Words First: Talking Text in Opera

Talking About Words

January 04, 2021 Keturah Stickann Season 2 Episode 1
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Talking About Words
How do we talk about words?
Joseph Mechavich
Stephen Costello and “Human Madness”
Karen Kamensek and Otello
Daniel Kramer talks Nixon in China
Alexandra Deshorties and not being “pretty”
Emily Fons and “OOPS and UBU”
Frederica Von Stade talks about the importance of emotional interpretation
Efrain Solis and Three Decembers
Thaddeus Strassberger and Ariadne auf Naxos
Patrick Summers, Hansel & Gretel, and hearing the words in their absence
Jonathan Lemalu talks about Queequeg
Steven Osgood and the use of the space in between in JFK
Alexandra LoBianco and living in the space in between with Turandot
Leaving room for the words with Crystal Manich and David Walker
Alexandra Loutsion and the simplicity of “Vissi D’Arte”
Ned Canty speaks of The Elixir of Love
Eva Maria Westbroek and the heartbreak of Jenufa
How I’m using these conversations
William Burden and the connection of text within live performance
Epilogue and Outplay
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Talking About Words
Jan 04, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
Keturah Stickann
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Keturah 00:00

2021.  I’ve tried not to pin any hopes on it, and yet I find myself looking at the calendar and wondering if more will remain.  Those empty squares are what make me so thankful that I put my fears aside and started this podcast.  It’s given me creative purpose in this endless desert of work and creation.  And in fact, the last six weeks have been ripe with conversation in a way that I wasn’t expecting.  I wanted to start this season with a few small interviews with singers, directors, and conductors, people who don’t normally appear on this podcast.  I sent out an email to some people, asking them to pick a piece of text that moves them, to chat with me about it, to divorce the text with the music as they discuss it, and if they can’t, to talk about why that marriage is so sacred.  I thought I would talk to five people and craft an episode from that, however, these talks were so moving and funny and somehow important, that once I started, I found that I couldn’t stop.

Artists 1:03

Hi, I’m Daniel Kramer.  So my name is Alexandra Deshorties.  Hi, I’m David Walker.  My name is Efrain Solis.  My name is Karen Kamensek.  My name is Jonathan Lemalu...[mish mash of people saying their names]

Keturah 01:25

Every time I sat down in my closet studio, I had a new score in front of me.  We discussed old standards like Tosca, Le Nozze di Figaro, Elixir of Love, Turandot.  Newer pieces like Three Decembers and Moby-Dick, JFK, Cold Mountain, and Anna Nicole, and everything in between from Ariadne auf Naxos to Roberto Devereaux.  Each piece of text a little jewel that we pulled apart in a unique way, and yet, in each conversation there were similarities; themes that kept coming up.

01:55 - Mozart played on a piano

Keturah 02:12

Welcome to “Words First: Talking Text in Opera”

02:18 - Mozart played on a piano

Keturah 02:46

How do we talk about words in this industry?  The music is nearly always spoken of as an entity in and of itself, but the words make up a huge chunk of the music.  They almost always come first, and yet often get pushed aside in operatic conversation.  It’s why I started this podcast last June, and why I asked all of these opera professionals to bring me words they could talk about.  I learned a lot from them about how we as artists deal with this most difficult and varied part of what we do in the creation of opera.  Take conductor, Joseph Mechavich, who stated his relationships to words pretty clearly.

Joseph Mechavich 03:24

Any artist, anybody who’s working in theaters allow yourself, even if you’re flapping your arms, or you’re telling people where to go, you have to be open to this emotional space, and be empathetic about the words.  It’s mind-numbing to me when I talk to a lot of people how a lot of opera conductors might not be obsessed with the text.  I mean, the words are everything.

Keturah 03:54

Or, Stephen Costello, talking about “Human Madness,” from Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, who echoes what Maestro Mechavich had to say:

Stephen Costello 04:03

In this particular piece, because there is minimal - minimal - orchestration going on, I always related with the words more than I did with the music.  And in this case, I really feel like this is one of the few...I mean, in my career as a singer, I’ve always been told, especially by conductors, by coaches, “let the words take you there.  Don’t think about vocalism, and let the words take you there.”  And that is true.  Sometimes it’s a lot harder, especially when you’re singing complicated music.  You know, when you’re singing more complicated music, it’s very rhythmic or very fast, so it makes it a lot more difficult.  Especially in a lot of Rossini or things like that, where you’re singing the same vowel for 15 minutes, it can be difficult.  This is one of those times where I really just let go of the music and let the words take me there.

