The Cast on ‘Romulus’ and Chamber Opera

Describe your experience of working with Louis Karchin on Romulus.

Steven Ebel: Romulus has been the closest I’ve come to the world of straight theater in opera. From the beginning, I knew the piece would be challenging. In learning the structure of rhythms and pitches, Lou was helpful, honest, and particular. The work with the director, Peter Flynn, made the action connect to the score. It was an exciting challenge and a pleasure to participate in.

Thomas Meglioranza: The music was challenging, but Lou went to unusual lengths to make the process of learning the piece as easy as possible. Months before the first rehearsal, we received study recordings of Lou singing the vocal lines with piano accompaniment, as well as a “karaoke” track without voice. Sometimes having a composer around during the rehearsal period can be stressful, but Lou was always a very supportive presence. He was strict with us about musical matters, but always seemed so happy and grateful that we were working so hard on his piece.

Katrina Thurman: It was very beneficial having Lou available and accessible. Many times we usually have to guess what the composer intended. The one-on-one coaching time with Lou was very valuable for me to develop the role in a very organic way.

After working on this world premiere, what advice do you have for singers who embark on working with composers to bring a piece to life for the first time?

SB: As a composer myself, I can tell you the important thing is imagination. No matter how specific a composer is in their notation, you still have to imagine what that means for your voice. How do you dramatically justify a staccato or accent? What color or emotion is the best for this note or phrase? Approach a new work just like every other piece of music: bring your best to it and commit.

TM: First, get a sense of how much time will be necessary to learn and rehearse the piece. One of the main challenges of difficult new music is that it demands a lot more study and rehearsal time than standard “rep.” Singers need to feel every pitch in their bones. Set aside time to really learn the piece. Ask the composer if he or she can make a study recording for you or spend time with you one on one. Don’t be the one who’s holding everyone back because you thought you could learn your part in rehearsal.

KT: Know that it will be an encouraging experience. Treat it very seriously and be very prepared. The most important thing is to remember that the composer is a human being too—perhaps a genius, but nevertheless human—and someone who’s very excited about seeing his work performed for the first time.

You’ve all performed a lot of grand opera. What is it like for you, vocally, to sing in a chamber opera such as Romulus, with a smaller orchestra and in a more intimate setting?

SE: The singing is not much different, except that usually the houses and orchestra are smaller in chamber opera, and as a result, the different dynamic markings can be treated more intimately. Grand opera demands a different version in your imagination of piano, forte, fortissimo, etc.

TM: I didn’t do any vocal adjusting. Maybe in a different space I would have been able to scale down my singing, but the way the pit at the Guggenheim is set up, it makes the orchestra sound surprisingly loud. We needed to sing out.

KT: Depends on the piece. In the case of Romulus, the chamber group was capable of quite a large sound, so we were able to sing out. Romulus had intimate moments, too, which allowed for a wider range of dynamics—but it was also boisterous. I didn’t feel I had to hold back the voice.

The chamber opera niche is a medium that could offer singers great opportunities. What are your thoughts on that, and what would you do to bring more attention to this niche?

SE: Chamber opera is an opportunity to drop the veil and let the audience be involved in creating the world on stage. It has the possibility to emphasize character and character development. A production on an intimate scale can produce thrilling, moving and entertaining theatrical experiences. Not to mention a possibility to draw back the scale on the production and forces, therefore perhaps coming to some form of sustainability with ticket sales alone. . . .

Chamber opera is a solution for a lot of problems, in my opinion, from connection with a lagging audience to financial difficulties. For my part in bringing attention to the potential of chamber opera, I wrote a two-act opera for five singers and five instrumentalists, and I hope to get it on its feet this spring.

The chamber opera niche is a boon awaiting companies and singers to take advantage of it.

TM: It’s hard to speak generally about chamber opera because the genre can encompass works for just a few instruments and no conductor (like Henze’s El Cimarron), to works with a handful of singers and a small orchestra. They can offer a more intimate audience experience, often work well in non-traditional spaces, and can be less expensive to produce. On the other hand, it’s still operatic singing, and if the composer or conductor sticks a bunch of singers and instruments into a room that’s too small or not acoustically appropriate, the relentless loudness can easily feel like torture-chamber opera.

As a singer, I’m not sure how to bring attention specifically to chamber opera, apart from the usual considerations I make when approaching any engagement: Is this piece interesting to me? Will I be able to perform well in it? How will it affect the audience?

If a performer develops a reputation for taking on interesting projects and giving compelling performances, some segment of the public is bound to take note and will, to a degree, trust the performer to take them on unusual journeys. I think great performances are the best sort of advocacy any musician can provide a piece of music.

KT: The real benefit of chamber opera is that it requires less voices and resources. Romulus at the Guggenheim was in a 250-seat house. To know that performances on that scale are viable, that they can be more casual for attendees, less expensive, less intimidating for someone who’s not familiar with opera, should be a great incentive for performing groups and opera companies.

Tenor Steven Ebel (Frantz Wolf) recently won the Second Grand Prize at the 2007 Concours de Montreal International and has won second prize at the New York Oratorio Society Solo Competition. He has performed with New York City Opera, Opera Delaware, Tanglewood Music Center, The Guggenheim Museum, and Opera Cleveland, where he recently sang the role of Peter Quint. He will sing Jachio in Fidelio with Empire Opera this fall. He is codirector of New Music New York and performs and composes for its annual concert series. His compositions have been heard in several NYC venues and will be featured next spring by Washington Square Ensemble and New Music New York. Visit www.novoartists.com/ebel.html.

Baritone Thomas Meglioranza (Celestus) performs a wide repertoire, including new works written for his voice. His recent opera performances include Prior Walter in the North American premiere of Peter Eotvos’ Angels in America, Chou En-lai in Nixon in China with Opera Boston, and the title role in Don Giovanni with Aspen Opera. He has presented recitals most recently at the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Bard Music Festival, and Wigmore Hall in London. Visit www.meglioranza.com.

Soprano Katrina Thurman (Martha) has performed with opera companies such as Opera National de Lyon, Oper Bonn, Opera Omaha, Utah Symphony & Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Aspen Opera Theater Center, Natchez Opera Festival, New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera, and Opera Theater of Lucca, in roles that include Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Adele in Die Fledermaus, and Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica. Recent highlights include her French opera debut as Najade in Ariadne auf Naxos with Opéra National de Lyon following her German debut as Vénus in Rameau’s Dardanus and Mrs. Naidoo in Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha with Oper Bonn. Last summer she performed at Glimmerglass as Ninfa in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Visit www.katrinathurman.com.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.