Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Who's your Tosca?

Two rising stars of the opera world are taking on Tosca at Covent Garden: Amanda Echalaz and Kristine Opolais. They're very different. Which is the Tosca for you? I talked to them both and a bit of our chats is in today's Independent. More appears below. Incidentally, I popped into the ROH the other day to do some more interviews and found the foyers hearteningly packed with kids, who were excited and shouting after the first act of the Tosca schools' matinee. They saw Amanda, and she certainly seemed to be doing the trick for them.



Tosca is an opera for a diva about a diva. No wonder this perennial Puccini favourite is, to many sopranos, the ultimate prize of the repertoire. Floria Tosca is an opera singer trapped between the artist she loves and the dictator who lusts after her, and in the Royal Opera’s latest revival, the spotlight falls on two fast-rising stars who take on the role in turn. 

I remember speaking to Angela Gheorghiu about Tosca once: she declared that in this role she was simply playing herself. So does a soprano have to be a diva - in every sense - to be a great Tosca? 

Amanda Echalaz, 36, thinks not. She shot to prominence in this same work at Opera Holland Park in 2008, since when it has become her “signature” role (audiences may also have spotted her in the Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 in which she represented her native South Africa). More recently she has performed Tosca at ENO and, crucially, stepped in at Covent Garden about three years ago when Angela Gheorghiu dropped out - since when she has been hailed as this star's successor in the role. “I never get tired of singing it,” she says. 

For her, she adds, “Tosca is a very human figure: she’s full of wonderful qualities and like most people she has her flaws, which makes her very likeable. I’m drawn to the passionate, fiery side of her: she has a real zest for life. Her diva characteristics are obvious, but it’s more interesting to try to find the real woman behind that, especially the real woman in love.” Echalaz herself, unlike Tosca, seems serene and relatively down to earth. She identifies with Tosca’s vitality and passion for music – but there, she insists, the resemblance ends.  “Playing someone so extreme can be liberating, but I’m a little calmer in real life.”

But the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, 33, whose 2011 Royal Opera House debut in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly took her audience by storm, declares simply: “Tosca is like me! She’s an opera singer and she’s very jealous. 

"You can find everything in this very colourful and powerful woman. She’s strong, emotional and impulsive, and what happens to her is a great tragedy as she gives everything she is capable of giving for love. I feel very at home when I sing this role.”

Opolais, who is married to the conductor Andris Nelsons and has recently had her first child, adds with a laugh that she thinks “divas” are inherently “not normal”. “Who would want to do this job? You’re nervous, you go on stage and all the time you are afraid whether the audience will love you or not. Even if you are stable, you are always afraid. So I think Tosca is already a little bit crazy – as every big diva has to be.” 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Noah Stewart: the director's cut

My interview with Decca's newest tenor sign-up, Noah Stewart, is in today's Indy, but I thought you might like to see the "director's cut"....

First, a spot of Puccini...




When Decca put on a launch in London for its starry new signing, the American tenor NoahStewart, technology malfunctioned. The video broke down, the dry ice played up and the microphone went on the blink. Perhaps that was the intervention of fate. After navigating some Puccini, plus ‘Nights in White Satin’ in Italian, Stewart ditched the dodgy microphone for ‘Amazing Grace’. Now the whole room realised that this man could really, seriously sing. 

His first solo album hasn’t malfunctioned at all. It has whooshed to no.1 in the classical charts, making Stewart the first black artist ever to top that category. Meanwhile he has been attracting attention in opera. He made his Covent Garden debut last month, in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune; he sang Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Opera North; and he is currently in Detroit, tackling The Pearl Fishers by Bizet for the first time. Later this month he’ll be back in the UK for his first solo tour.

Still, to misquote Joanna Trollope, it can take years to become an overnight success. Stewart’s journey may have landed him a five-CD recording contract – “a dream come true,” he says – but he’s had more than his fair share of tough times. 

Stewart grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a supermarket. He owes everything to her devotion, he says; she made sure he went to a good school and put his education first. When he was 12 a teacher recruited him for the school choir, with encouraging words about his voice. His mother thought he would be a comedian, “because I always loved making people laugh”; and young Noah, testing his wings in musical theatre, found he loved acting. “I was quite heavy as a kid, and I was happier playing someone else,” he admits. 

