Yale Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” asks what it means to be human

Dustin Wills

Theater director Dustin Wills, a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, says there is a reckoning happening in his industry, an accountability for what one is putting on stage and what that work has to say socially and politically. “That’s where I’m coming from,” he said recently, during rehearsals for Yale Opera’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he is directing. The 1791 opera, a Singspiel, was Mozart’s last. It added punctuation to his life and to an Age of Reason that was giving way to Romanticism. The story of The Magic Flute, crafted by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, explored and celebrated Enlightenment ideals, the flaws of which, Wills pointed out, we are dealing with today. A movement that was born of goodwill, Wills said, forgot those who were not white, male European landowners.

“It would be irresponsible for me to allow this opera to happen in a vacuum,” Wills said. And while he can’t change the libretto, he has used the work as a vehicle for revisiting the original inquiry. “What is our modern-day equivalent of this movement?” he asked. Male-focused heroism, for one thing, is “really old nonsense,” Wills said, mentioning his own struggles with playing roles steeped in male stereotypes. With that in mind, he has reframed the focus—which Schikaneder trained on Tamino—to equally include Pamina. Wills’ fundamental inquiry is: What does it mean to be human?

The answer, to Wills, can be found, in part, in our relationship with artificial intelligence. “AI today is the exact same experiment,” he said, revisiting Enlightenment-period themes of egalitarianism and individualism. “You have to really investigate what a human is. In Saudi Arabia, they gave citizenship to a robot.” Wills’ turn directing The Magic Flute brings up the same moral questions that 18th century philosophers and artists were asking in their time. And that, he believes, is part of the responsibility of the artist who is faced with staying true to a piece of work while bringing it into a modern-day context without going too far. “If we’re not making attempts to find that line,” Wills said, “I don’t know how much of an audience in the future there’s going to be.” In other words, “How do you reconcile these beautiful, amazing old works with politics that are potentially very harmful and triggering today?”

The goal, he said, “is really to be absolutely more inclusive, to try to open the door wider to more people.” This production, he explained, gives us the opportunity to take a break from the chaos around us and also leaves us with questions to ask ourselves and one another. It is his job, he said, to push members of an audience beyond their comfort zones. “The artists are the ones who’re up all night thinking about the future,” he said.

It’s not all about angst, though. “We rehearse from a place of joy at all times,” he said, “because that’s what’s at the center of this thing.”

Soprano Anush Avetisyan ’18MM, who is sharing the role of Pamina with soprano Sylvia D’Eramo ’18MM, said, “It has truly been a joy working with Dustin on this production of The Magic Flute. What I have noticed and really appreciated is Dustin’s commitment to the work at hand. His vision and personality are rare in this world and I am grateful for them every day of rehearsal.”

Yale Opera presents a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Shubert Theatre Feb. 16-18.

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DUSTIN WILLS

Published February 9, 2018
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Guest post: baritone Zachary Johnson ’17MM ’18MMA, on performing Opera Scenes

Baritone Zachary Johnson

On a chilly day in February 2015, I walked into Doris Yarick-Cross’ office for my audition interview. Nervous, and very excited, I answered a series of well-thought-out questions about my education, musicianship, and hopes for the future. I remember the interview well, but there will always be one question that sticks out to me: “Can you learn and memorize music quickly?” I answered, sang my audition, and later accepted my position and moved to New Haven the following September. Within the first week of school I was given a large envelope of music for my first production at Yale: Opera Scenes. I was to perform four different roles, in four different opera scenes — two in Italian, one in German, and one in English. I had just over a month to learn the repertoire, work with coaches, and sing the music from memory. I had my work cut out for me, but I thought back to that interview question and knew that this is what is expected from a singer in this program, and I was not going back down.

“Così fan tutte,” 2017

Opera scenes are an incredibly useful venture for singers, especially young singers intending to pursue a career in opera. While teaching us how to learn multiple styles of music in multiple languages at once, they also help us develop the skill of switching gears emotionally, mentally, and physically as we jump from character to character. I can remember transforming from an eccentric, dancing butler to a slow, dim-witted carpenter all in one night. What is unique about the Yale Opera is that the scenes programs are fully costumed and staged, so each snippet of these incredible operas can stand alone and tell their own stories. We get to work with incredibly talented vocal coaches that help us achieve a deeper understanding of the music and text so we are fully prepared to step on stage and bring these stories to life. Strengthening the ability to jump from character to character and language to language is an extremely useful skill for all opera singers, and Opera Scenes is one of the best programs for that. Following our scenes program in the fall, we perform a complete, fully staged production at the Shubert Theatre. The work chosen is usually one we performed a scene from the previous semester, which is an incredibly useful feature of the Yale Opera program. While developing the skill of balancing multiple roles is important, diving into an entire role and being able to understand the growth and trajectory of a single character is equally as vital for a young singer. the Yale Opera provides its singers with opportunities for both, and you will finish this program with a quicker mind, a thicker resume, and the skills you will absolutely need to balance the multifaceted workload of a professional opera singer.

