Heart and passion: casting at Seattle Opera

Mari Moriya as the Queen of the Night. Alan Alabastro photos

By Philippa Kiraly

In the operas so far this season, Seattle Opera has presented singers on stage from Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Nicaragua, Australia, Turkey, France, Argentina, Mexico and, coming up in “The Magic Flute,” Canada, Japan, Russia and England. In addition, of course, to the American singers.

Where does general director Speight Jenkins find them?

The job of casting takes Jenkins to Europe a couple of times a year, to New York, and anywhere else he happens to be where there is opera and a singer he wants to hear.

“It isn’t ever just the voice,” says Jenkins. “The voice is just the first step. We have to assume the person has a voice and technique. Beyond that, it’s the dramatic sense, the passion. Can they pronounce the words while singing? Can they inhabit the character? Have they got heart? There’ve been times when I’ve stopped a young singer and asked: ‘What are you singing about?’ and they have only the vaguest idea.”

When he is planning his Europe trips, he begins several months ahead with his assistant, Mary Brazeau, listing all the operas being performed there between his targeted dates. He marks the ones that interest him and performing singers he wants to hear, and they try to work out a logical travel schedule which probably includes London, Munich, Berlin and somewhere in Italy among other stops. Then they alert the European agents he trusts, who send audition candidates to those cities.

It’s a heavy schedule, with operas every night in every city, and auditions every day.

New York is even heavier, with three packed days when Jenkins hears a total of 90 singers. An average audition is about twelve minutes.

“It’s very rare that you don’t know within two minutes whether you like someone or not,” he says. “If they sing a piece that doesn’t show me anything, I’ll wait longer, but seven or eight times out of ten, if a singer offers a Mozart aria, then I’ll take that aria. Mozart is the only composer who forces singers to sing with no clothes on. I don’t make heroic singers sing Mozart. I’ll take whatever they want to sing.”

There are always singers who never audition, and others who come to Seattle in hopes of being heard.
“”If someone makes the effort to fly into Seattle, I’ll make the time to listen,” says Jenkins, who first heard soprano Renee Fleming that way. “I’d heard she was good, but I didn’t know how good until I heard her.”
It used to be that an opera director could plan just a year or so ahead, but by the time Jenkins came to Seattle Opera in 1983, there was enough competition for singers that he had to plan a couple of years ahead. Now it’s more like four or five.

As the years have gone by, there are more opera companies in the U.S. with more money to hire great artists, so there is more competition.

Among those who never auditioned was tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who now wows audiences from Milan’s La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera, and was recently heard here as the Count in “The Barber of Seville,” but Brownlee really started his career here in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists program.

“I had a space, and I took him with great hesitation on someone’s recommendation,” says Jenkins. Once Brownlee was here, Jenkins was told: “You have to come hear this,” as Brownlee sang an extremely difficult Mozart aria. “I nearly fell off my chair. It was electrifying.”

The baritone who sang Figaro in “Barber,” came on Brownlee’s recommendation. Jenkins asked Brownlee to suggest the right Figaro among the many he had sung with and his answer was, ‘That’s easy, Jose Carbo.’ “That sometimes happens, Larry is a friend, he has taste and he’s a person I trust.”

Having to cast so long ahead—Jenkins has already completed casting most of the 2014-2015 season and is working on the succeeding season—means sometimes singers back out. Jenkins lost his Don Jose for next fall’s “Carmen” just seven weeks ago, and tenors are usually in tight supply.

This is where his enormous network of opera-knowledgeable friends and agents comes in. Jenkins contacted them all. “You have a whole network and tell them you’re desperate, and please to go through all the Don Joses you know. They were all busy. Then you talk to your friends and they try to come up with someone, and if they can help you they will. There’s no reason not to be calm. You know you’ll get someone, and you get the best you can.” The friends came up with three possible tenors. Jenkins heard them all and was thrilled, he says, with Luis Chapa, who will make his U.S debut in “Carmen.”

Jenkins often asks a singer performing here if there are other operas on their wish lists to sing. If it seems feasible, he promises to do his best to mount that opera for them.

“I talked to (soprano) Alexandra Kurzak when she was here for “Lucia” last fall, and she told me what she’d like to do. I know just the tenor for it, so we’ll do it,” says Jenkins, cautioning that you have to find the operas which work for you and for the company. Some operas he has never wanted to produce, among them Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s progress.”

“All my friends have tried to persuade me to do it, and I could cast it in five minutes, but I don’t like it. Passion is what opera is all about. I don’t like opera with no heart, no passion, and “Rake” has none,” he says decisively.
In “The Magic Flute” we will hear bass Ilya Bannik from Russia, as Sarastro (“I heard him in St. Petersburg in 2005 and thought he was great”), soprano Mari Moriya from Japan as the Queen of the Night (“I heard her in a small house in Leipzig, so passionate and she can hit the high Fs, and I hired her on the spot”), Canada’s tenor John Tessier as Tamino, and England’s baritone Leigh Melrose as Papageno. Of the last named, neither Jenkins nor Melrose can remember where they met.

What it all boils down to, is that it’s Jenkins job to find those singers, never mind alarms and excursions along the way, and his job to see the curtain goes up on opening night, with all the singers there and ready.
It’s a job he has never lost interest in. Jenkins cares. He may look for heart and passion in his singers, but he has both himself in spades when it comes to choosing his singers and mounting opera.

“The Magic Flute” runs for eight performances at McCaw Hall from May 7-21, with matinees May 8 and 15. Tickets at seattleopera.org or 206-389-7676

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