OTSL brings its own young stars home in 'Carmen'
Carmen is back in town. So is Kendall Gladen. The St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano, makes her title-role St. Louis debut in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis beginning Saturday, May 19.
She’s the first graduate of OTSL high school music and educational coaching program, Artists in Training, to sing a title role here. The Roosevelt High School Class of ’94 alumna loves playing the ever-alluring gypsy. Gladen has sung the role from Germany to San Francisco and now she says she’s thrilled to bring her vision of “Carmen” home to the company that gave her music lessons weekly – and cab fare to get to them - at 16.
“I am very grateful,” she said. “I love Opera Theatre. I’d have still been in the chorus if (OTSL music director) Stephen Lord hadn’t told me it was time to audition" nationally.
Most performed opera
For decades “Carmen” has been the most performed opera in America. OTSL has presented the opera twice in its 37 seasons: in 1987 and 2004.
Many call “Carmen” the perfect “first” opera for Americans who love musical theater but have never ventured into what they fear is the too august, too stuffy halls of opera. Nothing stuffy about “Carmen.”
Picnics and lunches
For opera buffs it is time to get out the picnic baskets, count forks, double check the corkscrews and maybe toss in castanets and a fringed shawl. “Carmen” opens Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 2012 four-production, six-week spring festival season which is presented at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves through June 24. As with all OTSL productions, it will be sung in English and English lyrics will be projected as supertitles.
Picnics on the lawn are available before all performances. Free half-hour preview lectures also are given in the Webster University Conservatory building one hour before most production. The many supporting events include Master Classes and a Beacon Festival-sponsored "A Little Lunch Music," which features company lead singers on June 4, 11 and 18, each at 12:30 p.m. The first lunch fest is at the Jewel Box, the next Monday it’s at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, and it concludes at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield.
When Paris audiences saw the work at its 1875 world premiere, the opera was called vulgar even though it was based on an already popular work by the master of French short stories, Prosper Merimee. Bizet was in his mid-30s when he and two librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac created the piece now know for its pulsating hummable music. When Paris audiences saw the work at its 1875 world premiere, however, the opera was called vulgar even though it was based on an already popular work by the master of French short stories, Prosper Merimee.
Bizet died three months after his opera’s premiere thinking he’d created a flop in "Carmen" and that he'd be remembered for “The Pearl Fishers,” which OTSL presented in 1999. Parisians didn’t give “Carmen” a second chance for eight more years, by then the Viennese had hailed it a masterpiece and St. Louisans had embraced it.
St. Louisans have been in love with Carmen for 128 years, long before recordings or radio. In February 1884, the Metropolitan Opera presented it here. Over the years just about every opera company here, including the Muny, has presented this gripping tale of love, lust, lost honor, jealousy and revenge.
Young singers return
Soprano Corinne Winters, another OTSL “product” and former Gerdine Young Artist, returns as the admirable, long-suffering Micaëla. Carmen appears especially self-centered in contrast to the virtuous, beautiful Spanish Micaela, who cares for the Corporal Don Jose’s mother. Both Carmen and Micaela vie for Don Jose’s attention.
Tenor Adam Diegel sings Don Jose whose nobility shines forth in a romantic love duet with Micaela. Smitten with Carmen, he deludes himself about her attention to him, and he breaks military rules, becoming a thief and murderer.
Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, another former Gerdine Young Artist, makes his St. Louis debut in a major role singing the bullfighter Escamillo who delights the fickle Carmen. Several small roles will be sung by current Gerdine Young Artists.
A glimpse of Gladen
Gladen loves the role of Carmen because it’s one of a few title roles for mezzos. The soprano has the main female role in most operas, while the mezzo often is part of the sub-plot with a dazzling even show-stealing aria or two. Carmen has been a star-making role for many great and glamorous mezzos: Lilli Lehmann, Adelina Patti, Rosa Ponselle, Rise Stevens and another St. Louis native Grace Bumbry.
