2015 Best Student Actress Nominee: Sara Beth Shelton as Madame de la Haltière in Boston University College of Fine Arts' "Cendrillon"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com

PHOTO CREDIT:  Eliade Novat.

PHOTO CREDIT: Eliade Novat.

Sara Beth Shelton dazzled as Madame de la Haltière in the Boston University College of Fine Arts and Opera Institute's Cendrillon, an opera adaptation of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. Sara Beth shone not only in her bright tone, but in her demanding physicality and presence, exuding confidence and poise well beyond her years. In her Interview, Sara Beth  talks about the challenges of the role, some of her most influential life lessons, and her many upcoming roles. 

Hi, Sara Beth, and welcome to the ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.  Can you start by telling our readers more about yourself?

Thank you for nominating me!  My name is Sara Beth Shelton.  I am a Southern girl, born and raised, from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and I have been residing in Boston for over two years now. I recently graduated from Boston University in May 2015. 

I am a middle child, having an older sister and younger brother.  My family and friends are very important to me.  I think it’s essential to surround yourself with people who lift you up, and I am happy to have that at home as well as with my second family in Boston.

What made you pursue opera?  How did you end up at Boston University?  Why is this an ideal program for you? 

There was a distinct moment when I fell in love with opera, during my undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  I was in an opera workshop class, and it was the first time I had to perform an aria in front of everyone.  I was incredibly nervous, but I made it through the aria.  To workshop it, my teacher refocused me by having me close my eyes and sit on the floor.  She then described the scene of Venice in great detail: the sights, the sounds, and the smells.  And once I could visualize and feel everything in the scene, the undergraduate life of Sara Beth faded away, and I was transported into this new world.  Nothing mattered in that moment but the story, and that I served it.  Before I realized it, I had sung through the whole aria, and I opened my eyes, leaving the world I was in and returning to reality.  My eyes welled up with tears of joy because I had never experienced such happiness in all of my life.  I knew then that I never wanted to lose this feeling, and I wanted to experience it over and over again. Opera gave me hope, and saved me from a very difficult time in my life.

Once I obtained my bachelor’s degree in music education, I made plans to pursue vocal performance by auditioning for graduate programs.  I decided to choose Boston University for several reasons.  First and foremost, my teacher, Penelope Bitzas, really made a massive amount of improvements with my voice within the first lesson.  Finding a good teacher as a vocalist is imperative when choosing a school. She has really been an amazing impact on my life, and has played a huge role in molding my voice.  The amount of growth that I experienced is a huge testament to the quality of education provided by ALL members of the voice and opera departments. 

Also, the collaboration between the different departments of the College of Fine Arts at BU really caught my attention, too.  I came from a program where the singers in the opera had to build the sets, break them down, and help backstage, so to see this tremendous collaboration was really admirable and inspiring.  The production quality is very high for all of the operas, and I believe that is due in part to the strength of the artistic team.  I have always believed the arts need to be more unified, and I am happy that I could be a part of the program where the arts are working together toward a common goal. 

Talk to us about your role in Cendrillon.  How would you describe the style of this opera?  How would you describe this role?  What were some of the challenges?  What were some of the highlights?

When you listen to this opera, the music and the story create an enchanting atmosphere from the moment the Maestro waves his baton to when the curtain falls.  While it is said to be one of Massenet's most comical works, the story is steeped in issues of family dynamics, which, I believe, makes it very real and relatable for audience members to experience.  Massenet also shows the depth of loneliness that these characters feel.  At one point after the ball, Cendrillon (Cinderella) is so lonely that she runs to the forest to die.  Through this example, you can see this isn’t your typical tale of Cinderella, and even though there are a lot of dark elements to the story, it is equally contrasted with the light of the fairies, or the light of the love between Cendrillon and her father.  It’s not all fairy dust and magic, but it also does not go as dark as Brothers Grimm.  It’s a good balance of both.

Playing Madame de la Haltière was one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had. I really enjoyed diving into the many layers of her and figuring out why she is the way she is. From the beginning, the director made sure that we would not fall into the trap of playing caricatures with the Stepsisters and Stepmother.  It is so easy to do, and so many people do it with these ladies. 

Madame de la Haltière (Sara Beth Shelton) in Boston University College of Fine Arts & Opera Institute's  Cendrillon  (Photo Credit: Oshin Gregorian). 

Madame de la Haltière (Sara Beth Shelton) in Boston University College of Fine Arts & Opera Institute's Cendrillon (Photo Credit: Oshin Gregorian). 

Madame is a woman who is proud of her noble heritage and who is incredibly confident in who she is and what she believes. She doesn't like the idea of her daughters not continuing this tradition of marrying men that are well above their stations, and the possibility of her stepdaughter, Cinderella, gaining something that her daughters should have disgusts her, especially with everything Cinderella represents.  She doesn't think there is anything admirable about the way Pandolphe (my husband) and Cendrillon live their life.  They believe in kindness and benevolence. This is not a means of getting ahead in life for Madame because she was never raised to live in that way. She is a product of her upbringing, and it is her duty to continue the legacy.

