Out, Out Dang Spot

North Carolina soprano Jill Gardner’s musical ancestry and training led her to killing the role of Lady Macbeth.

On Friday the 13th, Opera Tampa unloads quite the murderfest with their debut performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. The bloody story of a Scottish nobleman’s immoral rise to power, Macbeth was for Shakespeare, and here, for Verdi, really a story about the greatest force behind the man: his wife, Lady Macbeth. A tough, almost impossible soprano role, Lady Macbeth demands relentless range and dark psychological depth. “There are few singers who can do this role,” says conductor Andrew Basantz. “Jill can.” He means Jill Gardner, a well-loved Southern soprano who is a Puccini girl with a Verdi habit. She performs for her first time with Opera Tampa in this complex powerhouse role.

Here, we talk with her about her upbringing in the tobacco country of North Carolina and how that led to the opera stage and her deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as one of the most loathed characters in the canon.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re both North Carolina girls who experienced an agricultural upbringing. I never worked tobacco, but I did pick peas and butterbeans and shuck corn. You grew up around Tobaccoville, NC, having to pick tobacco in the summer. For people who may not have any idea of the hell that is tobacco farming in North Carolina, especially in the North Carolina summer, paint us a picture of what it was like.

JILL GARDNER: I was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but we moved into my great-aunt’s house who died in 1977, still using an outhouse and drawing her water from a well. When she died, we moved into her house. My dad put in a bathroom, made plumbing. My parents were educators. My dad went on to build houses, but in the summertime for six summers of my life, we raised tobacco north of Tobaccoville in Surry County.

It was a family affair in the fact that our family grew it. My grandfather at that time was very much the patriarch of the family, shall we say. My grandmother and her sisters were the ones to string [the tobacco]. They would hang it in the tobacco barn, but we, the cousins, all the other parts of the family, came together when it came time to pick it. It’s labor intensive. Now, we have machines and all these kinds of things to do this, but it was labor intensive. Very hot, very sticky, that process.

But for us, the cool thing was that it was about family. It was a family affair, and on both sides of my family. My grandparents. I got to know three of my great-grandparents as well, in that good old Southern tradition. That generation especially were total agricultural people, so I truly have those roots. That’s, I think, why I love to garden when I’m not on the road.

CITA: For those of you who don’t know, back in this day when Jill and I were growing up, the fall in North Carolina was when the tobacco cured.

JG: Correct.

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A tobacco field in Harnett County, N.C. (Photo: bumeister1 / Flickr)

CITA: Curing tobacco is the most nostalgic smell for me. When I’m in North Carolina, if I smell tobacco curing—and it doesn’t smell like smoke; it smells like very thick fragrant plant leaves mellowing out—it is the most beautiful smell.

JG: Yes, and growing up in Winston where the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Industry was downtown, that was the joy of going downtown, because the whole town smelled of curing tobacco. In Tobaccoville now, the hometown where I grew up, the last remaining R. J. Reynolds plant is still there, so at certain times of the day, you will still get that aroma, which is what’s very cool too. But I do know what you mean about nostalgia. Southern tradition.

CITA: Southern tradition, honey. Let’s talk about how do you get from Tobaccoville to Lady Macbeth, and I want to say too that a lot of people don’t associate North Carolina with this rich arts tradition, which is amazing if you’re from North Carolina, because in Winston-Salem, up around where you were, and then down where I was in Wilmington, the arts are huge. We have had so much artistic contribution, so much artistic output come from North Carolina that the arts – singing, dancing, music – is as inbred in us as tobacco was coming up.

JG: Correct. Very well said.

CITA: Talk a little bit about from Tobaccoville to-

JG: Lady Macbeth.

CITA: Verdi’s’ Lady Macbeth at that.

JG: That’s exactly right. I guess, to go back . . . my mother’s side of the family was very musical. My great-grandmother was a pianist, and she had several brothers and sisters—one was a violinist, another one played another instrument … I can’t remember now—it eludes me a little bit, but they were extremely musical. My mom was taking piano lessons when I was born, and she said I came out of the womb and went straight to the piano bench. I actually knocked my front teeth out on my great-grandmother’s piano bench trying to get up on that thing.

