The early summer of 2011 has been particularly hectic at the San Francisco Opera House: in June, the first complete "American Ring of the Nibelung" – the one conceived by director Francesca Zambello – was finally unveiled, with three successful runs of Wagner's tetralogy.
The Ring is notoriously an artistic and logistical enterprise that involves thousands on people: hundreds are on stage and in the pit, and even more work off-stage, in order to propel the immense Wagnerian engine. Teamwork is essential. But, doubtlessly, this is the aspect in which the San Francisco Opera always excels, never failing to show the high level of commitment of the members of the cast and of the staff.
It was then a pleasure to meet and chat with two of the artists involved in this production: Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka) and Brandon Jovanovich (Froh and Siegmund). We met them on a sunny Californian afternoon, after they had just finished rehearsing Das Rheingold.
Elizabeth Bishop has a long relationship with the SF Opera: she is a former Adler Fellow and Merola Opera Program alumna. She debuted in San Francisco in 1994 as Inez in Il trovatore and, since then, she has sang in all the major opera houses, returning to San Francisco for more than twenty roles. She widely performs in Europe too, having sung with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Amsterdam's Concertgebouw.
Brandon Jovanovich, to whom some have referred as the American Jonas Kaufmann, is enjoying a brilliant moment in his career: he received the Richard Tucker Award in 2007, and is now one of the most sought-after tenors in the States, singing in the most prestigious stages, from the Met to the LA Opera. He is also frequently seen in Europe, having played the title roles in Candide and Peter Grimes at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and Don José in Carmen at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
There was a friendly atmosphere in the press room, with the two singers relaxing after a morning of rehearsals. I only needed to hint at some issues, and immediately a lively conversation was set in motion.
Elizabeth Bishop: "First of all, I'm thrilled to be here again. It's like a college reunion, I've worked with many of the people here. And the familiarity, the collegiality of the people who work here really comes across. About my Adler Fellow experience... It was tough, really really tough. The scheduling was pretty intense and we did a lot of things aside from main stage-work. But it's a prestigious programme, and you do these things when you are young and able to. And here they let young artists perform all the time, in every production. Also, you get to see all the operas in the programme, and amazing artists come to sing here. Every artist was very receptive: if you went to ask them 'If you have ten minutes, would you pull me into a room and show me how you do that?,' people would do it, most of the time. That's when I completely fell in love artistically with Tom Hampson, because he's one of the most generous people I've met. He's generous with his time, with his knowledge. He took time to give us voice lessons – and not 15 minutes, but one, two whole lessons. I love his acting, his singing, his ability to commit to anything that he does. What about your relationship with the SF Opera, Brandon?"
Brandon Jovanovich: "My first show was Pinkerton, in 2007. And then Trittico in 2009."
EB: "You're picture's hanging up on the second floor!"
BJ: "Oh yeah! With Pat! [Patricia Racette] That was a truly rewarding experience. And I was playing Luigi; that's such an interesting role... he is a working class man, and you don't see many of them in operas. Jenufa has some, and then of course there's Turiddu [from Cavalleria rusticana]. He's not your everyday sort of character..."
EB: "...Like being the son of a God who sleeps with his sister!"
Bishop's remark opens the discussion to another topic: how do they perform the arc of their characters? Especially in the cases of Siegmund and Fricka, for whom interpersonal dynamics suddenly change in one single act.
BJ: "When I think of Siegmund I think of the loss of his father. But I also think that all his life he had been kind of a badass. He's never lost a fight. The way Francesca sees it is very important for me. She says that it's crucial that to show that the first time he sees Sieglinde he falls in love – but he's never been in love before. So there's a spark, but they don't know what it is yet. Francesca wants to establish that pretty much immediately. Is she a friend, an enemy? He doesn't know. Then the relationship becomes more and more obvious – she's being nicer and nicer to him. It's a one-year long relationship happening in one act. So, it's a gradual arc, but it happens extremely fast."
Before Bishop comments on the way she interprets her role, I say that I have a quotation for her. A few months earlier, Alex Ross had written an article in The New Yorker called The Secret Passage, in which he explored precise segments of the Ring – a few bars sometimes – that have an intense expressive power. He interviews various conductors and singers about this aspect of Wagner's vision, and he focuses on the character of Fricka. In particular, I found Stephany Blythe's remarks very useful: "Whenever somebody asks me what I'm doing next, and I'm doing Fricka, the first thing out of their mouth, ninety per cent of the times, is: 'God, what a harpy! What a horrible woman!' I've never had to defend a character as much as I had to defend Fricka."
