Soon at AVA: An Eastern European Twist on a Classic Mermaid Story

Coming soon to AVA’s stage from a faraway land is the fairy tale-inspired Czech opera, Rusalka. Based on Slavic folklore, the story line of Antonín Dvořák’s oeuvre runs parallel to the plot of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, The Little Mermaid (1837). The three-act production, first staged in 1901, tells the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince and exchanges her voice for legs to be with him in the mortal world of men. While popularized renditions of The Little Mermaid—most notably that of the Walt Disney franchise—tend to add a chipper and upbeat twist to Andersen’s original tale, the Rusalka libretto (written by Czech poet, Jaroslav Kvapil) holds a darker fate in store for the love-stricken mermaid.

The grimness of Dvořák’s opera is perhaps due to the nature of the “rusalka” figure, a female entity in Slavic folklore associated with maliciousness and danger. Rusalkas are seen as the spirits of women who have lost their lives tragically in bodies of water—either by suicide or murder—and whose souls have been condemned to haunt those waterways for eternity.

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Русалка (Rusalka) by Anna Vinogradova, 2008.

Rusalka’s fantastical theme (complete with wood sprites and a Water Gnome) coupled with its language—it’s sung entirely in Czech—set the opera apart this AVA season. Adding to the production’s uniqueness is the fact that it is a piano reduction. “I’m excited because the music is stunning,” says third-year resident artist and tenor John Matthew Myers, who is cast in the role of the Prince. “The absence of an orchestra makes Rusalka an intimate experience. That lack of a physical divide between the audience and the stage creates a very immersive environment.”

Of course, the opera’s peculiarities also present a set of challenges for the singers. “The majority of the audience does not speak Czech, so we really need to inflect meaning into the words in order to tell a compelling story for non-native speakers,” explains Mr. Myers. As well as singing in a tongue they are significantly less familiar with than the romance languages, the Resident Artists must tackle the challenge of playing non-human roles. “You have to constantly be thinking about your movements and be intentional about every gesture,” says first-year soprano, Kara Mulder, who is starring in the lead role of Rusalka.

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Rusalka Music Director, Luke Housner, in rehearsal with cast members, Piotr Buszewski, Kara Mulder and John Matthew Myers.

Though Rusalka can be interpreted as a tragic version of The Little Mermaid­­—bring your tissues!—it is more of a coming-of-age tale than it is a love story. “There’s a huge arch of growth in Rusalka’s character,” observes Ms. Mulder. “In the beginning of the opera she’s incredibly naïve and stubborn; everyone warns her about the dangers of becoming human, but she doesn’t listen. Once she realizes she will never be able to be fully human, she matures a lot.” Unlike the Walt Disney rendition, centered around the mermaid’s romantic adventures, Dvořák’s opera focuses on Rusalka’s journey of self-discovery and ultimately self-acceptance.

While the story Rusalka tells is a gripping one—filled with heartbreak and love, tragedy and magic—it’s Dvořák’s music that first reeled in Luke Housner, our production’s Music Director and pianist. “I became familiar with this opera about four years ago,” explains Mr. Housner. “AVA Alumna Joyce El Khoury was contracted to sing the role [of Rusalka] in North Carolina and in Amsterdam. We worked on it together and I fell in love with it during that time. Its harmonic language just has a magnetic quality for me.”

Mr. Housner assures audience members that AVA’s performance will be nothing if not unprecedented. For one thing, his piano reduction will incorporate elements from Rusalka’s full orchestral score, so you can expect a novel twist on the instrumental accompaniment. Secondly, the staging will draw largely on Mr. Housner’s own ideas and interpretation of the libretto. “I workshopped Rusalka the past two summers in Vancouver and Toronto,” he explains. “Some of the original staging decisions I made in my summer workshops are sure to infiltrate their way into this production. They’re definitely nothing you’ve seen at the Met before!”

So, if you’ve had your fill of sappy stories with happy endings and are in the mood for something a little bit more ominous and unpredictable, make sure to kick off the 2019 season with some mermaid magic and grab tickets for one of AVA’s four showings of Rusalka, opening this Saturday at our Helen Corning Warden Theatre.

Written by Tania Bagan

 

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Next Week at AVA: Russian Romances!

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Looking for a fun way to kick off the holiday season? Join us on Monday, December 17th and Tuesday December 18th for AVA’s thirtieth annual production of Russian Romances. AVA Russian repertoire vocal coach Ghenady Meirson has been directing this concert since his student days at the Curtis Institute of Music.