When I was growing up, she said it was very clear I had this passion for music. Also, in this Southern tradition, we would go down to my great-grandmother’s very often to have family reunions. She had 14 children, two of which died, so she oftentimes talked about the fact that she had her children in quartets. They would go around—they were Pentecostal Holiness people—and they would go around and do quartet singing.

When I would go to my great-grandmother’s, we’d end up in the front living room where the piano was, and there’d be 25 of us in there. On Sunday afternoons after you ate, you’d get up in there, and we’d have “church.” We would sing hymns. I can remember sitting between my Grandmother Teva and my great-aunt Bridget. In the southern tradition, the tenors sang the lead, and the women harmonized with the bass, so I learned how to sing harmony from my grandmother and my great-aunt.

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Jill performing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci at Mill City Summer Opera in 2012.

To fast forward a little bit, it was very clear that music was going to be my passion. I’d studied the violin for five years. I took dance/ballet for almost four years until my body blossomed. [Laughs] You know, we had to move along on that. By the time I got to high school, I was active in my church singing. I did shows in high school like everyone else, but I really didn’t know that I was going to be an opera singer.

Luckily, to go back to what you were talking about, because of the arts history in North Carolina, the North Carolina Arts Council as well as the local Arts Council of Forsyth County are very huge and very instrumental within our state. At that time, my hometown opera company, Piedmont Opera Company, put on productions twice a year. That’s where I saw my first opera, which was Marriage of Figaro.

In my class at that time, one of my assignments was to write a letter, and I wrote—my mother kept this letter after all these years—about having this experience. The last line of that letter says, “I think opera is going to have a big place in my life.”

CITA: How old were you?

JG: I was about sixth grade.

CITA: Wow. So, you were young, but you had—

JG: I made that connection [with opera], but my passion was the piano. By the time I got to high school, I had a little spinet piano in our little 1200-square-foot house, and I would practice four to six hours a day—to the point that my parents at night would say, “Jill, we have to go to bed.” I had this passion for piano, so upon completion of high school, I got a full scholarship to go and study with this teacher who I’d worked with in my senior year, Constance Carroll.

At that time, she was at a private liberal arts college in Shreveport, Louisiana, called Centenary College of Louisiana, so I got a full scholarship as a piano performance major to go to this school. I decided to take a voice minor and formally study voice. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who allowed my voice to train naturally through really good fundamental technique but to address my voice through repertoire.

Mid-undergrad work, I started entering competitions and won. People were like, “Why aren’t you going to be a singer?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a pianist.”

CITA: So then singing was just-

JG: Well, see. I think a part of it, too, is that it was clear that I was a singer, and, like I said, I always sang in church and school shows, and I had leads and the whole nine yards. Maybe it was because of my background; it was never really a thought like so many people have now, because opera is so prevalent in our national scene, to go and be an opera singer. I also think it was because I felt so passionately about the piano, which I still do.

I’m so thankful for my piano background because musically it has given me an advantage to being a singer and to have all of that stylistic and musical history from studying music as long as I did. I take all of that in—particularly to something like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. I have such respect for that music, for his lines and his phrasing and his articulation and the way that he conceives of this music because of my background.

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Jill performing in Tosca at Mill City Summer Opera in 2014.

I also, because of that background, can learn so much of my music myself. I can teach myself at the piano, and many, many singers can’t. When I talk to singers about that, some of them are very jealous of because they would love to be able to do teach themselves their music.

It was in my undergraduate degree where the idea even arose, and so at the end of that degree, I’d gotten into a couple of schools for graduate work in piano, but I really sort of, as we say in the South, had a Come to Jesus moment. I realized, “This is pretty cool, but I think I would really love to study voice.” So, from there, from Louisiana, I decided to move home and attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to get my master’s degree.

CITA: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a highly respected music school. We have a lot of really exceptionally well-trained, very gifted musicians who go through the UNCG music program because it is so well known.

JG: I went there because I knew it was a good school, and by being a North Carolina resident, the tuition was feasible. I also knew I did not want to have a lot of student loan debt. We all have to make decisions as we go down these paths, and it was a really, really, really good decision for me.

CITA: You knew opera was your vocal path?

