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.

 

 

Santa Fe Opera: the familiar, the unfamiliar, and a world premiere

Poul Ruder’s Thirteenth Child is “an opera of expressive breadth and depth”

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 11:45 p.m.

Santa Fe Opera has five operas in production this summer, continuing through Aug. 24. Reviews of three of those productions—Puccini’s La bohème, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders—are below. Reviews of the remaining two productions will appear in a later blog post.

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Soloman Howard (Colline), Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Dale Travis (Benoit), Will Liverman (Schaunard), supernumerary, and Mario Chang (Rodolfo) in La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

La bohème, the most familiar of the operas on Santa Fe’s 2019 schedule, is certainly enjoyable. The firmly realistic set and production are mostly serviceable, if not spectacular, and the singers range from reliable to impressive. Conductor Jader Bignamini knows when to stretch the tempo and when to push ahead. If he sometimes took the faster bits a little too fast, the excellent orchestra stayed with him, responding well to every push and pull. Their performance was thoroughly idiomatic, always giving the lyric moments time to blossom.

My one criticism of Bignamini’s work is that he was not careful enough to maintain a good balance between stage and pit. He has conducted in Santa Fe before—Rigoletto in 2015—so he should know the theater’s acoustics, but he sometimes allowed the voices to be swallowed by the orchestra.

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Eliot Page as Parpignol with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Scenic designer Grace Laubacher had mixed success adapting to the Santa Fe stage. Her garret, a stand-alone piece that was pushed on for the first act and that visibly cracked apart at Mimi’s death in the third act (symbolizing the emotional shattering of the remaining characters?), was effectively evocative of 19th-century Paris. The second act, using movable pieces that were miniature buildings from one side and flat semi-reflective surfaces on the other, were an uncomfortable solution for the streets outside the Café Momus, with the toymaker Parpignol popping above a multi-story building like Godzilla in Tokyo.

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Mario Chang (Rudolfo), Gabriella Reyes (Musetta), Vanesssa Vasques (Mimi) and Zachary Nelson (Marceloo) in Act III of La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard.

Most successful was the third act. The minimal set pieces—the outside of the cafe, the city gate and a snow-covered tree—were all that was needed. The spare set contributed to the bleakness of the winter scene.

Mary Birnbaum’s direction was ideal for the highjnks of the four artists sharing the garret, capturing their camaraderie well. At other times, however, her ideas got in the way of the story. Having the characters pass downstage of the garret to reach its door proved distracting. Characters did not always seem to interact.

The visual pun of having Musetta enter on inline skates, suggesting how she glides through life and the streets of Paris, might work if the Musetta were comfortable on the skates, but soprano Gabriella Reyes seemed not to be as she careened from light post to light post, sometimes supported by waiters and street people. This was a gimmick too far, both wildly anachronistic and painful to watch.

I have still not puzzled out what was symbolized by having both Mimi and Musetta wander through the garret before their actual entrances in Act IV—perhaps that they are always with Rudolfo and Marcelo even when they aren’t?—nor Musetta’s obvious pregnancy in the same act.

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Vanessa Vasquez (Mimi) and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.

As Mimi, soprano Vanessa Vasquez was a standout, bringing radiance and beauty to her voice in the early acts, and great expression when she is dying. If her coughing attacks seemed pasted into her interpretation, one cannot fault her vocal expression in the most poignant scenes. Her substantial voice soared easily, bloomed into striking moments of beauty, and became well controlled as she warmed into the role.

Mario Chang had some lovely, ringing high notes as Rodolfo. His voice shone in his duets with Mimi, but he was not consistent. Some entrances were a little rough, the occasional note hit too hard. Nevertheless, he was affecting throughout, and particularly through the Act III reconciliation duet with Mimi.

Zachary Nelson’s Marcello lacked passion. He sang pleasingly but seemed only intermittently engaged in the Act II and III quarrels with Musetta. The other Bohemians—Soloman Howard as Colline and Will Liverman as Schaunard—were solid and effective. Howard’s strong, robust voice could be more consistently controlled, but was used expressively for his “Overcoat” aria in Act IV. Schaunard’s jolly entrance in Act I, bearing money and food for his cold, starving garret-mates, was outstanding, bringing vocal warmth and good cheer to the stage.

