Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera: Русский-Style

Last night was Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera for the 2013-14 season. It opened with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana. This was the second time in Met history that a season was opened with Eugene Onegin, as the Met’s 1957 season opened with it starring George London as Onegin, Lucine Amara as Tatyana, Richard Tucker as Lensky, Rosalind Elias as Olga, and Giorgio Tozzi as Prince Gremin. In that year, Tchaikovsky’s work was sung in English, but this season it is being sung in the native-Russian language of Tchaikovsky. Interestingly enough, all of the stars of this season’s run are either Russian or Polish, making the language and text of Shilovsky and Tchaikovsky’s libretto come alive more for Met audiences, including last night’s audience at opening night!

Photo: Anna Netrebko as Tatyana in the Letter Scene (Act I Scene 2)

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Mariusz Kwiecien played the perfectly careless, selfish, almost lazy Onegin. His darkly toned, Slavic voice matched the character perfectly. Anna Netrebko’s Tatyana was incredibly moving and stunning. In the letter scene especially, she sang some pianissimos that made the audience’s hearts stop. One feels that this is the repertoire that really fits her like a glove, along with some of the Verdi roles, such as Elisabeth from Don Carlos, that she recorded for her new CD: “Anna Netrebko: Verdi”. Oksana Volkova’s Olga was incredibly bright and fun. Volkova made her debut as Maddalena in Rigoletto last season. She played Olga to Tatyana as if she was singing the role of Sophie in Werther to melancholy and conflicted Charlotte. She hopped around the stage, often in step to the music, teasing her sister Tatyana and Lensky, singing brightly with her complimentary, high cheekbones. Her singing was one of the highlights of the evening. Piotr Beczała’s Lensky was also so incredibly moving. His “Kuda, kuda” was so heart-wrenching, that no one in the audience wanted him to be shot in the duel only seconds later.

Photo: Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin) holding Piotr Beczała (Lensky) after the duel (Act II Scene 2)

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This fantastic performance was conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev, who last conducted Eugene Onegin at the Met in 2007. Throughout the evening, Gergiev conducted and formed a very velvety and mellow sound, especially through the woodwinds and the brass. In the letter scene, when the oboe and the horn exchange the melodic line, the sound was perfectly seamless and connected. The Mazurka and the Polonaise were both greatly and entertainingly conducted, but one was quite impressed with the legato line and velvet texture he gave for the orchestral sound. He also obviously worked with the chorus on their Russian, because their diction was fantastic, and they sounded wonderful!

The production was perfectly satisfactory. There were no random leaves and sweeping, as the previous production had. It might have been a bit ahead of the time period of Eugene Onegin, in that Onegin came into the Larin Estate to tell Tatyana that her act of writing the letter was childish wearing a Panama-type hat. Had Panama hats really reached Russia in the 1820s? The sets were perfectly traditional and simple. The ballroom in Act II was very open with one giant carpet in the middle of the room where dancing, arguing, and dual-calling would take place. One of my favorite sets was for the Polonaise: Simple white columns, with enough room to dance around, with a beautiful shade of blue in the background, and the dancers wearing lightly-colored dresses.

Photo: My favorite set of the opera (Act III Scene 1)

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One of the aspects of the production that one was not particularly enthusiastic for was the unnecessary kissing and intimacy between Onegin and Tatyana. At each point in the opera when one confronts the other in interest of love, the other is not interested or is too self-absorbed to realize what he or she wants in his or her love life. It did not make sense when Onegin told Tatyana that he was not interested in her childish love letters, and then giving her a passionate kiss to say goodbye. Later on, in the last minute of the opera, a humongous pause was taken for Onegin and Tatyana to really “make out” as a goodbye to each other. It is indeed true that Tatyana admits her love for Onegin in those last few minutes, but it is also true that she is supposed to run offstage, away from Onegin, encouraging herself to remain faithful to Gremin and to completely escape her previous life. The relationship between Onegin and Tatyana in this production was a bit too intimate, in that the relationship should really have been portrayed as more cold and careless.

Attending opening night was an incredible experience. This was my second Met opening night because I attended the opening of Das Rheingold in 2010. Seeing so many opera enthusiasts, opera singers, and famous actors dressed up in long gowns and tuxedos was a fantastic sight. Half of the fun of opening night was people-watching! Part of the “fun” in people-watching/hearing was the ruckus that was made when Gergiev took the podium before Act I. LGBT protestors from the Family Circle tried to make their voices heard, but were eventually defeated by the choruses of “SHUT UP”s and “BASTA”s. This opening night also began my 11th season of attending operas with my father, who introduced me to opera, and seeing my mother play second oboe in the pit of course! Congratulations to the Metropolitan Opera on a fantastic opening night, and a strong start to the 2013-14 season.

