A tale of two Tatianas: Yale Opera sopranos discuss challenging role

With performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin fast approaching, singers from the Yale Opera program are in their final stages of preparation. Sopranos Madeline Ehlinger ’20MM and Lauren McQuistin ’19MMA, who will be sharing the role of Tatiana, spoke with us about the rehearsal process and their reflections on the opera.

What do you think makes Eugene Onegin such a quintessential opera? 

Lauren McQuistin. Photo by Synthia Steinem

Ehlinger: I think a lot of the appeal of Eugene Onegin comes from its striking likeness to moments and people in our lives. Almost anyone watching this opera will see themselves or people they know reflected in these characters. This, coupled with the sweeping and unabashedly Russian phrases of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, creates an opera that has the ability to move any listener.

McQuistin: Eugene Onegin isn’t driven by its plot, especially compared to other operas. Despite this, it remains a staple in the operatic canon, which can be attributed to the idiosyncratic yet relatable qualities of the characters and their interpersonal relationships. The source material, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, is to Russia what Goethe’s Faust is to Germany. There is a reverence for this story that prevented so many composers prior to Tchaikovsky from even attempting to put it to music. You can clearly see how Tchaikovsky poured the more hidden parts of himself and his experience into these characters. This relation to them, paired with him being the master of melody, makes something that resonates with people in an unfiltered and very human way. There’s something enchanting about the bareness of the intentions of the characters—Tatiana’s uncensored confession of love, Lensky flying so quickly to anger, Olga’s unashamed wildness, and Onegin’s sole desire to fulfil his own needs. Their interactions and the way they grow (or fail to) create an electricity that drives the opera forward without a convoluted plot. The qualities they display are parts of ourselves that we conceal, but Tchaikovsky puts a magnifying glass on them and refuses to let us hide from them for three acts of exquisite music.

How would you describe Tatiana? How is this role different from other roles you’ve sung, and what have your preparations been like?

Ehlinger: Tatiana, on the surface, is shy, quiet, and lost in her world of novels. And though parts of that analysis are true, she is also bold, dynamic, and full of wit. In opera, you are not always presented with such a layered and complex character. Getting to explore the hugely contrasting elements of her personality through her words and her music has been a really rewarding experience. So many elements of my personality align with Tatiana’s, so I’m using those parallels to interpret her story in a way that feels authentic.

McQuistin: A lot of what has made Tatiana profound for me has come from my experiences as a woman. In operas, especially as a soprano, my role has been as an accessory to a man’s love story, to die, or to go mad. Much of the agency that I have attempted to apply to my characters wasn’t necessarily written into them by the male composers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tatiana, however, is a character that is entirely in charge of her own destiny. She is an unashamed dreamer and a unique individual, despite those around her not understanding her. She doesn’t descend into madness or apathy, and, most important, she transforms her trauma into success on her own terms. This makes her already extremely relevant to the 21st century, rather than making directorial choices to achieve that. It’s very exciting to present that sort of power on the operatic stage. Her actions are deliberate, and her transparency is brave, which has required a lot of vulnerability during the rehearsal process. She is one of the characters in the opera who goes through a significant change in circumstances, so exploring how she presents before and after her defining moment of heartbreak, whilst maintaining her core values as a character, has been the main challenge.

Madeline Ehlinger. Photo by Andrew Saiz

What is the rehearsal process like for such a huge work? Has singing in Russian posed extra challenges?

Ehlinger: I am a little surprised at how smoothly and fluidly this rehearsal process has unfolded. It is quite a huge work. We all came into staging rehearsals with the music and text diligently learned, due to the help of our dedicated and knowledgeable coaches and teachers. With that base of knowledge, the staging rehearsals felt like the next organic step. And I think we would all agree that the staging has enhanced our singing and interpretation of the text. The Russian was at first a challenge, but it is a language that flows beautifully once it is understood. It was a bit of a challenge, but a rewarding one.

