21 May 2011

Interview: Ava Pine on Handel’s Cleopatra

Ave, Ava!
The reigning soprano, beyond denial.
Photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Part of the fun of visiting an opera company repeatedly over several seasons is the chance to witness the development of young singers — and equally good fun are those moments when you’re surprised by a singer whose work you’ve gotten to know. The really good ones have always got one more trick up their sleeves: a vocal color you’ve never heard from them, a dramatic nuance you wouldn’t expect, to make the music more meaningful to you.

I’ve enjoyed both the development (a glimpse, anyway) and the surprises (abundant) of Ava Pine, a coloratura soprano who distinguished Fort Worth Opera’s productions of Eötvös’ Angels in American and Donizetti’s Elixir of Love in 2009 and 2010. As the Angel, Ava performed a wickedly jagged, otherworldly score while flying over the stage; in Elixir, she created an Adina of proud intelligence, quiet yearning, and luscious lyricism. Listening to her, I feel as if I’ve been magically transformed into FWO General Director Darren Keith Woods, who is surely the most enthusiastic audience on earth: Ava’s singing makes me want to grab strangers by the collar and tell them, just the way Darren would, that they’ll never forgive themselves if they miss out on hearing her.

The Texas native returns to Fort Worth Opera as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar, opening May 28 — the first Baroque opera the company has produced in its long history. From the moment Ava’s casting was announced, I was thrilled by the prospect of hearing her in this music — so right for her, and yet very different from what I’ve heard her sing already onstage.

Costume fitting, New York, April 27, 2011
WVM in background.
Photograph by Joy Partain, Fort Worth Opera

Cleopatra is a showcase role for soprano, featuring a stack of gorgeous arias and a multifaceted character. It’s the role that made a star of Beverly Sills, at New York City Opera in 1966, the recording of which was one of the first I owned and learned almost by heart. (Believe it or not, Fort Worth will use the set that Ming Cho Lee designed for that NYCO production.) I could hardly pick a score better suited to Ava’s sparkling vocalism and theatrical skills, in which her dance training and good looks will count for plenty, too: it seems only natural that the Ancient World would bow before her.

While rehearsing Julius Caesar, Ava took time to answer a few questions, shedding light on Baroque singing and on this opera in particular: if anything, I’m even more eager now to hear her Queen of the Nile.

WVM: Julius Caesar is Fort Worth Opera’s first Baroque opera, but not the first time FWO audiences will hear you singing ornate music with a lot of high notes. What’s different in your musical approach to Cleopatra, as opposed to Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore (or the Angel in Angels in America, for that matter)?

AVA PINE: Those are certainly three very different roles from three very different musical genres. I would jokingly answer that compared to the Angel, Cleopatra requires less counting, and less sheer terror in general!

Joking aside, Baroque opera, with all the possibilities for ornamentation and personal expression, offers a singer unique challenges and opportunities. The role on the page is like the most delectable unfrosted cake, and it’s up to me to put on the frosting and make it not only beautiful, but to keep it just as delicious as it originally was. I love that Baroque opera gives me the opportunity to do much of this at my own discretion, using my own artistic choices — choices that are then blended with the conductor’s and director’s during the rehearsal process.

I do this most obviously through ornamentation in da capo arias, but also in the recitatives through my inflection of the Italian, and through the use of appoggiatura. Approaching a note from a different direction can completely change the tone of the drama — turning a statement into a question, underscoring a character’s sincerity or deception, or changing the pace of an intense moment. Since the recitatives are where the action is advanced the most, a singer’s handling of them can really impact the arc of the show.

Heavenly: Ava as Eötvös’ Angel
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2009
Ava also took this role to London for the work’s U.K. premiere,
and she’ll reprise it soon in the Los Angeles premiere.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

Regarding ornamentation, I confess that I’m a total geek about writing them. I’m constantly singing the arias — in my head, in the car, on the train, in the shower — trying out different things. I will often compose a new ornament on the fly in rehearsal. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I love the experimentation and the expression!

Apart from the musical bones of the piece, there’s also the issue of style. Baroque music requires a different style of singing than other genres. I’m not referring to straight tone singing, which I usually find affected. It’s more a way of knowing how to wrap the voice around the notes and respect the structure of the piece in a way that illuminates it, rather than obscures it.