Keturah 04:55

Or another conductor, Karen Kamensek, who in talking about one tiny moment in Verdi and Boito’s Otello, works out why she was so surprised at how deep these moments of text can stick:

Karen Kamensek 05:10

I’m surprised that this little piece of text stuck with me for so many years, and actually, I look forward to it when I conduct it and then I’m like, “oh, but that’s literally two seconds,” but that’s the power of moments of music.  You know, it’s a total visceral thing and you can’t analyze why it means something to you or why it doesn’t.  And for me, I think it’s just that revelation of his nakedness and his being a man for just that moment.  Everything else I think is this, “Leone!” You know, “The great Otello!”

Keturah 05:41

These are big themes and ideas about how we work with and immerse ourselves into text.  Here’s director, Daniel Kramer, who, while discussing Alice Goodman’s libretto for John Adams’ Nixon in China, talks of his love for poetic text because of its interpretive allowances.

Daniel Kramer 05:59

So she managed to somehow capture the historical, the mythical - absolutely - but also the most personal, and poetic.  And I don’t know about you, but I love it when a libretto is extremely poetic and a puzzle to solve what they really mean, what they might be saying, which is where the interpretation of the canon comes in, so yeah, this was it for me.

Alexandra Deshorties 06:36

It has become a little bit, the goal, in opera, to do “pretty” because we’re not theater.

Keturah 06:32

Alexandra Deshorties, throwing down a gauntlet about interpreting text within an operatic score.

Alexandra Deshorties 06:38

And we have taken away the rights of the text, and if you can say a Shakespeare monologue twenty different ways, it’s because there’s a structure that allows you to superimpose interpretation, and I think there is the same thing going on here.  The problem is that for that to be achieved, you have to be immersed in the text.  You have to not just speak the language, but understand it poetically, and I know some people who are Italian who don’t get it.  And, you know, I’ve had these discussions with Italians that I was like, “Oh, why are you singing it this way?  You’re Italian.”  But it’s because they’re at the service of, “Oh, I need this to be pretty.” You know, and I understand “pretty”, but “pretty” is doing us a big disservice.  And it does a disservice in theater.  You would never let people express a character, you would never let people play the part of Macbeth or Hamlet in a pretty way.  You would ask him to give you meaning, to give you an interpretation, to make these words sing.  So that’s really important to me.

Keturah 07:59

Emily Fons continues down this path, explaining Wesley Balk’s concept of the continuum of “OOPS and UBU,” a fascinating way to look at how we deal with the balance of words and music at any given moment.  Emily is talking about the dichotomy that is Ruby’s personality in Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain.

Emily 08:19

There’s this singing philosophy, I think it’s a Wesley Balk thing: “OOPS and UBU,” and its just...I kind of live by it as a singer.  “OOPS,” they’re acronymns “O.O.P.S.:” “The one and only perfect sound”, and “UBU’ being “Ugly, but useful.”  And I love this spectrum, and I feel that Ruby and her text, and...you know, even in this scene, we know where this scene is heading, right?  That this is what I love, that this is poetic text, “It’s alive.  It’s growing and dying.  It whispers something new all the time.  Name me two things blooming now, two things fruiting.  How many days til the next full moon?”  Like those are just beautiful words to say: “blooming,” “fruiting.”  Like they’re just very...regardless of your accent, dialect, they’re just beautiful, but you know a couple pages later she says, “Damn you to hell!  Not gonna die for you,” to her Dad [laughter].  So I love that within this character, and within all of us we have our moments of “OOPS” and our moments of “UBU” I think so...

Keturah 09:27

Emotional interpretation is a huge topic, and I found that so many people brought me text that didn’t force them to fight with what they were supposed to be doing musically.  It’s a big question, whether the text can be divorced from the music, or whether one should take precedent.  Is it ever possible to have them be equal partners?  Frederica Von Stade went down that road a little with me.  We were talking about Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, as well as Leonard Foglia and Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, and in this clip she points out the importance of a well-crafted, and truly married libretto and score:

Frederica Von Stade 10:05

More important, even than the vocal presentation, is the emotional presentation and the theatrical presentation, and they’re so well written.  I mean Jake’s characters are so well-written.  The words are so well-written.  The way they’re...the texts are distributed with their vowels and their consonants and their ellisions in such a perfect way that they fit a natural expression.  You know, there’s not that challenge of driving the text home so people get it because that work has been done for us.  And then the musical work has been done for us by Jake and Ricky.

