Interview with Laquita Mitchell

As she prepares to wow Edmonton audiences with her talent, we asked soprano Laquita Mitchell to share some insights about her character in La Traviata and what she looks forward to in this production.

Edmonton Opera’s La Traviata marks not only your company debut, but also your first time performing in front of a Canadian audience. What are you looking forward to the most for your Canadian debut?

I’m looking forward to working with the esteemed creative team behind this wonderful production! As well as the music making that goes along with preparing one of Verdi’s greatest opera’s.

You’ve been in a few productions of La Traviata during your career. What do you find most compelling about this opera, musically and/or thematically?

I think musically speaking, the overtures to Act 1 and the Final Act of La Traviata reveal every ounce of desperation and hope that the character of Violetta feels about her life. The tragedy is  in the orchestration — Verdi was a genius. Every time I hear the piece I’m reminded of her tragic life.

What is the most challenging and most rewarding part about singing Violetta?

Well obviously Violetta’s Act 1 aria “Ah forse lui, Sempre Libera” is very demanding. Knowing that I must take ownership of role and not be intimidated by its difficulty or try to compare my interpretation with other sopranos is in itself a great reward.

Give us a bit of insight into Violetta’s character from your perspective. What is her objective in the opera? What makes her so relatable to audiences?

I think it’s important to understand that Violetta understands very well what her fate will be. She is very ill with tuberculosis. She knows that she will die young and at her tender age she does not believe that unconditional love exists. The world has taught her cruelty and she understands her “place” in it. When she encounters Alfredo she is very suspicious of his manner. She doesn’t trust him, and rightfully so. But something happens and very quickly she falls in love with his ardent, caring soul. He awakens hope within her, and she falls for him.

Is there a scene, aria, or duet in La Traviata you’re especially excited about performing?

Well I love singing duets.. and I have the opportunity to sing quite a few with my wonderful colleagues. I have to admit the Germont/Violetta duet is wonderful and the Violetta/Alfredo final act duet is truly a gem.

Although this opera is from the mid 19th century, do you think it resonates with any contemporary conversations?

This opera is a masterpiece because Alexandre Dumas did not shy away from what was actually happening during his time in France and readers loved it! The topic of class structure/socio-economic divides are still an issue today which makes the opera La Traviata very relevant.

Which movie would make a great opera and which character would you play?

I think Hidden Figures would make a lovely opera! I’d love to play the role of Katherine Johnson. She was a mathematician who worked for NASA during the space race, she calculated trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions during a time in American History when being a woman and African-American was incredibly difficult. But she is now credited for her efforts on many space explorations!

Who is your favourite composer and why?

I would have to say Verdi and Strauss. Verdi wrote more than 37 operas and let’s not forget the Verdi Requiem which is probably the most important piece of music ever written. There isn’t an opera house in the world that doesn’t perform at least one of his operas a season nor is there a symphony that hasn’t performed the Verdi Requiem. All of his operas include a soprano voice... or two! Richard Strauss’ art songs, symphonic pieces and his dark operas (Elektra, Salome) are for me heaven! I learned to appreciate art song through singing his pieces in college and then as an adult, singing his “Four Last Songs”. One’s heart is changed by singing his music. Difficult to explain, but if you listen to the recording of the third movement “Beim Schlafengehn” I believe you will understand. The great Jessye Norman’s recording is my favorite!

Which aria would you recommend that people search on YouTube because it is so impressive? 

Birgit Nilson singing “Allein weh ganz Allen” from Strauss’ Elektra or Leontyne Price singing  Strauss’ “Zweite Brautnacht” from Strauss’ Die Agyptische Helena 1959 or 1968 recording, or Franco Corelli singing “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

What is your favourite opera that you have seen live?

I would have to say Madama Butterfly.

Building the La Traviata set

Our 2018/19 season opener La Traviata is part of a remarkable moment in Canadian opera history. For the first time, five of Canada’s leading opera companies — Edmonton Opera, Manitoba Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera, and Opéra de Montréal — have come together to create a spectacular new production of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Directed by Alain Gauthier with designs by renowned Stratford Festival designer Christina Poddubiuk, this new Traviata is set amidst the glamorous entertainment scene of 1920s Paris. The era is apparent in both seductive costumes and a lavish set, which was built entirely at Edmonton Opera’s scenic shops by a local crew of skilled professionals.

The process began with a set drawing and model designed by Christina Poddubiuk, featuring a massive curved staircase at the centre. Over the course of 8 weeks, our crew of stage carpenters and welders worked meticulously to bring each detail of the staircase, balcony, large windows, walls, and balustrades to life. As each section was completed, our scenic painters crafted the final look to reflect the designer’s concept.