“Don Quichotte,” 2016

In my third year here at the Yale School of Music, I still think back to that interview. I think back to that question. I will admit, in February 2015, that my answer lacked confidence. I was unsure if I possessed what it takes to be an opera singer. If you were to ask me the same question today, another chilly day, in November 2017, I would smile, think back on the incredible amount of opportunities I have been given in this program to develop as a singer, a musician, and a human being, and give you the most confident “Yes.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE NOV. 3 & 4 FALL OPERA SCENES PROGRAMS

Published November 2, 2017
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Yale Opera prepares for Fall Opera Scenes programs

Richard Cross, left, and Doris Yarick-Cross

Shortly after arriving at the Yale School of Music to study in the Yale Opera program, ascendant vocalists are handed an envelope containing the repertoire they’re expected to learn and memorize for the Fall Opera Scenes performances. This year, those concerts take place on November 3 and November 4 and feature excerpts from classic and contemporary operas.

The repertoire is chosen by faculty soprano and Yale Opera Artistic Director Doris Yarick-Cross and YSM faculty bass-baritone Richard Cross with each student’s development in mind. That approach, Yarick-Cross said, is “how we can best get them ready for their future. We choose the roles that we feel will give them the best opportunity to progress.

“What we try to do is give them the tools to be professionals,” Yarick-Cross said. “Our students get hired because they’re prepared.”

And that means going beyond the vocal parts, “to break through inhibitions,” Cross said. “To become a convincing character on stage” isn’t just about singing and acting, he said. “It’s also internalizing the repertoire” — “to get them into the habit of meeting the demands” that will be placed on them throughout their careers, Yarick-Cross added.

As much as the repertoire for the Fall Opera Scenes programs is chosen with pedagogy in mind, the Yale Opera audience is also part of the programming equation. While “La Bohème is perfect for young singers,” Cross said, pointing out that the characters in that opera are themselves young, it’s long been an audience favorite, too.

Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book of the same title, has been appreciated by audiences since its premiere in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera. The New Haven audience, Yarick-Cross said, will be “overwhelmed by the Heggie.” Likewise, she said, the first act of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos will appeal to local concertgoers. “I think they will really like it,” Yarick-Cross said. “It will be new to most of them. There’s a lot going on” and “There is some wonderful singing.”

On Friday and Saturday, November 3 and November 4, the Yale Opera presents performances of scenes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni, Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Massenet’s Cendrillon, Puccini’s La Bohème, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos

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Published October 26, 2017
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New oratorio by Martin Bresnick to be premiered at International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Nina Roberts

A new oratorio by School of Music faculty composer Martin Bresnick will be premiered at Yale on June 20 as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which commissioned the piece. The oratorio, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson — Passions of Bloom, will be performed again on June 21 at the Yale Summer School of Music/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. The oratorio, which celebrates the work of its namesakes — Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and distinguished literary critic Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale — will be performed by the Yale Choral Artists and members of the Yale Philharmonia. Vocal soloists include YSM faculty tenor James Taylor, who’ll sing Bloom’s words. The oratorio is modeled on Bach’s St. John Passion. Bresnick assembled the libretto using poems by Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson and excerpts from Bloom’s The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.

Talking about the poetry of the 19th century writers he’s celebrating, Bresnick said, “These particular works have been part of my mental universe since I was a young student. Still others I only recently got more closely acquainted with.” He’s been familiar with Bloom’s work for many years. In the mid-1980s, Bresnick composed music for the PBS series Voices & Visions, which, through interviews with such experts as Bloom, explored the lives of American poets. At that moment, Bresnick said, he felt that Bloom, who earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1956, had established himself as a kind of Marlon Brando of critics, inasmuch as the “degree of passion and devotion he brought to his explanations” was “almost poetic.” It was while working on For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, based on the William Blake poem, that Bresnick got to know Bloom and appreciate the shared “commonalities in our origins and points of departure.” In incorporating excerpts from The Daemon Knows into his oratorio, Bresnick had permission from Bloom to use “anything I wanted.”