WVM: You recorded Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra for a Grammy-nominated disc — another Baroque composer, the same historical figure, depicted at a later point in her life. Has performing the Hasse given you any insight into the Handel?

AP: More than anything else, performing two composers’ ideas of the same woman in such a short timespan has fanned the flames of my geekery! The two settings are actually quite different, and I find it fascinating to compare and contrast the two versions written so close together — Handel’s in 1724 and Hasse’s in 1725. These men had many colleagues in common and surely knew each other and the other’s work. What did Hasse learn from Handel’s setting? Did Handel take anything from Hasse when he reworked Julius Caesar in 1725? The possibilities for geekery are endless!

Handel gives the character of Cleopatra such great range, both musically and dramatically. Each of her arias is so well defined that the portrait of the character is quite clear. Hasse focuses more on the character’s fiery side, and the arias he wrote are relatively similar: even Cleopatra’s love aria is allegro! Granted, Handel has the luxury of a three-act opera, while Hasse only had a 90-minute serenata. Learning and performing two different versions of this almost mythical woman has certainly broadened the scope of my preparation and my awareness of the character.

Ava Pine as Adina, Michael Fabiano as Nemorino
in FWO’s Elixir of Love, 2010.
Photo by Ellen Appel

WVM: Handel’s Cleopatra travels such an interesting dramatic arc — we see much more emotional development from her than from most (any) of the other characters in this opera. As an actress, what appeals to you about the role?

AP: The most appealing thing is the very arc that you describe! I am a stage animal: I love to inhabit a character, and to travel that character’s arc over the course of the evening. Cleopatra begins the opera almost childishly, toying with people and feuding with her brother Tolomeo over who should rule Egypt. She torments and teases him as only a sibling can do. By the end, she has fallen in love, experienced pain and worry, taken great risks, stared down her impending death, and helped orchestrate the downfall of her brother. She goes from being very similar to her brother, to resembling the noble widow Cornelia in her carriage and dignity.

That’s a lot of character growth in a short amount of time. Finding and feeling the impetus for this growth and making the audience see and feel it too are the things that keep people engaged in the story over the course of the evening.

When I’m onstage, I really feel everything that’s happening to the character. I live it, so it feels less like I’m acting and more like I’m just being. Cleopatra’s journey is so intense that I am exhausted by the time I’ve made it all the way through. I have sung her final aria, ’Da tempeste,’ for years, but never fully understood the emotions behind it until the first run-through of the entire show, when I took the journey to get me to that point. The aria took on a whole new meaning as I experienced her relief and joy at being saved and knowing that her cause had won the day. I’ll also confess that coming at the end of the opera, Cleopatra’s relief and joy mingled with my own: knowing that it was the last aria (of seven) I had to sing that day!

Costume fitting, New York, April 27, 2011
Designer Robert Perdziola in foreground;
WVM still lurking in background.
Photograph by Joy Partain, Fort Worth Opera

WVM: For this production, you’ll be wearing several truly exquisite costumes by Robert Perdziola. I’ve got to ask: do you have a favorite, and if so, which one?

AP: The costumes are so gorgeous, I’ve run out of descriptive adjectives to use when I talk about them. It is a privilege to wear them. I have five gowns, each of them perfectly fitted and amazingly detailed. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I am partial to the costume I wear at the top of the show: a gown in a vibrant lapis blue. It is Robert’s nod to Egyptian fascination with lapis lazuli. But if you ask me tomorrow, my favorite could very well be the innocent looking muslin I wear when pretending to be a maid, or the jewel-encrusted gown designed to seduce Caesar. Perhaps the fierce battle costume. Or the jaw-droppingly ornate final gown. I love them all! Don’t make me choose!

Handel’s Julius Caesar
Fort Worth Opera Festival, Bass Performance Hall
May 28, 7:30 PM
June 5, 2 PM
For more information, click here.

With countertenor Randall Scotting as Caesar.
One hopes these two are hitting the nightspots of Fort Worth —
wearing these outfits.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Ava is a brilliant, vibrant artist and a gracious, elegant woman. I've learned so much from watching her on both sides of the curtain. Thanks for sharing her thoughts and your observations!