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 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 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 performs scenes from Bellini to Berlioz

Marc Verzatt directs performances Oct. 28 & 29

The Yale School of Music presents the singers of Yale Opera in two evenings of opera scenes on Friday and Saturday, October 28 and 29. Each evening will feature a different selection of scenes from popular operas by composers as diverse as Handel, Gounod, Puccini, and more. Both performances will take place at 7:30 pm in Morse Recital Hall, located in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, corner of Wall Street).

A favorite of local audiences, the annual Fall Opera Scenes production showcases the creative talents of artistic director Doris Yarick Cross and stage director Marc Verzatt. This autumn’s production will also feature visual projections designed by students in the Yale School of Drama’s program in projection design. The projection program is directed by Wendall K. Harrington, and here each scene will incorporate the work of a different design student.

The creative team also includes costume designer John Carver Sullivan, lighting designer William Warfel, and musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin. The singers are all students in the renowned Yale Opera program.

Each performance incorporates both the comic and the tragic, including a little bit of Shakespeare. Friday, Oct. 28 will feature scenes from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Verdi’s La Traviata. The program on Saturday, Oct. 29 will feature excerpts from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Bellini’s I Puritani, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, and Puccini’s La Bohème. MORE

Published October 7, 2011
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Rising stars of Yale Opera offer two evenings of opera scenes in Sprague Hall October 29 and 30

Scene from Yale Opera's production of Le Rossignol last April in Sprague Hall.

The Yale School of Music will present the up-and-coming singers of Yale Opera in two evenings of selected opera scenes. The annual Fall Opera Scenes production is an audience favorite, bringing together the creative talents of artistic director Doris Yarick Cross and stage director Marc Verzatt. In addition, this October’s production will feature the work of costume designer John Carver Sullivan, lighting designer William Warfel, and musical directors Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin.

Each evening offers a different program, though both lean toward the tragic more than the comic. Friday, October 29 will feature scenes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La traviata and Falstaff, and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. Scenes on Saturday, October 30 are selected from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, and Gounod’s Faust. The performances begin at 7:30 in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, 470 College Street (corner of Wall Street) in New Haven.

The singers, all students in the renowned Yale Opera program, include Jorge Prego, Eric Barry, Andrew Brown, Jennifer Feinstein, Stephanie Gilbert, Alexander Hahn, Jihee Kim, Samuel Levine, Cameron McPhail, Lorant Najbauer, David Pershall, Annie Rosen, and Lisa Williamson. MORE

Published October 5, 2010
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Fall Opera Scenes: the plots

On October 30 and 31, Yale Opera will present two evenings of opera scenes. To whet your appetite, here are synopses of the scenes to be performed. All synopses are by Grant Meachum. Tickets to the Opera Scenes range from $8 to $12 and are available online or at the box office (203 432-4158).

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31

Navarraise 012 webLE NOZZE DI FIGARO Act II
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, KV 492

Prior to the scene: Figaro and Susanna are to be married.  Susanna is troubled by the Count’s romantic interest in her, but Figaro is confident the Count can be outwitted.  The Count is frustrated by Cherubino’s constant flirtations.  Marcellina, Basilio, and Bartolo are plotting to force Figaro to marry Marcellina to settle an old debt.

The Countess laments that her husband no longer loves her.  Figaro and Susanna hatch a plot to change the Count’s behavior: they will schedule a romantic meeting between the Count and Susanna but send Cherubino (disguised as a women) instead of Susanna.  Cherubino sings a love song he has written for the Countess and Susanna begins to dress him as a woman for the meeting with the Count.  Before the dressing is finished, the Count arrives; Cherubino hides in a closet, but the Count is suspicious that the Countess is hiding a lover there.  The Countess claims Susanna is in the closet but refuses to open the door.  As the Count leaves to get tools to break down the door, Susanna sneaks into the closet and helps Cherubino escape out a window. MORE

Published October 19, 2009
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