“Kevin McDowell and I attended Curtis around the same time and he sang in Russian Romances when we were both studying there,” explains Ghena. “When Kevin became Artistic Director at AVA, he brought me in to help set up a Russian language program. That’s how Russian Romances first made its way to AVA.”

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Ghenady Meirson joined AVA’s faculty in 1989

Historically, Russian romances are poetic, sentimental songs by early Russian composers, which contribute to a rich tradition of Russian music. Ghena’s Russian Romances concerts initially included only these traditional, older pieces, but over time they evolved and came to incorporate more modern music, as well as arias from operas and duets.

“This year we are performing some fun material that is not very well known and that is very easy to listen to,” says Ghena. “The first part of the concert will be chamber music —that includes cello, voice and piano. I’m on piano the entire evening. I’m very excited.”

Russian Romances is a great opportunity to discover Russian repertoire outside of the ordinary opera classics, as well as to learn how to sing in a chamber music setting,” says AVA’s third-year Resident Artist and soprano, Rebecca Gulinello.

This season’s performance will include guest artist, cellist Vivian Barton Dozor. The program will feature songs and ensembles by Russian composers such as Glinka, Borodin, Arensky, Taneyev, Glière, Medtner, Gretchaninoff, Cui, Prokofieff, Shostakovich and Sviridov.

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AVA’s 2017 production of Russian Romances 

Russian Romances offers AVA’s Resident Artists important exposure to the Russian language. Some Resident Artists have a good amount of experience with Russian repertoire, while others have none, so the concert represents an opportunity for them to practice and explore it. “The language is the main challenge, because the students are more experienced in Italian, French and German, which they spend more time studying,” explains Ghena. “Russian Romances is important in helping the students gain familiarity with Russian pronunciation and phonetics.”

While the concert is a valuable linguistic experience for the Resident Artists, Ghena emphasizes that the main goal is exceptional vocalism. “In the end, they have to be fluent enough to sing beautifully,” he says.

There’s nothing like some heartening Russian music on a cold, winter night… We look forward to seeing you all next week!

Written by Tania Bagan

 

 

The Haunting of AVA

As Halloween rounds the corner, the city of Philadelphia is coming alive — bright orange, elaborately carved pumpkins sit out on stoops; spooky decorations hang in front yards and adorn the streets; and store aisles boast an enticing selection of candy corn and other sugary treats. A feeling of magic and spookiness pervades the air.

But here at AVA, that feeling is nothing new. Our building on 1920 Spruce Street, built 150 years ago, is the permanent dwelling place of the ghost of Randolph Wood, who owned and resided in the building in the 1870s. Depressed by serious financial losses, Mr. Wood sadly died by suicide here, on the third floor, during the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873. His spirit has allegedly been haunting the building ever since.

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Our resident ghost has signaled his presence to AVA staff, faculty and students over the years. AVA’s President and Artistic Director, Kevin McDowell, vividly recalls a creepy interaction with him  in the late 1980s. “I stopped by AVA one night on my way home, around 2 a.m. I remember going up to the third floor, getting to the landing and suddenly feeling chills and my hair standing up—I had a strange, eerie feeling that something was there.”

Mr. McDowell is not the only one to have discerned the spirit’s presence on the upper floors of AVA. Master vocal coach Richard Raub, who has been teaching at AVA for 35 years, was once interrupted by the ghost during a coaching session. “I was up in my studio working with a student and I became aware of this big sphere of energy that came into the room,” explains Mr. Raub. “It was invisible, but I could perceive it. My student was a tenor and all of a sudden he felt all tight and couldn’t sing anymore. I slammed down the piano lid and as soon as I got up the ‘thing’ just vanished. I went into the hall screaming after it to get out!”

Both Mr. McDowell and Mr. Raub’s experiences with the ghostly entity date back to before the year 1996, when the room where Mr. Wood passed away was renovated and turned into a library. Mr. McDowell maintains that those renovations led to the ghost’s retreat from AVA. “By converting what we call the ‘ghost room’, which consisted of two rooms, a closet and a bathroom on the third floor in the rear, we think we drove the ghost away,” he says. Mr. Raub agrees: “When the library and bathrooms on that floor were being renovated, there were workers in here all summer long. I think that’s when the ghost decided to pick up and move on.”

