After a long and semi-honorable run, the stand-and-sing, concert-in-costume school of opera performance is slowly ending. (Pavarotti, all but retired, is its last stalwart exponent.) "People want more acting now," says Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, referring to both singers and audiences who grew up with the (relative) naturalism of film and TV. Careful concern with dramatic values—staging, set design, the vivid and convincing projection of character—has long been a mark of Seattle Opera's productions, and it's the particular emphasis of its Young Artists Program.
Falstaff Meydenbauer Center, 11100 N.E. Sixth St., Bellevue, 389-7676, www.seattle opera.org. $15–$35. 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 4; Fri., April 6; and Sat., April 7.
Launched in 1998, the program annually selects a dozen or so young singers on the cusp of a career—from 500 applicants this year—for 20 weeks of seminars and master classes, lots of vocal coaching (with Jane Eaglen, SO's resident Wagner soprano, new this year to the YAP staff), and lots of performance. The singers are sent all over the state with easily transportable chamber operas and take over Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center for a fully staged production. This year's show, Verdi's Falstaff, opened last Friday night.
Practical advice on becoming a working professional singer is also a focus of the program; YAP alumni have gone on to sing at the Met, the New York City Opera, and Milan's La Scala and in Seattle Opera mainstage productions. "Peter [Kazaras, director of Falstaff] and Speight are doing a good job of bringing agents in for us to sing for [during] the mainstage shows...it's great to have their feedback," says baritone Joshua Jeremiah. "We've gotten to sit in on each other's auditions...that's been helpful to demystify the audition process." Mezzo-soprano Teresa Herold, in her second year, agrees about the valuable career boost YAP offers: "The connections are endless....Transitioning from school to professional here is made quite easy." And though the program is centered around opera, a singer's career will always include other kinds of musical performance. Herold, who locally has sung with the Seattle Philharmonic and Music of Remembrance, has benefited from the program's breadth: "They do allow you to be flexible. If we ask to be coached on oratorio, they will gladly help us out, or art song or opera...it's all about shaping our voices, so we kind of sing a little bit of everything."
Each auditioner is asked to prepare not only several arias in different languages but, this year for the first time, a two-minute dramatic monologue. What the selection committee is looking for, as Jenkins points out in an audio documentary available on the Seattle Opera Web site (www.seattleopera.org/gala), is intriguing potential rather than polished accomplishment: "One of the jobs of this program is to work on [performance] theatrically....If they have the interesting voice, they're the ones who are going to be taken, and we have to try to teach them. We are a vocal art form, and although I am the first person to talk about acting and wanting to do it...I will always choose the interesting voice, or the voice that really has expression in it—and then we have to teach them."
Well, teaching mission accomplished. I've never seen an opera cast that looks as thoroughly comfortable onstage as do the singers in this Falstaff. Moving, interacting, and playing to an audience is second nature to them, and they handle gracefully Kazaras' blocking, often of a complexity that matches Verdi's contrapuntally intricate ensembles. The final scene—a fugue on the text "All the world's a joke, man is born a jester"—is always staged with the singers addressing the audience directly, and Kazaras takes the fourth-wall-breaking as inspiration for this whole highly stylized production. (Though you could argue this spoils the surprise of the finale.) The audience enters to see the cast onstage dressing, and cast members remain onstage to watch scenes they're not in, with theatrical paraphernalia—wardrobe, chairs, sawhorses—strewn about.
This here-we-are-putting-on-a-show approach makes for a lively performance; it also leaves just that much of a distance between each singer and his/her role. (The nearer a character's age is to the singer's own age, the more convincing the character comes off.) But the decision not to get in the way of the singers' natural charisma is probably the right one; with that charisma and the cast's fresh voices—all impressive, some truly remarkable—the opera's exuberance spills into the intimate Meydenbauer auditorium with all the warmth and good will Verdi put into his valedictory comedy.