EB: "...And that's exactly the truth. I point this out in every rehearsal, that she's the only one in the whole show that's right. In Walküre she comes in and nails Wotan down, and just the fact of being right makes you a bitch, " and we all laugh.
"The thing is that you have to accept Rheingold for what it is in order to understand Walküre. She never stops loving Wotan, she is passionately in love with him in Rheingold, and viceversa. Because if there's no love, then there's no love lost. If you don't understand that it's lost love, and it's hurt, that it's fuelling emotions in Walküre, then she does just look like a bitch. But you have to realize that she has loved this imperfect thing with all the she had, and yet she has had to come to grips with the idea that she will never be enough. No matter what she does, no matter how firmly she holds up her end of the relationship, she will never be enough. Eventually, that will wear you down and make you bitter. But she's funny, she has a sense of humour. She's a wonderful woman. Francesca brought this up several times in rehearsal: what if they could have had children. The mythology says that they had some, but not in the Ring obviously. It was just one of those relationships that is too crispy."
In the article, Blythe continues stating that Fricka's tragedy is that she tells the truth, and if you do that, you can get yourself in trouble. Moreover, the relationship between Wotan and Fricka crumbling is also the first strong push to the collapse of their marriage and to the collapse of the world of Gods altogether.
EB: "Yes, the marriage is over by the end of that scene. There will be no more personal interaction, because up to that point Brünnhilde and Siegmund are what he cares about, and she takes them both away from him. Because of her intervention, Brünnhilde is in an impossible situation. If she kills Siegmund, Wotan will hate her. If she doesn't kill Siegmund, he will have to punish her. And either way, his son is cursed. And there's no going back from that kind of hurt, and they both realize that at the end of the scene. To me it's very poignant and painful. And even when she's yelling at him... the things that she's yelling are 'this is the family that you brought together, and now it means nothing to you. And how am I arguing about the value of relationships when you yourself can't keep your pants zipped up?' So, yes, I do agree with Stephanie one hundred per cent, you have to defend this character more than any other. Even Scarpia is an idiot, but people can still humanise him. Nobody wants to humanise Fricka!"
And how do they both build their relationship with Brünnhilde?
EB: "Fricka realizes that Brünnhilde is the image that is thrown in her face, all the time, of her own inadequacy. He loves her more, she's younger, she has special super powers – it's never established, in the Ring, that Fricka can do a damn thing. While she's flying with her horse picking up dead warriors – way cooler! She sees the tenderness and the gentleness of spirit, that used to be bestowed on her, now bestowed on this illegitimate child. She really hates Brünnhilde. We have only one line together – Brandon, you have a much more interesting relationship with her though..."
BJ: "Yes, it's interesting... at that point in the story, Siegmund is running away with Sieglinde, while her husband is chasing them. All of a sudden there's an angel, from Siegmund’sperspective, an angel from heaven telling me to follow her to another place. It's shocking, I don't know what to think of it, it might be a dream. But it suddenly seems like a good escape from my current situation, that is, until I ask if I can bring my girlfriend – my sister, my wife – with me. But she says I can't."
"From that moment on, Siegmund doesn't care anymore of what Brünnhilde says, he doesn't even respect her anymore, he just knows he won't go with her. And the more she tries to reason with him and say that he has no choice, the more obstinate he gets. She says that she can save him, but it's not about himself anymore. Now everything has to do with Sieglinde. Ultimately, she succumbs, he bends her to his will – and she secretly wanted that, of course. And she promises that he's going to live. It's a short scene, and it's abrupt, but again, there's an arc in it."
How do they compare this Ring experience with other Ring productions they have seen or in which they have participated?
EB: "I've been involved with many companies doing different operas from the Ring, but this is the first time I'm doing it as part of the cast for the whole tetralogy. And it's a complete different experience. I've covered it at the Met, and I've sung it a few times in Washington. It's always fascinating to see someone else's point of view on the character, and, if you understand your character as its own entity, then you can change the shape of whatever you're doing and still be who you think the character is throughout a different production. And... that's the fun of the job!"
"I do love that this Ring is trying to put the feel of vernacular over a set of shows that has nothing to do with us. And I think that offers the audience a few more ways in to identify with the story and to realize that they're more like these characters than they thought. It's always nice when you have a moment when you can identify with an archetype and experience it. This Ring is not gauzy... I mean that it does not have romantic views on Gods. They're very humanised. And there's no over-spectaculazation... just look at the poster [by artist Michael Schwab]! It's so un-Ring-like! Everybody's talking of how great this poster is, and I'm surely going to hang one in my house – but it's a little odd, if you know what I mean."
