Accessible Opera The PLA Way
By Alexandra Keegan, Artistic Director
Many years ago when opera was first created, it was written in the language of the people, whether it was Italian, French, or German. Even so, this opera does require a bit more from the average audience member. Just like we will enjoy a movie based on a book if we have actually read the book first, so it is with opera. The more we understand the story, the more we will appreciate the aria and scene, even if we may not understand every single word that is being sung at the moment.
We have heard the argument many times that people don’t go to operas because they can’t understand all of the lyrics. Consider the fact, though, that at a rock or pop concert, we may not comprehend all the words the performer is singing, yet we have no problem enjoying the performance because experiencing a live concert involves taking in the whole scene - the live singers, live band or orchestra, vocal ensemble, costumes, lighting, etc.
The signature format of our shows features slightly condensed versions of the operas, with spoken narrative in English before and during the play. These narrative vignettes, performed by a professional actor, are designed to keep the audience engaged in the musical drama without being distracted by supertitles. This format has proved successful in attracting younger or first-time audiences to this complex (universal) art form. Our performances often sell out and we often overhear audience members, even youth, comment on how much they were able to understand at their first opera.
Every opera production we do is based on the original score. But to make the story more compact and easier for the first-time audience members to understand, we make custom cuts. Most of the time it is music material that expands some secondary characters. In the full production those episodes are appreciated by the sophisticated listener, but make the production much longer and harder to absorb by first-timers.
To address the language problem for those who do not necessarily read the whole story beforehand, we freeze the action between large episodes and a storyteller (professional actor) comes on stage and describes in English what just transpired and what is going to happen in the next scene. Now the audience can enjoy the power of music in full and not worry about trying to understand the plot. By interviewing our audience members with children and teenages after the shows, we are absolutely convinced that our format is the future of the opera theatre. Every single family noticed that their children stayed engaged from the very beginning to the last note, they understood the story, they liked and disliked the characters, they loved the music, and they want to come back to see another opera.
Artist Profile: Anna Pflieger
Performing the titular role of Carmen in our upcoming production is Mezzo-Soprano Anna Pflieger. She recently took some time from her busy performance and rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions. Read on to learn all about her fascinating journey to our stage.
Q: Who is the most famous person you've met in person?
A: I have had the opportunity to meet many famous classical singers over the past twenty years including Mirella Freni, Carol Neblett, Vladimir Chernov, Anna Netrekbo, Rolando Villazon, and Christine Goerke to name a few. More importantly, I’d like to touch on the most influential person I’ve had the honor of meeting and working with, my beloved teacher and mentor, Claudine Carlson. I have always said that anything I do well, I owe to her, and any faults in my singing are entirely of my own making. She fostered my love for music in times when my passion felt dim and taught me strength through musical discipline and artistry. My soul lies in music and this amazing woman remains my guide in preserving beloved masterworks, sincere interpretation and vocal honesty. I hope one day to do her proud.
Q: Did you have a rough patch in your career?
A: In my early twenties I was diagnosed with stage three cancer. I lost five years of good health and operatic training due to my condition and subsequent treatment. Those critical five years, while the majority of my colleagues were transitioning from masters and young artist programs to mainstage, I was rebuilding my body, mind and instrument. My career was entirely derailed but I was later able to return to competiton, stage and music with a stronger conviction than ever, greater purpose and profound inner knowledge; actualization of self. For a singer, few losses are more painful than losing your authentic form of self and communication. Lucky for me, I know just the place that can help me express, share and heal such emotions, the operatic stage!
Q: What is your opera dream role?
A: My heart lies in the dramatic Verdian and Wagnerian repertoire. The first dream role (of many) that comes to mind is Eboli from Verdi’s Don Carlo.
Q: What is the most challenging thing you have ever done in your life?