Gladen is working hard to find more depth to the gypsy: “Carmen is often played as a superficial, sexy woman,” she said. Gladen’s Carmen enjoys the power she can have over a man as long as she remains distant, independent from him. As the lyrics say, she notes, Carmen insists on being as free as a rebellious bird.
Many St. Louis audiences remember Gladen from her three years in the OTSL chorus and in bit parts during her stint in the OTSL Gerdine Young Artists apprenticeship program. Together with the OTSL high school AIT program, the company boosted Gladen career giving her a total of six years of vocal coaching and confidence-building on and off stage, she said in an interview. She also will be singing to her mom, her sister, and her first voice teacher former Roosevelt High School choir director, Dello Thedford.
From Gladen on down the 2012 “Carmen” cast may provide memorable “star-is-born” experiences that in years to come, opera buffs will recall and say “I first heard that terrific star in “Carmen” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2012.
Creating Seville at the Loretto Hilton
For the past month, conductor Carlos Izcaray and stage director Stephen Barlow have been working with the cast to tell Carmen’s story. The Spanish-Venezuelan conductor Izcaray has the right genes for this Latino tale. He also knows Midwest audiences as an alumnus of Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. His cello playing took him on U.S. tours with a chamber group, but he longed to conduct and switched his focus. Five years ago he won the first James Conlon Conducting Prize at the Aspen Music Festival.
Late last month, Izcaray reached out to the St. Louis community and served as keynote speaker at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. Warning to opera buffs who chat with cast under the drinks tent after singers have removed their make up: Don’t mistake this dashing conductor for the romantic toreador, Escamillo.
The OTSL season continues with rotating openings well into June:
- The third in the company’s cycle of Mozart’s works, the comedy “Così fan Tutte" about how women are all the same, fickle proved or in the end maybe disproved.
- The second full-orchestral treatment of a Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd,” a dark tale of profit and vengeance in meat pies.
- The American premiere of “Alice in Wonderland” by Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin and librettist David Henry Hwang, who wrote the musical "M Butterfly." It is not a kiddies' show. Middle-school students on up to those in their 100s should find it a fresh take on the Lewis Carroll story fascinating.
Opera Theatre, the creative “child” of the much-beloved, late British director Colin Graham welcomes another British director for his production. Stephen Barlow is a dual British and Australian national. He grew up in Melbourne but lives in London where he has done much of his opera directing. He apprenticed at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden opera houses and went on to work in English, Irish and Welsh opera companies. After “Carmen's” opening night, Barlow will take off to see former OTSL general director Charles MacKay now heading the Santa Fe Opera, and will direct “Tosca” there this summer.
The city of Seville is as key to Merimee’s tale as the main characters. The river city has its orange-tree-lined avenues, a landmark bull ring and sun-soaked contrasting colors that the late St. Louis artist Bill Kohn painted so often. Opera buffs await what costume and set designers Paul Edwards and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind will do to capture Seville heat and gypsy camps on the Loretto-Hilton stage.
Movement and dance are also integral to “Carmen.” If there is a cartoon-loving 6-year old within your ear shot, hum the first bars of the opera’s “Toreador Song” and watch the child stomp to its unrelenting pulse. Choreographer Kristina Martinez has been putting the singers through her concept of Andalusian dances.
By Wednesday “Carmen” ticket sales were so strong, leaving so few seats, that OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary added an extra performance on June 19. The early sales of "Carmen" come as other opera companies, even some fine ones like New York City Opera, face diminishing box office and are cutting back on the number of performances.
Other good news is that season subscriptions increased 2 percent over 2011's end-of-season numbers. OTSL has the largest number of new or return-from-lapsed subscribers since the 2008 economic downturn, up 8 percent from spring 2011. And, there will be more young faces in the audience. All Young Friends events are already 33 percent ahead of last year’s final sales -- and all of them for "Carmen" sold out.