McQuistin: The level of commitment to Eugene Onegin has had to be nothing short of 100 percent from absolutely everyone involved. Due to the interpersonal relationships of these characters being so critical to the shows’ success we have had to commit fully to color them with our own experiences, imaginations, and everything we have in our artist’s toolkit—including dance and stage combat. I have been a Russophile since the age of 16, so I fortunately had a loose grasp of the language and history, but there is no room for approximation in this process. As a class we had the massive advantage of studying Russian lyric diction with Emily Olin last semester, which gave us the necessary tools to get started with reading and comprehension. The text in this opera is more like a novel than a play, with no repetitions of text and extremely florid language, so every ounce of our understanding is required. With the Russian language being so different from the many Romance and Germanic languages that opera fans are more acquainted with, we must be entirely clear with our interpretation and communication, else it becomes impenetrable for both ourselves and the audience. There are certain aspects of Russian opera that differ greatly from other operatic traditions. For instance, Italian emotional climaxes usually are conveyed with a high, sustained note, whereas in Russian opera the melodic lines will utilize descending lines and the lower parts of our range to indicate their points of great drama. Grasping certain characteristics like that is keeping this from becoming a one-size-fits-all operatic approach, and it’s been so exciting to explore and understand exactly how this vastly different musical tradition creates its distinctive sound world.

What has it been like to work with director Paul Curran?

Ehlinger: Working with Paul has been such a rich experience. He’s the best director I can imagine for this opera. He speaks Russian and knows the opera and story in great detail. His expertise has really elevated our work. I have been consistently pushed to overcome my fears as a performer, and Paul has taught me great ways to reach that fearlessness. And I have to mention Perry So, our wonderful conductor, who has really given this music a freshness and incredible energy.

McQuistin: Having direct contact with someone who has worked on the main stages across the world is an experience I will never forget. His resume and accomplishments speak for themselves, but even they can’t fully account for the level of commitment he has to the process, the amount that he demands from us, and his constant search for truth in our performances. As he has worked with the people we aspire to be, he can give us a first-hand account of their own struggles and successes within their individual process. This allows us space and acceptance for our own areas of development and what we still have to learn. The standard he holds us to is something to aspire to, but it is never forgotten that we are in a learning environment, and there is a firm kindness in what is expected of us. From a personal point of view, it is significant for me that he is Scottish. Though I am from Scotland myself, and lived there for most my life, I have never worked with a Scottish director. I believe there needs to be more visibility for Scottish artists, and I want to be a part of that. In my past I have hid my Scottishness to fit in in certain circles, so to work with someone so successful and so unapologetically Scottish has enriched my experience as a Scottish artist working internationally.

Madeline, now that you’re in your second semester of your first year, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program thus far?

Ehlinger: I came into this program knowing that the work I was facing would be immense, and I hoped also rewarding. I am glad to say it has been more rewarding that I could have imagined. A lot of that is due to the fantastic group of singers I am surrounded by. The support for one another is abundant, and it really creates an environment with a perfect balance of seriousness and warmth. Yale Opera has helped me grow as a musician in every sense of the word.

Lauren, as a second-year student, now in your second semester, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program?

McQuistin: I will never forget the sheer disbelief I felt when I received the call from Doris Yarick-Cross offering me a place in the program. For the longest time I couldn’t fathom that I could have earned a place in a program like this. The program sets a bar for you that initially seems like an absolutely impossible task, and eventually, through relentless support, encouragement, and tutelage, you are given opportunities and performances that make you realize you are achieving that level of performance you initially thought was impossible. Given the small size of the class, we have been able to create a supportive environment where we have been able to challenge ourselves in a safe and productive way. It is truly unique to have so much individual attention and care, which encourages us to take ourselves seriously as artists and performers.

Yale Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on Friday & Saturday, Feb. 15 & Feb. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2 p.m., at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre.

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Published February 4, 2019
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Director’s diary: Paul Curran, on rehearsing “Eugene Onegin” and working with a young cast

Acclaimed stage director Paul Curran will lead the Yale Opera this month in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Curran has been sharing his thoughts about the rehearsal process and about working with the Yale Opera cast. 

Diary Entry No. 2: Thursday, January 31—Studio rehearsals are drawing to a close this week, then we transfer to the theater to meet a whole new set of challenges and joys. This week is a critical one for the cast.

Finding your character, dealing with your voice, and rehearsing most of the day are all part and parcel of the opera business. There’s nothing unusual in that. When you’re in school, however, it makes every waking minute all the more vital and concentrated. I admire enormously the singers’ ability to go to their classes and then come to rehearsals and keep such focus.

