A Recipe for Success on the Opera Stage

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 - 01:42 PM

Elza van der Heever stars as Leonore in Beethoven's 'Fidelio' at Caramoor. Elza van der Heever stars as Leonore in Beethoven's 'Fidelio' at Caramoor. (Gabe Palacio)

Julia Child, whom I was fortunate to know, liked to say that the key to successful cooking was 85 percent shopping. By this she meant that the accomplished chef or home cook was someone who understood what ingredients were required to make a dish and had the ability to find and select the best available. And, when one item could not be located, the able cook would know what could be used in its place.

Such an approach, I think, can be applied to casting the roles in an opera production, including the stage director and conductor (who are, in their ways, chefs as well). I was thinking about this on July 31 while attending a concert performance of Fidelio at the Caramoor Festival. This is a notoriously hard opera to cast because Beethoven, for all of his genius, wrestled with much of the vocal writing and created music that is glorious but often difficult to sing. Some of the singers, to me, were revelations in their roles, and I was mightily impressed. 

I later enquired about who did the casting and was told by a press representative that it was “Will Crutchfield [Caramoor’s artistic director for opera], conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the artistic team at Caramoor.” 

For the record, the cast included Elza van den Heever (Leonore), Paul Groves (Florestan), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco), Georgia Jarman (Marzelline), Andrew Owens (Jaquino), Alfred Walker (Don Pizarro), Xiaomeng Zhang (Don Fernando), Cameron Schutza (First Prisoner) and Andrew Munn (Second Prisoner). Heras-Casado conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the chorus was composed of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and apprentices, some of whom were the covers (understudies) for most of the scheduled singers.

I had heard van den Heever, Groves, Sigmundsson and Jarman in other roles and always with great pleasure. In particular, van den Heever caught my eye and ear as a young artist (she still is quite young) because she is a superb singer and actress. Her memorable 2012 Met debut (captured on DVD) was as Queen Elizabeth I opposite Joyce DiDonato in the title role of Maria Stuarda. Van den Heever famously shaved her head and wore wigs, making her feel closer to the way the formidable monarch might have felt. She later was a powerful Donna Anna at the Met, and we will hear her as Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo when that opera is scheduled to be revived in March 2017 with James Levine conducting.

While van den Heever — who is from South Africa but lives in France and did much of her training in the United States — showed early on her abilities in romantic dramatic repertory (Wagner, Weber, some Verdi), Leonore is still an audacious step. Arias such as “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?”, with some of the most treacherous passages in opera, have challenged the likes of Birgit Nilsson and Hildegard Behrens. And yet van den Heever sang it at Caramoor with seeming ease, making beautiful sounds where even the most accomplished singers have sounded labored. The audience recognized how rare this was and gave her a huge ovation. 

Creating a cast for an opera production cannot be easy, especially when theatrical elements are part of the equation. As I watched this concert version of Fidelio, I decided that this cast would also be plausible if asked to wear costumes and act in front of scenery.

Let us think in terms of a new production rather than a revival, in which the design elements will have already been created. By far the most important consideration is having a great voice and a special singer. One does not necessarily imply the other. I have heard many pretty voices in people who did not have a clear sense of how to use them. Then, I have encountered artists who are very well-trained as singers but have voices that are bland or unremarkable. So, ideally, one would locate singers for every role who are possessed of the right voice and who know how to use them.

Then we arrive at dramatic plausibility. This is a minefield of potential problems. Thankfully, some of them are behind us, while others still need to be addressed. There was a time, not at all long ago, when black men were seldom cast in major roles. Eventually, lower-voiced roles (priests, fathers, sea gods) went to black artists, but it is only much more recently that black tenors such as Lawrence Brownlee and Russell Thomas have been cast as leading men, often in romantic roles. This is way overdue and progress still needs to be made. Black women (and I am not saying “African-American” because some of these artists are from Britain, Africa, Asia or the Caribbean) have been cast in leading roles since about 1960 but, let’s not pretend, there still are racial prejudices in some casting departments and the sooner they are gone the better.

Similarly, I can think of very few roles in which a singer should be expected to be conventionally pretty or handsome or, for that matter, of average weight. In terms of looks, an artist who sings with great beauty and acts well is almost always able to fulfill the aesthetic requirements of a role. I have seen plenty of Susannas, Lucias, Mimis, Ebolis and Carmens who are not traditionally pretty but, on the stage, become magnificently alluring through their singing and acting. The same goes for Don Giovannis, Alfredos, Rodolfos and Andrea Chéniers. 

