"Star Search": A Quest For New Voices at New York City Opera

Classic Arts Features   "Star Search": A Quest For New Voices at New York City Opera
As it begins a new era, City Opera continues its tradition of of cultivating fresh talent. A case in point is Christopher Alden's new production of Don Giovanni, opening Nov. 8, which features six principle cast members making their company debuts.


The good news: New York City Opera is back onstage, after a year of renovation and reorganization under new leadership. The equally good news is that the company is celebrating a robust return to its roots as an enterprise known for and dedicated to nurturing extraordinary young talent.

The names of singers who rose from the City Opera roster to become international stars form a long, long list. Among the best-known of these are the company's iconic Beverly Sills, as well José Carreras, Phyllis Curtin, David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Bejun Mehta, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Norman Treigle, Tatiana Troyanos, and Carol Vaness, to name just a few. And it speaks volumes that several of these artists returned to perform in American Voices, City Opera's opening gala concert, on Nov. 5.

Just three days after the gala, City Opera presents the first new production under the aegis of George Steel, its new General Manager and Artistic Director: Christopher Alden's new production of Don Giovanni. It's no accident that the show is headlined by an especially promising cast of rising North American singers. Some are already well launched into major careers; others are newcomers whose freshness may surprise and delight audiences.

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Joélle Harvey

A full six of the eight Giovanni cast members are making their City Opera debuts. Three of them have already attracted international notice: Daniel Okulitch, who takes the title role, recently received widespread acclaim for creating the leading role in Howard Shore's The Fly in Paris and at the Los Angeles Opera, though he had first grabbed New Yorkers' attention as Schaunard in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway Bohème. Donna Anna will be portrayed by Ukrainian-American soprano Stefania Dovhan, fresh from a triumphant Louise at Charleston's Spoleto Festival. Don Ottavio is Gregory Turay, familiar to New York audiences through his many performances at the Metropolitan Opera in roles including Ottavio, Fenton in Falstaff, and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. Also making their debuts are soprano Joélle Harvey as Zerlina, baritone Kelly Markgraf as Masetto, and bass Brian Kontes as the Commendatore.

"New York City Opera's artistic team has accomplished a tour-de-force in assembling this incredible, fresh cast of rising stars," says George Steel, "including six of the most exciting debuts in principal roles that City Opera has had in recent years. I'm pleased that the company's mission of discovering and nurturing rising young American artists is particularly prominent in Christopher Alden's reimagining of one of the greatest of all operas."

That artistic team includes three new members: Director of Artistic Planning Edward Yim, Director of Music Administration Kevin Murphy, and Casting Advisor Steven Blier, in addition to Steel and NYCO's longtime Music Director George Manahan. They and NYCO's Casting Administrator Cory Lippiello worked closely with Alden on casting Giovanni, in the company's tradition of commitment to opera as total theater, in which dramatic values are considered equal to musical demands. "It's nice when you're able to work with the director and accommodate his or her casting ideas as well," says Murphy. "You should be able to have discussions and try to look at the totality of the production; it's not just 'Can they sing it?' It may take a little more time; it may involve more meetings, but it's really worth talking about and putting together something that everyone is happy with."

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Gregory Turay

For Daniel Okulitch, that balance is particularly important. One of the reasons he is excited to make his NYCO debut is that this was the artistic home of bass-baritone Norman Treigle, one of his heroes. "I find him incredibly inspiring," says Okulitch. "There's an old Firestone Hour video of him as Reverend Blitch in the Susannah revival scene that will always stand out to me as an example of exceptional acting on any stage, in any medium. To be part of a company that really values that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this show. I know there's a lot of debate on that, opera being a musical art first and foremost. But I guess my philosophy is that the entire art form is there to tell a story. I think a lot of audiences come now for both the music and the drama. I like to believe that one informs the other. I don't think of them as separate."

With this in mind, NYCO's artistic team has made a renewed commitment to searching out singers who, like Okulitch, offer not only the right dramatic qualities but truly extraordinary voices. New York audiences have already enjoyed tenor Gregory Turay's performances in lighter roles, but according to Murphy, his voice has grown in weight and size over the past few years. "He has a lot more meat on his sound," says Murphy, "an added depth and warmth. He's going to be a full-blooded, Romantic Ottavio. This will not be a tenorino approach."

Turay, who has performed Ottavio at both the Met and San Francisco Opera, adds, "I'm looking forward to singing Ottavio again. The way I always characterized the role will, I think, really suit my 'new' voice better. I always thought of Ottavio as a very strong character. People often see him as weak and constrained by society, always on a leash with Donna Anna. But I always saw him as strong and principled. He would fight Giovanni, in fact, if he got the chance." Turay also appreciates the intensive, five week rehearsal period he and the other cast members have been enjoying. "This is going to be real theater, real opera," he says. "Not just 'Add water and stir.'"

Unlike Okulitch and Turay, Stefania Dovhan, their Donna Anna, had a lower profile until her Louise in Spoleto, which Kevin Murphy rushed down to hear on a tip from professional friends. He was so impressed he immediately brought her to New York for an audition, which she aced.

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Stefania Dovhan

Though still young, Dovhan has already spent a great deal of time on the operatic stage, particularly at Theater Hagen in Germany, where she has been a Fest (resident) artist since 2005. "I'm in the German system," she explains, "so I'm on stage very often, and it's a great opportunity to find yourself, to find your voice, to find your body language, to find things that are effective. All that practice teaches you a lot, and so does the reaction of the audience, that feedback."

Dovhan has already sung Mozart's Pamina and Fiordiligi, but is especially looking forward to this, her first Donna Anna, always one of her dream roles. "Anna is multi-dimensional, and there are many ways she can be interpreted. I'm very much looking forward to working with Christopher Alden on that aspect."

Dovhan's casting typifies the team approach that is already a hallmark of this new era at NYCO. As Edward Yim, Director of Artistic Planning, explains, "You don't have just one pair of ears out in the world trying to find great young voices for City Opera; you've got at least four or five going covering a lot of territory. And it wouldn't work if we didn't trust each other's taste. That thrill of discovery_ã”when someone steps up at an audition and just wows you_ã”is really what gives us the motivation and energy to do what we do. The only thing that could be more exciting is watching them have a triumph on our stage."


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Eric Myers has written for The New York Times, Opera News, Opera and Time Out New York. He is the author of Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis and co-author (with Howard Mandelbaum) of Screen Deco and Forties Screen Style.

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