So, what has been going on this week? Lots. Seriously—major steps forward for many people in many ways. Pacing always poses big questions. Do I sing out here? Do I save my voice? Not easy questions to answer. In all my years directing opera, I’ve noticed that singers tend to do the same thing: they explore the limits in rehearsal—especially of a new role—so they know their vocal/emotional/stamina limits and can adjust accordingly when it comes to bigger orchestra rehearsals and performances. Not everything can be at 100 percent all day. This has been one of this week’s learning curves.

In the process of exploring this piece, I’ve used a few of my teaching techniques to help some singers where they’ve had difficulties. Long pages of singing in Russian can be daunting to even the most seasoned singer. I often ask everybody to “speak out” their ” inner voice”—in other words, all the bits a character is thinking when not actually singing. It’s a way of keeping the brain and the “moment” alive and helps your colleagues know where your mind is. Another great game is “jumpy game”—you make a jump before every single thought. Not every word or phrase; every actual thought as you’re singing. The purpose is to activate your singing and acting—and it really does! It seems to have been a revelation for some cast members. Of course, being a game, it feels very silly and a bit embarrassing when you do it the first time. But when inhibitions fall away, you leave so much more room for creation and invention. I’ve loved watching the process.

Rebecca Welles, our costume designer, has also been around doing costume fittings, so everybody slowly but surely is getting to know the world they’re about to inhabit. Equally important have been our production meetings, where all the sectors of the show gather to discuss progress, problems, solutions, or to just say, “All’s well” … or not. Such meetings are never easy to schedule, given everybody’s busy schedules, but, thanks to technology, we’ve managed to have people there in person, on Skype, on FaceTime, and on the phone. I love technology!

By the end of the week we will have run the entire opera twice—each cast gets a full studio run.  That’ll be the last time they run the show until the orchestra joins us in the theater—so, hugely important to judge stamina and pacing. During the week I’ve managed to sneak in quite a few runs of acts and big scenes, so I think everybody’s a little more prepared.

The end of the week has brought a big freeze to the United States and we’re in below-zero temperatures. I hope people stay warm and protected and that the weather doesn’t bring a surge of illness with it. I grew up in Scotland and lived in Finland and Norway, so the weather’s no big deal for this wee Scotsman!

The show opens on February 15. Buy a ticket and come see it. You never know which star in the making you’re seeing right at the start of their career, and you never know how much you might fall in love with this beautiful, poetic piece.

Diary Entry No. 1: Tuesday, January 29—We’ve been rehearsing Eugene Onegin now for about two weeks and finally got to the final scene. It’s been quite a monumental and challenging journey for all concerned. Me included.

Just like a play, an opera takes a long time to rehearse, but, unlike a play, the rhythm and pace of the show is set already by the writer—it’s in the music. So a lot of our rehearsals have been about finding that pace and speed and about how our young singers can add their own interpretation to it, rather than just slavishly reproducing the exact note values on the page. Rehearsal is a lot of repetition … and a lot of getting it wrong.

This is the bit where I turn into the “senior” of the show and talk about me and the Millennials. Because I have to say: Getting it wrong is actually OK! The whole process is one of trying and trying again ’til something works or feels right. An “instant” result is almost impossible. We’ve had a few hilarious moments along the way and often not in the expected places. Who knew a tiny line by the Nanny could tell us so much about her teenage marriage, loss of virginity, and sadness at the loss of her husband? It’s all in there, if you know where to look.

We also met the chorus last week and started working on their none-too-small part in this big opera. We don’t have dancers, so our brave chorus is having to dance a peasant dance, a waltz, a polonaise, a mazurka, and two ecossaises! You might need to Google all of those. They’re coping terrifically but we still have a way to go, for sure.

At this stage, having covered all of the opera, we now have to go back and look at the beginning again. It feels like we rehearsed it a year ago! But all the good work of these later rehearsals always has to retrospectively inform the work we did earlier. The cast have been going back and adding new layers to their characters, and it makes a big difference.

Hands. What on earth do you do with your hands while singing? This is our daily challenge. Empty gestures? Or gestures linked directly to the thought process of the character that help express what we’re singing about? We try and try again and again. Studio rehearsal is by far my favourite part of the process. (Please don’t correct this to “favorite.” (I’m a Brit!)

I have nothing but admiration for these students all singing so clearly and correctly in Russian. I speak Russian and still find it difficult. How they’re dealing with it is miraculous.

Have there been tears this week? Yes, there have—tears of joy and surprise at how amazing it feels when it all comes together and you hit that magic spot as a performer and time really does stand still.