A: Following my remission from cancer in 2013, I was hit by three different drivers in Los Angeles in auto accidents resulting in multiple injuries. I refer to this time period as my dark decade. I eventually healed my body, further strengthened my mind and doubled down on getting my broken self back to where I belonged, on stage. Returning to the operatic circuit in a new, larger body, with a new, larger voice, not to mention a track record of being M.I.A. for years was truly petrifying. I would shake with anxiety prior to auditions, having been so out of practice singing anywhere else than the safety of my beloved teacher’s warm and inviting studio. My first audition back, I felt my entire body freeze the second the accompanist began playing Tacea la notte placida. It felt like a death march, frozen in time. I recognized on a subconscious level, that not singing would be far worse than pushing through this newfound stage fright. So, I sang and I sang well. This may not sound like a challenge or feat compared to climbing a tall peak, or fighting injustice, but for a young singer who had lost a lot, her hope, her passion and her purpose, in that singular moment, I felt proud of myself.
Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to become an opera singer?
A: I was fourteen years old sitting in diction class on a Friday afternoon when my teacher popped in a VHS of Le Nozze di Figaro starring Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. As a former drama and choir kid who loved jazz and had difficulty palating musical theatre, it was a revelation watching my first opera. This art form offered everything I could ever want, from the challenging music and vocal style, to the elaborate costumes and theatrical staging. I fell in love, and I fell hard and fast. Looking back, against all logic and reason, I can openly admit that I was born an opera singer.
Q: What was your most glorious moment, or what would you consider the high point of your career?
A: Debuting in the title role of Carmen with Pacific Lyric Association will truly be the highlight of my career to date. To discover this character in a collaborative and artistically nurturing environment that PLA creates surrounded by tremendous talent and kind-hearted colleagues, it’s nothing short of magical. I hope I can do her (Carmen) justice. Bizet be with me.
About Anna Pflieger
Anna Pflieger, dramatic mezzo-soprano, is an award-winning vocal artist recognized for her arresting vocal timbre and bold stage presence.
Ms. Pflieger’s most recent engagements include: 2022 Wagner Society of Southern California Wesendonck Lieder Soloist, Pacific Lyric Association title role debut as Carmen in Bizet’s Carmen, LAKMA Symphony Beethoven Symphony No.9 Alto Soloist Walt Disney Concert Hall, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Alto Soloist, Mozart Requiem Alto Soloist, 2021 Opera West! debut as Cio-Cio-San’s Mother in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, 2020 VOPA debut as Marthe in Gounod’s Faust, CSUN Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 Alto Soloist.
Recent honors include: 2021 Palm Springs Opera Guild Vocal Competition semi-finalist, 2020 Mentoris Voice Vocal Competition finalist and encouragement award recipient, 2019 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Western Region semi-finalist and encouragement awardrecipient, 2019 Burbank Philharmonic Hennings-Fischer Young Artist Competition finalist, The Opera Buffs Inc., Artist Grant Award recipient, and first place recipient of the 2019 Bell T. Ritchie Award.
Ms. Pflieger serves as co-founder of Artists Coalition of Los Angeles, a non-profit organization advancing classical arts and culture, and is an alumnus of NYU Tisch, Pepperdine University, International Lyric Academy of Rome and Idyllwild Arts Academy. She currently prepares roles under the guidance of Claudine Carlson and William Vendice. She particularly enjoys singing the works of Verdi, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner and looks forward to embracing this repertoire for years to come.
Anna Pflieger is based in Los Angeles and is available for engagements worldwide.
MY JOURNEY by Gabriel Reoyos-Pazos
I started to work with Pacific Lyric Opera when the founders, Carlos and Terry Oliva, were heading the organization. I met the Olivas many years ago in Santa Barbara because I was auditioning for the productions at Santa Barbara Opera as a tenor. I should say that I was not directing opera at the time but singing onstage in productions. My repertory included the tenor leads in such operas as “Tosca,” “Madam Butterfly,” “La Traviata,” among others, including my favorite, “Carmen.” The very talented Olivas were auditioning for Santa Barbara opera as well. Their young son, also named Gabriel, was auditioning for the great American opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors", as was Terry for the role of the mother. We got to know each-other after that and sang together many times in various works.
