Unusual opera recording features CU graduate Ashraf Sewailam

Fairy-tale opera has influences from Star Wars and Disney

By Peter Alexander Sept. 9 at 10:10 p.m.

The Thirteenth Child, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ fifth opera, had its world stage premiere this past summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

81BovRD6EDL._SL1500_But even before the Santa Fe performances, you could hear the entire opera in a recording that was made on two continents, used two conductors, cast members who were never in the same room together, and featured a role sung by the voice of the Arabic Ursula the Sea Witch. The disc was released by Bridge Records June 1, and can be purchased here or here.

For all its quirks, the recording was a labor of love for David and Becky Starobin, who are both the owners of Bridge Records and the librettists of the opera. Because it is very expensive to assemble a cast all in one place for an operatic recording, the Starobins decided to take another path: the orchestra parts were recorded in Denmark by the Odense Symphony Orchestra; American cellist/conductor Benjamin Schwartz conducted the orchestra in the first act, and David Starobin, a professional musician as well as producer and librettist, conducted the orchestra in the second act.

With the orchestral parts recorded—no voices yet—Starobin moved his activities to a recording studio on the east coast of the U.S., where the singers came in one at a time for their recording sessions, singing their parts while Starobin conducted. Each in turn was mixed with the orchestral tracks. To keep everyone together, Starobin and the singers listened through headphones to both the orchestral recording and a click track that was customized for it.

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David and Becky Starobin

“I would not recommend [this] as a good way to spend one’s time because it took me two-and-a-half years to put the recording together,” Starobin says. “This is sort of pop studio style, and doing it for an opera is a completely different thing, because you need to look at much longer spans of time and tempo fluctuations.

“The one thing that all the singers and the instrumentalists had in common was that I was there. And either as producer or a conductor I was trying to realize Paul’s and my vision for what that opera was, interpretatively. And I have absolutely first-rate singers and orchestra and chorus, so the process in the end came out quite well.”

The process does have some advantages, Starobin says. “You actually get to perfect each line, and when you have all of the lines done, edited and in the kind of sound that you want, then you mix them together and it gives you a chance to balance in ways that you couldn’t possibly do in the live recordings of opera.”

But you are probably still wondering about Ursula.

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Ashraf Sewailam (l) in the 2018 Central City Opera production of The Magic Flute, with tenor Joseph Dennis.

That would be Egyptian bass Ashraf Sewailam, a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has memorably performed with the CU Eklund Opera, Central City Opera, the Boulder Bach Festival, Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, and other organizations in the area. A rising star of the operatic world, Sewailam has also appeared with New Zealand Opera, Austin (Tex.) Opera, Opera San Jose (Calif.) and San Diego Opera.

Sewailam voiced Urusla when he was working for the Disney company, as music director dubbing Disney films into Arabic. Incongruously, he also did the Arabic voice of Mickey Mouse, among others, and he got a lot of experience recording material alone that would later be combined with recordings by other actors.

“I learned so much from that job [with Disney] that went into my operatic practice,” he says. “Being the music director and responsible for a product that was highly quality controlled, I developed a really good diagnostic ear. I could hear anything that goes wrong with the voice.”

Sewailam got a role in Thirteenth Child because he knew the Starobins through Patrick Mason, his voice teacher at CU, and had made other recordings for them. Sewailam was the first singer that was hired for the recording, and he was given his choice of roles. He picked the role of Drokan, the villain of the opera—which seems fitting for the voice of Ursula, if not Mickey.

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Full cast listing on the CD back cover

The Thirteenth Child is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so the villain is the evil in a good-vs-evil story. (Read the full synopsis here.) Others is the cast include Matt Boehler as King Hjarne, the victim of Drokan’s deception; Tamara Mumford, veteran of Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts, who sang Queen Gertrude on both the recording and in Santa Fe; and Sarah Shafer, whose wide-eyed, fairy-tale-princess photo as the title character appears on the album cover.

Sewailam says he worked on understanding Drokan so he could portray him as a rounded character. “He could very easily be two-dimensional, just evil through-and-through,” he says. “I always ask myself why someone is like that, and you always learn that the person is small and insecure. It’s all about compensating for feeling inadequate.