There’s lots more to do, lots more to rethink, develop, throw out, and guard like a tiger.

Now I need to check the schedule and see what we’re rehearsing today and spend an hour or so preparing it. The struggle is real, and it never stops.

Yale Opera will present Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin February 15-17 at the Shubert Theatre.

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Published February 1, 2019
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YSM Alumni News | January 2019

Reena Esmail. Photo by Rachel Garcia

Conductor Jordan Brown AD led his first concert as Music Director of the New Sussex Symphony in November.

This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity by composer Reena Esmail ’11MM ’14MMA ’18DMA, a work originally commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, was given its West Coast premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in November at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In January, Esmail was named a 2019 United States Artists Fellow and was the Grand Prize winner of the S&R Foundation’s Washington Award. Trombonist Brittany Lasch ’12MM was among the Foundation’s Washington Award winners.

Joseph Fala ’17MM, who is in his second year as an Organ Scholar at Duke Chapel, performed a recital in December at Duke University.

Pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov ’18AD performed two cycles by Rachmaninov at Sudler Hall in November as part of a concert series titled Reflections of the Russian Exodus, presented by the European Studies Council.

Sarita Kwok. Photo by Kate Lemmon

Gordon College named violinist Sarita Kwok ’05MMA ’06AD ’09DMA the Adams Endowed Chair in Music. A celebratory performance was given by faculty and students of the college’s Department of Music in November.

Oboist Anna Mattix ’98MM and composer Caroline Mallonee ’00MM are featured on the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s newest recording. Mattix is the soloist on Vox Humana, a work commissioned for her, and Mallonee composed Whistler Waves on a commission for the BPO’s associate principal cellist.

Proving Up, an opera by composer Missy Mazzoli ’06MM, was listed as one of the year’s “Best Performances” in The New York Times’ “The Best Classical Music of 2018.”

Conductor Julian Pellicano ’07MM ’09MM led the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a performance of John Williams’s score for Home Alone as part of the VSO at the Movies series in December.

Baritone David Pershall ’10MM ’11AD sang the role of Silvio in Pagliacci at the San Francisco Opera in September.

Violinist Igor Pikayzen ’11MM ’12AD was featured in “Sounds for a Starry Night,” a concert held in December at the Westport Woman’s Club. Proceeds from the performance contributed to scholarships for Staples High School seniors.

Dantes Rameau

Bassoonist Dantes Rameau ’07MM, founder of the Atlanta Music Project, which provides free music education in neighborhoods where school music programs are limited, was named one of the Top 30 Professionals of 2018 by Musical America.

In association with the Royal Canadian College of Organists, Sarah Svendsen ’15MM performed a recital and led a youth-oriented workshop on the pipe organ in November.

Tubist Antonio D. Underwood ’87MM was a featured keynote speaker at Hagerstown Community College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Celebration in Januray.

Published January 24, 2019
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Paul Curran, on directing Yale Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin”

Paul Curran. Photo by Christopher Reece-Bowen

Acclaimed stage director Paul Curran will lead the Yale Opera next month in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Curran has shared the following words about working with the Yale Opera casts and will continue to take us behind the scenes of the rehearsal process and the performances. 

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is not only one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, it is also one of the greatest. Why, you might ask, is it so great? An easy answer: extraordinary music and vocal writing; a whip-crack-hot plot; fantastic, fascinating characters; and relationships that span the decades and centuries so as to feel they could be happening today or any day in our lifetimes. For me, as director, this is exactly why Onegin is such a splendid choice for young voices and developing artists.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about our production as it takes shape, tracking our rehearsal process at Yale and even reflecting on the most difficult and personal learning process of all: the performances themselves. I hope you will find time to check out what we’re up to!

Onegin is essentially a story of a teenager falling in love with a slightly older man and the struggles she endures coming to terms with his rejection—and his desire for her when it’s too late and she makes the smart, adult decision to stay with the man she’s married. I have heard this story told and retold for decades by friends of mine (no names!); rejection remains as difficult a pain to endure today as it was in the 19th century. Our casts need to make this story come alive, to make it their own. In relating, through performance, such a private and painful story, they need to show a vulnerability that makes you feel like writing to your best friend and telling her or him to get over the creep they’re dating and move on. Onegin is a modern tale—very modern.