Soon after the set took shape at the Edmonton Opera Centre, it was dismantled and transported to Manitoba Opera for the world premiere of this new production in April 2018. Audiences in Edmonton will have a chance to experience the visually stunning set this October at the Jubilee Auditorium before it travels to Victoria, Vancouver, and Montréal on its cross-Canadian journey!

Photo by C. Cormeau, Manitoba Opera 2018.

Spotlight on Laquita Mitchell

Spotlight on Laquita Mitchell

When Laquita Mitchell was just fourteen years old, a bright-eyed young high school student in Manhattan, she had the opportunity to experience opera for the first time. Far from the usual ‘starter operas’ like Madama Butterfly or Carmen, Laquita went to see part two of Wagner’s Ring Cycle epic — Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera starring the great soprano Jessye Norman, who had also bought Laquita’s ticket to the performance.


Don Giovanni Director's Message

Don Giovanni Director's Message

Despite the repressive Catholicism of 17th-century inquisitorial Spain, members of the nobility felt free to commit any number of crimes, believing that their status granted them total impunity. One priest, Tirso de Molina, took it upon himself to educate these 'sinners' by writing The libertine of Seville.

In the original Don Giovanni, the story’s protagonist is condemned to eternal damnation by the divine order. Obviously, society has evolved over the past 300 years. So why mount Don Giovanni today? Because the existence of God, the belief in good and evil, and the notion of taking personal responsibility for one’s actions remain hot topics of debate.

Don Giovanni Costume Preview

In April, Edmonton Opera presents a bold new production of Don Giovanni, the crowning masterpiece of Mozart’s Italian repertoire. It has been over a decade since this notorious heartbreaker was last seen on the Jubilee stage and his return is highly anticipated by Edmonton audiences.

Director Oriol Tomas pays homage to the origins of the Don Juan myth in this production, infusing a timeless Spanish flavour in all aspects of the design. Don Giovanni is seen as a matador-like figure who is not only of a higher status in society, but also enjoys the life of a superstar, which allows him to be so casually reckless. “Matadors are bona fide celebrities who are applauded and adored by fans…their prideful attitude is reflective of Don Giovanni’s hubris. Matadors defy death, and Don Giovanni defies God,” explains Tomas.

DongSlide1.jpg

Although this Don Giovanni is not set in a particular era, Tomas wants to invoke a sense of the past and its grandeur. For costume designer Deanna Finnman, the concept is an exciting one. “When there is a period, you have parameters for the design…you know what the silhouette is, what the colours and fabrics are. But when it’s timeless, you have to create your own parameters,” she says. “In this production, we have a very condensed colour palette: black, white, red and gold, into which we infuse elements of Spanish traditional design in each of the garments to create a through line.”

Don Giovanni will have a few different costumes throughout, all of which make him look sleek and seductive. Finnman is interested in showcasing the body of this mysterious matador, suggesting an almost ballet-like smoothness to his movements. Another striking costume belongs to the vivacious Donna Elvira, a jilted ex-lover who chases Don Giovanni around for most of the opera. Finnman was inspired by the idea of a ‘revenge dress’ made popular by Princess Diana and saw it as a perfect fit for Elvira’s character.

Donna Elvira Final.jpg

Our stylish new production promises to steal audiences’ hearts with its spectacular designs and a talented cast including baritone Phillip Addis as Don Giovanni, soprano Michele Capalbo as Donna Anna, and tenor John Tessier as Don Ottavio. Get your tickets before they’re gone!

Director Rob Herriot steers our jazzy new Pinafore

One day while rehearsing Cinderella last January, Tim Yakimec came into rehearsal, leaned over my shoulder and quietly said, “1920s Pinafore, new Jazz orchestration” and walked out. Well that was it, an idea pitched and sent out into the ether! Now I have to confess to being a bit of a Gilbert & Sullivan purist, but as I get older I am thinking more and more outside the box, and so along with my brilliant team of designers we set forth to explore this idea.

First, I had to be sure there was a concrete reason why this would work. I did plenty of research about the period and then looked at what the original piece was saying to find some links. The operetta mainly pokes fun at the class system in Victorian England. Similarly, during the 1920s there was indeed a very sharp divide between the old Edwardian Guard who were resistant to changes, and this brave new society of “Bright Young Things” who were advancing forward with new ways of living and thinking. This was my jumping off point.

When discussing the new orchestration, it became apparent that there was a very clear divide that helped dictate what music would be changed and what would remain traditional, based on the characters themselves. Obviously, the Captain, Sir Joseph and Dick Deadeye would remain very traditional. The sailors and “Sisters, Cousins and Aunts” would represent the younger set — they would be “Hip to the Jive”. Josephine starts her journey under the thumb of her father but breaks away and finds her own voice. And so this is how we proceeded.

