Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Ryan Opera Center Spotlight: Julie Miller

Mezzo Julie Miller is in her second and final year as a Ryan Opera Center member. This talented singer does double duty as a working mom, but that hasn't stopped her from appearing at Lyric in The PassengerThe Magic VictrolaDie FledermausLa traviata, and Otello, among others. See her this Saturday in Rising Stars in Concert

Mezzo Julie Miller is in her second and final year as a Ryan Opera Center  member. This talented singer does double duty as a working mom, but that hasn't stopped her from appearing at Lyric in The Passenger, The Magic Victrola, Die Fledermaus, La traviata, and Otello, among others.

She was also just announced as the winner of the Jerome and Elaine Nerenberg Foundation Scholarship through the Musicians Club of Women.

Julie's final performance at Lyric is the upcoming Rising Stars in Concert on Saturday, March 21. (Donate $75 or more today to secure your place at that exciting concert. ) 

Name:  Julie Miller
Age: 30
Voice: mezzo-soprano
Year in ROC: 2nd
Hometown: Sacramento, California
Dream Role: Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier

When did you start singing? When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

I began singing in choirs when I was 7 years old and continued to do so until my senior year in college. I knew I wanted to be a singer after singing the role of Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea.  This was my first role, and upon completing her first aria ("Disprezzata regina"), I was hooked. 

Did you ever consider a career other than singing? And if you had to imagine an alternative career now, what would it be?

I began college planning to have a career as a violinist; I even completed a degree in Violin Performance. However, once I was introduced to the multi-faceted aspects of singing (i.e. language study, acting, dance), a career as an opera singer was a clear choice. If I were to imagine myself in another career, it would be zoology because I have always been fascinated by animals, especially large cats, and I think it would be fun to work with and train them.

What was the most memorable performance you've been in at this point in your career?

My most memorable performance to date was singing Emilia in Otello  at Lyric last season. Not only was it my house debut, but I had the privilege and thrill of sharing the stage with famous/amazing singers that I admire, Ana María Martínez and Johan Botha.

 
Miller as Emilia with Falk Struckmann as Iago in Otello

How do you balance being a parent with your singing?

I love my daughter, and I am grateful for the perspective and balance she provides in my life. She's 2 1/2 years old, so  I always have a smile and hug to come home to despite what my day may have been like. It is, however, difficult at times to balance being a mom and an opera singer. I would not be able to do so without the support, sacrifice, and dedication of my husband. There have been numerous occasions where he has been both "mom" and "dad" so that I can travel for gigs and take extra time for score study and practice. 

Can you compare Chicago to your hometown of Sacramento?

It is difficult to compare the two cities as they are quite different in climate and size,  but Sacramento will always have a special place in my heart because it is home. That being said, I have grown to love Chicago for its wonderful support for the arts, great food, and beautiful architecture. 

Photo credits:

  • Julie Miller portrait credit Devon Cass
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Todd Rosenberg, Dan Rest, and Robert Kusel
  • Miller family photos courtesy Julie Miller 
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Ryan Opera Center Spotlight: John Irvin

Learn more about Ryan Opera Center member John Irvin, including how he almost becamse a pianist instead of a singer. This third-year ensemble member has been on stage this season in The Passenger, Anna Bolena, and Capriccio. See him as part of Rising Stars in Concert on March 21. 

Tenor John Irvin is a third-year singer in Lyric's renowned Ryan Opera Center. He just completed his Ryan Opera Center mainstage experience by playing one of the SS Officers in Weinberg's The Passenger, but he has also portrayed many memorable roles here at Lyric, including key characters in Anna Bolena, Capriccio, The Family Barber, Die Fledermaus, Parsifal, La Traviata, Otello, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and more. 

John's final performance at Lyric is the upcoming Rising Stars in Concert on Saturday, March 21. (Donate $75 or more today to secure your place at that exciting concert.) 