His first passion was jazz, not least thanks to his mother’s New Orleans background. Then, attending an arts school, he spotted a laserdisc of the Verdi Requiem with a picture of the great mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price on the cover. “She was the only person of colour in the image and I was immediately drawn to it.” The performance proved a giant shockwave: “It was the first time I heard a person of colour sing with an operatic technique in a different language. The combination of the voice and the orchestra drew me in immediately. Everyone around me in high school wanted to be a pop star or a gospel star. But I felt that, for me, this was the way to go. It wasn’t a road much travelled.” 

Role models were few. “I didn’t see images of any coloured men singing opera. I knew about Paul Robeson, Bobby McFerrin, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman, but the only tenor I could see was George Shirley, who retired from the stage when I was in middle school. I heard an interview with Leontyne Price, recorded in the 1970s, in which she said ‘I wish there were more black men in opera – I wish they would choose the operatic path.’ That only inspired me more to stick to it even when times were bad and people wouldn’t give me a chance.”

He won a scholarship to the Juilliard, New York’s most famous music college, but when he wanted to go to the summer school at the Aspen Music Festival, his mother couldn’t afford the fees. She wrote to the comedian Bill Cosby, who was appearing at a nearby club, and took the letter round to the doorman herself. Cosby sent a cheque. That summer in Aspen proved a seminal experience for Stewart. 

Breaking into the profession later, though, proved so tough that his confidence plummeted. While his former classmates were “ushered into theatres and young artists programmes”, he received rejection after rejection. He reached rock-bottom after auditioning for a conductor who told him he should reconsider his decision to be a musician. For three years he took other jobs – as a salesman, a restaurant host and a receptionist in Carnegie Hall, where his supervisor ordered him to stop singing at work. 

Finally, after studying with a new vocal coach, he auditioned and was accepted for the young artists’ programme at San Francisco Opera. There his big break arrived in classic style: he was understudying Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and had to stand in for the scheduled tenor at the last moment. “After that people started talking. I was singing for artist managers and so on, and they said, ‘Noah, where have you been?’” His answer: “Carnegie Hall!” 

His confidence came back. “I knew I had a lot to learn – but I knew that I could do it, because I did it for myself. No-one gave me the opportunity; they needed me and I was able to capitalise on that, but I was able to do it because I worked for it. 

“My mum told me early on: ‘You are a black man. You have to be better at everything you do.’ Not that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but I knew I had to be the best that I could be, so I lost weight and worked on my languages and took coaching. My will and determination have just got stronger over time. People think it’s a ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but it is totally not. I got a couple of contracts, but when I wasn’t working I went back to the restaurant and back to temping, because I was so thankful I’d learned some trades. Growing up in New York was not only about education – it was also about how you survive as a person. 

“I’m not Noah the Opera Singer; I’m Noah the Person who loves to sing opera. I love jazz, I love hip hop, I’m a person with many different interests. I chose opera because I didn’t see people who looked like me doing it. And I’ve developed skills to be competitive. I’m still in love with it, but if it all fell apart tomorrow I’d be OK, because I know who I am and I could develop other skills and go into any profession I desired. There are so many young people now who feel so lost and I always say to them: ‘You have so many abilities, you can do anything you want to – just don’t stop believing.’”

What would he say to opera buffs who, having heard him sing Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, wonder why he’s also recording pop songs translated into Italian? “Just because I sing opera, that doesn’t mean it’s the only style I enjoy,” he insists. “I remember, early on, telling one a friend who was specialising in musical theatre that I was going to sing a musical theatre song. She said: ‘You can’t sing that – you’re an opera singer.’ And I thought maybe she’s right, maybe I’m not going to be taken seriously. But how can I let someone else dictate my life? If I want to sing a pop song, I’m going to sing a pop song! I’m going to sing it in its correct style, put my own spin on it and make it mine. 

“I’m happy that I’ve lived a sheltered life, so I did not have people influencing me. It wasn’t easy. I spent many times being alone while people made fun of me because I didn’t dress or speak like a guy from Harlem. It’s hard being different. But it’s much more fun. You get to create your own rules.”

Noah Stewart’s debut album is out now on Decca. His UK tour begins on 17 May at The Sage, Gateshead