The Flying Dutchman

Behind the Scenes: Singing in the Chorus

By Ed Hawkins

On April 23, three members of the Seattle Opera Chorus spoke with Ed Hawkins about singing Wagner, working with Stephen Wadsworth, and the upcoming production of The Flying Dutchman. An abridged article about these choristers’ experiences appears in the summer issue of Seattle Opera Magazine.

EH: Let’s start with introductions.

SS: I’m Susan Salas, a mezzo in the chorus. I was born in Spokane and moved to Seattle in 1997 after graduating from Gonzaga. My first show was Carmen in 2004.

MM: My name is Misha Myznikov, baritone. I was born in Azerbaijan and moved here 15 years ago. I used to be a Russian folk singer. I started learning opera and developed an appreciation. I joined the chorus in 1993 – my first opera was Don Carlos.

DK: I’m Dustin Kaspar. I sing tenor. I moved to Seattle from the Midwest just before I joined the chorus.

EH: How has being a member of the Seattle Opera chorus changed your opinion of Wagner?

SS: Wagner is all very through-composed, it doesn’t have the kind of tuneful repetition that you find in other kinds of opera. The meter and key changes, the language, all of it makes for a challenge, but it definitely results in a richer, more interesting texture. I am more of a fan of early music and bel canto, but I can very much appreciate Wagner, especially being in a company that values his work so highly. The first Wagner production I ever saw was Tristan and I sobbed for the last twenty minutes, along with everybody in the audience. You couldn’t help it. Everybody who saw it says that it was a once-in-a-lifetime production. It defined how I viewed the art form of opera—it was a true pinnacle of what can be achieved. I never really liked Wagner until I saw it staged. Simply listening to Wagner on CD is like simply reading Shakespeare; without the staging, you’re missing a huge portion of what makes it great.

DK: Wagner was an intermediate thing for me. I started listening to classical music in high school. I went from heavy metal to Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky. The rhythmic intensity of their music, as well as the large amount of brass—i.e. heavy metal—made it an easy switch for me. I’ve loved it ever since. There’s something great about Wagner-and-later music because it requires genuine effort. We show up to do Puccini and we learn it pretty quickly because there isn’t much to it. But to tackle something with these complex rhythms and shifts, lack of tunes, etc. - that’s a real challenge. Wagner ends up meaning a lot more to me because it has a depth of character that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s not surface. There are layers of wonderful that get into you. You can’t perform it without it being a part of who you are.

MM: As a performer I never used to like Wagner, because it’s huge music, it’s too much to absorb. Before I joined the chorus, I went to the library and borrowed a recording and the scores for the entire Ring cycle—I listened and followed along but it was boring to me. I stopped after Rheingold. But during Parsifal I really felt like I had gained an appreciation for the music. It reached my soul, you know? It’s beautiful music and it’s so deep—it’s what Wagner is all about. You have to grow up for Wagner. You can’t just start to listen to it. It requires some maturity. And after doing Parsifal, I went and borrowed the Ring score again and this time I had the video to go along with it. I loved it! It was amazing. That greater appreciation is a direct result of singing with the chorus.

EH: How does Seattle Opera’s special emphasis on Wagner change the way you approach working on something like The Flying Dutchman vs. something like La Bohème?

SS: The men may have a different response to that because they’re in twice as many Wagner operas as the female chorus. In the entire Ring cycle, women sing just fifteen words or so, in Gotterdamerung. Now, Lohengrin was a truly massive sing, and we were all on stage for long stretches, and [director] Stephen Wadsworth had us doing a great deal to provide specific focus and support to the story. It was quite a departure from typical chorus work. I’m looking forward to working with him again for Dutchman.

MM: My approach changed the second time I worked on Lohengrin. The first time felt like a lot more work—this huge score, so much music and time on stage and all that direction from Stephen. The second time, I had already gone through all that, and I knew it already so could enjoy it more. I could watch other people start to comprehend and become amazed by this huge, fantastic opera. It was much richer and more enjoyable the second time around.

EH: Apart from Wagner, what are some great operas for chorus?

SS: I love Gluck so I’m thrilled that we’re doing Iphigenia in Tauris next because the women’s chorus music is wonderful and they play a key role. Oracles and vestal virgins…it should be really interesting. Plus we get to work with Stephen again so I’m sure we’ll have plenty to do!

EH: Apart from their numerous achievements as individuals, the Seattle Opera Chorus is consistently recognized as a very strong ensemble.

MM: This is true. In almost every review there is something positive about the chorus.

DK: Our sound as an ensemble is difficult to appreciate from the stage. We don’t hear the full sound up there—it has to mix out in the audience. That’s where the sonic magic happens. It was only when I heard a recording of the radio broadcast of Parsifal that it hit home. “Wow, I’m a part of that amazing sound!”

MM: I know! And we can’t lose sight of that. I started my sabbatical after Macbeth, thinking it would last the whole season. But when they called me and said they were short a baritone for La Bohème and would I come back early, I was so relieved! I realized how much I missed it. When you get to be a part of doing this magic, it enriches your whole life. Your work, family, and so on, it’s a whole other slice of your life. It’s a part of you.

SS: Sometimes you do take it for granted. After awhile it can seem like you’re just one of a big group of people. But when somebody at my day job asks me where I’m singing next and I tell them that I’m in the chorus of The Flying Dutchman, and before I can mention anything else I’m doing as a soloist they’ll say, “That’s really impressive”. And I think, “Yeah, I guess it is!”

Photo © 2004 Chris Bennion

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as an actor, director, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications and web site.

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