Lyric Opera of Chicago

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A Day in the Life of Lyric Opera Chorister Pam Williams

Lyric Opera Chorus member Pam Williams describes a typical day for her, which includes rehearsal, tax preparation, and a performance of Rusalka.

Pam Williams has lived in Chicago since 1997 and been a member of the Lyric Opera Chorus since 1999. She is originally from Snellville, Georgia (just east of Atlanta). She did her undergraduate work at Georgia State University and then went to Indiana University for her master's degree. Pam takes us through her schedule on Friday, March 7, a typical day in the life of a working musician!

I love my job! I love that I get to do for a living what I set out to do when I began my studies in music. SING!!! Granted, my path hasn't always been focused on opera, but always on singing.  But this is where my path has led me...right here to the chorus of Lyric Opera of Chicago. And it makes me happy, and I feel quite fortunate!

Each one of the members of the chorus has wildly varying lives within and without the walls of this building. Many teach voice in addition to singing here. Others have other jobs outside of Lyric. But for me, at this phase of life, I have this one job. This doesn't mean this is ALL I do and the rest of the time I sit at home watching Judge Judy eating bon-bons. :)

Here is my today: I started the day out warming up for a coaching on The Old Maid and the Thief that I'll be performing in as part of Opera Up Close concert series at Governors State University at the end of the month. I'm playing Miss Todd. Love it. She's nuts. Now, I'm catching up on some work (tax prep...late!), emails, more music study, recital planning, etc. Later on, I'll be meeting up with some awesome and fun colleagues for a promo video shoot for this upcoming GSU concert. Should be hilarious!  Follow this with a performance of our stunning production of Rusalka  this evening. It will be a day full of music and music-related things! Then…I sleep. :) Tomorrow...a completely different day, but more practicing and another show—La Clemenza di Tito!

One of the fun things about this job in the chorus is the variety. It definitely makes it more interesting to have a couple of shows going at the same time. Early in this season, we were very busy with three different shows on stage at the same time while rehearsing a fourth! A question I am often asked is: Do you forget which show you are singing when juggling multiple shows? Nope. Once in the proper costume and on the proper set, the right words and music seem to know where they belong!

Photo credit: Pam Williams backstage at Lyric in costume for Rusalka. Photo courtesy Pam Williams. 

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From Seville to RUSALKA in 60 Seconds or Less!

If you thought moving was hard, you can't imagine what goes into shifting thousands of pounds of sets that are the backbone of Lyric's magnificent productions. Here is what it takes to go from The Barber of Seville to Rusalka in just one minute.

Time_Lapse_Image

If you thought moving was hard, you can't imagine what goes into shifting thousands of pounds of sets that are the backbone of Lyric's magnificent productions. Here is what it takes to deconstruct the wrought-iron creations of Scott Pask from The Barber of Seville—including a 300-gallon reflecting pool!—to make way for John Macfarlane's gothic wonderland for Rusalka, which incorporates a forest, lake, gigantic kitchen, and ballroom complete with fireplace and 59 mounted deer heads. Through the magic of time lapse, you can watch these nine hours of intense work condensed to one minute!

 

Photo credits:
(top row) Act One, The Barber of Seville by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.
(bottom row, l-r) Rusalka, Act One by Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago; Rusalka, Act Two by Robert Kusel / Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Linebacker to Lyric: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich

Brandon Jovanovich has been earning rave reviews for his portrayal of the Prince in Dvořák's RusalkaIn this Q&A, Jovanovich talks about his favorite moments of this production, what he doesn't like to wear on stage, and why he loves living in Illinois!

Rusalka_Jovanovic

Brandon Jovanovich has been earning rave reviews for his portrayal of the Prince in Lyric's new production of Dvořák's Rusalka: "his artistry seems to soar higher with each Chicago appearance" - Chicago Classical Review

In this Q&A, Jovanovich talks about his favorite moments of this production, what he doesn't like to wear on stage, and why he loves living in Illinois! Rusalka ends its critically acclaimed run on March 16 (tickets are going fast!), but he'll be back next season starring as Walter in Weinberg's dramatic and compelling  The Passenger.

The Prince in Rusalka is a role that's very familiar to you, since you've performed it to great acclaim across the world - how is this production different from ones you have done before?

I've been lucky enough to be involved in two different productions of Rusalka with this being my third. It is an opera that I love to sing and I really enjoying playing the role of the Prince. This production is different in a couple of ways; David is introducing the audience to the idea that the whole story MAY be in the Prince's mind…so the idea of it being a "hallucination vs. reality" really sets the tone of the opera. In this vein, the first scene (taking place in the forest) unfolds to reveal a wild group of wood nymphs set against a gorgeous backdrop (designed by John Macfarlane) in a "wild forest" being infringed upon by "humanity" (as represented by a couple of massive damn-like structures). It is this idea that sets David's production apart of others, "nature vs. humanity." By exploiting the inherent differences between these two ideas, the friction and resulting conflict between the characters develops at very natural pace.