Keturah 11:02

Baritone, Efrain Solis, also talks about Three Decembers, how it’s crafted, and how both words and music have become indispensable to the other.

Efrain Solis 11:12

It’s not complex, but the way that he talks about he’s writing in his journal every day since Burt has passed away.  And he’s counted the days, and he’s counted the weeks, and he’s counted the months now.  And he never really knows what to write down, so then at some point he says, “Questions, curses, prayers, lists,” and even...he’s listing the fact that he’s making a list, and it just...and then the way that Jake took the words and basically made them music.  And I can’t think about those words without hearing the intro, and I can’t think about the intro without thinking about the words.

Keturah 12:08

Director and designer, Thaddeus Strassberger, goes a step further to say that Strauss’ music and Hoffmannsthal’s libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos elevate each other to a sum much greater than they are individually.

Thaddeus Strassberger 12:22

Well, I think the way the music and text work together in Ariadne is the way that the two lovers work together in Ariadne.  I think that both of them are separately interesting, and I think that together they become much more than the sum of their parts.  That I wouldn’t probably listen to Ariadne with the words stripped out of it, just sort of as an orchestral sort of soundscape.  But neither do the words...I wouldn’t go around like humming any of the words, you know, “There is a kingdom, where everything is dead, and it has a name.  It’s called The Kingdom of Death.”  You know?  Like, these are not things that you go around sort of whistling.  [Singing German] You know, you’re like, “oh wow.”  And even the tune isn’t something like, “Un bel di vedremo...” You don’t sort of like, quickly hum it, but yet when the two things go together, they become...it’s like this alchemy.

Keturah 13:21

And conductor and artistic director fo Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers, who recently conducted a Hansel and Gretel, takes it all a step further to say that Englebert Humperdinck’s music is elevated by Adelheid Wette’s words even when the words are not there.

Patrick Summers 13:36

But of course the greatest single moment in Hansel & Gretel is that music in the pantomime when the children are asleep, where, you know, this great summit of protection that the angels provide, but the angels don’t say anything.  It’s all in the orchestra.  But if you haven’t heard the hymn sung...if you haven’t heard the words, it doesn’t make sense.

Keturah 14:06

Well, you kind of want to be able to hear the words happening.  Is that...

Patrick Summers 14:11

You do.  And in that great gleaming brass chorale in the pantomime, you hear the words, but no one is singing anything.

Keturah 14:24

Expanding on this, Jonathan Lemalu, Bass, speaking of Queequeg from Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick.

Jonathan Lemalu 14:32

I think if I heard them first, with just their words, it would not be as powerful for me.  I think the fact that they became cinematic when the words hit.  “When ocean touch heaven,” when the words hit the music and you had that little flashpoint, you had that shimmer.  I think, and for me when I hear the music that resonates with me, it’s that initial thing. It’s not actually even the initial thing of me learning it, but when you put those words and that music in the space, in that...we’re on a boat, were crew mates, we’ve become family.  Suddenly the music, to me, is seasoned differently.  I see music as much as I hear it, and those words with this...quite cultural kind of log drums, kind of very much his past, the harmonies of Pacific Island, Polynesian, cultural choral music within that, I think it’s evocative of him going home, and his memories of what he talked about in that duet with Greenhorn before with, you know, I’ll take you there, and it’s a magical place.  It feels like it’s calling him when that music is there.  You know, “Byum pum pum.”  My ancestors are calling me somehow, which is why he’s so confident and so aware that it’s time to go.  It’s not, you know, “Oh, you know, it could be now, it could be tomorrow” in his heart and his mind and his soul that feels like that.  To me it’s actually the space in between the words.  And, as I get older, I’m becoming more aware of, A. My ability to ramble, and also my ability to know when to just let the words sit and marinate, and waft.

Keturah 16:22

Jonathan is not the only one who talks about the space in between the words, and why that third element is important.  Steven Osgood, conductor and general director of Chautauqua Opera, talks about it on a technical level as he discusses Royce Vavrek and David T. Little’s J.F.K.

Steven Osgood 16:41

There’s silence in between these.  Now we’re kind of getting into the musical treatment of them, but the silence can be there because the text, the questions in particular.  The questions and the answers need to ring.  They need to hang in the air a little bit, and the hang, the rests, are between the questions and the answers.