And it's the first Ring for Jovanovich.
BJ: "Yes! First Ring, first Wagner."
EB: "You're going to be such a big deal! And I'm not kidding!"
BJ: "Oh please! But thanks! What I like about Francesca's vision, it's that, as Elizabeth says, it's a very humanised Ring. She cares so much about the relationships. She really wants you to deal with every shade of emotion, and make it real and palpable for the audience. And I think that it really does come alive for the audience. I can't imagine how difficult it is to keep it in your mind for four operas, 17 hours of music. So, for my first Ring, I'm really glad I'm working with Francesca."
EB: "Nobody else wants to pull the humour from Rheingold, like Francesca did. I was in the premiere back in Washington, and it had a very Gatsby feel to it. And it's evolving now, and the references are evolving. The characters, too, are settling as part of this specific production. And I remember talking about this in rehearsal: it becomes very difficult not to be slapstick, when you're singing in a serious opera and you start to bring out the comedy. We've milked the slapstick out of it now we've got to pull it back. In this way, you understand what's necessary for the comedy to work within the tragedy."
How was his arc as a singer? Did he always want to perform Wagner?
BJ: "My first role in college was that of a bass – I was Sarastro." And he sings, "Isis und Osiris... I'm not sure of the words because it was in English."
EB: "They all were in college!," and we all laugh.
BJ: "Yeah! So, it's funny – they kept moving me up, until they told me I was a tenor. But I never thought I could do Wagner, I only wanted to do Italian, French... But I always had a larger voice. And lots of people have been asking me to do Wagner, and I've been putting it off. And I'm glad I did! In the end, it's been a sort of natural progression, and I'm glad it's happening now, it's worked out great."
And he is into musicals as well!
BJ: "That's what I wanted to do when I first went to New York!"
EB: "I can't imagine... – I'm being facetious of course! You've got the exact kind of personality!
BJ: "You know, we did Carousel, and I thought I was going to be Billy Bigelow... they cast me as Mr Snow! Because he sings about being tall et cetera... so the director told me 'that's what you're going to be!' And I didn't wanto to be Mr Snow. I've tried to do musicals, but every time people would say 'you're too legit, your voice is too big.' It's not always like that, but mics are changing the genre. But I started learning arias; I auditioned in Santa Fe... and that's where my opera career started. I've never been a big opera fan – I come from Montana, and I never listened to opera as a child. But it grew on me!"
And what about Bishop's first musical experiences?
EB: "People not from South Carolina like to make fun of people from South Carolina, because they think we're backwards. But the fact of the matter is that it's not true. I grew up extremely musical, because my hometown has not one, but two performing arts high schools, that were competing for students. We had Suzuki violin in first grade. And in one of these schools, the teachers that I had were saying 'it's wonderful that you can sing.' So there was a lot of exposure to music. Opera was a more rarefied genre for us, but just because there are no opera companies where I grew up, you had to drive away to get to it."
BJ: "In my case, my mum used to roll chords on the piano and we would sing Born Free, and a couple of Rogers and Hammerstein's tunes, and Christmas tunes. Music wasn't a big, big part of our life. But we would read stories, my mum was a storyteller... It was a very lively family! I actually wanted to play football in college, and I transferred down to Northern Arizona University. But they wouldn't give me a football scholarship. But I had sung in choirs, and they would give me a choral scholarship. Then I met a great teacher, Neal Goren, and he would always tell me 'you can really do this!,' he really encouraged me. And I did want to do acting."
Does any kind of acting – also cinematic acting, for example – inform your performance on stage?
EB: "I can pick up as much as watching Vin Diesel than anybody else. Yes, you've got to have some innate qualities, but these then allow you to recognize what you like and what is useful. You have to be able to absorb things. Any time I have to perform a character, I go and find someone in real life or in the movies who reminds me of this character. I watch and pick up mannerisms. It's a lot of fun!"
BJ: "Yes, that's indispensable!"
And did she have any role models, while she was taking her first steps in the profession?
EB: While I was an Adler at the SFO, I had the chance to meet so many amazing performers... and Judith Forst was a real example! Not enough people know who Judith Forst is. They should follow her around with camera, jewels and all the rest. That woman is truly wonderful. Never saw her unprepared in a rehearsal, never saw her missing one note, never saw her show up late, never saw her be rude to anybody... and she's as normal as everybody, very humble."