Do you have a favorite moment or moments in this production?

There are some characters that have been inserted into this production that aren't written in the opera, three crows serve as "helpers" to Ježibaba. Watching our choreographer (Andrew George) and David McVicar develop these characters over the course of the rehearsal period was amazing (I'm awed by all of the sharp bird-like physical movements and stamina that they have). For my part, I LOVE the final scene in Act III when I return to the forest, find Rusalka and end up dying. It is so touching, so emotional and laden with such beautiful music, it is one of my favorite scenes to perform in any opera. Couple that with having Ana María sing to me….come on!!!

If you had to sum up the story of Rusalka in one sentence, what would your summary be?

An unparalleled classic masterpiece of longing, love, hope, and loss set to some of the most exquisite music by Dvořák….an unknown masterpiece. 

 Are you jealous of all the prosthetics that your co-stars Jill Grove and Eric Owens wear for this show? What's the most unusual costume you've ever had?

As for prosthetics…unequivocally no! I harbor no ill will or jealously in the slightest!  I have been lucky enough to wear some of the finest costumes throughout my career. I am tall with long legs and it has always been a challenge to find "stock" costumes that look decent, so most of my costumes are tailored and I've been VERY spoiled because of it. I haven't had too many unusual costumes per se…but one thing that always makes me a little nervous is when I am asked to wear very little on stage.  From a towel wrapped around my waist, to a pair of underwear and a robe (open!?), I find it intimidating. The amount of breathing and support needed to sing makes for a plethora of deep diaphragmatic breathing, and it isn't necessarily something that I would want to see as an audience member! But A LOT of directors don't mind asking performers to let it all hang out! 

What is a role that you dream of playing some day in your career?

A dream role that I have yet to play would be Otello.  So many challenges mentally, emotionally and vocally.  It is a role that I hope to tackle before too long.

Some people might not know that you started out with a college football scholarship - can you draw any parallels between the world of football and the world of opera?

Both of them are extremely physical. True, there is no contact in opera (unless you count kissing), but there is a ton of moving around while singing and it requires a lot more stamina than people think—that and the ability to "think on the move." In football, as in opera, you are an individual performing at your best for the betterment (and ultimately the success) of the team. There are set plays where you know what your role is, just as there is staging in opera, "You go here and I go there." Yet with both there is always an element of the unknown. In football you are playing against another team trying to stop your progress, in opera you (and all colleagues around you) are in a constant mental workout trying to juggle vocal production, remembering dialogue, staging, keeping in contact with the conductor, and thus the orchestra, vocal balance, and portraying emotions (and so much more), while trying to make it look like you are living "in the moment." With these different dynamics there is a lot of fluidity involved and being able to think on your feet and adjust is a necessity. If you aren't able to adjust in the moment, you'll ultimately fail to one degree or another in both arenas.

What is a typical day like for you before a performance? Do you have any pre-performance rituals that you can share?

I know there are a lot of people who have very specific rituals that they adhere to before a show. Mine would be normalcy. I don't like to change anything that I would normally do; whether that be going to the gym, shopping, mowing the lawn (if I'm at home,) or shoveling the driveway. Having no ritual would be my ritual (profound!?).

When you're not singing, what do you like to do in Chicago? Any favorite restaurants, museums, or other activities?

I live about an hour west of Chicago on a little ten-acre plot of land.  I travel A LOT throughout the year and I hate to say it, but when I get home…I like to stay home! We've lived in Illinois for just over three years and our house (an old one-room schoolhouse) needs some upgrading.  So you'll typically find me outside cutting down trees (a ton of dead ones were left on our property), remodeling a bathroom (two thus far), playing with my kids, or just hanging out. I know that we WILL get into Chicago more and start enjoying all that this city has to offer, but it hasn't happened yet.

What's your favorite thing about having Illinois as your home base?

I love being able to fly into O'Hare from anywhere in the world. It makes traveling so much easier! I love being able to stay at home when I sing with Lyric. I like the people, the climate (I love having four seasons), and the proximity to great food, culture and sporting events all while being able to raise chickens and bees! It is the best of all worlds for me!

Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Opera 101: One-Hit Wonders

Despite his best efforts, Dvořák is primarily known for his symphonic works and not his operas. Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some other very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Most people know Dvořák as a great symphonic composer—his New World Symphony is one of the most recognizable pieces in classical music, and he wrote a wealth of other famous symphonic pieces and notable chamber works.  Here is Herbert von Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the complete New World Symphony:

 

And though Rusalka  contains a very famous aria, the "Song to the Moon" (pictured  in Lyric's new production below), not many people are even aware that Dvořák wrote one opera—let alone ten.  As Sir Andrew Davis notes in our video preview, Dvořák actually worked quite hard on composing operas and hoped that his operatic contributions would be his legacy. Though it is now firmly in the international repertoire, Rusalka didn't have its Metropolitan Opera premiere until 1993 and Lyric's current production is the Chicago premiere.