JG: I knew opera would be my focus, even though I continued to play piano. I’ve now started to do some teaching. That’s what keeps my piano chops up because I can play so much of the repertoire when I am teaching. So, it ended up working out really well. I oftentimes say to younger singers that I meet who I work with through master classes is as soon as you can immerse yourself in a real strong musical background, the stronger you’re going to be from the standpoint of being a singer.

So much of the singing industry now is about how you look, which is important too. I’m not saying it’s not. I think it is important for us to take the responsibility of being physically healthy and able to do anything on the stage from the standpoint of characterization. But, it’s still about the music for me. I’ll never really get to the place to where opera will be just a spectator sport, like a film experience. It’s still about the music for me.

I think for young singers, that’s one of the things that I impress upon them, is to really respect music and work to gain as much musical prowess as you can because that also influences the voice. For me, having had all that background, I think that’s a part of what really has led to my success.

CITA: So let’s talk about Lady Macbeth. This is a tough role.

JG: Oh, my Lord. It’s not for children.

CITA: It’s a demanding role. Lady Macbeth herself, from Shakespeare’s creation to what we’re going to see in your presentation of Verdi’s adaptation of that work, she is a deep, dark character. This really is her play even though it’s called Macbeth and is . . . sort of about him. Do you see yourself as a Lady Macbeth character or was this a stretch for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do, something that you felt that you could come to naturally?

JG: Yeah, well, I guess what I’d say is I went professional as an opera singer in 2005, so I’ve been doing this now for a little over 13 years. It was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be one of the main focuses of my singing career. Not that it’s the only focus; I’ve done French repertoire, German repertoire, Czech repertoire, contemporary operas to last season I did my first Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, which I absolutely love. But, it was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be my mainstay, and so much of that has been Puccini.

I’ve sung almost all of Puccini’s heroines. The one on the horizon will be Turandot, which I think I will do in the proper time and place. Because of that, it was very clear. I sang Traviata, which is probably one of Verdi’s most famous operas, and a couple of years ago, I did my first Leonora in Il Trovatore.

As the voice has developed, it was very clear that Lady Macbeth was a natural role for me to take on, and the beauty was a director that I had worked with in several different Puccini productions was Jay Lessinger, who was the artistic director of Chautauqua opera for many, many seasons.

Jay approached me. We were talking about possibly doing Tosca in Chautauqua, but he said, “What do you think about Lady Macbeth?” You know, those synergistic moments in life when serendipity just drops into your life, and you go, “What do I think about Lady Macbeth? I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, ‘what do you think about Lady Macbeth?’” It was also a wonderful place for me to try it out for the first time. It was a great director, really good conductor too. In preparing it, I knew I could really accept the vocal challenge.

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Jill performing in Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s 2017 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Coming to Opera Tampa, like you said, which is my debut here, I’m really thankful to have had [other chances to play her]… From Chitauqua, I then went to Michigan Opera Theater where I did the role with Bernard Uzan directing and Stephen Lord conducting, which was another huge impetus for me, not only dramatically but musically in growing this role, so that I do feel that I bring to Tampa a really fleshed-out Lady Macbeth. Every role we have continues to grow, but she’s very much a part of Jill and my psyche and my being.

To talk about the character, that’s why they call it acting. Does Jill Gardner have dark sides to her? Oh, my Lord! We all have a shadow side, and I think what I really respect about Lady Macbeth is that even from the story of Shakespeare, she was a woman who had huge ambitions, but at that point in time on our planet in our historical journey of humanity, women truly were not allowed to have any place other than a lesser station in life—and she was born with huge ambition.

Lady Macbeth is as much a yang, fire, male-dominated character as Macbeth is the yin, contemplative, deeply empathetic and psychically aware character. So the conflicts within us, I think, are very real and can be understood in today’s life, in today’s society, because I think a lot of people feel that way, particularly as we grapple with gender identity now. We’re going to that level within the human experience on the planet, right?

CITA: Right.

JG: She was a woman who I think was caught in a body and a societal situation which would not allow her to seek the full fulfillment of her desires and ambitions. Her only object, or her only way to achieve [what she wanted] was through marriage—but not just any marriage; she married this man who was a warrior, a soldier, and, to a certain extent, with aspirations of his own. But given the kind of soul that he was, he just did not have that ambizione, which is the very first word I sing. He just doesn’t have it.