BJ: "I completely agree. I did Ká?a Kabanová with her. She's a goddess, she's a vicious actor. She's phenomenal."
EB: "To sum up what we've been saying, I think that one of the best things of being a young artist in a big house is the exposure, because you get to see the good behaviour and the bad behaviour. You learn how to negotiate the business by watching people do it and you also learn which way you work best. You understand the care and tending of a conductor, and you learn to negotiate your own needs."
I mention the excellent reviews that the Adler Fellows and the Merola program singers always receive in the press.
EB: "Yes, they sing in all operas, and they all get amazing reviews, because they always care so much about what they're performing."
Have they been in productions that have been broadcast? What do they think about the revolution that's happening – or perhaps that's already happened – in the opera business?
BJ: "I have mixed feelings about it, there are prons and cons. I like it, but it depends on how it's done. I'd rather not know about where mics are, and I don't like to stage or stop for the camera, because then it's a different thing. If I have to perform certain gestures because you want to film it from a specific position, then let's just not have an audience there, let's just film it for the cameras. And I don't like microphones in general."
EB: "Yeah... I think that's giving an unrealistic view of opera. When you do it in the ballpark, throw a couple of cameras in and broadcast it that's different, because you're letting people seeing it as it is, and it's great. In HD broadcast, like at the Met, it's becoming its own thing, because they pull you back in, and, for some operas, you do have separate little rehearsals for when the show will be recorded. The amazing thing is that it brings opera to people who would have never gone, and that's wonderful. It takes the mystique off of it, and lets people see that opera is cool. And in the future it might take more people back to the opera houses."
"But the problem that I think there is is that it's not regular stage acting, where you can do small gestures, and less is more, and you're never like this [she mimics a face during a high note]. That's not attractive on anybody. And this business is tending more and more towards the 'you have to be attractive' – and that's because of the camera. And the problem is that sometimes the best singers are not the prettiest singers. So I think the risk is that it could hamper some of the talent. In a way, you have to keep some of the distance. I don't like this splitting of the genre of broadcast opera and opera in the house. In show business, we've gone so far to say that beauty equals talent. And it disturbs me that some of the greatest singers I know are not going to make it because they don't look pretty enough. And it's going to make a distorted impression of opera to people that never see it in the house."
BJ: "And also, certain voices work very well when captured with mics, certain voices don't. I've sung with people that have smaller voices than I do, and people who have bigger voices. It bothers me when they manipulate it and even out the difference. And, however I produce my sound, the overtones are lost electronically. And that's too bad, because to hear and to feel overtones in an opera house is an amazing experience."
EB: "Yes, it's a physical experience, that's why we have opera houses and we don't sing opera in conference rooms! There are voices that are ugly when you hear them close – but give them a football field of space to let it bloom and grow, and it's a different thing."
What about their future projects? And do they have any dream roles?
EB: "Kundry from [Parsifal], without a doubt. I've covered it, but never got to sing it. That's the one I want more than anything. And now I'm going back to sing at the Met, but this year I've spent a lot of time away from home, so I'm really looking forward to a slightly quieter year, because I have a daughter, and I'm tired of parenting on Skype. God bless Skype, it's made a huge difference... I've listened to my daughter's piano recital on a phone! My husband, who is a pianist, called me, they put the phone on the chair in the front, and they played their duet – but I couldn't clap or cheer, so I sent her a text: 'baby that was great!' But I do want to spend some time at home. I'll be singing my first Brangäne [from Tristan und Isolde] in Dallas, and then back to cover the Ring at the Met."
BJ: "The role I'd love to sing again – I've sung it in Napoli – is Peter Grimes. I love Grimes. Other than that, I'm doing a lot of things... more Wagner is out there, and Fidelio, and Manon Lescaut, and Don Carlos in Houston. But at the moment I'm really excited for this Ring. I'm really looking forward to seeing what people thing of the cycle. I think it's a fantastic production, a great group of people to work with."
EB: "Yes, and here it's like a baseball team, everybody works together and, as I was saying at the beginning, the collegiality really comes across. I've been doing this for... let's see, 106 years?" and we laugh again, "and I tell you, there are palpable differences. And the more fun we have, the more fun the audience has too!"
Photo Credits, from top to bottom: San Francisco Opera/Cory Weaver; Peter Dressel; Sasha Vasiljev; Michael Schwab; Dario Acosta.
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