Lyric Opera of Chicago

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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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Opera 101: Behind the scenes of TANNHÄUSER with August Tye

Wagner's Tannhäuser, which runs through March 6 at Lyric, has been earning rave reviews, especially for its epic opening dance sequence. August Tye, Lyric’s ballet mistress for more than 10 years, takes us through the process from auditions to rehearsals to opening night.

Wagner's Tannhäuser, which runs until March 6 at Lyric has been earning rave reviews, not the least for its epic opening dance sequence, choreographed to the overture and set in the sensual realm of Venusberg. It depicts the kind of libidinous lifestyle that anyone who succumbs to the goddess Venus's charms embraces. The Chicago Sun-Times said, "A high point of the production is the beginning bacchanal, which features a swirling, electrifying dance, smartly choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon" and the Chicago Tribune called it a "sexy and striking coup de theatre."

How does this amazing sequence become reality? August Tye, Lyric's ballet mistress for more than 10 years, takes us through the process from auditions to rehearsals to opening night—and reveals that her work at Lyric is truly a family affair!

Describe your role as ballet mistress. What does that mean and what are your general duties and responsibilities?

As mallet mistress at Lyric, I work closely with the choreographer and dancers to create movement or dance sequences for opera. I record all movement into personal notes and often bits and pieces into the musical score. I give the dancers a warm up class before rehearsals and performances begin. Once the choreographer leaves, often after the opening night, I am in charge of maintaining their work and making sure that the understudies are ready to jump in at any moment. 

What has been your specific role on Tannhäuser as both ballet mistress and movement director?

In Tannhäuser I have worked with the associate choreographer Mafalda Deville to restage earlier production of the Tannhäuser "ballet" choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. When you see the ballet you notice it is intensely physical. We started working on it in early December in order to give the dancers the strength training and adequate rehearsals they would need to execute the movement. We worked 30 hours a week. We gave the dancers both ballet and pilates classes to prepare them for rehearsal. I spent much of rehearsal time taking notes on the movement and putting landmark movements into the score.

The U.K. Guardian's review of the production called out the "terrifically sexy" choreography. Why should someone come and see it?

From a dancer's perspective you should come see it because it is amazingly athletic, physical and sexy. The dance sequence is 15 minutes long and full of surprises that I am quite sure have not been seen before.


 Scenes from the opening dance of Tannhäuser 

Can you take us through the audition process? What were you specifically looking for in dancers for Tannhäuser? Was it the same as what you do for any other opera or did this opera in particular have special requests/requirements?

Every audition is unique to the work that the dancers have to do within the opera. Due to the physicality of this particular work the audition was two days long and extremely demanding.  We started with over 75 dancers the first day and narrowed it down to about 30 for the second day.  In the end we needed 12 dancers and two understudy dancers.  For the men we were looking for strong partnering skills and complete athleticism. For the women we were looking for very fluid and sensual movement along with excellent stamina. Both Jasmin Vardimon (pictured right) and Mafalda Deville were there to choose the dancers. 

Can you talk about the rehearsal process for Tannhäuser? How long have you been working with the dancers and what have been some of the joys and challenges of this very exhausting and complicated sequence?

We started working with the dancers December 1. We worked for three weeks before the rest of the production team arrived in January. After the holiday break we came back for another 4 weeks of rehearsal. The first three weeks were the most challenging simply because the work is so physically demanding.  It was a bit like dance boot camp getting everyone in shape to execute this movement. We had to work through several injuries during the first three weeks but I am happy to say everyone is healthy and fit to perform. When we resumed in January it went very smoothly because dancers had a chance to rest over the holiday and they knew exactly what they were coming back to do. They were all very excited to meet Ms. Vardimon when she arrived on January 27. At that point the piece was finished and the dancers had built up the stamina to run it two times a day. Ms. Vardimon took a couple days to work with the dancers on clarifying the movement and making a few minor adjustments to dancer placement and spacing.

How do you take the original choreography and translate it into the dancers? Can you describe the collaboration you have with them and with Jasmin Vardimon and Mafalda Deville?