One of the challenges that I faced with this role was the physicality, and I have Loren Meeker and Melinda Sullivan to thank for pushing me and helping me to rise to the challenge.  They showed me ways of expressing myself in a more refined manner.  Madame has had the proper training that her daughters lack, and it is up to her to be a shining example of what it means to be a lady.  As I said before, this woman loves every part of herself, and so, I had to make sure to find certain stances that exude strength and to radiate confidence in my body with every step that I took.  Everything she says and does is intentional.  The lessons I learned in physicality from this show have helped me immensely in how I approach other roles, and I am so thankful for having the opportunity to have learned these lessons that have strengthened my skills as an actress.

I have two moments that I will always remember.  One of the highlights was just taking part in a production with such talented singers, music, and artistic team.  It was a gorgeous set design with this theme of shattered glass, inspired by the glass slipper, along with an art deco geometrical design, having tarnished gold and black.  Then, the costumes were glorious! I loved the contrast between the lovely white costumes of the fairies and fairy godmother, against the black Kardashian-style costumes of the stepmother and stepmother.  The artistic team created a scene that expressed the style of opera, right down to the last detail. It truly was a sight to behold, and an honor to experience.  Everyone involved in this process from the stage crew to the chorus made this story come to life, and we could not have done it without a single person.

Another highlight was when Madame returns from the ball and has her big tirade because the Prince picked this mysterious woman (Cendrillon), instead of one of her daughters. That scene reeked of Madame with every word, with every note, and with every movement, and I just soaked it in.  It was so empowering to experience, especially when you hear the big brass section during the aria.

Do you have any types of opera roles that you prefer to play?  Why?  Do you have any particular composer or type of opera that you prefer to sing?Haltière

I like to play roles that challenge me, and push me out of my comfort zone.  I always feel I discover so much about myself while I am exploring a character.  My favorite opera composer is Verdi.  His operas are so powerful. They really speak to my soul.  I would love to one day be Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera.  She is at the top of my list of roles to do before I die. 

What have been some of the more influential lessons that you have learned in the past year?  The past five years?

The most important lesson I have learned is to really know myself.  As an artist, self-awareness is essential.  In order for me to grow, I had to be real with myself and identify all of my strengths and weaknesses. I feel not working on these weaknesses can lead to great feelings of insecurity, which can lead to fear.  I definitely did fall into that trap from time to time, but I knew I deserved better than that.  I didn’t want to limit myself.  I wanted to become the best version of me that I could possibly be.  And by setting short attainable goals, I knew I would get there some day.  Am I going to be my best self in a day, or a month? No . . . but will I have improved?  Yes. 

You have to never lose sight of the end goal, and always take pride in the amount of progress you have made along the way.  It’s such a learning process, and it requires you to be patient with yourself and to really work through the challenges. 

Do you have any resolutions or goals for 2016?

My resolution is the same every year: to keep improving myself and becoming the best person I can possibly be in every part of my life. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be new to seeing and enjoying opera?

Don’t have any set expectations before you go and see a new opera.  Keep an open mind when you enter the theater, and when the show starts, immerse yourself in the story. It’s not all grand dresses, powdered wigs, and ladies with horns and breastplates.  The story that is so delightfully enhanced by the music is what’s so special. You will be surprised by what you see and hear!  And with opera, the combination of the drama, the orchestra, and the singing can create such a moving and healing experience for the observer. 

What is your favorite fairy tale?  Why?  Would you want to be any character in the story?

My favorite fairy tale has always been Cinderella.  I love the rags to riches story, and the idea of goodness triumphing over evil, against all odds.  As a young girl, I probably would have told you that I would be Cinderella in the story, but, having grown up, I would without a doubt say that I would want to be the Stepmother.  Madame has been on my list of dream roles for quite some time, so it was wonderful for one of my dreams to finally come true through this production.

If you couldn’t perform opera, what would you do instead?

I am naturally a caregiver and a nurturer.  I would probably do social work, work at an animal shelter/hospital, or own my own flower shop.  Doing something where I can directly make a difference in the lives of others is important to me, and I think if I were to play on my personality strengths, I would probably take on a position where I can be of service to someone or something.

What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?

I love to garden.  Some of my best friends call me Professor Sprout!  There's something really rewarding about planting a tiny seed and nurturing it to become something that is unique, beautiful, and thriving with life. Taking a moment to stop, and take part in a process that has been happening on this earth for thousands of years really grounds me and puts things into perspective.  Also, this might sound corny, but I always have thought of flowers as the world's way of smiling back at me, especially in the Spring after a long winter.  They remind us that there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, and that renewal and rebirth are possible.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I recently finished working with MetroWest Opera on Adamo's Little Women.  I was the old, rich Aunt Cecilia March, which was so much fun. 

