Handel’s Alcina will be performed by OperaRox Productions on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 2 p.m.; Studio Artists Performance is Sunday, February 12, 2017, at 7 p.m. For details and tickets, see here.
This is the third (and last) in a series of posts on Alcina. The first gives a summary of the plot, plus the singers’ takes on what makes their character roll out of bed in the morning. The second covers the arias and scenes that the singers found most fun and most challenging. This one includes big-picture comments by Producer Kim Feltcamp and Stage Director Maayan Voss de Bettancourt, plus suggestions from the performers on what to bear in mind when you’re listening to Baroque opera in general and this production in particular.
From the producer, Kim Feltkamp
Why Baroque? Why Alcina? How does the choice of this particular opera reflect OperaRox’s core values / mission statement?
I knew I wanted to choose a Baroque opera for this season because it’s great for young voices and it lends itself to a greater flexibility in casting in terms of voice type. It came down to Alcina and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and I went with Alcina because we have a production concept for it that is relevant and immediate and must be shared.
I think of each season as two parts: one for the singers and the other for composers. Alcina represents the part of the season that caters to the singers because it’s an opera that they will most likely perform again. I chose Le Nozze di Figaro last season with the same goal in mind.
How do you get the word out about your productions? Who do you wish you could reach out to more?
Promotion is definitely one of the hurdles for opera in general. It’s not a part of the average person’s everyday life, so it’s a bit harder to reach out in conventional ways. So far, I’ve promoted our shows via social media and word of mouth. I think we’re all our best advocates and we should tell the people around us about opera all the time.
How involved has the OperaRox online community been in this production?
The online community has been a bit less involved in Alcina than it has been for our past production of Figaro and our upcoming double bill of premieres this summer. [More here]. For Figaro, they were the major source of funding and for the summer double bill, they’re the main source of talent. Both premieres have been written by OperaRox composers and many of the singers are OperaRoxers from around the US. But for Alcina, the community has generally just been a squad of cheerleaders and I love that.
From the stage director, Maayan Voss de Bettancourt
What’s the message you want to convey with this production of Alcina? What process did you go through to decide that?
The message I want to convey is that love, support, and persistence have the ability to convince those we love to save themselves. Not every time, but sometimes. We have an underlying theme of addiction in this production. Alcohol and prescription opioid dependency are rampant in our military and general society; support and resources are key to breaking that cycle.
The original spark for this production came a couple years ago when Jennifer Choi, a friend of mine, posted online:
“Somebody really needs to do a production of Alcina where Alcina represents drug addiction. It all seems to fit so perfectly that someone must have done it somewhere. Alcina represents the drug and often the world to which addicts disappear when they are high. And everyone else there to save Ruggiero, who is the addict, represents the friends and family who suffer when someone is dealing with addiction. Ultimately they help Ruggiero but he is the one who has to conquer and break the addiction (the urn). WHY HAS NOBODY DONE THIS BEFORE.”
I immediately latched onto this concept. I believe my exact words were “Oh my god I’m stealing this.” We riffed back and forth on the idea a couple times, then dropped it. I kept mulling it over, mentally returning to it every so often, and then Kim approached me about putting this opera on because she had witnessed the online exchange and I had geeked out about it to her further after the fact.
Is it more important for a director to make a production interesting, or to keep it faithful to the composer’s work? Or is that a false dichotomy? I just saw a mention of Rigoletto set on Planet of the Apes, so this is on my mind.
Being interesting vs. faithful is absolutely a false dichotomy. The most interesting productions highlight the nuance in the music. They respond to and elevate it. They bring what was subconscious, what was entering through the back door of our ears, to the fore. Composers didn’t write all those notes just because they sound pretty. Every melisma has a meaning. They tell you the shape of the character’s feelings and intention, and the most interesting directors (and performers) respond to those cues.
Opera is interesting without contrivance. It’s also exciting, sexy, and violent on its own, and any attempt to disguise that rings false (think of those productions of Traviata where Alfredo returns to Violetta toward the end and the music swells and they run toward each other and it’s so exciting and then — they hold hands). Romeo and Juliet are so recklessly in love they kill themselves. Tosca stabs a shady, rapey politician and throws herself off a parapet. Carmen seduces Don Jose while in jail, then in the end he’s so unstable he stabs her.
These are not directors making crazy choices; these examples are written into the stories. And the music only heightens what’s in the libretto, bringing emotions to the surface more viscerally. The stakes are almost always life and death in opera. Parking and barking doesn’t convey that. Stillness can be powerful, but it has to be a choice, not laziness. These composers wrote compelling music; if you follow that you’re guaranteed to have an interesting production.
Sidenote about the article you linked: I absolutely agree with Plotkin; the director, even if they can’t read music, absolutely must have a grounding in and deep love for opera. It’s completely different from any other art form. The pacing and elements are so much more complicated than spoken theater.
Do you think opera-goers who are used to Verdi and Puccini are likely to find Handel difficult to handle? If so, how do you tackle the problem?
Probably not, but they might. But that’s the same as someone who likes Beyoncé listening to Janelle Monáe. Sure they’re in adjacent genres, and if you like one there’s a chance you’ll like the other, but they’re totally different. All we can do is present the highest quality we are capable of and let their preferences sort themselves out.
…and don’t you mean difficult to HANDEL? 😉
How did you decide what period to set Alcina in?
This was never a decision. It was natural to set it in the present. The theme is a modern one and I wanted people to be a little uncomfortable with how familiar the aesthetic is. I didn’t want to comfort the audience with chronological distance. It’s an immediate story with immediately relatable emotional journeys. Usually this opera is a bit exoticized because of the source material’s setting, but these characters are full, complete people.