Photo: My dad and me at Opening Night!

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“Tuning up” for the Met’s 2013-14 Season with Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera is approaching quickly! The Met will open its 2013-14 season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien. For this opening night to be put on, however, a lot of work has had to be put in by the star singers, the chorus, the stagehands, the radio department, lots of other departments, and of course, the orchestra! My mother, Susan Spector, is the Second Oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and has been for twenty-two years. She sat down with me and gave me the scoop on how pre-season went, and what to expect for the upcoming season:

Photo: Susan Spector © Michael Ouzounian

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Melanie Spector (Ms.OperaGeek): Overall, how was pre-season? You just finished it yesterday with the final dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin.

Susan Spector: It’s a shift of gears from summer to spending all day rehearsing. Some of the orchestra members have come to call it “boot camp” *laughs*! After three weeks of pre-season, it’s awfully nice to play for an audience, which is what we did in the dress rehearsal yesterday.

MS: Which operas did you rehearse in pre-season?

SS: I rehearsed Così fan tutte and Eugene Onegin, and one day with just orchestra of Falstaff with Maestro Levine. Other people have been playing The Nose and there have been a couple of rehearsals of Norma.

MS: Now that James Levine is back, I would expect that conducting from a wheelchair would be slightly different—for him and for the players in the orchestra.  Can you elaborate?

SS: There has been major construction inside of the pit and outside, leading up to it. One lift has been installed outside of the pit, a special ramp has been installed in the pit behind the players, and we’re still working out the logistics of having him enter and then resetting certain seats and stands in the orchestra once he is in the pit. As a matter of fact, the area most directly in the path of where the wheelchair needs to come through is the oboe section–where I am. Ironically, oboe players tend to have the most “stuff” or “fiddly reed things”, tuners, knives, etc. It might be a challenge for us, but we’ve done it once and it went mostly smoothly, and I have some ideas for a more speedy departure from and re-entry into the pit! (And, no, my ideas do not include skipping the overture and coming in late!”) *laughs*

MS: What are you most looking forward to playing this season and why?

SS: I am really looking forward to playing Die Frau ohne Schatten. My two favorite composers to perform at the Met are Wagner and Strauss. They probably have the most colorful, intricate, and challenging orchestral palettes of any composers of opera. Frau is also so rarely done, that I am really looking forward to its return. Also, another opera I’m looking forward to is Prince Igor. Even though I do not have a part, I am really looking forward to watching it from the audience. I look forward to hearing Noseda conduct, but I will miss playing for him. I always find his performances to be very committed and riveting (and he’s a nice guy!).

Photo: The Met’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten

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MS: Have you had any fun encounters backstage or down on C level during pre-season, or heard any other people rehearsing?

SS: I hear the Ballet rehearsing at the same time we are, and the Chorus has been back since July. I’ve run into James Morris who is here for Norma, I’ve seen the cast of Onegin, the Children’s Chorus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Also, our orchestra lounge has also served as a temporary repair shop during pre-season:  a place where stagehands make their annual repairs to the backs and seats that need to be reupholstered in red velvet for the house. This was another surprise:  I saw the set for Onegin and there were so many mirrors on it that I thought it was the Met production of Frau!

MS: Who are you looking forward to hearing sing this season?

SS: Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato, even though La Cenerentola is all the way in April. I love Jonas Kaufmann, and I am not scheduled to play Werther, so I will be in the audience!

MS: Which conductors are you looking forward to working with this season?

SS: I love working with Yannick Nézét Séguin, and am looking forward to seeing him conduct my teacher Richard Woodhams in the Oboe Concerto of Richard Strauss with the Philadelphia Orchestra next month, and then playing Rusalka with him at the Met! I also am glad that James Levine is making his return to the podium.  He has a particular affinity for the works of Mozart and Verdi, in my opinion, so Così and Falstaff will no doubt be highlights of the season.

MS: Is there anything that you are dreading about the upcoming season?

SS: No Wagner! Where’s the Wagner? Where’s the beef?! I love playing Wagner, and I am sad that there is none of his music this year. Also, I am not playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I love Britten, so I am a little disappointed in that. I will also miss looking up from the pit and seeing my daughter singing on the stage with the Children’s Chorus…and I will miss seeing her in light-up horns at the Ring!