I think there are challenges to re-creating any dance on another group of dancers.  All dancers have their strengths and weaknesses and those are rarely replicated when you move on to another group of dancers. Ms. Deville and Ms. Vardimon were very clear that they wanted our dancers to have their own version and that they should not worry about copying the original. They should feel as though they are part of a new creation for them. If one were to compare the performances they may not notice those subtle differences that made it unique to our Chicago dancers.  It is very much the same choreography as in previous production.  


Athleticism on display in Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser is a long opera, but is it a long night for the dancers?

People equate the name Wagner with long operas, and with Tannhäuser, they're correct; with 2 intermissions, it clocks in at roughly 4.5 hours! But every now and then in opera, there are roles which may occupy only a small length of time, and for the dancers, this is one of them! Our dance happens during the overture, and 30 minutes after the opera begins, our job will be over! Except for opening night (when everyone stays for the company bow at the opera's end), the dancers and I will be headed for home while the opera still has another four hours to go.

How long have you worked at Lyric? And what do you love most about working with the company?

I began working for Lyric when I was a dancer in the 93/94 season.  I danced on and off for several seasons. In 2004, I was asked to assist Pat Birch with the movement for Robert Altman's A Wedding.  I have been here ever since as a ballet mistress, movement director, or choreographer for the past 10 years. I really love working at Lyric because it is a place for me to learn and grow artistically by working with other fantastic artists whether it be choreographers—such as Jasmin Vardimon, Wayne McGregor, Philippe Giraudeau, Lucinda Childs, and Pat Birch—or directors like Robert Altman, Robert Carsen, Sir David McVicar, Francesca Zambello, and Bob Falls. 

Also, the support staff at Lyric is also the best in the business as far as I am concerned; from the administration, assistant directors, music staff to the rehearsal department, they are truly passionate about their work and their support of artists.  It is truly a gift to be so supported; it allows you to really focus on the creative aspects of the work.

What has your favorite experience or production been so far? 

It's really hard to pick a favorite production or experience after so many great ones.  I had the privilege to travel to Madrid in order to learn the movement for a Chicago production of Dialogues of the Carmelites. It was there that I met director Robert Carsen and choreographer Philippe Giraudeau which began a long term professional relationship in which I was trusted to assist and remount Mr. Giraudeau's work in operas in Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, and London. I was also asked to remount the dance for the Zambello production of Salome at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan.  These were very memorable experiences! 

 
Dialogues of the Carmelites at Lyric

I should also mention that I met my husband, Wilbur Pauley, while dancing in Lyric's production of Candide.  We have been married for 17 years and have three children together. Opera has definitely had a profound effect on my life!

 
The Pauley-Tye family at Soldier Field before Wilbur Pauley's performance of the National Anthem at a Bears game in fall 2014.

When you're not at Lyric, what are some of your other professional passions, such as Hyde Park School of Dance?

When I am not at Lyric I am very busy directing the Hyde Park School of Dance which I founded in 1993.  It is a not for profit dance school committed to making sure that dance is accessible to anyone who wants to dance.  I firmly believe that dance can have a profound effect on one's life.   Through the artistry, discipline, sense of self-confidence and teamwork a dancer experiences you gain a foundation for life skills that will stay with you no matter what field you chose as a career. 

Most people may not know that your son was in Madama Butterfly last season. Was that a fun experience for you as a family? Has he gotten the opera bug?

Having our son perform in Madama Butterfly was an amazing experience for him and of course we were very proud of our little guy.  He is always asking when he can work at the opera again.  Everyone treated him like royalty, he had a first floor private dressing room and he was paged to the stage as "Master Pauley." We also rode in a limousine to the opening-night party. Of course he got the opera bug! I'm afraid he will need to work on his singing voice to get that kind of treatment again!  He does like to sing…only time will tell.

 
Tye Oren Pauley as Sorrow, Butterfly's child, in Madama Butterfly with
Mary Ann McCormick (L) and Amanda Echalaz (C)

Photo credits:

  • August Tye portrait courtesy August Tye
  • Tannhäuser production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Jasmin Vardimon portrait courtesy Jasmin Vardimon
  • Dialogues of the Carmelites production photo credit Robert Kusel / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Tye-Pauley family photo courtesy Wilbur Pauley
  • Madama Butterfly production photo credit Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

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