Rusalka

Dvořák is a member of a small club, composers who have had only one significant operatic hit. No matter how much fame they achieved, or didn't achieve, in other genres, they were only able to produce one great opera that has entered the standard performing repertoire today.

Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Bizet - Carmen

Carmen

A classic story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal coupled with the eminently hummable tunes that run throughout have turned Carmen into one of the most popular operas of all time. Though Bizet wrote several previous operas, including The Pearl Fishers, none of his other operas has achieved the fame of Carmen. Premiered in Paris in March 1875, the opera was a failure that played to half-empty houses, and Bizet died suddenly near the end of its run without any inkling of the popularity that was just on the horizon. Subsequent revivals in Vienna (1875), London (1878), and New York (1879) cemented its reputation. 

Here is just one of the famous songs from the opera, "Votre toast," also known as the Toreador Song, performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010:

                     

Beethoven - Fidelio 

Beethoven worked for years on his only completed opera, a true labor of love that took him nearly ten years to complete. Telling the story of a wife (Leonore) who poses as a boy (Fidelio) to try to rescue her wrongfully imprisoned husband, the opera was first performed in Vienna in 1805 as an utter failure. Beethoven would continue to tinker with the score over the next several years. The overture went through four different versions, and over 300 pages of sketches exist for the entire work. It was at one point condensed to two acts before being restored to three. Finally in 1814, the work premiered to great success and has been regularly performed ever since.

Here is the "Mir, ist so wunderbar" quartet from the Theater an der Wien's 2013 production:

 

Gershwin - Porgy and Bess 

Porgy

By 1935, when Porgy and Bess premiered, George and Ira Gershwin had cemented their place in the Great American Songbook with countless hits like "I've Got Rhythm" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."  George Gershwin had written a short one-act jazz opera in 1922, Blue Monday, that was—you guessed it—a flop! However, that did not kill his desire to write what he called "an American folk opera," so he teamed up with his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward (author of the novel Porgy) to tell the story of the colorful characters Catfish Row, including the hero Porgy and his true love Bess. Once again, Gershwin appeared to have failed, so he moved to Hollywood to compose for films and died two years later.  However, a Houston Grand Opera production in 1976 brought this work back into the spotlight it rightly deserves.

Here's a look at the acclaimed Francesca Zambello production starring Eric Owens from Washington National Opera that is part of Lyric's 2014-15 season:

 

Leoncavallo - Pagliacci 

Pagliacci

Containing one of the most famous tenor arias ever written, "Vesti la giubba," Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci is an enduring masterwork to this day. Premiered in 1892 as the composer's first produced opera, Pagliacci was an instant success with the public (unlike some of our other one-hit wonders). Frequently performed with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, the piece that actually inspired Leoncavallo to write this work, it's a gritty tale of members of an acting troupe caught up in a love triangle that leads to murder.  Despite many efforts, Leoncavallo was never able to recapture the magic of his first hit. He even wrote his own La bohème, which was vastly outshone by Puccini's opera from the same source material.

Here is the piece's famous aria, "Vesti la giubba," performed by the great Luciano Pavarotti in one of his signature roles:

 

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel  

Hansel_and_Gretel

A Christmastime favorite since its premiere in December 1893 (conducted by none other than Richard Strauss!), Hansel and Gretel is based on the classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. German composer Englebert Humperdinck wrote the music and his sister Adelheid Wette wrote the libretto—fitting for an opera about a brother and sister. It is just one of several stage works he would compose, but it has far eclipsed anything else he ever did.  The famous "evening prayer" scene is one of the most recognizable operatic tunes.

Here are highlights from Lyric's recent acclaimed production from the 2012-13 season.

 

And here's the prayer scene from Act Two from the Welsh National Opera's 1998 production:

 

Delibes - Lakmé 

Set in India and capitalizing on the craze of all things Eastern at the time, Lakmé was an incredibly popular opera by Leo Delibes, who is also famous for the ballet Copéllia. Premiered in 1883, the opera was for many years known for its soprano showcase, the "Bell Aria" in Act Two. However, in recent years-thanks to its ubiquity in movies and TV commercials-"The Flower Duet" has become this opera's signature showpiece.

 Here are Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau performing the famous duet:

 

Photo credits (from the top):

  • Ana María Martínez stars in the company premiere Rusalka at Lyric Opera of Chicago, photo by Todd Rosenberg.
  • Nadia Krasteva and Brandon Jovanovich star in Carmen at Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2011, photo by Dan Rest.
  • A scene from Lyric's 2008 production of Porgy and Bess, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Ana María Martínez and Vladimir Galouzine star in Pagliacci at Lyric in 2009, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Elizabeth De Shong, Jill Grove, and Maria Kanyova star in Hansel and Gretel at Lyric in December 2012, photo by Dan Rest.

(Except for the official Hansel and Gretel highlights, Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.) 

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