CITA: Which means what?

JG: “Ambitious.” To have this ambitious nature. And so she lives her experience through him. If she could do this herself, she would, but she can’t, so she has to live this [ambition] through him. And the interesting thing about their relationship, I think, is that it is extremely intense. I think it is extremely sexual and therefore power-dominated. Although she’s the more aggressive one in the relationship, it’s not that he doesn’t have these desires, too; he’s just the one to question. He’s the one that has much more of an empathetic sense about ‘what are my choices and what are the ramifications of these choices,’ whereas she doesn’t think about that. She just sees the goal and goes for it.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s upcoming production of Macbeth.

With the presence of the witches and that culture also within the story, for me, I think she’s very much aligned with the witches. I think that she herself is a witch and has spent time within that community of women because that was the only place where they could really revel in and express their power. It’s black magic, or it’s the darker elements, but still they were the feminine elements at that time that could not be expressed or understood. So, she lives there with them, and that’s why I think she has the need and the desire to control and gain what she wants.

CITA: Through the means that she has available to her.

JG: Correct.

CITA: You know, it has always bothered me in the plot trajectory that she goes mad at the end, and people say, “She goes crazy because of guilt.” I’m like, “But there’s been no indication that her character would feel guilty.” In your understanding of her in the context of the play, it’s better for me to understand it as she is mad with frustration, not guilt. That everything that she would have done, or could have done if she had been able to . . . things go so sideways for her and her plans because Macbeth is not her, but he is the only tool that she has.

Now, thanks to you, when I see the play again, I will have a different understanding of what might be driving her psychological madness, which is not guilt or feelings of conscience but a sense of “What could have been if had really been able to control this the way that I had wanted to.”

JG: Well, and also, again, the beauty of this from the standpoint of the operatic tradition is Verdi chose to include the understanding that this woman, because she was unfulfilled, like you say. For me, the reason that she goes mad is because her desires for power and ambition lead her to this psychological breakdown, and it’s not lost on me that the key of D flat, which is the key of her very first aria of ambition—the Vieni t’affretta.

Basically, she’s trying to express her desire for Macbeth to rise to the challenge of power and stance, and to burn within his heart these feelings. Then the key of the mad scene, the sleepwalking scene (and I’d like to say something about that) is also in the key of D flat. So therefore, by the time I arrive at that, I musically, psychically and emotionally understand that I go mad from the ambitions of which I am driven.

Verdi chose that same key to link those emotional responses. I think that the point is, in the somnambulant scene, it’s not that she’s mad; she’s sleepwalking. So these people, when they’re in this state, are awake, and they’re awake in a way, in this kind of dream state, that they never achieved in real life, and so that level of awareness and consciousness is there to help her see what she did.

CITA:. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Macbeth, there is a chain of events set up by witches’ prophecy that arcs toward this sleepwalking scene that Jill is talking about right now where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in the most challenging aria of the opera. Verdi set it up this way.

JG: Thank you.

CITA: When he was writing Macbeth he felt so passionately about Shakespeare, so passionately about this story that he wanted a soprano who was able to sing and pull off a vulgar, brutish tone which was unheard of at this time. So we’re talking about a very historically important aria.

JG: What was very unique about this particular character when he wrote her—and if you talk to Italians or if you work with Italians on Macbeth—many of them believe that there is no redeeming quality about Lady Macbeth at all, and if you’re trying to find it, you’re wrong. I love that. I completely understand that because he wanted to be able to have that mirror between the character and the voice. I think that’s also one of the wonderful things about opera, is that we’re not just dramatically portraying the story on the stage; we’re taking it to a new level by adding the music and the voice, right?

For me, as an American and an American woman, there’s a part of me that wants to find – not that I’m trying to necessarily portray this obviously on the stage – but needs to understand the redemptive quality of why she goes here [to the psychological state of the sleepwalking scene].

CITA: Absolutely. And I think it’s an authentic understanding of the human psyche, not just lady Macbeth as a flat character, that she’s a bad seed who wants too much and ends up creating a body count. She was very frustrated by her circumstance because she didn’t have anything the Thane of Cawdor didn’t have or Macbeth himself didn’t have or Duncan didn’t have.

JG: Because women were nothing then.