I suggested earlier that Reyes as Musetta did not seem comfortable on skates. This must have affected her singing, which was a little cautious in Act II, but much stronger and more expressive in her fight with Marcello in Act III, and even when pregnant in Act IV. She was a solid Musetta who would be better without the skates.

Dale Travis hit all the conventional comic notes, first as the landlord Benoit in Act I and then as the hapless Alcindoro in Act II. Elliot Page was a clear-voiced Parpignol, offering his toys from above the doll houses of the miniature Paris.

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Loved by opera aficionados but little known to the broader public, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a worthy work by any standards. Written several years before the composer’s final work, Carmen, it is filled with glorious melodies, striking choruses and instrumental numbers that point ahead to that masterpiece.

Santa Fe Opera’s Pearl Fishers, a revival of a production first seen in 2012, brought all of those the musical strengths to the fore. Conductor Timothy Myers elicited beautiful playing from the orchestra while finding all the dramatic high points in the score. The woodwinds in particular were noteworthy, with extraordinary solos from clarinet, flutes and horns.

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Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila, veiled), Anthony Clark Evans (Zurga) with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The choral scenes represent some of Bizet’s best music, anticipating the greats choruses of Carmen.They were powerfully sung, outlining the drama that sets the community of fisherfolk against the forbidden love between Leila, a priestess of Brahma, and Nadir, a hunter. Their liaison that interrupts Leila’s prayer vigil brings disaster on the village and leads to the opera’s dramatic, if unlikely, conclusion.

Pearl Fishers is one of those Romantic operas, along with such better known works as Madama Butterfly, Turandot  and Aida, whose treatment of “exotic” subjects is problematic today. Pearl Fishers is supposedly set in Ceylon, although the locale was originally Mexico and the opera belongs authentically to neither locale.

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Ceylon viewed through the frame of 19th-century Paris: Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design for the SFO stage deals with issues of cultural voyeurism in a creative way: the set features a massive picture frame, with everything beyond the frame representing a kind of generic “other” of stone temples and ruins, and everything in front representing the more specific milieu of 19th-century France. In other words, we see the setting through the frame of Bizet’s own time and place.

The stage direction of Shawna Lucey served the plot well. There were distancing elements of ritual that sometimes kept the chorus in front the frame, distracting from action farther upstage, but not to the point of interfering with the singers. She used the spaces onstage well, particularly in the scene when Leila and Nadir are discovered together inside the temple.

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Corinne Winteres (Leila). Photo by Ken Howard.

Soprano Corinne Winters was a radiant Leila, her singing secure and bright, carrying easily over the orchestra in all of her biggest moments. Her Act III duet with Anthony Clark Evans’s Zurga, the leader of the fishers who is Nadir’s rival for her love, is one of the high points of the opera and the season. The rising arc of dramatic intensity is perfectly controlled, leading to a shattering climax. Equally memorable was her Act I aria and prayer at the beginning of her vigil.

Ilker Arcayürek has a light and delicate high tenor voice that is ideal for Nadir, but he struggled with the highest notes, easing into them or reaching for the tops of phrases. He was ardent in his declarations of love and expressive in the most dramatic moments of the opera.

Evans was a solid and forthright Zurga who occupied his critical role well. The best known piece from the opera, his Act I duet with Nadir, “Au fond de temple saint,” was as rousing as called for. In other scenes he was a convincing village leader whose jealousy of Nadir momentarily overcomes his love for Leila and affection for Nadir.

As Nourabad the high priest, Robert Pomakov used his powerful bass voice to dominate the scenes where he denounces Leila and Nadir, and calls for their execution. Elsewhere the character is a cipher, although Pomakov was reliably able in the role.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders has written several operas on dark subjects—Kafka’s Trial, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and and Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark—but he wanted something different for his fifth opera. He turned to fairy tales, finding a little known story that fit his aim.

The Thirteenth Child, receiving its world premiere production at Santa Fe this summer, is based on a story by the brothers Grimm, and it takes Ruders in a different direction than those earlier works. The combination of fairy-tale magic, lightly comic moments and a happy ending have elicited a score marked with lyric elements, glowing, consonant orchestral interludes, generally light textures and one delightfully humorous male ensemble for the 12 older brothers of the title character.