Modeling the oratorio on Bach’s St. John Passion was a logical step considering that Bloom’s voice in the piece is not unlike that of the Evangelist — the narrator — in Bach’s passions. And Taylor, Bresnick pointed out, is a “well-known Evangelist in the world of the two Bach passions.” In addition to Taylor, Bresnick said, “I needed some very special singers.” Enter the Yale Choral Artists.

“Several of the soloists for this performance also happen to be YSM alumni, from both the Institute of Sacred Music’s voice program and from Yale Opera, including two former students of Jimmy’s — Paul Tipton and Sherezade Panthaki,” YCA founding director and YSM professor of choral conducting, Jeffrey Douma, said. School of Music alumni who’ll be performing include mezzo-soprano Katherine Maroney ’06MM, soprano Megan Chartrand ’13MM, soprano Sarah Yanovitch ’15MM, tenor Colin Britt ’10MM, tenor Gene Stenger ’15MM, and tenor Steven Soph ’12MM. Bass-baritone Tipton ’10MM will sing Melville’s words, while Maroney and soprano Panthaki ’11AD will sing text by Dickinson. Additional vocal soloists include tenor Brian Giebler, who’ll sing words by Whitman, bass Glenn Miller, who’ll sing the words of Captain Ahab, from Melville’s Moby-Dick, and baritone Thomas McCargar, who’ll sing the words of Melville’s Ishmael.

“During his composition process,” Douma said, “Martin often showed me excerpts of the solo writing he was developing, and would describe the kinds of voices he was hearing. This helped me choose singers from within the ranks of the Choral Artists best suited to each role.”

Bresnick’s oratorio, Douma said, “references not only Bach but also Brahms and other composers. People who know the St. John Passion will hear distinct echoes of its opening chorus (“Herr, unser Herrscher”) in Martin’s opening chorus (“Shine! Shine! Shine!”). For me as conductor, knowing that Bach was a starting point for Martin has influenced my thinking about the melodic writing in the piece and its relationship to the text. Martin may not be quoting Bach, but his careful attention to the natural rise and fall of the language and his singularly expressive way of emphasizing particular words reminds me very much of Bach’s use of melody, especially in the extended recitatives we hear in his passions. It has reinforced how important it will be for the audience to connect with the language in a very direct way.”

Of the literary works that inspired the oratorio, Douma said, “I love all three of the writers who inhabit this piece, but I will admit that my understanding of each of them — especially Melville — has been enriched greatly by the process of preparing this music.”

Originally, Bresnick said, he conceived a piece that would celebrate Bloom’s writings on Whitman. “I found that that wasn’t congenial for me,” he said. “That wasn’t enough.” The piece “needed more contrast.”

Bloom, Bresnick said, is “very shy about the fact that this whole thing, in some ways, is about him.”

Whitman, Melville, Dickinson — Passions of Bloom will receive its world-premiere performance, as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, on Tuesday, June 20, at 8 pm, in Morse Recital Hall at the Yale School of Music. The oratorio will be performed again on Wednesday, June 21, at 7:30 pm, at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS & IDEAS PERFORMANCE
NORFOLK PERFORMANCE

Published June 15, 2017
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Adams Center for Musical Arts opens

Adams Center, exterior

Adams Center for Musical Arts

The new Adams Center for Musical Arts opened today, as students, faculty, and staff returned to the Yale School of Music and Yale College to begin the spring semester. Twenty-four months after ground was broken, the complex is in use by the School of Music and by Yale College students who participate in the University’s undergraduate ensembles.

“The Adams Center for Musical Arts is a welcoming space and place for Yale’s musical community,” Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said. “It was designed to enhance and enrich the creative, artistic, and intellectual process of making music together. Each space — from the smallest practice room to the beautiful ensemble halls and the student commons — was designed with the intent of supporting and sustaining the cherished musical culture that Yale has enjoyed for more than three centuries.”