Several years later, my wife, a wonderful soprano, and I were visiting the Olivas in San Diego when they were rehearsing “Rigoletto” by Verdi, and they invited me to direct their next opera. By that time, I had been artistic director for a regional opera in Los Angeles, Guild Opera Company, the second oldest opera company in California, after the San Francisco Opera. Guild Opera Company specializes in community outreach and outreach to elementary schools. I am immensely proud to have been with Guild Opera Company all these years. I am completing my twenty-second year with them. The company gives opportunities to professional singers and up-and-coming talent in the Southland. For example, artists such as Marilyn Horne, the famous mezzo-soprano, Marnie Nixon, famous for being the voice to Natalie Wood in the film version of "West Side Story," Audrey Hepburn in the film version of "My Fair Lady," and Mary Costa, the voice and body for the original Disney "Sleeping Beauty," all got their start with Guild Opera Company. Since that time, I have had the pleasure of directing various productions with PLA, including “Carmen.” Last season I directed “Die Fledermaus,” the greatest operetta written in my opinion. That was fun, fun, fun!
I started in the world of music as a child playing violin. I attended conservatory in my native Cuba. I also sang as a kid and for a while had a children's radio program with two of my sisters. After the difficult migration from the repressive and communist Cuba, I was able to pick up the violin and learn viola in high school and college in Glendale, California. My passion was singing, so I dedicated my efforts to that endeavor and went to Cal State University Northridge where there was a terrific program. I was fortunate to sing in many operas there and after college continued my studies with a wonderful teacher, Ms. Elisabeth Parham, who became my mentor. Thanks to her, I was able to have a career on the operatic stage. I have been extremely fortunate to pursue my passion and I am grateful for the opportunities which were afforded to me in this great country.
I am looking forward to this production of “Carmen” and give my gratitude to Maestra Alex Keegan and Justin Gray, producer extraordinaire as well as expert musician. It is an opera which is close to my heart and was the second opera of which I became aware in my young life. The first was Mozart's "Magic Flute" which cast a spell over me. However, when I discovered “Carmen,” it quickly became a favorite.
“Carmen” is truly a masterpiece of music and theater. No wonder it is arguably the number one opera in the world. To think that it was considered a failure when it premiered, that Bizet, its composer, died soon after its premiere and never got to see the triumph that it became. That, in and of itself, is "operatic" in scope!
ABOUT Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos
Director Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos is the recipient of the 2007 El Angel Award from the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. He has sung leading operatic roles, as well as roles in zarzuelas, oratorios, and musicals with various companies, including Anchorage Opera, Spanish Lyric Theater in Tampa (Florida), West Bay Opera, Spokane Opera, Santa Barbara Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, LA Music Center, The European Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, and The Angeles Chorale.
Mr. Reoyo-Pazos’s directing credits include Enrique Gonzalez-Medina’s opera “Serafina y Arcángelaat” at the Theater Center in Tijuana (Mexico), “The Marriage of Figaro,” at The Ventura College Opera Workshop, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and “Suor Angelica,” for Riverside Opera, and “La Bohéme,” for Ridgecrest Opera Guild as well as Guild Opera Company. For Pacific Lyric Association, he has directed “Carmen,” “La Traviata,” “Il Trovatore,” and “Tosca.”
In August 2022, we brought information to you regarding the backstage drama to get “Carmen” onto the stage in front of its first audience. Now, we can take the time to really admire what a work of art the music is for this opera.
The music was incredibly well orchestrated in comparison to other opera or orchestra literature. Georges Bizet made extensive use of the range and sounds of each instrument in the pit. There is a substantial amount of brass work, which is a little out of character for most operas. Punctuated with percussion such as tambourines and castanets that are typically foreign to opera scores and you get a rather exotic approach to the music. Additionally, most operas of that time simply had musicians in the orchestra pit to be background to the vocal talents on stage. This is not the same with “Carmen.” You get percussion and dance rhythms that accompany the character’s vocal lines throughout the score. This was considered progressive for the time, yet helps flesh out Carmen’s earthiness and sultry moves on stage.