However, Resident Artists and staff members claim to have encountered the ghost since then. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig, who graduated from AVA last May, says she often became aware of the ghost’s presence in the evenings, when she was working the front desk and preparing to lock up the building for the night. She describes a particularly horrifying experience that took place during her third year: “I was alone in the building and the lights were off. I was coming up the stairs and I heard the chuckle of a male voice. I freaked out and yelled …and I heard it again. To be honest, that’s why I didn’t want to be on desk duty my fourth year.”

AVA’s PR and Communications Manager, Camille Mola, attests to the fact that the ghost is still very much around. She recounts of a mysterious episode last year: “One performance night last season I was sitting in the lobby with a colleague. Everyone was in the theatre, there was no one around. And all of a sudden, the lobby lights went out. I got up and I saw that the light switch in the hall, which is pretty hard to push down, had been switched off.”

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By now, longstanding members of AVA have grown accustomed to the ghost’s mischievous behavior—the ghost has been playing tricks on people since Maestro Christofer Macatsoris first became Music Director of AVA in 1977. Maestro recollects an experience with the ghost from his early years at AVA—perhaps the most bizarre and frightening of them all. One evening, after being the last person to leave the building, Maestro returned upon realizing he had forgotten his sunglasses. “When I came back in, the lights wouldn’t turn on and I heard orchestral music coming from upstairs,” he recalls. “My friends and I called the police. We discovered a boom box on the fourth floor and when we came downstairs we heard the sounds of a typewriter coming from what is currently my office. The police walked toward my office and as soon as we stepped in, the sounds stopped. We left, and it started again. This is all on the police report.”

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the uncanny events that have occurred over the years along AVA’s corridors make it hard to deny that something spooky is lurking in the shadows of 1920 Spruce Street. We respect the spirit of Mr. Wood, and we can only hope he enjoys the beautiful music made here at AVA.

Happy Halloween from all of us here at AVA!

Written by Tania Bagan

 

Get to know our New Resident Artists!

This year, AVA welcomes nine new Resident Artists! Get to know them here through a fun Q&A and come meet them in person at the New Artist Recitals, on 9/20 and 9/21. The Recitals are available to AVA subscribers.  Stay tuned for more news and updates about our Artists and the 2018-2019 AVA season, coming soon on the blog!

Timothy Murray, baritone

Timothy

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started off in theater and was really involved. In middle school, the symphony was doing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and they asked me to perform in a skit of the story beforehand. They asked me to play Peter and I got free tickets to the symphony. That was my first experience with classical music. I started studying opera my junior year of undergrad. I started as a theater major, I loved the classic works, but I fell in love with opera and added a music degree.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I heard of AVA through my friends, Roy Hage and Oliver Sewell, who are current Resident Artists here. I most look forward to the coaching experience. The teachers here are internationally renowned. I’ve heard so many great things about the fabulous Maestro and am also super excited to work with Bill Stone.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dandini in Cenerentola.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka – I’m super excited to sing in Czech. And Roméo and Juliette, because it’s such a classic and I’ve never worked on it before. I’ve done the play, but not the opera.

Chelsea Laggan, mezzo-soprano

Chelsea

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking voice lessons after I saw my first opera. I was playing bassoon in my high school orchestra and they took us to see La bohème at Opera Philadelphia. I thought, “Woah, what is that?” I was thirteen and I asked my mom for voice lessons that year.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I did the MET competition at AVA in 2017. While I was here, I spoke with a couple of teachers who encouraged me to audition. I started looking into AVA’s history and thought it would be a fantastic location and environment for me. I look forward to being able to be around opera all the time at such a high level. There’s nowhere else you get to be immersed in opera 24/7—to sit in on rehearsals, to listen to your colleagues, to have something to aspire to in your peers and coaches.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dido in Dido and Aeneas.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all of them, but especially for Rusalka, because it’s not a typical student production. You’d never get to do that in undergrad. I’m also excited for Suor Angelica and Così fan tutte because I’ve never gotten to do a full Mozart.

Alice Chung, mezzo-soprano

Alice

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking classical voice lessons in college. I started working with graduate students who were TAs and slowly worked myself up to singing with actual teachers. I majored in sociology, something completely unrelated to music. Singing was always supposed to be a hobby, but I loved it and I found it just clicked — so it became a pursuit.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I’ve always known of AVA, it’s always been in the back of my mind. AVA singers are incomparable — AVA was always there in the horizon for me. I really look forward to the experience. You really can’t compare the quality of AVA teachings and the coachings to anything else.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Playing the witch in Hansel and Gretel was fun. I also covered Azucena in Il trovatore, one of my all-time dream roles.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Roméo and Juliette. It’s shocking, but I’ve not been a principal in a French opera. I’m excited to have more French in my life!