Name: John Irvin
Age: 30
Voice: Tenor
Year in ROC: 3rd Year
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Dream Role: Title role in Massenet's Werther

When did you start singing? When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

I started singing when I was 23, in choir at Georgia Perimeter College. I was a studying to be a pianist and didn't have any plans on pursuing singing as a career; I just sang for fun at school and in my spare time as a backup singer for a local band. It wasn't until Linda, who is now my wife, introduced me to my first voice teacher, that I considered an operatic career as a possibility. Once I started private lessons, I fell in love with the art and it became my primary focus.

Did you ever consider a career other than singing? And if you had to imagine an alternative career now, what would it be?

I always had a very narrow focus, even from early on. Though I've had many outside interests, I've always known that I would want to pursue a career in music. I started playing the clarinet and piano at a young age and considered everything from composition to performance.

What was the most memorable performance you've been in at this point in your career?

Performing my first Beethoven 9 [Beethoven's Symphony No. 9] in Melbourne, Australia. On my left stood Bryn Terfel and on my right Sir Andrew Davis; both incredible artists in their own right! It was a night I will never forget.

How have you progressed as a singer during your three years in the Ryan Opera Center?

Besides the immense number of performance opportunities I have been given, I've learned to cherish the fundamentals of this art, making the music my number one priority. The network of coaches and artists here at Lyric have helped to me to not only collaborate but to define myself as my own artist, shaping my personal vision and artistic interpretations.

 
Irvin pictured with Juliane Banse in Die Fledermaus (top) and Sondra Radvanovsky during rehearsals for Anna Bolena (bottom)

When you're not performing or rehearsing, where are we likely to find you?

At home, playing piano, watching movies or playing video games!

Photo credits:

  • John Irvin portrait credit Devon Cass
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Todd Rosenberg, Dan Rest, and Robert Kusel. 
  • Backstage photos courtesy John Irvin.
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Ryan Opera Center Spotlight: J’nai Bridges

Learn all about third-year Ryan Opera Center member J'nai Bridges in this artist spotlight. This talented young mezzo-soprano speaks Japanese and will be representing the United States in the upcoming BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She is currently on stage in The Passenger through March 15.

Ryan Opera Center member J'nai Bridges is an exciting young singer who can currently be seen on stage in Weinberg's The Passenger  as Vlasta. You might also recognize her from previous appearances at Lyric in productions ranging from Il Trovatore, The Magic Victrola, The Family Barber, La Traviata, Parsifal, The Second City Guide to the Opera, and more!


J'nai Bridges in The Family Barber and The Second City Guide to the Opera
(top L-R); La Traviata and The Magic Victrola (bottom L-R)

In addition to her hard work on stage at Lyric, she was just named as one of 20 international finalists for the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June.

Catch J'nai in The Passenger  through March 15 and at Rising Stars in Concert on March 21, which marks her official "graduation" from the Ryan Opera Center. (Donate $75 or more today to secure your place at this exciting performance.) She'll also make a welcome return to Chicago in the 2015-16 season when she portrays Carmen in the world-premiere performances of Jimmy López's Bel Canto, which opens on December 7. 

Name J'nai Bridges
Age  28
Voice Mezzo-soprano
Year in ROC 3rd Year
Hometown Lakewood, Washington
Dream Role Charlotte in Werther

When did you start singing? When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

I started singing classically when I was 17, my senior year in high school. I knew I wanted to be an opera singer after my freshman year at Manhattan School of Music. 

Did you ever consider a career other than singing? And if you had to imagine an alternative career now, what would it be?

Yes, I considered studying psychology. I find the mind really fascinating. 

What was the most memorable performance you've been in at this point in your career?

I have a couple of most memorable moments. The first is performing Act IV from Carmen at Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park in 2012 and the second is making my Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut under the baton of Matthew Aucoin.

 
J'nai Bridges and Brandon Jovanovich perform in Carmen at Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park

What is something most people don't know about you?

I speak Japanese.

When you're not performing or rehearsing, where are we likely to find you?