Don Jose’s music, on the other hand, is more poignant and pastoral. As the libretto progresses during the opera, his music transitions from all sweetness and lyricism to something a little more jarring and unsettling. Micaëla is fairly constant throughout. Her music matches her character with somewhat dainty and unobtrusive tunes. Escamillo and his famous “Toreador” song carries shameless confidence and showmanship with a little lustiness tossed in for good measure. One point of trivia: When Escamillo and Carmen sing their rather short duet “Si tu m’aimes," it is the only time in the opera they sing in unison. That was Bizet’s method of signaling that Carmen and Escamillo were in alignment with their love for each other.
Alas, Bizet died of a heart attack at the young age of 36 while ill with a fever. “Carmen” had just premiered to the world and had just finished its 33rd performance at Opéra-Comique on June 3, 1875. Bizet died never knowing his opera about a sultry cigarette factory worker would become one of the world’s most beloved and often performed material on the opera stage.
THE CARMEN STORY - Part 3
So, we’ve blogged about the challenges to get “Carmen” produced for the first time and the alleged indecency of the plot. Let’s learn a bit more about the backstage history of this material.
WHO IT OFFENDED AND WHO IT ENTHRALLED
It was no secret that the storyline and music for “Carmen” seemed a little too progressive for some audience members, but there were others who thought it was fresh and sensational. Johannes Brahms was noted to have seen the production a staggering 20 times! We’re not sure if that says a certain something about Brahms’ focus on the eloquence of the material or the audacity of the storyline. Petyr Tchaikovsky went on record as saying “Carmen is a masterpiece. It’s one of those rare creations that expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch.” Let’s side with the composers and concur that it’s a masterwork.
WHERE CARMEN TAKES PLACE
When “Carmen” opens the stage, it is set at a cigarette factory in Seville. Did you know that there was a cigarette factory at this time that inspired the setting? The Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville opened for manufacturing operations circa 1758. Around the world, it was customary practice to have women produce the cigars. The Royal Tobacco Factory was the first to use an all-male workforce. However, as time went on, they saw that the quality produced by the men was not up to the same quality level as those produced by women in competitor factories. The factory converted to all female workforce in 1829. So by about the time setting of the “Carmen” story, women were firmly in charge of producing the cigars and snuff in the real world.
There’s a sizeable footnote to the Royal Tobacco Factory to share. In 1950, the tobacco factory moved its operations to another location in the city. The University of Seville saw the grandeur of the architecture and procured it to become the centerpiece of its campus. The renovation and restructuring of the building from a factory to a university occurred between 1954 and 1956. The repurposed building still stands today as the cornerstone to the university’s campus spread.
THE FIRST TO SING THE ROLE OF CARMEN
The folks at Opéra-Comique originally offered the role to noted soprano, Marie Roze, who had triumphs not only on the OC stage in other previous productions, but elsewhere in Europe. Offended by the fact that the role required her to die before the curtain came down, she walked away from the role. The part was then offered to another soprano, Célestine Galli-Marié, who had a bit of a reputation for being a rather demanding personality offstage. Eventually, the company was able to extend an agreeable deal in the contract and Galli-Marié would cement herself in history as the first singer to perform this notable role. She also became a staunch ally to the composer when he found himself backed against the wall with all sorts of demands by the company to tone down the role/story. She went to bat for him and used her influence to keep the material to the composer’s intentions knowing that she would get a juicier role as a result.
CARMEN PREMIERES TO THE WORLD
When “Carmen” debuted to the world on March 3, 1875, the material was a combination of music and spoken dialogue. Eventually, the dialogue was soon replaced with sung recitatives. However, today, companies can perform either version.
As for the reception by the audience and critics to this new opera, let’s just say it wasn’t what everyone had hoped. The reviews ranged from discouraging to down and out vicious. The company ending up papering the house with complimentary tickets during minimal sales periods and had to share the stage with the more popular material concurrently running, Verdi’s “Requiem.”