CITA: She had no way to be her true self, to act on her ambition as a human being. All she could be was background to Macbeth’s life.

JG: Correct, and like on our planet right now, I can look at that power dynamic and understand and have a sense through the present day of what women in her time period felt—the lack of achievement or position or ascension within the culture, or not even those things, just lack of recognition. So, for Jill at this juncture in looking at this character and also that opera is relevant to our current life experiences, this girl [Lady Macbeth] I can really understand in a personal way what led her to her choices. I’ve thought about killing people, I’ll readily admit it to you! [laughs] Never done it, but I’m telling you, I’ve thought about killing people.

Yet, she not only thought about it; she knew she had to do it to get what she wanted. For example, a modern-day revelation of this kind of character, within our TV series world, for me, is Robin Wright on House of Cards. Not that she doesn’t have power or she’s not a modern-day woman, but it’s very clear, given her position even in that situation, she’s still Mrs. Frank Underwood, and she has to work behind the scenes to get her agenda done. That is similar to Lady Macbeth.

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I also think it’s okay that Verdi thought of this character one-dimensionally because there are a lot of people, and there are characters within the operatic canon too, that are just downright evil. I mean, they are the personification of evil, and that’s okay.

CITA: Evil people make great stories.

JG: But see, evil people are often extremely complex, and some of the most evil men have been the most sexually provocative, hot, wonderful men, so you can understand why women were crazy for them. Now, as women evolve and get more of their equality, their equal station in life, they go,”I don’t need that.” Or “That’s not as interesting to me.” But that’s a part of evolution. That’s a part of awareness.

CITA: Exactly. Exactly.

JG: Anyway, I think that for myself, even though there’s a big part of Lady Macbeth that is evil and one-dimensional, I really try to find the humanity in her mad death.

CITA: The villainy has a complexity to it. The intricacy is in there, which I think would be such a gift to a performer because you really can take the role into any little nuances you want. Or not.

JG: The truth is, you realize that she, in her sleepwalking nature, she’s asleep but very aware and conscious to the psychological decisions and choices that she made. That’s what she talks about throughout that entire aria. It’s the “Out, out, damned spot.” It’s the “Una macchia.” It’s seeing Macbeth. It’s seeing the children that they killed. I think if you make opera cathartic, what we as singing actors or actresses are trying to portray on the stage to the audiences that come and see it, for me, I’m wanting them to see at the time what it’s like for somebody to really have a reckoning with what they did with their life.

CITA: I believe, Jill, that when our audiences are at the end of your sleepwalking scene, they will be at that reckoning. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be able to take them there. We are beyond thrilled.

JG: Well, it’s a terrific cast. I really want to speak to that, too. Mark Rucker returns to Opera Tampa. Mark is a well-loved, well-respected baritone within the opera industry, and this is my first time meeting him and working with him. In addition to being such a terrific singer, he is such sweet and kind man, so we’re having a lot of fun together within the rehearsal process.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s Macbeth.

Our conductor, Andrew Basantz, who I’ve also worked with, is a terrific musician, so I think the Tampa audiences are going to be very happy about that. It’s a very modern presentation. We will be very much in traditional costumes, but it’s a very contemporary, modern set with projections in the back, so I think that audiences who have not seen Macbeth will enjoy that.

It’s Verdi opera at its best. Big choruses. It’s a huge monumental work that’s not often done because of that. So, good on Opera Tampa for bringing it here for the audiences here. That in and of itself is exciting. I hope everyone will look forward to it.

Want to see Opera Tampa’s Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

When Things Get Wyrd, Shake(speare) It Off

Giuseppe Verdi’s version of “more cowbell” looks something like an entire chorus of witches in Macbeth versus the Bard’s three.

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“Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath” by Théodore Chassériau, 1855.

In 1597, King James of Scotland wrote a work of what he considered to be definitive scholarship: Daemonologie, a paper on witchcraft. James, widely regarded by self and others to be an expert on the subject, knew, without a shred of empirical proof, that witches were real women, usually old and greedy, determined to exact a reckless vengeance on a hapless person. Thus, when he ascended to the British throne as King James I—personally overseeing the English translation of the Bible as well as the torture of women accused of witchcraft—the mighty poet of the day saw a golden opportunity.