At home or in some sort of spa relaxing

Learn more about J'nai and Cardiff Singer of the World in this Lyric Spotlight video:

J'nai Bridges interviewed by WFMT before a performance of The Passenger:

 

Photo credits:

  • J'nai Bridges portrait credit Devon Cass
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Todd Rosenberg (Family Barber, La Traviata, and The Magic Victrola); Dan Rest (The Second City Guide to the Opera); and Robert Kusel (Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, 2012)

 

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Conductor Michael Lewanski on THE PROPERTY

Conductor Michael Lewanski shares his insights into The Property, the new klezmer opera with music by Wlad Marhulets and libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. Don't miss the world premiere performances on February 25-27 in Hyde Park and March 4-5 in Skokie. 

Michael Lewanski is the conductor of The Property, a new  klezmer opera with music by Wlad Marhulets, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, and directed by Eric Einhorn (who adapted the original graphic novel by Rutu Modan with Fleischmann).  The ensemble features members of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and stars Jill Grove, Anne Slovin, James Maddalena, Nathaniel Olson, Sam Handley, and Julianne Park.

Don't miss the world-premiere performances Feb. 25-27 at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park and March 4-5 at Skokie's North Shore Center for the Arts.

 

Among so many other things, art is always about itself.  Literature is always somehow about language, its uses, the act of writing ("words, words, words" replies Hamlet—in the midst of a scene full of wordplay - when asked what he's reading). Visual art always thinks about possibilities of seeing and representation—the Mona Lisa stares at you just as cryptically as you stare at her. Music is no less this way. Beethoven's Eroica symphony is equally about the eventual achievement of a stable E-flat major sonority (after its notable falterings) and as much as it is about various sorts of heroisms. Opera, though, seems to thematize music itself in particularly striking, point-forcing ways. To take two examples particularly relevant to Lyric Opera-goers at the moment: Tosca's main character is an opera singer, and this very choice itself makes us hear her music in a peculiarly self-aware way. Moment after moment of Tannhäuser is filled with diagetic music—music heard not only by the audience but by the characters in the work as well. The ubiquitous Pilgrim's Chorus is, indeed, emblematic not only the possibilities of penance, but also of the ability music to express that emotion.

The Property, a so-called "klezmer opera" commissioned by Lyric Unlimited from composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann (pictured right), presents a particularly interesting case, fraught to its very edges with questions and assertions about the potential of music to be expressive. (Somehow, works involving the memory of World War II always seem to be that way. Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" precisely because the horrors of World War II were brought upon the world by the same cultural impulses that brought us the great art works of the last 200 hundred years.)

Imbedded in the very concept of a klezmer opera is already something unusual: a striking thing about klezmer as a genre is its highly suggestive mode of expression—as an instrumental form, its conventional gestures are obviously imitative of emotional charged singing, and its obligatory ornamentation similarly invites a mode of listening that is straightforwardly communicative. The term "klezmer" itself initially referred to the musical instruments, to the musicians, and not merely the genre. (The word is derived from the Yiddish for "vessel" and "song.") Thus, to make this the musical language for an opera is already a way of telling us that the opera is "about" the possibility of expression via singing.

Though of course the historical circumstances of a klezmer opera whose plot revolves around a post-World War II world do this work for us even more. Among so many horrifying things about Nazi politics—going hand-in-hand with its more commonly discussed genocidal racism—was its hegemonic cultural attitudes. One way of supposedly showing the superiority of the Aryan race was not only to valorize echt Deutsch works, but to suppress other cultural forms of expression.  Indeed, they even had a term for it—the so-called entartete [degenerate] music was pretty much whatever the Nazis found unsuitable to their ideological ends and was officially and ruthless suppressed. Thus, we find ourselves with a uniquely poignant contradiction, in which a genre of music—klezmer—that has precisely as one of its self-conscious characteristics a highly emotional, uninhibited character as, ironically, being the one of those that is most viciously muffled.

This tension finds its way into the music of the opera itself. We often find ourselves confronted with contrasting singing styles juxtaposed in striking ways. On the one hand, there is conversational music. It is parlando ("speaking") in style, reminiscent of recitative from earlier operatic forms. "Half-spoken," the score often indicates (and indeed, often follows with fully spoken dialogue). Thus, when melodic passages, using characteristic klezmer intervals (the augmented second and the tritone, notably non-Western European in their sound) ensue, the effect is striking.