For my upcoming projects, I look forward to being Cornelia in Giulio Cesare with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summerfest as a Featured Artist.  This character will be very different from ones that I have done in the past, so I look forward to the challenge and discovering where Cornelia exists within myself. 

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Again, I am so grateful for being nominated, and I am thankful for everyone’s support throughout these past couple of years in the Boston area.  Being Madame was truly a treasured moment in my life, and I look forward to the possibility of playing her again one day!  

2015 Best Music Director of an Opera Nominee: Jean Anderson Collier for Boston Opera Collaborative's "Our Town"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for an ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

Photo Credit: Linda Holt

Photo Credit: Linda Holt

Jean Anderson Collier impressed us with her masterful precision and understanding for the deceptively difficult Ned Rorem's Our Town, performed by the Boston Opera Collaborative. With few performances and even fewer recordings, Jean made her mark on the opera and music scene by expertly crafting Rorem's adaptation of the classic Thornton Wilder play.

In her Interview, Jean tells us about the process to bring Our Town to Boston, the differences and distinctions between the opera and play, a bit about her own hometown, and one of her favorite memories.

Jean, thank you so much for participating in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.  Can you start by telling us about yourself and your work?

I am a vocal coach and pianist, and I work at New England Conservatory, where I teach courses in diction and art song repertoire and work as a recital and opera coach and at The Boston Conservatory, as principal opera coach and private coach for recital and operatic repertoire.  I also work as organist/choir director at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scituate, Massachusetts.

How did you become involved in Boston Opera Collaborative’s (“BOC”) Our Town?   Was this a typical process for you?

I have known and worked with Greg Smucker and Trish Weinmann for years, since they were colleagues of mine at New England Conservatory. When they took over leadership of BOC in 2014, they asked me to serve as music director for their upcoming production of Werther, then asked me to music-direct Our Town.

I have had a close relationship with BOC for years, doing audition master classes for them and playing at their fundraising events.  The process was typical for me in the sense that its rehearsal process was smooth and organized, due to the outstanding organizational skills of Greg Smucker.   What was atypical was the difficulty of the orchestral part. Being responsible for the singers while simultaneously playing that orchestral reduction was quite a challenge.

The Final Act of Ned Rorem's  Our Town  presented by the Boston Opera Collaborative (Photo Credit:   Dan Busler Photography  ).

The Final Act of Ned Rorem's Our Town presented by the Boston Opera Collaborative (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

Tell us about this opera and its composer.  What should we know as a viewer and listener? What should we listen for?

Ned Rorem is primarily known as a song composer, having written hundreds of songs. He does not consider himself an opera composer but a song composer, and his decision to create Our Town was something of a departure for him.   He is a cerebral composer, and his music is dense in material and often dissonant, making it sometimes challenging for the ordinary opera-goer.  However, since Our Town is such a well-known, well-loved play, the musical challenges seem easier to tolerate — the familiarity of the story seems to mitigate the strangeness and newness of some of the music.  Also, Rorem managed to create a score that remains faithful to his musical style and still capture the world of Grover’s Corners, the boys playing baseball, Emily’s adolescent worries about whether she is pretty, the marital relationships of Emily and George’s parents, and the world of the dead in Act 3.   

I find the choral writing in this opera especially haunting, particularly in Act 3, which is a bit unusual considering that often opera chorus music is more functional than gripping.  I would say that audiences should listen for this music in particular, as well as the quirky, playful music in George and Emily’s scenes in Act 1, the ethereal Act 1 duet between George’s parents, and Mrs. Soames’ hilarious interruptions in the wedding in Act 2.

How was this production different or similar to other productions of Our Town (the opera, not the play)?  How is it different or similar to Thornton Wilder’s play?

I am not really familiar with other productions of the opera except in recording. I had access to two recordings of the piece, and both chose a more musical-theater approach than the one that we chose in our production. While we wanted to maintain Wilder’s evocation of the ordinary, casual world, we felt that his music, so full of counterpoint and nuance, called for voices that truly sounded operatic. The opera was quite faithful to Thornton Wilder’s play, and the librettist, J. D. McClatchy did a masterful job of transferring the play to the operatic genre.

Tell us about your hometown.  Do you return?  How does it feel? What are some of your favorite places to go, or what are your favorite things to do?

What an interesting question!  I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, which is on the coast, just across Hampton Roads waterway from Norfolk.  I have not been back to Hampton for many years since I do not have any family there anymore, but, last summer, I did visit friends near Williamsburg, Virginia, about 45 minutes away.  Having lived as an adult in the Midwest for many years and in the Northeast for the past sixteen years, I have a strange ambivalence when I return to Virginia. Its landscape, the people that I knew there, and my childhood memories wrestle with my grown-up perceptions of the racism that existed when I was growing up, as well as the general intolerance of anyone who made choices different than the norm.