Keturah 17:15

So the setting has something to do with it as well, the way that David set it.

Steven Osgood 17:21

The way Royce set David up to be able to set up, and the fact that David realized it.  No, you know, but... “every day for the rest of his life?”  Rest, rest, rest, “He will.”

Keturah 17:36

Once again, we hear how important that symbiosis of librettist and composer is in finding that transcendence.  And in the most brilliant revelation of the space in between, Alexandra LoBianco on Turandot:

Alexandra LoBianco 17:51

I had this epiphany moment, and I will never forget. It happened on “E l’alba, e l’alba, e l’alba.”  I was sitting at my parent’s house, and I was sitting at the table just listening, and thinking through the text, and processing it all, and all of a sudden I went, “Oh!  This is who she is.  She’s not this idea of this horrible, icy princess.  She’s this fragile child who’s grown and...oh, I get her! I understand! This is who she is!”  And that moment, I think that’s the moment I realized I could understand the in between, the in between text and the in between music and how it functions, and how it...oh man, I get emotional thinking about it.  And how it really can...that’s the reason it touches us as human beings, because that is where we exist.  We don’t exist in the text, we don’t exist in the music, we exist in the in between, and we find each other in the in between, and again, “e l’alba,” you’re in between dark and light.  It’s all connected there and it’s so special.

Keturah 18:59

Last season, one of the biggest themes that kept showing up every time I spoke with a librettist was what Richard Wesley called, “The economy of words,” and what Royce Vavrek referred to as, “leaving room for the music.”  The words and music fit together when they aren’t fighting each other, and time and again, we find that the more a librettist leaves room for the music to also speak, the more a composer can weave a symbiosis between the words and music.  Both director, Crystal Manich, and David Walker, General director of Palm Beach Opera, speak of this.  First is Crystal, talking about Adriana LeCouvreur, by Colautti and Cilea.

Crystal Manich 19:36

You know, when you look at it on the page, they’re very short phrases, but then when you listen to a recording, it’s just, like just how Cilea stretches out these vowels and...it’s incredible.

Keturah 19:51

And now David, speaking of “Voi Che Udite” from Handel and Calzabigi’s Agrippina.

David Walker 19:57

What’s also good about this aria too is that really, text wise, it’s short.  The A section is really just one sentence, but the aria I think is what? 8 minutes?  It is.  But it’s the way that Handel spins out this whole lyrico super legato minor aria with that oboe obbligato that just sort of floats over the strings, and then the voice floats through it too.  There’s no way that someone can’t feel something from that.

Alexandra Loutsion 20:32

I think...haha...I’m going to be so annoying right now.  But in the simplicity of these words comes the complexity of emotion. Do you know what I mean?  So I think that like, that’s...when the words are simple like that, then, I mean, then you can put anything on it really.  Like I was saying, there’re so many different ways you can play Tosca.

Keturah 21:00

Through the simplicity of the words, comes the complexity of emotion.  Soprano, Alexandra Loutsion, sums up everything we’ve been speaking about while discussing “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini and Giacos and Illica’s Tosca.  Director, Ned Canty, also the General director of Opera Memphis, spoke about simplicity as well, and mentioned that delicious space in between.  And he came to me with nothing but a two-word phrase: “Oh Gioia” from Donizetti and Romani’s The Elixir of Love.

Ned Canty 21:31

So it’s the moment when, like, Nemorino is saying, “Tu M’ami?” “You love me?” And she’s saying, “I love you,” and he’s saying, ‘You love me?  You love ME?”  She’s saying, “I love you,” and then she hugs him and then there’s this beautiful big fermata over him saying, “Oh gioia,” and it’s just like a...I’m literally getting goosebumps, like, as I think of that moment because it is...it is a great example of someone sort of not knowing what to say, and the way in which they’re saying it in the opera impacting the way that the word is received by the audience.  And after this build, this build, this build, it’s just like this little moment of...it’s like when white noise goes away and you hear silence, and you go, “Ah!” Like, there’s just a relief to it.  So it’s just the...and the music does part of the battle, but I think there’s something about the simplicity of those two words and, you know, after all these repetitions of disbelief, it’s just a great moment that, for me, is all about what is said.