As a story, Onegin needs very little explanation beyond what’s provided by the vivid, rounded characters and their compelling relationships. This is the challenge for all artists but particularly young singers. Memorizing hours of music, especially in a language as difficult as Russian, is not easy, but it is the challenge we embrace in taking on this piece, and that is at the heart of young singers’ development.

My aim with this production is to feature and support its young cast. I truly believe young singers need as much help in development as they can get, not to be bogged down with the unnecessary ideas of an added-on “concept” that’s often contrary to the piece itself. That is not to say such concepts are not part of the opera world or in any way invalid. Many pieces not only benefit from a very strong “concept,” but actually need it. Our casts will meet these ideas in the fullness of time, but, right now, for them, it’s a question of mastering a character and the myriad emotions that come with her or him. Singing and acting are very personal—after all, nobody at a bank or an office is spending six to eight hours a day expressing their heartache after a major rejection or crying into their pillow over a lost love, are they? Our task as directors, designers, and musicians in this venture is to afford these singers every bit of help we can offer.

So, we begin …

We hope you’ll join us on our journey as we prepare to stage Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre, and that you’ll be in the audience when the curtain rises.

Yale Opera will present Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin February 15-17 at the Shubert Theatre.

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Published January 16, 2019
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YSM composer presents “Stinney: An American Execution” in New York

Baltimore premiere of Stinney: An American Execution. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewood Photography

While pursuing degrees and performing at the Yale School of Music, students also actively engage in collaborations outside of Yale, and work to affect change in their communities and beyond. YSM composer Frances Pollock ’19MM has worked in conjunction with the Prototype Festival, French Institute Alliance Française, and Harlem Stage to present the opera Stinney: An American Execution, for which she wrote the score and co-wrote the libretto. Stinney was originally premiered in Baltimore in 2015, where Pollock earned a master’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory. Speaking about the premiere, Pollock said, “Part of our audience came to the show because of their profound dedication to new music. The other part came out of a profound dedication to the fight for human rights. I caught my first glimpse of how art can be a powerful unifier in a moment when there doesn’t seem to be a way to move forward.” Hailed by the Baltimore Sun as a “bold, bracing opera that pulls no punches and never flinches,” Stinney will be performed this weekend at Flourence Gould Hall in New York City.

Stinney tells the story of George Junius Stinney Jr., who was executed at age 14 for a crime he didn’t commit. According to the Prototype Festival website, “Having been wrongly accused and convicted of the rape and murder of two white girls in Alcolu, SC, in 1944, George became the youngest person legally executed in 20th-century America. Stinney tells the story of George, his family, his community, and the jury of ten white men that sent an innocent black boy to the electric chair. A new opera with roots in both gospel and electronic techniques, Stinney: An American Execution spotlights the anger and agony of the entire populous of Alcolu, connecting the dots to our own socio-political climate in 2019 and the pervasive ‘fear of the other.’”

We recently spoke with Pollock and the production’s music director, Alex Blake, about the opera and its importance in today’s world.

Q. What do you think is the role of an artist in tackling issues of racism and oppression? 

Blake: I feel like art should reflect the times that we are in and should reflect the struggles of a people. Art allows artists to reach people, a way to present difficult topics, and a way for audiences to enter into a conversation without feeling defensive or feeling like they have to respond to a topic in the moment. We tell stories and we open up dialogue in an emotional sense that push beyond the academic or intellectual spaces.

Pollock: The thing that I’m most interested in right now is challenging the systems in which art is created. In telling charged stories, we as artists must be aware of our limited perspective and make sure we are working with collaborators who will challenge that perspective in the creative process. For this project, it was crucial to decentralize the role of the composer and focus on establishing a team that is invested in crafting the story. For me personally, being in touch with the Stinney family and including them at every step was the only way to make sure that we were telling the story in a way that truly listened.

We are also trying out a new model for royalties on this opera. As the opera goes on, most of the royalties will go directly to the Stinney family. The cast and creative team will also continue to receive collaborative royalties as the show progresses. This model ensures that the team is recognized for role in the creative process even as the show goes forward.

Q. Why is this opera important? Do you think it is particularly important now, in our current social and political climate? 

Blake: This opera is extremely important. We have seen more and more cases of the struggles and interactions between police and people of color, including Black children. From a socio-political sense this piece definitely brings up questions that we need to respond to as a population in these times right now.