I was supposed to get married young and stay in Virginia, and I did not do either of those.  It took me a while to get go of the frustration that I felt about the tunnel vision that permeated people’s thinking.

And yet I have such fond memories of going to Virginia Beach, Bill’s Barbecue, which was a dive near my grandmother’s house; the tire swing over the creek near our house; fishing off of Red’s Pier on the James River (and never catching anything); my Aunt Shirley’s biscuits and my mother’s corn pudding.  When Emily says goodbye to the world after her death, those are the very types of things she mentions — coffee, hollyhocks, starched dresses.

What is one opera that you would love to music direct?  What is one opera that you would never want to music direct? Why?

George Gibbs (Mark Williams) and Emily Webb (Laura DellaFera) in Boston Opera Collaborative's  Our Town  (Photo Credit:   Dan Busler Photography  ).

George Gibbs (Mark Williams) and Emily Webb (Laura DellaFera) in Boston Opera Collaborative's Our Town (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

I love Benjamin Britten, and any of his operas would be dream projects for me — especially Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, or Billy Budd. Mozart’s Don Giovanni would also be wonderful, although I am not ready for a score like that yet. Also, Jonathan Dove’s Flight, which we just did last fall at The Boston Conservatory.

As for pieces I would not want to music direct — well, to be perfectly honest, I would not have chosen Our Town. But it turned out to be a great project. As is so often the case, pieces that I thought I did not like often turn out to be simply pieces that I did not understand.  One of the beauties of being a musician is that often someone else chooses the music for you, and, if you want to work, you do a piece even if you do not like it, and then you discover that you do like it, and it broadens you. So while there are pieces I might say I do not like and would not be interested in, there is probably not that much that I would not try to tackle if I were asked to.

What is one of your favorite memories?  What colors or sounds would you describe as part of this memory?

I think it would be a day-trip that I made with my then-boyfriend, now husband, to Block Island on July 25, 1998.  I still remember the date.  We took the ferry from the Rhode Island coast, and smelling the salt (I had only been back on the east coast for a short time then) felt like coming home. We got to the island, rented a mini-bike, and traveled around the island, which was all country roads and honeysuckle. The smell of that honeysuckle!  I planted honeysuckle after that.

Two little girls had set up a lemonade stand, and we stopped and bought lemonade. Then we went to the beach and had a picnic and swam. In the evening we had dinner, then took the ferry back across the water at sunset.

Not to mention that it was that day that I realized that I was in love.  It was a magical day, filled with the smell of the sea and the honeysuckle, the sounds of the waves, and the indescribable colors of the sunset.

Beach or mountain? Why?

Well, I love both — I love to hike in the White Mountains.  But I guess I would have to say I am a beach girl.  I grew up by the beach, and I still feel the most grounded when I have sand between my toes and messy hair.

For someone with an emerging appreciation and interest in seeing (and reviewing) opera, what resources would you recommend?  What should we learn to listen for or see?  What operas or kinds of operas would you recommend seeing?

There are so many small local opera companies in Boston, and many of them are doing things that are easy for the emerging opera enthusiast. One of the most interesting I have seen lately was Boston Opera Collaborative’s Opera Bites in November 2015, which featured eight (I think) ten-minute operas, all in English, and the audience sat at tables and had wine and snacks.

There were many people there who had never been to an opera before, and they loved the accessibility of these short pieces in their own language. It stripped away the snobbery and pomposity often associated with opera and made it a living, breathing art form for these people.

I know that so many local opera organizations — Opera on Tap, for example — are coloring outside the lines and coming up with new and fresh ways of presenting opera. I would recommend that the person interested in experiencing opera for the first time go online and find some of these events.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I am currently coaching La traviata and Le nozzle di Figaro for The Boston Conservatory, and I will be doing musical preparation for Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Idomeneo in May and June 2016, as well as playing several art song recitals and opera scenes programs.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I guess just a heartfelt thank you to the entire community who support the arts.  I know that my musical colleagues share my gratitude for all those who continue to come and share with us in creating art. The audience, in my opinion, is part of the artistic creation, and every performance is different because of that. We are so blessed to be co-creators in making the world a more meaningful and beautiful place through music and drama.

2014 Best Leading Actress in a Musical or Opera: Aliana de la Guardia as The Shopper/Mother in Guerilla Opera's "Gallo"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series.

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.

Aliana de la Guardia showcases an impressive acting and vocal range, embodying her characters with the necessary physicality and vocal dexterity to meet even the most demanding of roles.  Her operatic training combined with experience in television and film make her a truly one-of-a-kind talent in the Greater Boston theatre community and within the opera community.  In her Interview, Aliana talks about Guerilla Opera and its unique mission and works, her (not-so) hidden talent, and why Gallo was such a successful production.

