2014 Best Opera Nominee Interview: MetroWest Opera's Magical "Hansel and Gretel"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here. 

Photo by Jonathan Cole

Photo by Jonathan Cole

MetroWest Opera was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award for Best Opera for its production of Engelbert Humperdinck'Hansel and Gretel.  In this Interview, Dana Lynne Varga, the Founder and Artistic Director for MetroWest Opera, discusses her company, opera in the Greater Boston community, and America's Next Top Model.

Tell us about yourself and your role with MetroWest Opera.

I have been a professional classical singer and voice teacher in the Boston area for over ten years.  I got my Masters degree in Vocal Performance from the New England Conservatory and my Doctorate in Vocal Performance from Boston University.  I founded MetroWest Opera in 2008, and now serve as the Artistic Director.  Some of my responsibilities include choosing the season, hiring the artistic staff for our productions, running both auditions and our annual vocal competition, and essentially producing the operas. 

What is MetroWest Opera? How is it different from other Greater Boston opera companies?

MetroWest Opera exists primarily to serve the singer community.  The mission is to provide quality professional operatic experiences to emerging young artists while enhancing the arts community in the MetroWest area of Boston.  Our shows are performed with live orchestra, lights, costumes, sets, and supertitles, all of the elements singers can expect in their future professional engagements. We create the greatest number of opportunities for singers possible by choosing shows with large casts, double casting the shows, and casting understudies.  We serve communities such as Newton, Brookline, Weston, and Wellesley, communities that have many residents that enjoy opera but may not always want to travel downtown Boston to hear and see it.  They can rely on us for quality opera in their area.

What are some of the challenges of presenting opera for a twenty-first century audience?

Today’s audiences have so many forms of entertainment to choose from, so opera companies are scrambling to keep up.  My personal dilemma is that sometimes I just want the music and the libretto to speak for themselves, but modern audiences want to see cutting-edge, exciting, daring, and different productions.  It is challenging to strike a balance between being true to both the music and the essence of the story, while giving the audience what they crave.

How does MetroWest Opera choose its season?  How does it find and audition its performers?

I prefer to choose standard operatic repertoire as opposed to obscure and/or newly composed operas.  The reasoning behind this is, once again, our mission to provide important experiences for the singers.  I want singers to have the chance to sing roles they will audition for (and hopefully perform!) again and again in their careers.  Our auditions are posted both on the YAP Tracker and Boston Singers' Resource sites, as well as on our own website.  We also spread the word about auditions via social media.  In general, we have about 100 singers show up to audition for each season.  While we are willing to hear singers from outside the Boston area, those who live in the area are given preference in casting.  We hold an annual vocal competition each year as well, which helps spread the word about our company.  Often, those who sing for the competition come back to audition for the season.

Why do you believe that your production of Hansel and Gretel was so successful?  Were there any stand-out moments for you as the Artistic Director and audience member?

First of all, the orchestra was impeccable.  Our conductor Sean Newhouse selected extremely talented players and was an incredible musician and leader.  Cassandra Lovering has a reputation for staging “honestly”, which really brought out the best in our singing actors.  I think the combination of her staging and Mike Bromberg’s impressive lighting design allowed the audience to become lost in the world of Hansel and Gretel despite minimal sets and a somewhat difficult venue.  Within five minutes, I forgot that Jacque Kress was a girl and not a little boy with mischievous ways and a ton of energy.  Oriana Dunlop delighted everyone in the audience with her wildly funny witch antics.  Bethany Worrell lulled us all into a trance as the Dew Fairy with her smooth and luxurious voice.  There were so many special moments.  I was very proud of everyone involved.

Do you ever perform? Why or why not?

I perform regularly with orchestras and opera companies other than MetroWest Opera (visit my website at www.danavarga.com to see my calendar).  I try to perform with MetroWest Opera just about every other season, when possible.  I love to be immersed in the production and soak up everything I have worked so hard to build.  And, from a practical standpoint, many of our donors and patrons are personal friends, colleagues, and contacts, so they ask me to sing with MetroWest Opera as often as possible.

How would you respond if someone said that they didn’t like opera?  Why do you think that it’s important for reviewers and critics to review opera?

If someone has been exposed to lots of opera and decided that they didn’t like it, I can respect that.  It isn’t for everyone . . . I have watched a lot of baseball but I just can’t seem to get into it.  However, if someone “doesn’t like opera” because they haven’t given it a chance, I would try to convince them to get out into their community and see for themselves what it is all about.  Often, people are pleasantly surprised.  It is an exciting and visceral experience to witness trained, talented, unamplified opera singers live!  There are many reasons that having opera reviewed is important.  I would say the top two reasons are that: a) it helps spread word about the show to the community and can encourage folks that might not have been interested to come out and see it, and b) the singers need reviews in order to build their own portfolios and websites.  Again, my company exists primarily to serve the singers.  I want their talent to be recognized!

What are some of the operas that you would love to produce?  Why?

Well, my two favorite operas are Turandot by Puccini and Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.  I think they both expose the human condition so beautifully and poignantly, and the music is to die for.  Some operas (and musicals!) that I also love and are perhaps more realistic for MetroWest Opera’s future are Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Puccini’s La Boheme, Adamo’s Little Women, and Weill’s Street Scene.

What is your favorite song?  Favorite lyric?

My favorite song is "Stay (I Missed You)" by Lisa Loeb.  My favorite lyrics are from a different song, which is from Edith Piaf’s "Je ne regrette rien."  In English, the translation of my favorite lyrics in this song are “No, I regret nothing… because my life, my joys…today, they begin with you.”

If you could be on any reality TV show, which would you choose?  Why?  Would you win?

If I could be on any reality TV show, I would choose America’s Next Top Model (“plus size” edition).  I would obviously win because I’m curvy and have killer bitch face, which translates really well in pictures . . . I would really have to work on my walk, though!

What is one thing that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I recently wrote an article in which I strongly advocate for the "correlating career."  This is a second career that one pursues alongside a performance career, not a "back-up plan," "fall back" or "plan B."  I believe that singers should plan on a correlating career from the very start of their career mapping.  Having a strong second skill set is key for success in today’s classical singing business to ensure financial stability and personal satisfaction.