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Humanity & connectedness through the lens of two war-time operas

Friday, March 1st, 2019

(Dear March, come in! - Emily Dickinson)


In this rigorous career, it can be difficult to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. If you're in a resident artist program, you might be working six days a week, one production after the next. You’re researching, translating, writing out subtext, and in the practice room learning one role while one, two, or three other projects are on the back burner. You rotate between them, studying characters, stories and scores to stay on top of the preparation. Sometimes, the vortex of “work” sucks you in.


Then, an opera comes along that refreshes your outlook and rejuvenates your love for the art form. Throughout the past few weeks, for me, that opera has been Silent Night. Composed by Kevin Puts accompanied by a libretto by Mark Campbell, Silent Night premiered in Minnesota in 2011, and tells the story of the Christmas Eve truce in 1914 between the Scottish, French and German troops during World War I.


Jarrett Logan Porter as Father Palmer, Tim Murray as William Dale, and Bille Bruley as Jonathan Dale in Silent Night. Photo by Arizona Opera/Tim Trumble Photography.

I’m playing the role of Madeleine, the pregnant wife of Lieutenant Audebert, a French soldier leaving for battle, played by Joseph Lattanzi in our production. Full disclosure: In case you aren’t familiar with this piece, Madeleine is probably the shortest role I’ve ever played in any opera. Despite its brevity, however, I never imagined that my participation in this piece would mean as much to me as it has.


At the final dress rehearsal the other night, after my approximate thirty seconds of singing (no, literally – thirty seconds and then I’m done), I exited stage left, and instead of returning to my dressing room, I found a chair offstage and watched from the wings. Shortly thereafter, a dramatic and impressive battle scene ensues, followed by a sudden stillness as my stage husband sings a hauntingly beautiful aria, the text of which alternates between documenting wounded soldiers and imagining his wife, Madeleine, soothing their unborn child. Like always when I’ve watched this scene, I was close to melting into a puddle of tears the other night as Lattanzi sang his final “dormir” and a chorus of soldiers comes in beneath him, singing the word “sleep” from the trenches. The soldier choruses sing in their three different, respective languages, longing for the comforts of home while enduring the restless nights in the trenches. The stage picture is beautiful, powerful, emotional.


As I watched backstage, images of another recent, powerful project began to resurface. These were images from the premiere of Steal a pencil for me, composed by Gerald Cohen with a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, which opened at Opera Colorado just over a year ago in January 2018. Set in the Poland concentration camps during World War II, Steal a pencil for me told the story of Ina Soep and Jaap Polak, two real people who met just before the Holocaust and fell in love while imprisoned in the same camp. At the end of the war, they were freed, survived, were married, and lived out the rest of their lives together. They each passed away less than five years ago. In this production, I was lucky enough to create the role of their friend Lisette, who secretly passed letters back and forth between the two lovers while imprisoned.


Backstage during Silent Night, these memories of Steal a pencil for me flooded my mind: Gerald’s beautiful and spiny score; our director, Omer Ben Seadia and her dedication and light-hearted nicknames; the most meaningful coffee date with Adriana Zabala at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver; and lastly, listening to a different hauntingly beautiful melody from the wings, this time sung by Nathan Ward’s bell-like tenor in the ethereal role of Rudi.

A scene from Gerald Cohen's Steal a pencil for me, depicting the Nazis rounding up the Jewish prisoners for roll call. Photo by Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver, 2018.

The memories were potent. It’s like Steal a pencil for me occurred only yesterday, but also somehow a lifetime ago. If I hadn’t discussed my future role in Silent Night with Adriana over coffee last year in Denver, it would be difficult to tie these two experiences together, or to imagine that I’m the same person: so much can change in 365 days. A year ago, Scott and I were living in cold, snowy Denver, and I was creating an intimate opera with one set of colleagues and friends. Today, we’re living in Phoenix, I’m surrounded by a different phenomenal group, it’s 75 degrees and sunny, we’re surrounded by cactus gardens, and I’m part of a different wartime opera in a huge hall. Last year’s artists are scattered around the country, and soon, the cast of this opera will dissipate and go their separate ways, as well. I regularly keep in touch with my beloved #Lucky7 crew from last year, but we’ve lost Nathan, and now we’re 6. Now, I'm with an entirely new set of talented colleagues as part of the Marion Roose Pullin Opera Studio in Arizona. Hence comes one of the biggest challenges of this career: Being open to and accepting the constant changing of people and environments, hellos and goodbyes.


In reflecting on all of this, I found the silver lining, and the common goal of all performers: To tell the story. We do this because we feel a calling to bring powerful stories to the world through music. In my pining for Steal a pencil for me or in tearing up at the “sleep” chorus in Silent Night, I feel an indescribable connectedness to art and humanity that overtakes any fleeting nostalgia or self-doubt. It’s in these serene moments that I am inspired by the calling and forget the busywork. I can’t tell you how moved I am when I see my actor-singer colleagues portraying soldiers and citizens facing horrors, humanity, and also light amidst the chaos of a world war.


There’s another beautiful common thread here, present in both of these wartime stories: We are all human, and it is a requirement to see each other as such. As librettist Mark Campbell said in reference to Silent Night in a 2013 interview: “War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person. When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they’re just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult if not impossible to sustain war.” If that isn’t a wake-up call to the vast spectrum of realities in life, particularly in this day and age, I don’t know what is.


It’s with this in mind that I am thrilled to open Silent Night at Arizona Opera tonight. As the saying goes, “There are no small roles,” and although the role of Madeleine is very short, this is certainly one of the most meaningful productions I've been a part of thus far. I implore anyone in the Phoenix area – or in any city where Silent Night is being performed – to go see this production. This story has never been more relevant, and I'm lucky to be a part of it.


If there are any points I’d like to summarize in this blog and in detailing my experiences over the past year in Steal a pencil and in Silent Night, it’s that we all remember the following together: Peace and hope are possible. The stories we tell are important, and our art form is necessary. We’re all connected in our humanity, and each moment of our lives is connected to another, even if we don’t know it at the time. It’s in learning these lessons that we can find meaning in our craft, and harmony as human beings. And, most of all: I am so grateful to do this work.


The "sleep" chorus, with Audebert's writing desk pictured center stage, at the final dress of Silent Night. Photo by Arizona Opera/Tim Trumble Photography.

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