In looking at the physical silhouette of the production, it was clear we needed to set the piece on a 1920s Cunard Liner, adding texture to the crew to reflect a more “Love Boat” group of workers, The Purser, chef, sailor etc. My two brilliant designers then created a spectacular look for the show.

Now the final test was hearing the first sound file of new orchestration. Within 30 seconds I was hooked! The physical production came to life in my imagination and we set sail from there. I do hope you enjoy this jazzy new HMS Pinafore!

Gilbert & Sullivan: Masters of Satire

In their nearly 30 years of collaboration, the creators of HMS Pinafore and other iconic works such as The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance took every opportunity to poke fun at British society. Librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) saw art as a way to entertain the masses while also engaging them in political critique. Some of their most memorable characters and plots could easily be connected to real things happening in Britain, and their commentary on these events was often scathing or at least sarcastic.

wsgilbert.jpg

W.S. Gilbert

William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired naval surgeon. After finishing his military training as a young man, Gilbert worked in a government bureau job until he received a nice inheritance from an aunt. He decided to study law but didn’t have much success with it, quitting his law practice after just a few years.

Gilbert was known for his biting humour and sarcasm, which made his contributions to a British magazine named FUN quite popular. He also made cartoons to appear alongside his writing, which were often signed “Bab”. Many of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are based on these “Bab” characters.

Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74, while attempting to save a drowning woman.

Sullivan.jpg

Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London, in 1842 to a very musical family. His father was a bandmaster at the Royal Military College and before age 10 Sullivan had mastered all of the wind instruments in his father's band. He won competitions, earned scholarships, and even went to Germany to present his thesis in front of Franz Liszt.

For the next ten years Sullivan was a professor of music, a teacher, and an organist. As one of the leading composers of the day, Sullivan had many influential friends in every circle of society including many monarchs in Europe. He composed several major choral works including The Light of the World, The Martyr of Antioch, The Golden Legend, and his lone grand opera, Ivanhoe.

From 1872 until his death in 1900, Sullivan suffered from extremely painful kidney stones and it is said that his most beautiful music was composed while he endured great pain. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883.

Satire in HMS Pinafore

Gilbert & Sullivan took aim at the Royal Navy in this delightful operetta, pointing out British society’s silly obsession with class. The characters most obviously barred by their different ranks are lovers Ralph Rackstraw, a lowly sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. They spend most of the operetta pondering ways to be together, seeing as Josephine’s hand had already been promised to the old Sir Joseph, a high-ranking officer in the Navy.

Sir Joseph is a hilarious caricature, based on a real British politician of the time, who gloats about how he came to achieve such a high rank without having any talent whatsoever. He sings about all the schmoozing that got him where he is and emphasizes the greatness of bureaucracy. He also scolds the Captain of the Pinafore and tells him to treat his crew as equals. In that moment, Sir Joseph completely disavows the class system, which earns him some favour with the audience.

But his love of equality doesn’t last long. When Josephine and Ralph are caught trying to elope, Sir Joseph is livid and has Ralph imprisoned on board.

The biggest joke about class comes in at the very end, when the librettist creates a completely unexpected reversal of fortunes just for the sake of a happy ending. As the Pinafore descends into chaos, with Ralph imprisoned, Sir Joseph throwing an angry fit, the Captain trying to win back his favour, and Josephine defiantly declaring her love for Ralph, it looks as if the audience should expect a sad ending. That is, until Little Buttercup enters the scene and tells everyone she has a confession to make.

Buttercup confesses that many years ago there were two baby boys in her care — one of high birth and the other of low birth. She switched the two before handing them to their parents, which means both boys grew up in a class they didn’t originally belong to. She then reveals the identities of these two boys: Ralph Rackstraw and The Captain!

On account of his newly discovered rank, Ralph is released from prison and becomes the new captain of the Pinafore, in accordance with his high birth. Since class is no longer a barrier, Ralph is free to marry Josephine, who has lost her previous rank. As well, the Captain, who is now a mere sailor, can finally admit his true feelings for Little Buttercup and marry her without any hesitation.

The whole crew celebrates this reversal of fortunes and everyone shouts their love of Britain in a delirious display of patriotism. Gilbert & Sullivan write this over-the-top finale to be tongue-in-cheek about national identity. Just a few minutes ago class differences were unraveling and conflict was heated, but now that love is aligned with the proper social ranks, we can once again sing about how truly great it is to be an Englishman!