Photo by Alicia Packard Photography

Photo by Alicia Packard Photography

Hi, Aliana! So wonderful for you to join us.  Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I am a Boston based soprano vocalist specializing in extended vocal techniques, and avant-garde and experimental music.

What was Gallo?

Gallo was the brain-child of composer Ken Ueno, written for Guerilla Opera. It was routed in some basic human histories, but really was about experiencing our own human nature through the ideas of relationships, creation, consumption and re-birth.

Talk to us about Guerilla Opera.  How is it similar to other opera companies?  How is it different?  What is its mission?  What does it do for the Greater Boston theatre scene?

Guerilla Opera is Boston’s only avant-garde and experimental opera company. It’s our mission to seek out composers that write this kind of music as well as directors and designers that produce this kind of theater. Because it’s our mission to produce this kind of opera, our audience doesn’t expect any of the standard repertoire or composers, or any kind of “safe” production choices. We fell very free because of this, and we’re thankful of the trust our audience consistently puts in us.

In addition to our visual and musical aesthetic we raise the stakes for the performance of this music by removing the conductor or any formal music director. This allows us to communicate to each other directly as well as build the music ourselves as an ensemble. We also have a roster of recurring artists, much like a repertory theater, and we take them into consideration when commissioning new works. We don’t generally like to hold open auditions.

In all of my research I haven’t come across any ensemble that’s quite like us in the country and, therefore, I think we occupy a unique niche in Boston and also nationwide.

What is the rehearsal process for a Guerilla Opera production?  Was the process different for Gallo?

Our rehearsal process tends to be intense and fast. For Gallo, from the time that music rehearsals began to the dress rehearsals, we’d been at it almost every night for about a month. We work fast and we like it that way.

The process itself was not different for Gallo, but it was the most abstract opera we’d performed at the time, so we, as performers, had to change our thought process going into rehearsals. There was very, very little spoken narrative to drive the plot forward. Our through-lines were determined by sequences of actions and interactions rather than dialogue or traditional songs or arias.

What is the hardest thing about performing for you?  Have you performed in musicals or plays?  Why did you choose to focus on opera?

The hardest thing about performing to me is balancing physicality and voice. I have always been someone to give up beauty of my voice for the drama of the scene or character. I am okay with it now and I think our audience deserves someone who will take a risk and give up something for them, if it’s right to do so.

I have performed in plays and musicals – I’ve even performed on television in 2010, but I’ve never felt more challenged or extraordinary than when I perform classical music, and, specifically, the kind of music that I currently seek out. Not many can or want to do it, but I love the challenge and the abstract thought.

In high school when looking into colleges my initial thoughts were of becoming an actor, but, the more that I took voice lessons, and the more I became able to sing classical music, I just fell in love. Opera seemed the way to go if I wanted to be an actor and a classical singer.

What is one of your (not-so) hidden talents?  Have you ever used it onstage?

I have a great horror movie scream and I got to use it in a new opera called Bovinus Rex. Opera singers never scream, but it’s so fun and liberating.

What are some of your dream roles?  Would you ever perform a pants-role?

I would love to play the title role in Lulu or Marie in Wozzek. It’s my kind of musical repertoire and such complicated characters. I would love to have a crack at them!

I would perform a pants role, although I don’t quite understand them in contemporary culture.

What makes you happy?  What are some of your pet peeves?

My cat and a good meal make me happy.

Folks who make a million excuses for themselves, for why they’re inadequate or whatever, that’s a huge pet peeve.

Why was Gallo a successful production?  What were some of its major themes or ideas?

Gallo was such a strange opera. I think the immersive, participatory nature of the production was really appealing – made folks feel like the opera was happening to them rather than a distanced experience about someone or something else.

Some themes included the destruction of the old and creating of something new, represented by the Lisbon earthquake and the 18th century gentleman. This also simultaneously explores the idea of the process of creation for the artist. The Shopper/Mother, my character, represented the general consumer’s demand and need to buy. The character of the Gallo, who was ever changing in form, represented the artist or creator’s struggle to stay relevant.

If you could give 18-year-old Alaina one piece of advice, what would it be?

Learn to play the piano!

What is your favorite breakfast food?

I love everything breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day! Pancakes are especially my favorite!

What is one thing that you hope to accomplish in 2015?

My main goal was that I wanted to teach more – teach voice lessons, and I’m doing that now, so I feel good about it.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Right now I’m focusing on Guerilla Opera’s 2015-2016 season, which is our 9th! We’re premiering two more new operas by incredible composers and we’re talking to some awesome directors. I can’t wait to announce what we have coming!

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Guerilla Opera is in its closing weekend of Pedr Solis by Per Bloland with stage direction by Laine Rettmer. Tickets are still available and they can visit us online for more information at www.guerillaopera.com.

2014 Best Supporting Actress in a Musical or Opera Nominee Interview: Sadie Gregg as Ottavia in New England Conservatory's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

Photo by Lu Zang

Photo by Lu Zang

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.

