Soprano Leah Brzyski ’19MM, on preparing for Yale Opera’s Fall Scenes productions

Leah Brzyski

Each year, Yale Opera presents two programs of scenes from beloved and important works. Parts are assigned at the beginning of the academic year, giving singers relatively little time to learn, memorize, and inhabit their roles—sometimes more than one and in different languages. We spoke with soprano Leah Brzyski ’19MM about her preparation for this year’s programs and about developing as a singer and performer here at YSM.

Q: What roles will you be performing in this year’s Fall Scenes program, and what has the preparation experience been like?

A: This year I could not be more excited for our scenes production because I have the opportunity to perform two of my dream roles: Blonde from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Ophelia from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet. While the characters are quite different, each has such a strong willfulness and passion about them that makes digging into their music so appealing. The preparation for my roles this year has been really rejuvenating. After being gone all summer, coming back to dive headfirst into these powerful pieces has been such a driving force behind the semester.

Now that memorized runs are done, we’re into our staging period, which is my favorite! We finally get to explore not just how [the characters] speak and sing, but how their bodies would react to a situation or another person. Not to mention our Stage Director, Chris Murrah, is one of the most artistically genius people I have ever met. He is full of unique insights and always allows us the freedom to explore and play rather than micromanaging every action we do on stage.

Q: What is the benefit and what are the challenges of having to learn multiple roles, in different styles and in different languages, in a short amount of time?

A: Every year we are assigned our roles and are given three weeks to learn and memorize all of our music. At the end of the three weeks we perform a memorized run for the voice faculty so that they can see how we’ve progressed. This process is always more than a little hectic—to memorize the notes, rhythms, language, but more so the characterization of your assignments in such little time. Just being able to physically produce the right sounds is nowhere near enough. You have to know what motivates [the characters], how they interact with the other characters, why they say and sing what they do, and so much more.

Last year I remember feeling like it was an impossible feat, but after hours and hours of weekly coaching, lessons, group rehearsals, and individual practice time, the music becomes so ingrained in you that every year we all manage to meet the deadline, (sometimes to our own surprise!). This quick learning process has actually benefited me in so many ways. Oftentimes, last minute opportunities to sing a concert or a role come up and you might only have a week or even a few days to accept and learn your music. Practicing that skill in a comfortable learning environment makes taking on professional tasks like that so much more manageable. This summer it helped me learn five roles in just a few months and prepare arias in different languages without much stress at all. This year, I noticed that the memorization of my music was so much easier, even though I had much more to learn. It’s a skill most of us don’t get to practice on our own time, so having it as part of the curriculum makes it a mandatory part of our skillset.

Q: What’s required of you, in terms of moving from one role to another in the course of one Fall Scenes production? How do the faculty help with this process?

Brzyski as the Queen of the Night in Yale Opera’s 2018 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

A: The ability to switch back and forth between such contrasting roles is absolutely demanding. To go from singing a role in French about a woman who has gone mad to the point of suicide because of lost love to suddenly switching to singing a comedic maid who is cunning and pedantic and lighthearted in German is one heck of a transition. But, in a way, all of those unique qualities help you differentiate as a performer what it feels like to be one character versus the other. Last year, singing the all-consuming and powerful role of Queen of the Night as well as the loving and tender Fairy Godmother in Cendrillon at first seemed like an overwhelming transition. But those qualities help make up the identity of each character. After living in her shoes, I would never start thinking in French or singing in the same Fairy Godmother-esque floated lines when performing Queen and vice versa. At the end of the day, it’s the differences that make the switch easy. The faculty all help in this process of course, perfecting our diction, demonstrating style differences between composers, and creating characterization of our roles.

Q: In what ways have you learned from your peers throughout this process and in the Yale Opera program in general? How, in the past year, have you developed as an artist and in what ways has YSM’s opera program informed that growth?

A: I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to this amazing group of artists. There is never a rehearsal or recital or class where I don’t learn something from my peers. We all come from such unique and enriched backgrounds that it’s like a treasure trove of skills all sitting in the same classroom. I might hear someone singing an aria I have learned but they do something different in a cadenza or approach a note in such an amazing way that I can use and apply to my own singing. So often in our movement classes, when we’re improvising, someone will take a risk and do something completely unexpected, which makes you feel more willing to take risks yourself and work off of that energy. Many people here also speak several foreign languages and it’s so amazing to be able to ask for insight on translations and specifics on pronunciation from someone who is native to that language.

I owe the Yale Opera program so much of who I am as an artist. In our undergrad training, we broadly cover so many topics, languages, requirements, etc. But here, there is such great attention to detail given to specific skillsets that are absolutely necessary in order to succeed as an opera singer. French, German, Italian, and Russian diction are taught with such finesse and accuracy that sometimes I wonder how I stumbled my way through before my two years here. Most important, however, I have grown because I have been given the opportunity to act as an artist and take artistic liberties that I wouldn’t have been given at another university, such as picking my own recital repertoire, teaching voice students, singing for top managers in the business, and performing mature roles that challenge me. Not only am I a more technically savvy singer because of the skilled guidance of my voice teacher, Doris Yarick-Cross, but I am also a more confident and independent musician. Our faculty members are some of the most experienced, intelligent instructors in their field. Learning from them every day has most definitely paid off.

Yale Opera presents its annual Fall Scenes programs on Friday & Saturday, Nov. 2 & 3, in Morse Recital Hall. 

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Published October 24, 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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[ in the press ]

Arts Journal: Opera at Old Eli

Photo by Matt Fried

Photo by Matt Fried

Opera Sleth | Arts Journal
By Speight Jenkins

Doris Yarick Cross for more than thirty years has directed Yale Opera, a division of the Yale School of Music. She and her husband, Richard Cross, serve as the voice teachers for the program, a mammoth task. Such major artists as Matthew Polenzani, Patrick Carfizzi, Tamara Mumford, and Christian Van Horn have graduated from the program, which in every school year has fifteen artists, chosen from hundreds of applicants.  All of the singers in this “class” are working on their Master of Music degrees.