Musically, this opera is important because it involves a story of a community that rarely feels represented in classical music and more specifically in opera. To hear the story of someone in the community and to see members of that community represented on stage is an experience that has not been offered to people of color, and that representation is essential when we talk about the relevance of opera to an American populous.

The status quo for opera is dominated by heteronormative caucasian stories told from a singular perspective. This story about this African American boy and the American systems that have been detrimental to the success and progression of marginalized populations are beautifully represented in Stinney.

Pollock: I totally agree with Alex. It’s also important to challenge the spaces of western art music—spaces that are still predominantly white and predominantly wealthy. There is nothing wrong with canonic repertoire itself nor the audiences that attend these performances, but often these spaces pride themselves on being elite. Elitism often leads to exclusion, and the history of elitism in opera manifests in whole communities being excluded from classical music spaces.

Q. What led you to begin this project? 

Blake: Frances Pollock called me and told me about this opportunity to perform Stinney in New York. I had already read about the first run-through and was both elated and horrified to be asked to be a part of it—you see, this is my first experience conducing an opera, and I remember asking if she was sure that I would be a good fit. I’m very honored and excited to be a part of telling this story.

Pollock: I have been interested in the conversation that surrounds race relations in the South since I was in high school. In college, I spent a little while working with the Innocence Project in North Carolina and became profoundly aware of systemic racism in the prison system. When I moved to Baltimore and began teaching in the public schools, I was faced with the reality that many of my students lived with daily—that low-income communities of color were chronically under-supported and over policed, which perpetuated the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. At the same time, I was confronted with the status quo of classical music training, training that felt wholly unaware of the social injustices that were taking place right outside the ivory walls of the conservatory. (Co-librettist) Tia [Price] and I started writing Stinney to start having a conversation with our colleagues.

Stinney: An American Execution will be performed on January 12, at 5 p.m., and January 13, at 3 p.m, with tickets starting at $30. On January 10, at 7:30 p.m., co-presenter Harlem Stage will host a moderated panel discussion, Democratic Ideals and Racism: An Examination of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, on the creative responses of artists as they witness, experience, and analyze the collective trauma of being Black in America. The discussion will feature members of the creative team of Stinney, and tickets start at $5.

Published January 10, 2019
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YSM Student News | December 2018

Maura Scanlin

Tenor Luis Aguilar ’18MM ’19MMA, bass-baritone Brady Muth ’19MM, mezzo-soprano Rachel Weishoff ’19MMA, and soprano Laura Nielsen ’20MM, were the soloists for the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah with the Hartford Chorale.

San Jittakarn ’19MMA won third prize and Yun Lu ’20MM was one of eight semifinalists in the piano division of the 2018 Geneva International Music Competition.

Violinist Bora Kim ’16MM ’17MMA ’23DMA performed with the Sejong Soloists at Carnegie Hall in November for the ensemble’s Annual Gala Concert, which included works by Wagner, Vivaldi, Ewazen, and a premiere by Augusta Read Thomas MM.

Violinist Julia Mirzoev ’20MM was featured as a soloist in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, with the Durham Youth Orchestra in Whitby, Ontario, Canada.

Violinist Maura Scanlin ’19MM has recorded albums with her two folk bands. The Celtic fiddle/guitar duo Rakish released a self-titled debut EP in October, and Pumpkin Bread, an experimental group that blends Celtic folk and jazz, will release its second album in March 2019.

Xiaoyi Xu ’20MMA placed third and Po-Wei Ger ’20MM placed fifth at the Panama International Piano Competition.

Published December 13, 2018
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YSM Alumni News | November 2018

Molly Joyce. Photo by Nadine Sherman

Flutist Amanda Baker ’00MM returned to Yale in April 2018 to become Senior Associate Director for Young Alumni for the Yale Alumni Fund. She was also a guest lecturer this spring at the University of Hartford, where she taught “Entrepreneurship in the Arts,” and continues to teach flute at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Double Bassist Mark Elliot Bergman ’97MM received a Performing Arts Fellowship in Music from the Wyoming Arts Council, one of four recipients in the state. Bergman’s winning original compositions include Ondine, The Temple, and Shenandoah Suite, a string trio commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Shenandoah National Park.

Violist Emily Grace Brandenburg ’17MMA was named Administrative Assistant at the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. MORE

Published November 7, 2018
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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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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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