Aubrey Ballarò, soprano

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When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I did a lot of musical theater growing up. My parents were always fascinated by my love for music because they’re not musicians at all. My father set up an audition for me for Toledo Opera when I was thirteen and they brought me on board as one of their choristers. My first opera as a chorus member was Roméo and Juliette, and I heard soprano Barbara Shirvis sing “Je veux vivre.” It was the first aria I had ever heard and it was sung with full orchestra in the theater during the sitzprobe. That’s when I knew I needed to start opera singing.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I met Danielle Orlando at Oberlin in Italy, in Arezzo, and we kept in touch. She suggested I move to the east coast after Oberlin. So I’ve been in Philly for the past four years and now I’m here! I’m excited to gain as much knowledge as possible and to be surrounded by such an amazing team.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Ms. Wordsworth in Albert Herring was a lot of fun—I love to make people laugh.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Così fan tutte. I’ve done it twice, once during Oberlin in Italy and once in Vancouver. Now I get to dust it off and learn it from a new perspective!

Renée Richardson, soprano

Renee

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I’ve always sung. The first time was in fourth grade when everyone was forced to sing in choir. It wasn’t a desire of mine, but we had to do it. There was a solo everyone wanted to do. I didn’t raise my hand, but the teacher called on me anyway — so that was my first solo! Against my will, in fourth grade.

I moved around a lot — I went to a lot of different schools, so even though I did some choir in middle school and at the beginning of high school, it wasn’t consistent. I didn’t get back into choir until my junior year, and even then I didn’t realize music was something people did with their lives. When I went to college in Florida I was a biology major. I joined the choir, but science was my main focus.

By my junior year, even though I wanted to be a vet, I was encouraged to pursue singing more seriously. I’m Haitian-American and to my family music is not a career. It was tough because my family questioned my decision. Now they’re on board, but initially I needed so much support — my voice teachers and coaches were really kind and really pushed me to pursue singing. Junior year in undergrad is when I officially committed to it.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Everyone knows about AVA. I remember reading about Joyce DiDonato, something about her not getting a role in school, feeling like she’d never make it and then going to AVA. So I looked into it. I became really obsessed with the AVA website. People discouraged me from applying and said I wasn’t ready, but at a certain point I got tired of listening to other people’s advice. So I was like “I’m just gonna do it.” I just look forward to growing here. I feel like my musical career started a little on the late side, so to get this top-of-the-line training is exactly what I need.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Suor Angelica. I love the passion and the hope she embodies. And Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict was really fun. I loved playing someone sassy and flirtatious.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all the operas, but especially for Rusalka — when people think of Rusalka, they think of Renée Fleming… so Renée Richardson has a lot to live up to!

Lev Voronov, bass

Lev

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began learning to sing at the Glinka Choir College in Saint Petersburg ten years ago. Those were my first lessons. In 2011, I began studying at a conservatory where my vocal teacher was Vladimir Vaneyev, who is well known in Russia and is the principal soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre. In 2016 I began studying at the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, in St. Petersburg.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

At the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, I had coachings and master classes with Olga Makarina, the principal soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. She told me about Bill Schuman, whom I auditioned for, and he encouraged me to apply to AVA. I’m looking forward to developing my singing, language and acting skills here.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Leporello from Don Giovanni, two years ago in Russia.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Così fan tutte, because it was a recent Metropolitan Opera production. To be able to perform the same opera here is exciting!

Kara Mulder, soprano

Kara

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

My entire family is made up of opera singers. My mother is an opera singer and my father was, too. So I joke that I didn’t have a choice, because that’s all I knew. I was probably twelve before I realized not everyone’s life revolved around music. I’ve always loved music so much and poured all my energy into it, whether it was musical theatre, choir or Church music. I went to high school and university for music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Being from Philadelphia, AVA is the pinnacle of performance. I used to come to AVA’s shows as a kid. So being part of AVA has been a dream of mine for years. I’m excited to learn and soak up all this knowledge from my teachers, coaches and colleagues, to have the operatic experience of a lifetime.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte — she’s fiery, but she’s also sensitive. I think Mozart’s way of crafting timeless characters is so genius.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka. I think it’s so cool to sing in Czech. I also think the dramatic challenges will be very intense and it will be exciting to workshop something a little more intimate, since it’s a piano production.