William Shakespeare took James’s witch fancy to the page, crafting his typical low-brow, high lyricism into a play about a Scottish king bandied about by the prophecy of three witches plotting upon a heath. The play is full of insider homages to the king as well as a cautionary tale about the need for power and more power. The witches, then, play to the King’s favor; Shakespeare termed them the “Wyrd Sisters,” using the Old English word for “fate” (“wyrd”) that, over time, morphed into the word “weird” and eventually came to a very different meaning.

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The title page of Shakespeare’s play, printed in the Second Folio of 1632 (left) and the poster for the premiere of Verdi’s opera (right).

However, the meaning of the witches in Macbeth, for both Shakespeare and Verdi, remains the same. They are the characters who set the calamity in motion, provide the discordant notes that set the mere mortal mind morally adrift, and they prey upon an audience’s imagination for the supernatural.

Verdi adored Shakespeare’s plays. Even though he read the Bard’s works translated into Italian, he knew he’d eventually turn some of the plays into operas. Macbeth was the first, written when Verdi was 34, later followed by Otello and Falstaff after a ten-year absence from composing. Verdi viewed the witches as the third central character with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth noting, “the witches dominate the drama; everything stems from them … they make up a real character, and one of the greatest importance.”

Veering courageously from convention, Verdi chose to make his witches’ and Lady’s voices rough, dark and devilish—a far cry from the bel canto bravura common for the day. In fact, Macbeth marks the first instance of an opera composer subjecting the voice to the vision of the drama instead of vice versa. As he instructed his librettist: “adopt a sublime diction except for the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original.”

In an interesting exegesis of the opera, scholar Daniel Albright notes in the Cambridge Opera Journal (2005) that, musically, Lady Macbeth herself takes on the witches’ tonal patterns and singing qualities, essentially inducting her as the final witch of the coven, her fate sealed to a phantom splash of blood on her hand that eventually drives her to her death. This scene, the famous “sleepwalking” scene of the opera, symbolically folds Lady into the witches’ master plan to undo the lives of humans for their own greedy, elderly thrills. Lady, as a witch in her own right, gets sent back to hell, metaphorically speaking, where all witches belong—at least according to King James, whose antics, in retrospect, earned him the nickname, “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

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“The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1781-1784.

But, as fate would have it, opera lovers for the past 870 years have thrilled at Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s wyrd little drama to please the predilections of a new king. Expect the same delight at Opera Tampa’s trip from Birnam Wood and Dunsinane.

 

Want to see Opera Tampa’s production of Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

Secret of the Resonating Chambers

Opera Tampa Singer Vanessa Rodriguez reveals the four parts of the body to “place” the voice. Plus, she shows how to hit those high notes with no microphone.

“It’s the Tweety Bird end of the spectrum,” says Vanessa Rodriguez. We’d asked her to explain what she meant when she told us she was a coloratura soprano. “We sing all the notes, all the notes, people don’t want to sing—high notes, fancy runs, we do it all.”

Born in Queens, New York, Rodriguez studied voice at the University of South Florida in Tampa, eventually finding her way to small roles in big operas and building her career. She started as an ambassador with Opera Tampa Singers in 2013, and this season she appears as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro and as Angelina in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury this summer. She’ll also take on the role of Green Alien/Blonda in Opera Orlando’s Star Trek-interpretation of Mozart’s comedy, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

We have a powerhouse opera season launching this weekend with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, followed by Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in March and culminating in Verdi’s Macbeth in April.

We aren’t opera singers here at Caught in the Act, so we sat down with Rodriguez and asked her to give us a crash course in singing, starting with the basics: posture, breathing and placement. Here’s her tutorial, complete with glorious “head” placement and a demonstration of “nasal” singing that made us want to burst into Ethel Merman impressions.

Enjoy!

The Precocious Host Who’s the Most

Seth Black-Diamond and the new Straz web series, Milkshakes & Opera

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Jorge Parodi and Seth Black-Diamond start the filming of Milkshakes & Opera with a cheers.

On January 12, Opera Tampa launched its first-ever web series geared towards kids. The idea? Take a well-loved local 11-year-old performer, give him a hosting gig and sit him across from equally well-loved opera conductors to gab about opera and drink milkshakes donated by Chik-Fil-A. Throw in a surprise cameo by The Cow (“Enjoy Mor Opera”), and you’ve got a hit.