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David Leigh (King Hjarne) and Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude). Photo by Ken Howard.

Ruders was able to draw on a reservoir of dark and threatening orchestral music when needed, but that vein, so evident in his earlier work, is leavened by the lyrical writing. As presented in Santa Fe, The Thirteenth Child is an accomplished and entertaining work, a fitting achievement for a composer who describes opera as “an emotional affair wrapped in show biz.”

Not all the vocal music is graceful, however. The jagged lines, wide leaps and extreme ranges characteristic of many newer operas are used for emotive passages. Hjarne, the King of Frohagord, is one of the lowest bass roles in the repertoire, and the part of Drokan, the fairy tale’s requisite evil element of the plot, also lies very low, with sudden leaps into falsetto—executed with varying success—to symbolize madness.

I thought the best music in Thirteenth Child surrounded the moments of fairy-tale magic, and the orchestral interludes that set the emotional temperature for the ups and downs of the plot. Human emotions, so often the heart of opera, struck me as less effectively conveyed, particularly the intense moments when Ruders resorted to wide-leaping vocal lines that are hard to distinguish one from another.

Conductor Paul Daniel had the orchestra well in hand, shaping dynamics carefully to reflect the moments of tension and create an effective emotional profile. All of Ruders’s shifting moods, in response to the twists of the plot, were well delineated.

Alexander Dodge’s interesting unit set serves the opera well. The blank walls are used for engaging projections by Aaron Rhyme, including snakes when Drokan is plotting, ravens when the 12 brothers are turned to birds, and red flowers for the magical lilies that protect the kingdom of Frohagord. Other, less specific projections add sparkling beauty to several scenes.

The costumes by Rita Ryack are cinematic medieval on steroids—too much had the opera been realistic but just colorful and flamboyant enough for a fairy tale. My favorite visual effect was Hjarne’s funeral, with black-robed characters—nuns and monks?—with white collars and bright red spears held vertically. This is the best kind of spectacle.

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Bradley Galvin (Drokan) with elaborate projections. Photo by Ken Howard.

As Hjarne, David Leigh has the shortest time on stage—just the first scene—but his deep bass, clearly heard except for the very lowest notes, was solid and effective. He managed his leaps into falsetto and madness well, providing motivation for all that follows.

Hjarne is driven to obsession by Drokan, the truly evil element of the plot. As portrayed by Bradley Garvin, Drokan was the personification of scheming villainy, hoping to overturn Hjarne’s family, marry his daughter—the thirteenth child of the title—and rule Frohagord. He conveyed Drokan’s dark role in the plot through vocal timbre, ranging from subtle suggestions of evil to overt threat. So effective was he in the role that there was a smattering of applause at his demise.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra). Photo by Ken Howard.

Tamara Mumford lent her rich, warm mezzo-soprano sound to Queen Gertrude, who is a guiding spirit to the story before and after her death. Critical to the first half of the opera, she was a steady presence dramatically and vocally outstanding. The spectral echoes and playback loops of her singing as a spirit are pretty conventional film and TV ghost effects, but reasonably effective in context.

As Lyra, the thirteenth child and heir of Hjarne, Jessica E. Jones was everything  a fairy tale asks a princess to be: winsome, lovely and brave. Her bright and clear voice only complemented the portrayal.

Joshua Dennis as Frederic, who searched for Lyra for seven long years, successfully negotiated the leaps and twists of his challenging part, especially in his lengthy narration of his search. Apprentice artist Bille Bruley was appropriately sympathetic as Benjamin, the youngest of the 12 brothers. His voice was strong, and his diction unusually clear.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra) and Bille Bruley (the dying Benjamin). Photo by Ken Howard.

Benjamin’s heroic death is the only real tragedy of the fairy tale, but it sets up the moral that is told at the end: “No joy without sorrow. . . . Dark days always come, in love we find the light.” This message has inspired Ruders to write an opera of expressive breadth and depth, one that I look forward to seeing and hearing again.

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Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

NOTE: This story was corrected 8.7.19. The Thirteenth Child is Poul Ruder’s fifth opera, not his sixth.