Sadie Gregg has a rich mezzo-soprano voice, but it is her musicality and acting that allows her to soar above the rest.  Her Ottavia held raw, love-sick passion in each of her notes, earning her a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Supporting Actress in a Musical or Opera Nomination. In her Interview, Sadie discusses her busy year in 2014-2015, her hardest class in her Masters in Music program, and her upcoming role in Odyssey Opera's The Zoo.

Sadie, thank you so much for joining me again for an Interview.  Can you introduce yourself to our ArtsImpulse readers?  What have you been up to for the past year?

Thanks for having me, Brian! In the past year, I’ve graduated with my Master of Music degree from New England Conservatory, and I have made my professional chorus debuts with Odyssey Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. I’ve been lucky to sing a bunch of great mezzo roles, and take auditions in my free time.

What roles did you play in 2014?  Which was your favorite?

In this past season, I’ve played Ottavia in L’incoronazione di Poppea, Florence Pike in Albert Herring, and Charlotte in Les Lettres de Werther. Each role has been different: Ottavia is a woman scorned, Florence is an under-appreciated but enthusiastic maid, and Charlotte just can’t help lovin’ that man. I love them all for different reasons, as I’ve been in all of their shoes. These characters aren’t so different from one another, and that is what makes them human. Everyone has been deeply hurt, under-appreciated, and completely lovesick. I am so thankful to be able to bring each of these women to the stage.

Talk to us about your training and education.  What has been the hardest part?  What has been the most fulfilling?  

I earned my Master of Music from New England Conservatory in 2014. Funny enough, the hardest parts of my training have also been the most rewarding. My brilliant teacher Bradley Williams and I have toiled away for hours in the studio to produce the most beautiful, pure and uninhibited singing that I can possibly manage. My wonderful coach Jean Anderson Collier has schooled me on style and language, day after day. I’ve also been truly blessed to study with acting teachers Steven Goldstein, Patricia Weinmann, and Greg Smucker, who have helped me really embody the characters I play and make them human. All of these experiences have been grueling, but so rewarding when I take the stage and invite the audience to come along with me.

Also, the theory class I took in my Master’s program was super hard. I took Beethoven’s String Quartets, where I was one of two singers (the other being my soprano bestie Danielle Barger), and had to analyze sonata form and read alto clef. The class was taught by Dr. Graybill, who is a saint and has the patience of the Dalai Lama. I passed, and learned a lot of things about strings, delayed resolutions and avoiding cadences. Thank you, Dr. Graybill, you are a scholar and a gentleman. 

What is your favorite opera?  Do you have a least favorite?  Do you have any types of operas, or certain composers, to which you are drawn? 

I can’t really chose a favorite, because all of the stories are so interesting and different, even the ridiculous ones! I love Ariadne auf Naxos because it’s the opera about an opera. It’s hilarious, sweet, and really captures the behind the scenes of it all. I also love La Cenerentola, and the idea that good ultimately trumps evil. I even love The Zoo, which I’m currently singing with Odyssey Opera, which is a Sullivan comedy about two pairs of lovers who meet at the London Zoological Gardens. I’m Eliza, the cockney girl who runs the snack shop, and is in love with Thomas, the nobleman in disguise. As silly as the story is, she’s just a regular girl who loves a nice boy, and wants to take care of the animals at the zoo. Who doesn’t want to be with their sweetheart forever? And who doesn’t love animals???

How have others described your voice and presence onstage? 

The Boston Musical Intelligencer has described me as "a mezzo-soprano with a rich, flexible instrument."

Photo by Andrew Hurlbut

Photo by Andrew Hurlbut

The Boston Classical Review has described me as a “standout...whose amber-toned mezzo-soprano sounded strong across her full range."

The Boston Performing Arts Examiner said, of Lakme: “The famous Flower Duet between Lakme and Mallika was one of the high-points of the performance. The two singers wove their melismatic lines together dexterously and Gregg's mellow mezzo-soprano voice blended soothingly with Farnsley's ringing tone.” 

My Entertainment World on La Cenerentola: "Gregg allows us to see the demure, the flirtatious, and the honest in Cinderella through her softest gesture and slyest glance."

Boston Musical Intelligencer on La Gazzetta: "The older Madama la Rose was an effective part for Sadie Gregg, who was herself quite seductive in explaining that, whenever the opportunity arose, she liked to answer ‘yes.’”

What are some of your hobbies? 

I love throwing parties, when my other singer friends and I have the time. There’s no better night of a homemade feast, fantastic drinks and fun card games. Singers and actors make for the best parties, though it’s hard to coordinate all our schedules. It’s like another family. 

What are a few of your guilty pleasures?

One word: NETFLIX. House of Cards, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Mad Men, etc. I love it all. I can't order a Pinot Noir now without thinking of Titus.

What is one misconception that you would like to correct about the public’s perception of opera?  About singing?  About performing?