Tragically, Bizet died of heart disease during the original run of the production. He was only 36 years of age. Coincidentally, it also happened to be his wedding anniversary date. The production finished their run without much profit to the theater. Later that same year, the production (with the original cast) came back in November for a limited run of 12 performances. “Carmen” would not be performed again on the Parisian opera stage until 1883. It has never stopped being a staple of the opera houses since.
THE CARMEN STORY - Part 2
Did you know Bizet had never actually been to Spain when he wrote “Carmen”? Yet, his opera has become the touchstone interpretation of life in Seville. Speaking of life in Seville, let's hash out the plot of "Carmen."
The story goes like so: The year is about 1830. The plot deals with the unbridled love and jealousy of Don José, who gets very distracted from his soldier duties, not to mention his existing love, Micaëla, by the gypsy* Carmen, who works at the local tobacco factory makes cigars.
The male lead, Don José, had trained to be a priest. During his teenage years, he got into a rather heated tussle over a sports game and killed a man. To avoid prison, he fled his country and enlisted in the military. Don Jose’s job as corporal of the dragoons is to oversee and confirm that the factory women are not stealing tobacco. Don José spots Carmen on a break and she shameless flirts with him. Things get rather complicated when Carmen, though making flagrant moves on Don José as a tease, makes it emphatically clear that she is enamored with someone else, a bull-fighter named Escamillo. As the plot goes on, Don José is persuaded to join Carmen’s cronies the smugglers, but as with all things opera, gets afflicted with outrageous jealousy when he learns about Escamillo.
In the final act of the program, Escamillo enters the bullfighting arena with Carmen. Don José, who was waiting for Carmen to appear, and definitely not about to let her live happily ever after with Escamillo, stabs her to death just outside the bullring.
Only in opera can you witness this type of relentless display of love, affection, rage and fury in one evening! But when it’s put to wonderful music, then it’s lifted to art!
*The term "gypsy" is the term used to describe the free-spirit nomadic folks who spread over Europe, North and South Americas, typically of Romani descent. PLA recognizes it is considered a perjorative by some nowadays and is using the term only to be in sync with how opera described the character of Carmen from its point of story origination.
THE CARMEN STORY - Part 1
How a story about a sultry Sevillian woman working in a cigarette factory who just happened to be the object of unflinching affection for a military man became one of the most iconic, if not performed operas of the planet is a rather interesting journey. Let’s go down the path of how “Carmen” became one of the top 3 most performed titles in operatic literature.
It began with a short story, “Carmen” written by French author Proper Mérimée, one of the true pioneers of the novella form of writing. It was a little bit spicy for a story line, but nonetheless the composer, Georges Bizet, was looking for something that would be different than his previous opera efforts. He had a few performed operas to his name, but none of them really was a standout. Parisian audiences of the time were more interested in conventional, established fare instead of branching out into more modern pieces. All this time, Bizet was also providing piano lessons to supplement his income. He was the true starving artist.
A STORY CONSIDERED TOO INDECENT
Still and all, the folks at Paris Opéra-Comique reached out to Bizet and commissioned him to write new material for their 1874 season. The directors at POC were a little hesitant about the storyline attached to Bizet’s new opera. They thought it was just a little too racy for public consumption. One of the company directors, Adolphe de Leuven thought it was far too risqué a story for his family-friendly audience and quit the company in protest. Bizet and his libretto collaborators, Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, agreed to tone down the Rabelaisian nature of the story.
TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS
That wasn’t even the half of it. Lots of drama crept into the rehearsals. The chorus complained that they genuinely had to act and fight onstage. Given that during this period of history, the chorus was rather relegated to simply standing in position and singing, this was asking them to step outside their comfort zone. Down in the pit, the orchestra found parts of the score unplayable and let their displeasure be known. Lots of unhappy folks in the company rank and file, to be certain.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE DRAMA…
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