Caught in the Act crashed the most recent taping of Milkshakes & Opera, getting the delightful host, Seth Black-Diamond, to give us a quick look behind the scenes before his guest for the day, The Barber of Seville conductor Jorge Parodi, took a seat on the purple couch. Seth, a student here at the Patel Conservatory, performed in the children’s chorus of Tosca with Opera Tampa and already has a love of the form.

Here’s our behind-the-scenes video, where you can meet Seth as he gives you a quick run-down of the set and introduces you to his camera crew. You’ll also meet Catalina Nieto, our digital marketing manager who created the show, who explains how she found Seth. After that, enjoy some behind-the-scenes pics of Seth’s interview.

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First things first.

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Getting mic’d up.

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Lights …

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… Camera …

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… Action! It’s interview time.

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Make sure you’ve liked Opera Tampa on Facebook to keep up with Milkshakes & Opera and all the extra info and cool facts about the opera world and the world of opera in Tampa.

If you missed the first episode, where Seth interviews Opera Tampa Managing Director Robin Stamper, who conducts this season’s The Marriage of Figaro, you can catch it here:

Want to see the next episode starring Jorge Parodi? Look for it on the Opera Tampa Facebook page the week of Jan. 29.

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.

Big Hair Care

Just in time for Tosca, Opera Tampa’s Emmy®-winning hair designer divulges trade secrets about one of the great characters in opera—the wig.

Dawn Rivard’s impressive résumé of hairstyling and wigbuilding gigs spans from the ‘90s television series Animorphs to this year’s breakaway series The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s worked on the major motion reboots of Total Recall and Carrie as well as made-for-TV movies and several well-recognized films from big Hollywood studios. We know and love Dawn as our hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa, where she oversees, art directs and supplies superior care for the sublime pièce de résistance of any great opera costume, the wig.

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Dawn Rivard, wig/hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa.

Caught in the Act: Tell us a little bit about what exactly you do. Would you walk us through a typical job for an Emmy®-winning hair/wig designer?

Dawn Rivard: What I do depends on the contract. There is NO “typical.” I get requested by any number of people like a director, costume designer or technical director because they have a need for a wig or hair or makeup person. It’s my job to figure out how to solve the job’s requirements at the highest level, keeping in mind the built-in restrictions like resources, time or geographic differences. Some jobs are a request for a custom fit wig for a rental, but I can’t do the fittings. In those cases, someone local sends me head measurements and other design references. I put together a wig and send it, crossing my fingers that they have someone good to address the million variables that come up with a wig.

Renate Leuschner, an iconic Hollywood wig builder, taught me years ago you can have a beautiful wig that fits amazing, but if someone doesn’t know how to put it on, you’d never know it’s beautiful and amazing.

Other contracts, like Opera Tampa, require someone who does wigs, hair and makeup design—and has a wig stock. For companies that have full time in-house wig and makeup departments, there is someone who is head makeup artist, but he or she is not the department head, and another person is lead chorus wig stylist . . . so, each job can be more specialized with larger companies. At Opera Tampa, each crew member has to be well rounded and highly skilled since there are only 3+ stylists to get the whole show done. When a basic leading lady pre-show prep is 30 minutes, a male takes 20 minutes and a character makeup is 40 minutes, that time really adds up on big shows.

A wig and makeup designer has to be able to come in and design the show around what your local crew can do or what you can show them to do in a very short amount of time.  This is not like a tour situation where the show is already built and established and all mapped out.

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Wigs for Opera Tampa’s production of Romeo and Juliet line the dressing room.

CITA: When you work with Opera Tampa, how many wigs are you making per production, and do you have to repair/re-make wigs during the show? During the run? Must you custom-make the wig to fit the performer or can you make a standard sized wig and alter it?

DR: It takes at least a week to fully make one wig. Since Opera Tampa’s schedule does not allow enough time to make a wig, I need to show up with enough already made stock so I have something for everyone.  My rule is for every one wig the audience sees on stage, I have brought at least three so I can pick the best fit and look. I do not travel light.