Opera is not as hoity-toity as you’d think. The stories are compelling, hilarious, happy, sad, and still accessible, even if in another language. Singing is a job just like any other, just with many more job interviews than other professions. I’m so thankful for my instrument, but it’s less glamorous and much more hard work than you’d think. Performing is an absolute joy, and I’m thankful for every day I get to be on stage. That said, so much work goes in to making a compelling and engaging experience for the audience, and we could not do it without them. Live theater is a collaborative art, and we hope to take the audience along for the ride. 

If you could have a conversation with your sixteen year old self, what would you say?  What about your twenty-one year old self? 

I’d tell my 16-year-old self that you really need to work harder, that things are much different outside our town. I’d tell my 21-year-old self not to be afraid, and that we can absolutely do what we want, as scary as it may sound. That said, I’ve been very lucky in life, and have so many wonderful things that may not have happened had I taken a different path. I have my wonderful husband, who I love dearly, and I’m singing well and working professionally. I didn’t have these in my mid-twenties, and I’m thankful these have come into my life since. 

What are some of your goals for 2015?

I’d love to find management, but really I’d just love to do some new roles. There are so many new stories to explore, and I love the challenge that each provides.

If you could sing one song every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?  What is one lyric that resonates with you? 

There’s an aria from the opera Little Women called “Things Change, Jo.” I’ve sung the role of Meg, who sings to her sister Jo about how your priorities change, and how things change as you age. It’s kind of a joke, but I find myself singing at work, and to friends, “Things Change, Jo.”

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

We are headed into tech week for Odyssey Opera’s The Zoo! I’m singing Eliza, the girl who runs the snack shop. I sang in the Odyssey chorus last year, and I’m so thrilled to make my principal debut with the company!

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thanks for your support of opera this season! There are so many amazing productions being put on by small and large companies in Boston. We all strive to bring you compelling performances, hope to see you at the show!

2014 Best Supporting Actor in a Musical or Opera: Jonathan Nussman as Sid in Boston Opera Collaborative's "Albert Herring"

Photo by Pro-Fusion Photography

Photo by Pro-Fusion Photography

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.

Jonathan Nussman is an emerging talent who has captivated audiences on the East Coast before continuing his education and experiences by joining the doctoral program in experimental music and vocal performance at UC San Diego. While we are sorry to lose Jonathan's fresh presence and impressive musicality, we are delighted to see him sharing his gifts with others. In his Interview, Jonathan shares his experience as a young opera singer, his love for new and contemporary works, and a particularly funny blooper in a school play.

Hi, Sid! Can you introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a little bit about your performing background and history?

Hello! My name is Jonathan Nussman and I am a singer and actor from North Carolina. Up until very recently I have been living and working in the New England area. I am a trained opera singer, and I mostly specialize in music from the 20th and 21st centuries. This past fall, I left Boston after eight happy years, and moved to Southern California. I am now singing and teaching at UC San Diego while I work on a doctoral degree in experimental music and vocal performance.

What drew you to performing opera over, say, musical theatre or other forms of theatre?  When did you know that you wanted to perform opera?

For me, performing opera just happened. I never expected it. When I first started studying music, I actually wanted to be a composer. I had imagined a career for myself writing film scores and choral music. But when I entered college, I started taking voice lessons as my primary instrument, and it quickly became apparent that my talents and passions were better suited performing the music of others than in composing my own. I developed a real love for singing newly composed works by my peers and other living composers, and I became increasingly interested in contemporary theater and opera. I moved to Boston in 2006 to attend a masters program at the Boston Conservatory, and after receiving some solid training in more traditional operatic repertoire, I decided to try my hand at freelancing in the New England area. I’ve done quite a bit of traditional opera since graduating from the Conservatory, but my passion and specialty has always been music from the 20th and 21st centuries.

What has been your favorite role in an opera?  Do you have a favorite opera?  Do you have roles on your “bucket list”?

Well, Sid in Albert Herring was one of those “bucket list” roles for me. Albert Herring was the first or second opera I ever saw as teenager, and I immediately fell in love with it. The music is both artistically deep and genuinely funny, and I had been wanting to perform the role for over a decade before I finally got the opportunity. As far as my favorite role I have ever played, it is probably Papageno in The Magic Flute. I have sung it in three different productions, plus in a handful of outreach settings, and it is a character with which I feel genuinely connected. Plus, he’s always the audience’s favorite! I have a lot of favorite operas, but I think my top three would be Nozze di Figaro, Wozzeck and maybe Nixon in China. Wozzeck is probably on the top of my list of dream roles.

Who is Albert Herring?  Who was your character, Sid?  How did you prepare to play this role?  What was the most fun part of this production?