Eric Delagrange, bass

Eric

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I got my B.A. in music education. My voice teacher pointed out to me that I had a deep voice and suggested opera. So I went on to graduate school for voice performance.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I attended the Russian Opera Workshop two years ago and I began taking lessons with Bill Schuman every few months, whenever I was in New York. I’m excited to sing every day with other people, to work really hard to create something bigger than myself.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

I enjoy playing drunks. I’ve played Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pistola in Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Zoroastre.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Rusalka — it’s one of the first operas I ever saw. The music is gorgeous, it’s such a beautiful blend of composers.

Yihan Duan, soprano

Yihan

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began singing at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

AVA is very well renowned, so many opera stars go through here. I’m really excited to gain as much knowledge as possible in opera. I’m also looking forward to the many opportunities I will have to act.

What is your favorite role you have performed?

Liù from Turandot.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Le Villi, because I love Puccini. And Rusalka, because I think the story is wonderful.

Written by Tania Bagan 

Resident Artist News: Summer 2018

AVA Resident Artists and recent graduates have been busy this spring, and have very busy summers ahead! Here’s a look at some of their recent and upcoming plans…

Piotr Buszewski recently made his professional debut at the New York City Opera as the title role in Il Pigmalione. In May, he will be making his Memphis Symphony Orchestra debut in Berlioz’s Te Deum. This summer, he will be singing in Rigoletto and Seven Deadly Sins, both at Wolf Trap.

Earlier this spring, Mackenzie Gotcher performed the role of Cavaradossi in Permian Basin Opera‘s production of Tosca. This summer, he will be singing the role of Captain Nolan in Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera.

Hannah Ludwig will be going to the grand finals of the Loren L. Zachary Competition in Beverly Hills, and in June she is going to the finals of the James Toland Competition. She will be singing the Mozart Requiem at Carnegie Hall on May 26, and will also be performing the role of Isaura in Tancredi with the New York Teatro Nuovo festival program on July 28 and August 3.

Alexandra Nowakowski recently won second place in the Dorothy Lincoln Smith Competition. Along with Hannah, she will also be going to the grand finals of the Loren L. Zachary Competition and to the finals of the James Toland Competition. In July, she’ll be going to the Verbier Festival in Switzerland to sing Gilda in Rigoletto.

Daniel Noyola placed second in the New England Regionals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. This summer, he will be at Santa Fe Opera covering the role of Mustafà in L’italiana in Algeri. He also joins Houston Grand Opera’s Studio Artists in August, where he will be singing Masetto in Don Giovanni and Colline in La bohème.

Brent Michael Smith placed third in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera Nationals Council Auditions. He will also compete in the semi-finals of the Opera Birmingham Competition in May, and he joins the Santa Fe Opera as an Apprentice Artist this summer singing Lakey in Ariadne auf Naxos and covering Truffaldino.

Oliver Sewell recently made his Carnegie Hall debut with the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

Ethan Simpson advanced to the semi-finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Vanessa Vasquez will be singing Juliette in Roméo et Juliette at Wolf Trap this summer.

Matthew White recently won Top Prize in the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition and First Place in the Deborah Voigt International Vocal Competition.  He will make his role debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with The Princeton Festival next month.

And finally, AVA saves the day at Vero Beach Opera. Meryl Dominguez was at Vero Beach Opera in March to perform with Deborah Voigt, as part of her prize for placing third in the Deborah Voigt/VBO Foundation International Vocal Competition a year prior. Unfortunately due to inclement weather in the Northeast, Ms. Voigt was unable to travel and a replacement singer was needed with just four hours to spare. Thankfully and incredibly, fellow AVA Resident Artist Roy Hage was also in Florida, and was able to travel and perform with a very tight time crunch! This summer, Roy will be singing the role of Hoffman in Les contes d’Hoffmann for the Aspen Music Festival.

The final production of AVA’s 2017/18 opera season, La traviata, received rave reviews from Philadelphia Magazine, Chestnut Hill Local, The Cultural Critic and Broad Street Review.

Bravo to all of our Resident Artists!

Thank you to all who made this season an incredible one, we’re looking forward to seeing you throughout the 2018/19 season!

Be sure to stay-up-to-date with all AVA news by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and signing up for our email list!