Keturah 22:50

That simplicity came up, yet again, with soprano Eva Maria Westbroek while we talked about Jenufa.  I feel like Eva Maria really ties it together here in discussing the simplicity of phrase, the music, and the emotional interpretation.

Eva Maria Westbroek 23:05

Jenufa comes back to...out of her drugged episode and sees the Kostelnicka who just murdered her child, and comes in and says, “Where’s my baby?”  And Kostelnicka says...you know, the stepmom is Kostelnicka, says, “Don’t you know...” you know makes up a story and says, “You know it was sick, and you were sick, you were both sick and it died.”  And the words that Jenufa says are just saying, “I imagined my life so different.”  And I don’t know why, but this always breaks my heart because this is what loss does to you.  I mean, I think we can all relate, and you can relate more than anyone probably.  But this really...and I sang this...this is very personal, but I sang this... My first real production of it, I think it was my first production, was when I had just lost my best friend.  And he was like my soulmate and everything, and so it was such a weird...and I couldn’t get through it.  I couldn’t sing these words.  I could not say, especially those words, “I imagined it all so differently.”  Because those hit home.

Keturah 24:27

These conversations have truly fed me over the past two months.  They were so full of passion, true love of the operatic form, and that wonderful desire to keep finding things inside of the music and the text.  I also love how text work can branch off into many diversions, and we found ourselves inside of conversations about the pandemic, about finding our way back to live performance, and about the importance of solace while we’re stressing about career, and about laughing with and talking to those who can feed our curiosity.  I thought I was making one episode with these chats, and instead I’ll be crafting the season around them.  You’ll hear from all of these amazing artists again and again, as well as several more waiting in the wings, and this is in conjunction with the long-form interviews I have coming up with librettists, creators, and composers.  I want to actually end with a beautiful moment from my talk with tenor, William Burden.  We talked about The Rake’s Progress, but these words about text and music and the power of live performance, speak to everything we all desire right now.

William Burden 25:34

I was describing this to a student recently, and this is one of the things about live performance.  What is so incredible about live performance is it doesn’t just happen aurally.  My voice affects you through your sternum.  Your bones vibrate with the vibration of my sound.  And that’s what text is, and text plus music takes us to this place that becomes emotional.  It goes...it can even sort of side step all the parts of our brain that are analytical and go right to the emotion part of things, which is why pre supertitles, people still loved opera.  It’s why when you go to the ballet, and you see movement trans...you know, you see story translated into movement with music, it moves you.  But text, even if I don’t understand it, set to music, just goes right into our souls.  That is the thing about this art form that still blows me away.  And is still, when I’m performing...and even if it’s something comic, or something, you know...there is just something about that connection of text and music that is transcendent.  It feeds me, absolutely.

Keturah 27:02

It feeds us.  Indeed it does.  Thank you for listening today.  If you’d like to hear these interviews in their entirety as well as bonus materials and outtakes, you can become a patron of my podcast by going to Patreon.com/words first podcast.  That’s P.a.t.r.e.o.n. Dot com back slash words first podcast.  All of my episodes from every season are also available at wordsfirst.Buzzsprout.com, or wherever you get your podcasts.  Words First is recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee.  A special thanks to Mathieu Doucet and Richard Stickann for their generous support, Aurelie Doucet for a beautiful water colored logo, Eileen Downey for the Mozart, and Randy Ravioli for the...minimal barking.  Until next time, take care of each other, and keep telling stories.

28:03 - Mozart played on a piano

How do we talk about words?
Joseph Mechavich
Stephen Costello and “Human Madness”
Karen Kamensek and Otello
Daniel Kramer talks Nixon in China
Alexandra Deshorties and not being “pretty”
Emily Fons and “OOPS and UBU”
Frederica Von Stade talks about the importance of emotional interpretation
Efrain Solis and Three Decembers
Thaddeus Strassberger and Ariadne auf Naxos
Patrick Summers, Hansel & Gretel, and hearing the words in their absence
Jonathan Lemalu talks about Queequeg
Steven Osgood and the use of the space in between in JFK
Alexandra LoBianco and living in the space in between with Turandot
Leaving room for the words with Crystal Manich and David Walker
Alexandra Loutsion and the simplicity of “Vissi D’Arte”
Ned Canty speaks of The Elixir of Love
Eva Maria Westbroek and the heartbreak of Jenufa
How I’m using these conversations
William Burden and the connection of text within live performance
Epilogue and Outplay