An Extra Saucy Beauty of a Ship: Ginning up HMS Pinafore for the Jazz Age

Our upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore puts a delightful 1920s twist on the classic operetta, not just in its setting, but also in its sound. We invited New York-based composer and arranger Ed Windels to re-orchestrate HMS Pinafore to produce a jazz-flavoured score unlike anything audiences have heard before! In this guest post, Windels reflects on his Pinafore journey and offers exciting insights into the process of creating a jazzy, toe-tapping new take on this beloved score. If you haven't already, get your tickets to board the HMS Pinafore February 3, 6 & 9 at the Jubilee Auditorium!


EdWindels.jpg

“Things are seldom as they seem,” intimates Mrs. Cripps (a.k.a. Little Buttercup), an ethos arguably at the heart of much of the work of Gilbert & Sullivan with its concealed identities and ironically bewildering plot twists. This includes their 1876 operetta HMS Pinafore. Taking its cue from this, Edmonton Opera seeks to intrigue fans of this much beloved classic by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting is now a glamorous cruise ship of the period, with the storyline and music tailored accordingly. Early in 2017, they asked if I would be willing to undertake giving Sullivan's score a new, swinging, jazz-oriented orchestration.

We decided to make the score a hybrid: keep one half as-is, rewrite the other half jazzed. This allows the music to highlight the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, aristocratic characters retaining their Victorian music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast embracing the new idiom for a rousing finale.

My aim in the updated numbers was to retain enough sense of the original that fans wouldn’t feel completely, um, at sea, while adding flavor through reharmonization and almost complete rethinking of rhythmic structures, including the vocal lines, in addition to an entire revamping of the orchestral dressing. The keys, vocal notes and melodies are largely unaltered. To avoid the new sections all sounding similar, I took advantage of the broad palette of styles and genres from the era. Thus Ralph’s music nods at the swoony sentimentality of Rudy Vallee, Buttercup pays earthy homage to Bessie Smith, a sultry tango here, a little Original Dixieland Band swing there. And of course a Charleston or two!

The most fascinating aspect of this project for me was its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical -- effectively what’s happening with this show -- the typical process would have the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of readings, workshops or out of town tryouts. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast of the ongoing process, he or she rarely begins proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base their coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements and appropriately reflect them.

With this Pinafore the process was completely reversed. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create new vocal scores so the performers could learn them, I was requested to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, before any staging ideas had begun, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices. The actual direction and revised libretto would then be inspired by my finished work. This situation was both empowering and intimidating, but ultimately proved to be great fun as I began to share the completed portions of the score, allowing director Rob Herriot and myself to let our imaginations run wild.

This project has been as much of an adventure for the creative team as it has been for these beloved characters, and I'm confident audiences will have as much fun experiencing it as we did creating it. So raise your glasses and the gang plank, and bon voyage!

To learn more about New York-based composer Ed Windels visit www.ed-windels.com

Message from composer Kevin March

The story of the serendipitous and odds-defying creation of Les Feluettes began in March 2002, when I saw Lilies. Minutes into the film, I had an overwhelming sense that I was watching an opera. The words were lyrical; the characters, compelling; their stories, absorbing. It was easy to imagine the lines being sung. As I left the cinema, I was already making plans to adapt the film into an opera. By the end of that year, I was discussing the adaption with Michel Marc Bouchard.

In March 2011, Michel Beaulac, Artistic Director of the Opéra de Montréal, contacted Michel Marc to discuss commissioning an opera based on one of his plays. Although we did not know it, the play he had in mind was Les Feluettes.. Imagine our delight in being able to show Michel Beaulac that we had already started work on just such an opera.  As these events unfolded in Montreal, over in Victoria, Patrick Coorigan, Ian Rye, and Timothy Vernon were also imagining an opera based on Les Feluettes. When they heard of Montréal’s planthey joined Opéra de Montréal as co-procuder to bring Les Feluettes to the opera stage.

Over the course of the next 5 years, Michel Marc adapted his play into a libretto and I wrote the music for Les Feluettes. A series of four developmental workshops were held during which every scene, aria, duet, chorus, quite literally every word and measure of the opera was tested.  Cuts were made, scenes revised, new arias added. During rehearsals, leading up to the premiere, a chorus section was added, a whole scene change was added and an entirely new aria was composed for Etienne Dupuis and added with only one week to go before opening.

I’m often asked how one approaches the task of writing an opera.  In this case it all began with the words, which were rich with musical implications. The play’s stage directions call for the use of Debussy’s incidental music to D’Annunzio’s infamous Le Martyre de St. Sebastien which frames Vallier and Simon’s love for one another; the 1912 settings recall the music of the Belle Epoch and American ragtime; and La musique traditionnelle québécoise would have been commonplace. In creating the sound of Les Feluettes, it seemed necessary that all of these musical references be respected and represented.