The stuff of fairy tales

Two operas highlight the voices of tomorrow.

Education—strengthening technique, learning repertoire—is just the beginning for a young musician. Launching a career is the other half of the battle, something not taught in the classroom. So how do you get performing experience? How do you convince people to let you do in public what you've been training to do?

Cosi fan Tutte

Meydenbauer Center November 2022

Hansel and Gretel

Meany Hall, November 11

The concept is simple: "You just have to put yourself out there," says 28-year-old tenor Brandon Jovanovich—but the execution can be a full-time job. You must be able to be your own manager, make and develop contacts, and ferret out every possible performance opportunity. Of course, it helps to have available outlets like the Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program. Jovanovich is one of 12 singers here for a 10-week residency, chosen from 200 applicants after live auditions in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.

The 12 interns came from all over, from Seattle to Seoul, Alberta to Atlanta. Jovanovich's resume is typical of a singer on the rise—he was a recent semifinalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, he's apprenticed in a program similar to SO's at the Santa Fe Opera, and he's worked in educational programs for the City Opera in his native New York City. Like the rest, he has an academic background, most recently the Manhattan School of Music. A college music department can do an excellent job of discovering and nurturing operatic potential, and those with the talent and resources can mount productions of professional quality.

Voice lessons, acting, movement, and language classes, plus master classes with SO veterans like Vinson Cole and Erich Parce took up the mornings of the program's first five weeks. In the afternoon came practical dish about auditions, interviews, and agents, with much insightful advice from SO general manager Speight Jenkins. On top of all that was the music: arias and ensembles for the program's outreach concerts in Yakima, Bremerton, and the San Juans.

The program's second half engaged the 12 in a production created just for them—in this case, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. This is what makes the SO's program unique, project director Perry Lorenzo points out; most other opera companies use their interns as filler in mainstage productions, in bit parts or in the chorus. But during the auditions, Lorenzo and conductor Dean Williamson (who will lead the 23 Bellevue Philharmonic members in the pit for four performances) took careful note of what was available and decided on Cosi, Mozart's cynical, mistaken-identity farce, as the ideal vehicle for the participants.

It's a splendid ensemble piece, with six well-matched roles, three men and three women, all leads. The vocal writing is the right weight for young voices, and the venue, the 400-seat Meydenbauer Center, is an appropriate size for the intimate and elegant work. The production is double-cast, and the two casts were separated from the start, allowing each sextet to develop their own sense of ensemble and comedic interplay. Between the concert repertory and the full Mozart production, this program requires everyone to be a quick study, an invaluable skill for a young singer. Quick they are—by last Monday, 11 days before opening night, the scenes were solid, confident, and all but stage-ready, leaving plenty of time to polish.

Another fine choice for novice singers turned out to be Humperdinck's operatic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, superlatively staged last week by the University of Washington Schools of Music and Drama. The vocal parts are tuneful and uncomplicated, the orchestration (Wagner Lite, with a dash of Tchaikovsky) is rich and sparkling; all concerned were shown off to best advantage. In the opening-night cast were Sarah Mattox and Kim Hillock in the title roles, Jay McManus and Marci Morrell as the Father and Mother, Soon Cho and Ellaina Lewis as the Sandman and Dew Fairy, and the splendidly hammy Jennifer Trimboli as the coloratura-cackling witch.

Aaron Nather's sets consisted of a basement apartment, a forest clearing with stylized trees, and, instead of the witch's house, a candy factory in Fisher-Price primary colors, all enhanced by Miki Takahashi's glorious lighting design. Director Claudia Zahn's approach was to keep the storytelling straightforward and send it up with charming details—like giving the Dew Fairy, an apparition in shimmering green, a yo-yo to bounce from her voluminous sleeves.

Act II ended with a dream ballet, as Hansel and Gretel invoked their guardian angels before falling asleep in the woods. Zahn, with just the simplest ingredients—kids in white jammies (an inspired choice by costume designer Kristen Hubbard), a cutout moon, a swing and slide, a starry-night backdrop—turned it into the most utterly enchanting thing I've seen on an opera stage in some time. Lavish budgets and household-name casts can be enjoyable, but they can't make miracles like this. Only imagination does that.

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