Named for Stephen ’59BA and Denise Adams in recognition of their continued generosity and support of the Yale School of Music, the $57.1 million Adams Center for Musical Arts was made possible primarily through gifts from Yale alumni. The complex connects a newly renovated Hendrie Hall to the previously renovated Leigh Hall by way of a new structure that is anchored by a dedicated orchestra rehearsal room and an atrium in which students from the School of Music and Yale College can gather. MORE

Published January 17, 2017
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Yale Opera presents Oct. 17 public master class with Alan Held

Alan Held

Alan Held

Acclaimed bass-baritone Alan Held will present a master class on Monday, October 17, at 7 pm, in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. The master class will feature performances by students from the Yale Opera program including bass-baritone Stephen Clark, baritone Bryan Murray, soprano Sylvia D’Eramo, and tenors Lucas van Lierop and Luis Aguilar singing works by Mozart, Massenet, Corigliano, Handel, Carlisle Floyd, Bizet, Donizetti, and Tchaikovsky. Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin will accompany the performers. The master class is free and open to the public. MORE

Published October 17, 2016
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Paweł Konik reaches finals of “Le Grand Prix de l’Opéra”

Paweł Konik | Photo by Anna Płóciennik

Paweł Konik | Photo by Anna Płóciennik

Earlier this month, bass-baritone Paweł Konik reached the final round of “Le Grand Prix de l’Opéra,” the International Voice Competition organized by the Bucharest National Opera. Konik earned a special Excellency Prize, presented by the Russian Embassy, for his interpretation of “Aleko’s Cavatina” from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. He also performed “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

Konik, a native of Poland, is a member of the Yale Opera program, where he studies with Doris Yarick-Cross and Richard Cross. Konik also worked on his competition repertoire with YSM faculty members Douglas Dickson, Timothy Shaindlin, and Kyle Swann. During the 2015-2016 concert season, Konik appeared in Yale Opera productions of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Prior to coming to Yale, Konik attended the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice. MORE

Published August 24, 2016
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[ students & alumni ]

Brian Vu named a winner in the 2016 Lotte Lenya competition

vu_brianBrian Vu ’14 MM, ’15 AD was awarded the top prize in the 2016 Lotte Lenya Competition sponsored by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. The win earned Vu a cash prize of $15,000, and was one of nine awards distributed for the competition which totaled $79,000.

Vu impressed the judges with a carefully thought-out program including “O Carlo, ascolta” from Don Carlo; “Bowler Hat” from Pacific Overtures; “West Wind” from One Touch of Venus; and “Where is the Life that Late I Led?” from Kiss Me Kate. The judges remarked that he displayed “…refreshing flair and vocal prowess.”

Earlier this year, Vu was named a Grand Finalist in this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the most prestigious vocal competitions in the country, and will appear as the Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer.

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Published April 29, 2016
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[ concerts ]

Yale Opera brings Don Quixote to life May 6 & 7

Don-Quichotte-v2The Yale Opera program at the Yale School of Music presents an exciting new production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte on May 6 and 7.

The production is directed by Linda Brovsky, who returns to Yale Opera for the second time. Timothy Shaindlin is the musical director.

The beloved character of Don Quixote attacks both windmills and high notes in this whimsical and touching opera about the power of the imagination and the quest for true love. With captivating melodies and a touch of Spanish flair, this short opera (clocking in at less than two hours) is a wonderful introduction to the genre for the tentative and the curious.

As conceived by stage directror Linda Brovsky, this production embraces the transformative power of reading and the imagination. With whimsical projections and oversized books on stage, this will be a haven for the literary.

Costume designer Rebecca Welles and lighting designer Doug Harry both return to Yale Opera’s creative team. Yana Biryukova, a Yale School of Drama student, is the projection designer

Both Friday and Saturday’s performances begin at 7:30 pm. The venue is Morse Recital hall, located in Sprague Memorial Hall (470 College Street, New Haven).

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Published April 18, 2016
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[ students & alumni ]

Yale Opera musicians win at Gerda Lissner Competition

Galeano Salas

Galeano Salas

One of the most prestigious vocal competitions, the Gerda Lissner Competition, has recently announced its 2016 Prize Winners, including three singers from the Yale Opera program.

Tenor Galeano Salas ’13 MM was awarded a Top Prize of $15,000, mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano ’14 MM won a 1st Prize of $10,000, and current student and bass-baritone Pawel Konik won a 3rd Prize of $3,000. The singers who are awarded prizes will be featured in the Winner’s Concert on May 1, 2016 at 3PM, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Recital Hall in New York City.

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Published April 9, 2016
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