“The only way to portray how terrible he is, in a not two-dimensional way, is to develop sympathy for him. It becomes more troubling, being understanding of where all his evil comes from.” Even without appearing onstage, Sewailam aims give depth to Drokan through vocal coloring and nuances of vocal interpretation.

At only 80 minutes, the opera packs a lot of action in a small package. The music is genial, a change from Ruder’s earlier operas, written on dark subjects including Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Kafka’s The Trial and Lar von Trier’s grim melodramatic film Dancer in the Dark, all of which incorporated a dissonant, atonal style. The music is often full of menace and threatening growls from the orchestra.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders

The more friendly and consonant style of The Thirteenth Child is likely due in part to the libretto. “We had the music in mind when we were writing all of the words, and the kind of music that Poul might write,” David Starobin says. “There were some things where we really wanted him to express his full romantic voice, and he did,” Becky Starobin adds.

The Starobins admit to pop-culture influences in their libretto. “I see our background growing up watching Star Wars films, [and] there’s no way that Becky or I could get away with writing a fairy tale without having some Disney crop up,” David says.

The Odense Symphony offers a fine performance of Ruder’s complex and varied score, warming to the more consonant and lyrical moments, but also handling the dissonant and threatening passages very well. Both conductors seem to have kept things together well. David Starobin deserves extra credit for keeping singers and orchestra together in the studio as well.

The recording cast is, as he says, entirely first-rate. As King Hjarne, Matt Boehler has a wonderfully deep and resonant bass. He managed the very lowest notes, and the leaps into falsetto that signify his madness, with aplomb. Thanks to recording technology and the opportunity to achieve a ideal balance, every word of his part could be clearly heard—something that Santa Fe showed is not always possible in live performance.

Sewailam was in fine form as Drokan, his voice dripping a menace conveyed through vowel coloring and shaping of the voice. I would love to see him onstage in this role, which fits his strong voice very well

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Tamara Mumford (r) as Queen Gertrude in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child, with David Leigh as King Hjarne. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Tamara Mumford sang with warmth and expression, showing why she was engaged for the Santa Fe production. She found the expression and shape in even the most disjoined vocal lines, and sang with a strong voice that connects well with the hearer.

As Lyra, the story’s princess who suitably for the 21st century needs finding but not rescuing, Sarah Shafer brought a shining soprano and a lyrical line to the performance, spinning her vocal lines eloquently, even across wide leaps.

Alasdair Kent was effective as the prince who finds Lyra and will, in the end, marry her to being peace to the kingdom of Frohagord. His bright, clear tenor was just as heroic as the part requires.

These are the individual singers, who did in fact sing separately. And in the completed recording, it was the individual moments by the leading characters that came across most effectively—reflective moments and arias. In other places, singers who should be interacting sounded slightly abstracted from the drama. In these moments you can see that the text implies a rising tension, but sense that the actors are not in fact reacting to one another.

The most memorable bits are King Hjarne’s aria “The Night Air Groans,” Lyra’s lament “Oh Dear Mother,” the duet scene when a ghostly Gertrude returns to explain the spell that Lyra has inadvertently cast on her brothers, and the comic scene of the hungry brothers, “We need beef, lamb, goose, duck!” Significantly, these stand out in part because they are contrasting—a comic moment breaking a sequence of increasingly dire developments, and moments of tonal lyricism among passages of atonal dissonance.

To those I would add Drokan’s dramatic scene in the second act, where his motivations are made clear and the depth of his betrayal is revealed, more for its dramatic impact and Sewailam’s performance than its purely musical qualities.

This disc is highly recommended. Anyone with an interest in contemporary opera should want to hear The Thirteenth Child. As a relatively short opera with a modest cast, it seems a likely choice for regional opera companies and university programs, while its setting makes it a candidate for the glittering productions that larger houses can offer. I look forward to seeing and hearing the next new production.

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Bridge Records 9257

The Thirteenth Child, an opera in two acts by Poul Ruders (music) and Becky and David Starobin (libretto). Odense Symphony Orchestra, Bridge Academy Singers, with Matt Boehler, Ashraf Sewailam, Tamara Mumford, and Sarah Shafer. David Starobin (vocal music and orchestra, Act 2) and Benjamin Schwartz (orchestra Act 1), conductors.

Available here and here.

Edited 9.10 to add recording details and sources for the CD.