Opera Ex Machina, Part II


Kate Aldrich ’96 vividly remembers parts of her professional debut. The mezzo-soprano was singing Preziosilla in La Forza del Destino at the Arena di Verona, a huge Roman amphitheater in Verona, Italy. She had been the second or third cast and had never even rehearsed with the orchestra.

“I will never forget as long as I live walking up those stairs and seeing the immensity of the audience, all with their candles lit (a tradition at the Arena di Verona), knowing that this was it,” she recalls. “The rest of the performance was a bit of a blur.”

Undoubtedly there’s a certain charge that comes with performing, whether it’s the first time or the most recent. Craving that moment is something that drives many singers, including Reggie Allen ’81.

“Any soloist who tells you they don’t have an ego is lying,” Allen says. “There’s absolutely nothing like having a theatre or a big church full of people scream ‘bravo.’”

Allen, like many singers, encountered a fork in the road at the beginning of his career: should he be a solo artist or a company singer? For Allen, the choice was easy. He wanted to be a solo artist. “As one is struggling to build a career, you have to decide if the struggle is worth it,” he says. “Early on, unless you are very lucky, you aren’t making any money. You’d sing for $100; you’d do a production for $400.”

For two decades, the struggle was worth it for Allen. And as his career progressed, other pivotal decisions were in store. When he began to gain a foothold in the opera world, Allen, an African American, had another choice to make.

“I wanted to be careful about being stuck in the Porgy and Bess thing,” he says. “Some artists make informed decisions about not wanting to be pigeonholed. For the African American artists, especially the men, that limits what you’re going to be offered.”

Allen’s career took him around the United States and through Europe. But in 2004, he decided it was time for a change. He accepted a full-time job at the Library of Congress as a digital project coordinator, though he still sings on a smaller scale a handful of times a year.

“I decided, when I was in my 40s, that if I’m not having a major career, it’s time for me to recognize that the dream is over,” Allen says. “While that was difficult on a certain level, I had given it my best.”

“It's not all roses, this business and lifestyle,” says Aldrich, who is married and has a child. “There are moments that are unforgettable and incredible, and then there are moments that are incredibly difficult. It's a roller coaster—as terrifying as it is thrilling.”

And the demands on the performers go beyond simply being able to sing. Acting, dancing, and foreign language skills are a big part of the profession. “If you will be singing a lot of Carmen, it is important to have some idea of flamenco and classical Spanish ballet for example,” Aldrich says. Opera Ithaca’s James adds, “I think there’s a misconception that opera singers don’t know how to act. We have to be equally trained in acting and movement and dance. We have to do anything that any stage actor has to do.”

“When you arrive at the first day of a rehearsal you will be met with colleagues from all over the world, and most will speak two, three, or even four languages with relative ease,” Aldrich says.

As far as performing goes, a “poetic understanding” of the language is helpful, according to James. “You have to have perfect pronunciation and sound like a native speaker but not necessarily speak the language.”


Schlather used the framing device of a Hollywood stage set for Semele, bringing the opera into the modern age. Photo by Adam Baker

A native of Cooperstown, New York, home of the Glimmerglass OperaR. B. Schlather ’08 has been attending opera productions since the age of five. He’s worked in theatre since he was a child and studied art history and theatre at Ithaca College. Now the stage director lives in New York City where he’s focused on bringing opera to nontraditional spaces, namely art galleries.

“I think most people think of opera as being foreign and grandiose, on a very large scale, in a very fussy, uptight theatre,” he says. “That’s why I like galleries. It’s just a white room, and the performers can be seen as more of a sculptural installation.” Audience members at the art gallery are welcome to come and go, for the actual performances and the rehearsals. Videos of rehearsals were also put on the Internet. Schlather did the unexpected, too, with his choice of music. Rather than selecting a more modern piece of opera, which may have been more in keeping with the art gallery venue, he staged a trio of Handel operas, music from the baroque era.

Earlier this year, Schlather brought his brand of stage direction to Ithaca College. He guided Handel’s production of Semele. “I love Handel’s music more than any other composer, and the production of Semele at IC is one of only a handful in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s been a real treat working with the students. They’re just so interested and exciting. I find their curiosity really energizing.”

Schlather’s professional perspective gets at the same thing James and Craver are seeking with Opera Ithaca: the creation of an intimate experience for the viewer and the performers. “What’s happening is the audiences are changing and the traditional structure is not working anymore. With the digital age and everything being accessible to everyone, there’s something extra special about experiencing something live,” James says.

There is a line, though, when it comes to blowing up the opera world. For Olefirowicz, taking liberties with the classics is effective — to a point. “If you’re telling the story about a count and a countess but you change them to drug lords, it’s not necessarily going to make the story more appealing,” he says. “Part of opera’s appeal is nostalgia. There’s an air of yesteryear that becomes new when you watch this story.”