From the singers
What would you tell a newcomer to opera to bear in mind, or listen for, at their first Baroque opera?
Chloe Schaaf, Ruggiero
Baroque opera is all about emotion. The plot can get a little ridiculous, but each aria takes one emotion and examines it very thoroughly from different angles. No matter how different each character may be from you, they are all grappling with basic human emotions such as love, fear, jealousy, and loss that we all experience at some point.
Melanie Ashkar, Bradamante
Baroque opera has a very specific style. Many of the arias are in what we call ABA’ format. This means that you sing one section, the A section, then another section, the B, that differs in mood, text, and/or tempo, then the singer returns to the A section, but this time, adds embellishments. So, when you’re listening to an aria, pay attention to the melodies in the A, note when the B happens, then you can listen for the ornaments that the singer has added when s/he returns to the A section. You’ll really be able to tell where the original melody line was, and appreciate the additions the singer has made. Some people find this style repetitive, but I think if you know what to listen for, it’s really enjoyable. In this way, baroque opera is somewhat more flexible than later styles, because the singer writes his/her own melodic figures, and has the chance to show off his/her singing to best advantage.
Ginny Weant, Oberto
Baroque opera lends itself to so much diversity and variety to be created within the text and the story itself. A singer can be performing the same texts for multiple phrases, or singing the da capo section, but the meaning and intention is completely different. Even musically, there are new notes/ornaments to listen out for. As an audience member, I would constantly listen and watch how the singer changes emotions and intentions within their arias and how that furthers plot.
Zen Wu, Alcina
To me, Baroque opera is generally more subtle in its mode of expression, which leaves a lot of room for the interpreter to add subtext, particularly in coloratura passages (when a long musical phrase is sung on a single syllable or word). The drama of the music is less in the pitches for me than it is in the longer phrases.
Allegra Durante, Morgana cover
I think the baroque rep has a lot in common with modern music, truth be told, and that makes it a good intro to opera. Once you start recognizing the similarities between operatic music and modern genres, opera starts to feel less foreign and more familiar. The arias follow a structure of verse, bridge, and repeated verse, which has survived through the centuries and has examples in every genre from musical theatre standards to pop songs. The singers who performed this music were the rock stars of their era, and they were given time (during the repeated sections) to “riff” like any of today’s most famous singers or lead guitarists. When Alcina was written, it was the pop music of its day. It was the kind of music that people talked about, and loved, and danced to. It’s easy and fun to get caught up in, so feel the music in your body and let your feet start tapping when the arias start.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about this production?
Alexa Rosenberg, Bradamante cover
This production has challenged my out-of-touch idea of what Baroque opera is. It is intimate, funny, dark, sexy and heart-wrenching, and isn’t that what art should be? I am constantly surprised by the production, and that is something that is so desperately needed in the opera world.
Chloe Schaaf, Ruggiero
Something to keep in mind while watching is that the entire plot takes place in one day. So much happens, so quickly and with so many disguises and secret plots, that it can cause some mental whiplash. You have to realize that in the world of the opera all these different situations have been escalating for quite awhile and today is the day the shit hits the fan – all at once and at full speed.
Melanie Ashkar, Bradamante
Yes! Italian baroque opera may seem impenetrable in theory, but in practice, it is often the staging ground for a lot of really interesting experiments. There’s room here for the director to play, and find something new to express through the very old music. In our production, we look into veteran care, addiction, and the effects of a certain lifestyle. Sure, there’s a sorceress involved, but the themes and the setting are very real, and I think tell a poignant story.
Ginny Weant, Oberto
The world is full of addiction. We as humans hopelessly fall into these patterns of needing more love, more money, more stimulation, more of whatever substance or lack there of that keeps us on the high. OperaRox’s production fearlessly utilizes the story of Alcina to address addiction in a very real and very raw way.
Zen Wu, Alcina
This is the first time I’ve been personally involved with a production that explicitly shines light on real problems in our world, and I think the arts play an important role in addressing these difficult issues – in this case, veterans’ care and drug addiction. They’re complicated problems that inflict great suffering, but because there is no single fast, easy and correct answer to rectify them, people eschew the controversy that comes with wading into the discussions that need to take place in order to make tangible progress. There’s a lot we can do as young artists to start conversations by depicting those difficult truths. Productive discourse and problem solving comes from confronting the truth, regardless of how ugly it is.
Allegra Durante, Morgana cover
This is an updated production and the setting is different from the original, but the essence of the characters hasn’t been changed. Händel’s time had a different emotional and physical vocabulary than we’re familiar with today, so the original setting and stage directions are different from what they would be today. The entire show is dynamic and engaging, and filled with tunes you’ll leave the theater humming. The plot is complex, the action moves quickly, and there’s enough relationship drama to make a modern movie-going audience happy. There’s witchcraft, stage fights, spirits (of multiple kinds), and even strobe lights. We just happen to be speaking Italian, and when we have something really important to say, we sing it.
Speaking of singing, the music in this opera is stunningly beautiful, and reason enough why I would encourage people to attend!
- The first post in this series gives a summary of the plot and the singers’ takes on what makes their character roll out of bed in the morning. The second covers the arias and scenes that the singers found most fun and most challenging.
- Thanks to Melanie Ashkar, Allegra Durante, Alexa Rosenberg, Chloe Schaaf, Ginny Weant, and Zen Wu for sending your thoughts. Special thanks to Producer Kim Feltkamp and Stage Director Maayan Voss de Bettancourt.
- Handel’s Alcina will be performed by OperaRox on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 2 p.m.; Studio Artists Performance is Sunday, February 12, 2017, at 7 p.m. For details and tickets, see here.