MS: What happens over the summer? Are there any meet-ups during the summer? Festivals?

SS: Once the opera season ends, the members of the Orchestra usually do not see one another. We had one Carnegie Hall concert immediately following the end of the season, and then we were on vacation until after Labor Day. On September 4th, we returned and rehearsed Mahler VII in anticipation of the December Carnegie Hall concert. Some Orchestra players saw one another at the Tahoe SummerFest at Lake Tahoe, some played at other festivals, others like myself used the vacation to get a little time away from the instrument. Some people like to play different kinds of music other than opera during the summer, symphonic or chamber music, for example.  I love having the chance to go hear performances during the summer. I loved going to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne this past summer, listening to BBC Proms concerts over the Internet, and watching the performance of Elektra with Esa Pekka Salonen that streamed live from Aix-en-Provence was totally riveting.  Finding the time for opportunities to attend and listen to other performances is much more difficult when I’m in the midst of a busy opera season and my own performances.

MS: That’s nice that you get to attend things during the summer and be in the audience! What was the highlight of your summer musically, as an audience member?

SS: Seeing Britten’s Gloriana at Covent Garden while being in London at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate her reign was amazing! It was written for her, making it a very unique piece, and I just love his music. Also, being in London- seeing so many things on Queen Elizabeth I, the subject and main character in Gloriana, was very cool!

MS: Any last words for anxious opera fans waiting for the season to start?

SS: I think it’s going to be an exciting year for the Met: in the opera house, on the airwaves, and in the movie theaters. Opera fans can be the most fanatical fans (in a good way!), and members of the Orchestra hear that in your applause and “Bravo”s as well as in your excited tweets and blog posts. It can sometimes be difficult repeatedly playing the same repertoire, so your excitement keeps it exciting for us! It is so nice seeing a passion for opera by so many people, and it helps us remain passionate about playing.

If you would like to read more about Susan Spector read here: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/about/whoweare/detail.aspx?customid=3 (Scroll to Susan Spector in the oboe section)

Thoughts on “The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer” by Renée Fleming

In between reading the books that I was assigned in June for my summer assignments, I picked up The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer by world renowned soprano Renée Fleming. I had wanted to read this book for a long time, but I felt that reading it while I was preparing to go to Manhattan School of Music for precollege voice would be a good idea, so I could familiarize with how music schools work and how students, specifically voice students, make their way in the music world. I am so glad that I read it this summer, because it really did make me more aware of what I am getting myself into by pursuing entrance into the field of music.

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Every young singer should read this book. Ms. Fleming’s book is different from most other opera singer’s autobiographies. Instead of just talking about her career and background, Ms. Fleming goes in depth about her voice lessons, her teachers, her audition techniques and the results, and many other things that are always in the minds and schedules of young singers. She even gives vocal tips and practicing tips that she learned from her teachers, such as holding your upper lip to release tension around the mouth, and bring out more sound. Who would have guessed that? She also admitted that it is a rough road to drive on to succeed vocally in the music world, and even spoke of times when she almost gave up on her idea of a singing career, or other people told her to wrap it up. During college, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Frankfurt, Germany for a year. She said that she was lucky that planes do not turn around once they are in the air, because she was asking herself what she was doing on a plane flying to Germany, not knowing a word of German or where to go when she got there! That sounds so scary, yet so relatable to a young singer traveling the world to study. Ms. Fleming’s book can be very relatable, and almost comforting to read, or even re-read, for young singers who are struggling to keep faith.

Once Ms. Fleming finishes her parts about her schooling and auditioning and hits the many big, operatic stages, it is very interesting reading about her actual performances! For example: She talks about her Met Debut as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and how she was so giddy and excited to be singing onstage with some of her idols: Samuel Ramey as Figaro and Frederica von Stade as Cherubino. Today, so many young singers look up to Renée Fleming and would feel the same giddiness and excitement singing onstage with her that she did back on March 16, 1991 in her Met Debut. Ms. Fleming also said the same about autographs. She had the amazing opportunity to meet Leontyne Price when she was 10 years old where she grew up in upstate New York, and Ms. Price became an idol and mentor to her in the future. Now, Ms. Fleming signs autographs for 10 year olds and young singers today, just as she did when she was younger.

Renée Fleming as Countess Madeleine in Strauss’ Capriccio

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I would recommend this book to any voice student, or even music students in general, more than the regular opera attendee. This book not only talks about her career, but also her journey to where she is today, voice lessons, technique, teachers, and tons and tons of auditions. Every young singer should read The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer by Renée Fleming.