Albert Herring is the story of a young man, Albert, and his two friends, Sid and Nancy. They are all in their late teens, or maybe a little older. They live in a small town in England which is dominated by a cast of cartoonishly awful adults. Albert is shy and sheltered, whereas Sid and Nancy are outgoing and rebellious. Sid is charismatic, adventurous, confident with girls and unafraid to defy the outdated sensibilities of the adults in town; he is basically everything that Albert is not. Under Sid and Nancy’s influence, and with the help of some rum, Albert comes out of his shell and eventually stands up to his overbearing mother and the rest of the conservative townsfolk.

Preparing for this role was daunting at first, mostly because the music itself is intricate and vocally challenging. However, once I got the music under my belt, developing the character happened naturally and organically, because he is written so well. What I love about the opera is that three young characters seem like completely real people. The fact that they are so relatable and likable makes a fantastic contrast with all the other characters, who are humorously horrible people. The real joy of this production was working with my fellow actors to bring these characters to life. Zac Engle and Heather Gallagher (who played Albert and Nancy) were two of the best scene partners I have ever had. They are both fantastic singers, and I learned a lot by getting to make music with them every night. We were given a lot of creative freedom to develop our characters together, and I know for a fact that the strength of my own performance, whatever it may have been, was a direct result of my collaboration with Zac and Heather!

How do you pick your projects? How would you describe your voice? What opera roles best suit your voice?  Do you have a favorite piece or song to sing?

Well, of course the nature of the business is that most of the time your projects pick you, and you are happy to have them! I am personally drawn to projects that are creatively and musically rich and challenging. I have always loved singing new music, because there is something liberating about performing a role that no one has ever sung before. When you tackle a role like The Count in Nozze di Figaro (certainly a rich and challenging character in an opera which I love) you are joining a lineage of more than two centuries of performances by some of the greatest singers of their respective times. The pressure is tremendous, and I have a really hard time not comparing myself and subconsciously trying to sound like singers I admire—and that includes my baritone peers as well as singers of the past. But when I have the opportunity to create a new role, especially a role that has been written specifically for me, with my unique sound and talents in mind, there is nothing like it. It’s completely freeing. You don’t have to worry about performance history or what your audience may be expecting, and you can focus on creating a genuine character and making music to the best of your capabilities.

I’ve never had a huge voice. I’m mostly comfortable in the operatic roles of Mozart, in Baroque music, and in 20th and 21st century repertoire. Benjamin Britten (who wrote Albert Herring) has always been a good fit for me. He writes really well for baritones, even though all his best roles are usually tenors! Years ago I made peace with the fact that there are many, many roles that I will simply never be able to sing. I am lucky that I have been able to find a niche in singing contemporary music, and it seems to fit my sensibilities as a performer. I enjoy making non-traditional sounds and employing extended vocal techniques, and I don’t shy away from scores that are dauntingly complex or feature nontraditional notation or electronic elements. For me, the challenge is always part of the adventure.

My favorite things to sing that are not opera: probably Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Kurtág’s Hölderlin Gesänge, and almost anything by Simon and Garfunkel.

Photo by Dan Busler ( Albert herring , Heather Gallagher and Jonathan Nussman)

Photo by Dan Busler (Albert herring, Heather Gallagher and Jonathan Nussman)

What advice would you give to young opera singers?  To reviewers?  To audience members?

Actually, I’ll give the same advice to all three: Keep your mind open, think for yourself, figure out what art you absolutely love, and when you don’t love something, ask yourself why. Be brave, be adventurous, and support each other along the way, as we are all trying to create something meaningful out of life.

Tell us an embarrassing audition or performance story.

This one has become a family legend: When I was in fourth grade, I was cast as Santa Claus in a holiday musical at a children’s theater in downtown Charlotte. My costume was a little too big for me, and during one of the performances, as I was singing my big solo number, I suddenly became aware of the fact that my pants were around my ankles! I was horrified, but I just kept singing and pulled them back up. I managed to stay composed until my scene ended, but I must admit, I cried a lot as soon as I was backstage. It definitely wasn’t funny at the time!

If you could be any superhero, which would you be?  Why?

I used to want to be one of the Planeteers, or maybe a Ninja Turtle.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Just this week I wrapped up a production of Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera in San Diego. I have a series of world premier concerts coming up at UC San Diego and Stanford in the next year, as well as a new opera called Noon at Dusk by my friend and colleague Stephen Lewis.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I am absolutely honored to have been nominated for this award, and to be in such humbling company amongst my fellow nominees. I’m especially in awe of the fact that I am the only opera singer in the category. There are so many fantastic singers working in the Boston area, and to be singled out in this way came as a tremendous surprise. Thank you so much to Arts Impulse for the recognition! Thank you to the cast, crew, orchestra, and creative team behind Albert Herring for making the entire experience such a positive and artistically fruitful endeavor. Thank you Andrew Altenbach for casting me and coaching me through the role. Thanks to my teachers, mentors, friends, family, and Meg for supporting me through many, many other projects, and for those to come!

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.