi: Macbeth

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner: Lohengrin

Weber:  Der Freischütz

(oops, that’s more than 10.  Oh well.)

 

Some highlights:

September 1973: My first production, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, in English.  Norman Triegle as the 4 villains, young Karen Armstrong (before she became famous)  as Giulietta.

 

September 1975:  Verdi's La traviata. Karen Armstrong as Violetta.   Ann Schornick became chorusmaster in 1975, and an excellent chorusmaster she was.  She soon moved on to bigger things, such as Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Bayrischer Staatsoper in München, etc.!

 

November 1975: Krenek's Life of Orestes with composer present.  Certainly one of the strangest, most eclectic operas ever written.  A novelty, to say the least.   I can’t say I “like” it, but certainly an accomplishment for the company.

 

September 1976:  Menotti's The Consul, directed by Menotti himself.  No chorus, but an edge-of-your-seat drama I will never forget. 

 

May 1977: Wagner's Die Meistersinger. A huge undertaking that no one will forget. The enormous cast included Manfred Schenck as Sachs.  Directed by Ghita Hager. 

 

March 1978:  Mozart's The Magic Flute, a Seattle production.  Offstage drama: four of the leads were sick at dress rehearsal. The Pamina had to be replaced at the last minute.  It was very difficult to find a suitable soprano who knew the entire role, including dialogue, in German.  They procured Canadian soprano Colette Boky, who landed in a floatplane on the Willamette just hours before opening curtain, and somehow cleared customs and immigration.  As we arrived for our makeup calls, the director was frantically giving her the staging.  She returned in 1983 for Fledermaus.

[Jess note: this makes me feel a lot better about Falstaff!]

 

May 1978: Verdi's Falstaff.   Everything was good. All the planets lined up. Sir Geraint Evans in the title role -- he learned the choristers’ names.  I gave him a ride to his hotel one night.  Women (fairies) wore beautiful silver-blue gowns.  Ann Schornick's last production.  Excellent direction by Malcolm Frazer. Our production also went to Seattle.

 

September 1979: Puccini's Madama Butterfly. My first mainstage solo role with Portland Opera, as Yamadori.

 

March 1983: Puccini's La fanciulla del West.  The highlight of my career.  I had a solo role (Sid) as did several other choristers. Our production went to Seattle, so we all got to sing with Seattle Opera. This was the last exchange production.

 

September 1983: Wagner's Lohengrin.  A formidable undertaking.  Being a Wagner freak, I was in heaven.  Some of the most beautiful music ever composed for an opera chorus.  Requires so many chorus men that chorusmaster Phillip Kelsey had to sing onstage with us, costume and all!  Directed by Wolfgang Wagner, a descendent of the composer.

 

March 1984: Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.  Portland Opera’s first use of projected text, at that time an experimental novelty.

 

May 1984: Smetana's The Bartered Bride, performed in English. Farewell to Stefan Minde. An unjustly neglected opera, possibly because the common published translation is so bad that it’s funny.  

 

September 1984: Rossini's Barber of Seville.  Robert Bailey takes the helm of the company. Director Peter Mark Shifter, a master of comedy, looked at me and said, “You have a great face for comedy!  I’d like you to be the Notary!” 

 

November 1985:  Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.  Staged as taking place in contemporary Italy, and we were all tourists with cameras and were encouraged to take actual pictures (no flash!). James McCracken as Canio. I will never forget the look in his eyes as he goes berserk and starts getting violent with Nedda. Our clinging to one another in fear was not just acting! Wow!  

 

May 1986:  Portland Opera's first Turandot, my last production before leaving for 8 years in graduate school.  In the title role, Linda Kelm could probably be heard all the way to Medford.

 

1986-1994  I was absent eight seasons.  During my absence, Chris Mattaliano made his Portland directing debut with Massenet's Manon in 1991. Carol Lucas became chorusmaster.  Supertitles, once an experimental novelty, had become the norm.  A fourth performance had been added, and the schedule was now Sat-Mon-Wed-Sat. There were occasional fifth performances on Fridays.

 

March 1995, reprised in 2003:  Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Oeser edition, much different from the more common Choudens version [Jess note: Fritz Oeser and Antoine Choudens were editors/publishers]. This version is especially commendable for its extended epilogue, which includes a lovely aria for mezzo (sung by Charlotte Hellikant) and makes the story fit together better.  Costumes for the Venice scene that had to be seen to be believed. 

 

November 1995: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.  I was the Tierhändler in Act 1 and pulled a little dog onto the stage to sell to the Marschallin, and I had to hold him in my arms as he cringed and squirmed during the Italian tenor’s aria.

 

February 1997:  Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (Magic Flute).  I was First Priest, the largest of my many mainstage solo roles.  I had great fun slapping Papageno around.

 

March 1997, reprised in 2000 and 2010: Pagliacci/Carmina Burana. One of Portland Opera’s best ever. Ingenious production concept tying the two together works artistically.  Memorizing Carmina is a superhuman effort, but our excellent chorus did it! 

 

May 1998:  Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges.  Delightful and hilariously eccentric opera.  Remember the scratch-n-sniff programs? 

 

September 2003: Puccini's Turandot. Portland Opera moves into its new building, later named The Hampton Opera Center, which now houses offices, rehearsal spaces, costume shop, everything.  Previously these had been scattered in various buildings. Robert Bailey retires at the end of this season.

 

November 2004: Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims opens Chris Mattaliano’s first season as General Director.  Chorusmaster Carol Lucas departs, and for two seasons, prospective new chorusmasters are hired, a different one for each production.

 

March 2005:  Kurt Weill's Street Scene.  A very enjoyable production with an enormous cast, including about 25 very able children and teenagers.  Adult chorus numbered only 18, and each of us had a solo part.

 

February  2006:  Verdi's Macbeth. The first of many productions conducted by George Manahan.

 

March 2006:  Adams's Nixon in China, an opera that is fast finding its place among the standard repertoire —a rarity for an opera composed so recently.  Grueling to memorize and rehearse, but fascinating and rewarding. Robert Orth shines in the title role.  Backstage, it stimulated much discussion of Nixon and his presidency among the chorus, many of whom were too young to remember him. Made me realize that I’m getting old….

 

November 2006:  Gounod's Faust.  Rob Ainsley becomes chorusmaster, after successfully preparing “Nixon."

 

September 2007:  Bizet's Carmen. Performance schedule changed to Fri-Sun-Thu-Sat, as it is now. Portland Opera’s first ever Sunday matinee performance.

 

September 2009: Puccini's La bohéme.  I had a great bit which shows that clumsy old men can be useful onstage, and humorous too.

 

September 2010: Reprise of Pagliacci/Carmina Burana, see above.  New tradition begins: an outdoor rehearsal, open to the public, at Director Park.

 

September 2011: The first Big Night concert:  an indoor/outdoor concert of great opera excerpts.

 

May 2013:  Verdi's Falstaff.  What will we remember of this one?  Perhaps the fine singing by all, including Weston Hurt performing the first two performances from his wheelchair, after an injury during rehearsals.

 

And so it ends.  I will miss doing opera, and hate to leave, as they tell me I still have a voice.  But as I get older, the physical demands make it impracticable, and I don’t look graceful onstage anymore.  I guess we all grow old.  Time to make way for someone younger…. 


We wish all our departing folks the best of luck in their next pursuits, and send them all our love. Thanks to all four of you for your excellent work over the years -- you will be sorely, sorely missed.