Often, even though I over pack wigs, there is still something I don’t have that I want. So, that’s when I purchase a wig locally and re-front it to fit the singer.  For La Cenerentola, that was Tisbe’s two wigs. What I had for Robyn Rocklein [who performed Tisbe], I wasn’t happy with, so I went on a search for something I could alter to fit her and better suit the style of the show.

CITA: How long does one wig take to create from start to finish?  What is the one tool you can’t do without?

DR: The pat answer to make a wig is one week, but that can vary greatly. The longer the hair on the wig, the more time it takes to knot it. The larger the head size, the more time it takes. The curlier the hair, the longer it takes.

For doing wigs/ hair and makeup, there are a handful of tools that are invaluable. Three crafts is expensive to supply! If we don’t have the basics for all three crafts, your production quality is noticeably less. I have lots of support from companies like Dermalogica, Cover FX, Smashbox and Hask hair.

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Dawn getting Tisbe ready for an Opera Tampa dress rehearsal of La Cenerentola.

CITA: What happens to the wigs when the production closes? Do they get re-purposed or retired?

DR: All the wigs get the hairstyles taken apart and get washed and dried.  They go back in a box and sorted for the next shows. Some get reused more than others due to color or size. Good quality wigs that are taken care of properly never really retire. I have some wigs that I started with 25 years ago.

CITA: How did you end up in this profession, and is there one wig or one production that stands as your favorite (or most memorable for whatever reason)?

DR: I worked in window display and liked everything in my windows except the wigs. I went on a hunt to find someone who could teach me wigs and that led me to The Canadian Opera Company who, back then, had a year-long apprenticeship program.  They took four students a year, and you did classes and worked on shows pretty much seven days a week. When I finished the apprenticeship, they offered me one of the two assistant jobs. I did that job for two more years, and they allowed me to keep studying in the classes with the new apprentices as long as my show work got done. So, I essentially did a three year apprenticeship while working full time for not a lot of money, but I loved every second of it. Then I went on to work in musical theater—then film and TV work.

Of course you always remember the really horrible experiences, like working outside all night in the freezing cold on a film shoot or when you’re sure you’re going to send a wig on stage that you hate because you just didn’t figure it out yet. There are the performers who were truly difficult so I spent every ounce of energy trying to make the best outcome. Then there are the ones who are just so professional that your job doesn’t feel like work at all.

There is no shortage of new experiences. And, after 25 years, I feel like I might be getting pretty good at what I’m doing.

See Dawn’s work in Tosca. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you can do that here.

Causing All This Conversation

Tosca slays, creating some great legends

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Early critics sometimes panned Puccini’s Tosca, tossing it on a slagheap of criticism that included dismissing it as a “shabby little shocker” that was, in a word, vulgar.

But what are you going to do? Haters gonna hate.

Audiences love this opera, and it contains three meaty main roles for singers to sink their teeth into. Tosca’s seat at the table of perennial favorites, opera’s Big Ones, seem guaranteed. And that, in a word, means Tosca slays, which is to say the opera triumphs over haters – not to be confused with Tosca slays, which we know she does. So sorry, Scarpia.

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The title page of the Tosca piano score, published by G. Ricordi, 1899.

Like any great diva, this opera created legends. Some circle on the rims of opera history, others are well known. Here are some favorite anecdotes to emerge from the Tosca book of tales:

1. Legend of the Fall – an impish stagehand replaces the mattress needed to catch the actress playing Tosca for the finale with a trampoline, causing the singer to rebound into view after diving from the parapet.

2. The Lemming Effect – extras in the firing squad at the finale failed to be at final rehearsals, so the director instructed them to “follow the principal” offstage, meaning Spoletta. However, they thought Tosca was the principal, leaping from the parapet after her. No stories of this tale combined with the trampoline have been found, sadly.

3. Sometimes You Have to Bring a Fan to a Knife Fight – in the nail-biting poetic justice scene, the singer performing Tosca realized there’s no knife onstage and, making do, stabs Scarpia to death with her fan.

4. Lock, Stock and Once Smoking Barrel – poor Cavaradossi (well, the poor tenor playing Cavaradossi) experienced a really unfortunate occupational hazard when and improperly prepared stage rifle during the firing squad scene drew some real blood. This is not what we meant when we said Tosca slays.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Tosca on April 7 and 9. Get more info and tickets here.