Three days in New Haven demonstrated to me the viability of the program,  allowed me to experience two performances of opera scenes, and have several hours with all the young artists involved. Though the majority of artists, all in their twenties, come from the United States, recruitment is international.  Young singers from Poland, China, Italy, and Canada joined their American colleagues. The two evenings of opera scenes at Yale’s Sprague Hall, fully staged and costumed, surveyed the repertory from Handel to Britten.

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Published November 18, 2015
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[ concerts + events ]

Yale Opera presents its annual Fall Scenes November 7 & 8

Photo by Matt Fried

Photo by Matt Fried

The Yale Opera program at the Yale School of Music presents its annual Fall Opera Scenes on Saturday, November 7 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, November 8 at 2:00 pm. Each performance features a different selection of scenes from diverse operas.

A favorite of local audiences, the annual Fall Opera Scenes production will showcase the voice students of the highly selective Yale Opera program, which is directed by Doris Yarick-Cross.

This autumn’s production will also feature the work of stage director Marc Verzatt and musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin. John Carver Sullivan provides costume design, and Doug Harry is the lighting designer. MORE

Published October 13, 2015
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[ in the press ]

Yale Daily News: Yale Opera kicks off season

Yale Daily News | By Gayatri Sabharwal

To open its season, the Yale Opera put on an exhibition of humor, misfortune and romance as it performed several of history’s most iconic pieces.

The Yale Opera program at the School of Music presented its annual Fall Opera Scenes this weekend at Sprague Memorial Hall. The Saturday performance featured scenes from works such as “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Hamlet” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Sunday’s show featured excerpts from “Aleko,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” The performances were delivered in their original languages, with accompanying projections of English translations. Yale Opera Manager Erika Niemi said that the Fall Scenes are unique in that the vast majority of Yale Opera’s members perform in the show, which stands in contrast to other shows by the group that only feature a few performers. MORE

Published November 4, 2014
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[ events ]

Yale Opera presents Fall Scenes Nov. 1 & 2

opera1The Yale Opera program at the Yale School of Music presents its annual Fall Opera Scenes on Saturday, November 1 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, November 2 at 2:00 pm. Each performance features a different selection of scenes from diverse operas.

A favorite of local audiences, the annual Fall Opera Scenes production will showcase the voice students of the highly selective Yale Opera program, which is directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. This autumn’s production will also feature the work of stage director Marc Verzatt and musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin.

Each performance spotlights an assortment of comic and tragic works. Saturday, Nov. 1 will feature scenes from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Thomas’s Hamlet, Puccini’s Suor Angelica and La Rondine, and Barber’s Antony and CleopatraSATURDAY TICKETS

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Published October 21, 2014
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Yale Opera announces Fall Opera Scenes

Opera Scenes, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, October 2011, Yale Opera, Yale School of Music

Yale Opera will present two performances of opera scenes on Saturday, November 2 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, November 3 at 2 pm. Each performance features a different selection of scenes from popular operas by composers as diverse as Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, and more. The opera scenes will be performed in Morse Recital Hall, located in Sprague Hall at 470 College Street (corner of Wall Street), New Haven.

A favorite of local audiences, the annual Fall Opera Scenes production will showcase the voice students of the renowned Yale Opera program, which is directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. This autumn’s production will also feature the work of stage director Marc Verzatt, musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin, costume designer John Carver Sullivan, and lighting designer William Warfel. MORE

Published September 27, 2013
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Yale Opera performs fall scenes Nov. 2 & 3

Creative team includes stage director Hans Nieuwenhuis, musical directors Douglas Dickson & Timothy Shaindlin

The Yale School of Music presents the rising stars of Yale Opera in two evenings of opera scenes on Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3. Each evening will feature a different selection of scenes from popular operas by composers as diverse as Bizet, Sullivan, Puccini, and more. Both performances will take place at 7:30 pm in Morse Recital Hall, located in Sprague Hall at 470 College Street (corner of Wall Street), New Haven.

A favorite of local audiences, the annual Fall Opera Scenes production will showcase the voice students of the renowned Yale Opera program, which is directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. This autumn’s production will also feature the work of stage director Hans Nieuwenhuis, musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin, costume designer Valerie Webster, and lighting designer William Warfel.

Each performance spotlights an assortment of comic and tragic works. Friday, Nov. 2 will feature scenes from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Bizet’s Carmen, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and Massenet’s Manon and Werther. The program on Saturday, Nov. 3 will feature excerpts from Puccini’s La Bohème, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Rossini’s Otello, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

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Published October 16, 2012
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Yale Opera announces fall scenes

Yale Opera is pleased to announce the program for its annual Fall Scenes production, which will take place Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3. Both performances take place at 7:30 pm in Morse Recital Hall.

Hans Nieuwenhuis is the stage director; Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin provide music direction and accompaniment.

The design team features Valerie Webster, costume design, and William Warfel, lighting design. Projections will be created by students of the Yale School of Drama Projection Design program.

Doris Yarick-Cross is the artistic director of Yale Opera.

Friday, November 2

Il Barbiere di Siviglia—Gioachino Rossini
Excerpts from Act I

Carmen—Georges Bizet
Excerpts from Act II

L’elisir d’amore—Gaetano Donizetti
Excerpts from Act I

Manon—Jules Massenet
Excerpts from Act I

Werther—Jules Massenet
Excerpts from Act III

Saturday, November 3

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Published September 25, 2012
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