Following the work's prologue, just such an occurrence happens in the first scene as the main character, Regina (a Jew who escaped Poland just before the war, played by Jill Grove) arrives in her hotel room with her granddaughter Mica (Anne Slovin). (Grove and Slovin pictured left.) It is the present time, and it is Regina's first return to Warsaw since the war ended. After bantering in the aforementioned parlando manner about the shoddiness of the hotel room, the first fully sung moments of the scene occur to the following text: "I don't know. I forget. I don't want to remember." It can be no coincidence that at precisely the moment when Regina begins to think about herself, her subjectivity, her identity, her memory (even if it is couched in terms of a denial), a clearly normative singing creeps in.  

(I have no idea whether Wlad did this intentionally or not. But of course it doesn't matter, because he did set it like this. Let us not forget that music is a fundamentally cultural phenomenon—it is ultimately eludes reducibility, even to those who write it. This perpetual sense of discovery is one of the great joys of art.)

This dialectic, this back-and-forth, between what we might call the "fully sung" and the "sung in place of speech" continues throughout the opera. It also cannot be coincidental that it is only in the final scene of the work that all six cast members sing together, almost like a chorus. I won't tell you what happens with the characters or spoil any plot details; I will simply assert that, on a theoretical level, it seems that underlying the opera is a process of becoming truly sung, all going towards the final word of the libretto: "song."

Since it is an opera that deals at least in part with the legacy of Germany, I cannot help but offer a general comment on the work's form. I was struck immediately, upon receiving the score of the work, by how skillfully Wlad had constructed the melodic fragments associated with certain people and ideas. (Anyone who has seen Star Wars, which is to say pretty much all of us Americans, can get a sense of what I mean by this.) The motifs are memorable, short, but also clear in affect, unmistakable. This made complete sense to me when I thought for a moment about it—Wlad has such depth of experience as a film composer, even for someone so young. He has absorbed the techniques so thoroughly that it only makes sense that this would be apparent even in works for the stage. Upon further reflection, I realized that there was an irony to Wlad's transference of film-scoring formal techniques to an opera, namely this: these techniques, so associated with the American film industry that we forget their origins, are of course a re-working of compositional techniques pioneered by Richard Wagner.  

Let's not be reductive though. Wagner, while notoriously anti-semitic, lived generations before the Nazis did. It is hard to blame him, as such, for the ways in which Hitler co-opted his music for politically and ideologically propagandistic purposes. At the same time, it is impossible not to acknowledge that there is something about Wagner's music that is just asking to be co-opted; it is as terrifying precisely because of its overwhelming characteristics. It is huge in scale, its orchestration out-sized, and its rhetoric grossly exaggerated. Even Wagner's technical language—the language of leitmotif—exerts complete control over his music-dramas' forms. That makes the employment of such techniques as a third-generation copies in The Property all the more meaningful. The very worst of Wagnerian excess is turned on its head, co-opted for purposes that are the opposite of what he may have meant. Whereas Wagnerian compositional techniques, at their worst, have an ethos behind them that that is simpatico to totalitarianism, in The Property they are used in service of a story about the survival of individuals in the wake the political manifestation of this totalitarianism. The thing characteristic of the totalitarian has been reversed and become the means of the resistance thereto.

In the end, the project of The Property is just that—resistance. Seemingly humble, small-scale, and unpretentious, that is precisely why it succeeds grandly. Totalitarianism cannot find those corners; it does not win as long as art somewhere continues its attempts at communication.

Michael Lewanski is a Chicago-based conductor. He seeks to reinvigorate the experiences that musicians and audiences alike have with standard repertoire and with new music.  In addition to guest conducting activities, he conducts the Chicago-based new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente and ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music. 

Photo credits:

  • Michael Lewanski portrait credit Chelsea Ross
  • Wlad Marhulets portrait credit Arthur Moeller
  • Stephanie Fleischmann portrait credit Jessica Fleischmann
  • Jill Grove portrait credit Dario Acosta
  • Anne Slovin portrait credit Jordana Wright

 

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