Many people who do casting do not own up to the fact that they are prejudiced against singers who are heavy. If we are talking about a role such as Turandot or Elektra, which very few sopranos can sing, somehow a blind eye is turned to their size. But there are so many roles in which the character can be heavy. In fact, they were written or set in eras in which a character can have a certain avoirdupois: kings, queens, priests, older persons and many young ones. In America, 70.7 percent of the adult population is overweight. If we are looking for realism and relevance, then overweight singers should be employed for the majority of roles in every opera cast.

Once we overcome the limitations of race, looks and size, there is the issue of age. Many casting directors and opera managers seem to be on a mission to use very young singers, ostensibly because they are more believable. In fact, they often cast younger singers because they can be paid less. Yet somewhat older singers have more experience musically and dramatically. Their voices, in their 40s or 50s, are often more suitable for certain roles. I have heard more than a few young sopranos wreck their voices and prematurely end their careers attempting to do Salome or Madama Butterfly. Give younger artists roles they can actually sing and allow them to grow and develop. Expose them to older artists with their talent and wisdom. Should much older artists be cast in roles that might seem to belong to younger ones? Sometimes. Mirella Freni could still gloriously sing and act Mimi in her 60s with no concession to age. She once said to me, “I am old enough to be Mimi’s grandmother!” to which I replied, “That is true in life, Mirella, but not onstage.”

Once the best voices in the most talented singers are located, I think the most important and elusive requirement is chemistry among the members of the cast. Sometimes we know that two singers not only get along but create sparks that we can feel. For example, Plácido Domingo and Éva Marton, both huge talents and personalities, were often very exciting together onstage in operas such as ToscaTurandot and La Gioconda. Domingo and Marton were also great with other colleagues, but the chemistry they had together was special.

There is also musical chemistry. Put Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni together and it is so exhilarating because their voices and musicianship were ideally matched. The same could be said for Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, who would not have met some of the “requirements” I listed above. And yet what would we have missed!

Only the most experienced or intuitive casting director or artistic director can have a sense of when chemistry might occur. This kind of sensitivity is hard to come by. What struck me at the Caramoor Fidelio, even in a concert version with little action or movement, was how much chemistry there was among the principal singers.

Of course, all the careful casting one could do would be for naught if a singer has to cancel. A cover who steps into a role might not have had time to rehearse. He or she might have been chosen primarily for being able to fit into the costume of the character as designed for the scheduled singer. But sometimes the chemistry happens, instantly and combustively, and a star is born. 

Finally, there has to be what the Italians call un feeling between the conductor and the singers and, one hopes, between the stage director, the conductor, the director and the singers. This is casting too, even if we don’t care what the conductor and stage director look and sound like. 

That feeling has to be about knowing and caring about the opera in question — the music, the text, the characters and all of the other subtle elements that make every operatic masterpiece a great work of art. That requires intelligence, experience, knowledge and intuition — all the attributes that Julia Child possessed. And she looked like an opera singer too — no wonder she inspired Lee Hoiby to write an opera called Bon Appétit!


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Comments [5]

rita kaplan from NEW ROCHELLE, NY


Sep. 29 2016 10:59 AM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

Must have the right voice, good acting ability and not weigh
500 pounds. Opera is theatre.
Yeah, I wrote that. Everyone is so warm and fuzzy.

Aug. 07 2016 03:09 PM
Mark Shulgasser

Really one of the best Bon Appetit!s I've heard. For a moment I didn't like the sound, but then it changed or I got used to it. Nice to see it understood and so well-received among West Coast foodies. Let it spread up and down the coast and bring me a case of wine or two. Persons who would like to visit the old Hoiby property and archives can do so via tentrr.com ("The Falls").

Aug. 04 2016 05:33 PM
Arden Anderson-Brorecking from Connecticut

I could not agree more with your thoghts in this article. Lately, I have heard too many young singers attempt roles that their voices are simply not mature enouth to sing, and who are chosen more for their looks than for their voices.
The "youth obsession" is fine for Hollywood, but not for opera.
Granted, opera singers should know when the time has come. One great singer was asked why she decided to retire, and she said, "Because it didn't feel right!" Those are simple but truthful words.

Far better for a singer to leave their prime years for us on recordings and CDs,
than to struggle through a role to which they should have bid a fond farewell and left us with the glory.

Aug. 04 2016 08:50 AM
Howard Haimes from VA


Always love your commentary. Having attended Caramoor many times and enjoying Will Crutchfield and his team, I enjoy your musings. We recently saw Fidelio in DC at the Pocket Opera Program (In-series) at Atlas Theater on avenue H in DC and indeed it was wonderful. We have also seen the "Julia Child" piece at Wolf-Trap and just loved it to death with humor. It may have been Amber Wagner....

Keep educating us..... It is fun and keeps the brain active. We look forward to your Vienna class at Smithsonian in DC.

Aug. 03 2016 05:24 PM

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