Harmonic Convergence

Classic Arts Features   Harmonic Convergence
Houston Grand Opera's Madame Butterfly, running from October 22-November 13, assembles an array of extraordinary singers. Music director Patrick Summers introduces them.

Working in classical music one is sometimes left with the feeling of being born in the wrong era: "singers were greater then; conductors were real masters then; we had stars then"‹all of the usual sound bytes that were undoubtedly also uttered then. As in any field, the weight of our legacy is eased by the rewards of our personal relationships and by witnessing the success of gifted colleagues. Rarely, but with great pleasure, you "click" with another artist. Why? Shared ideologies, similar standards, mutual passions‹there are many possible reasons. The simplest explanation usually being the most correct, I suspect it's just because you like each other.

This production of Madame Butterfly features several singers with whom I've had a long association: Mika Shigematsu, Paul Charles Clarke, Peter Coleman-Wright, Cheryl Barker, and Patricia Racette. As I anticipate our work together I am inevitably drawn back into the mutual memories of our performing lives thus far. Rarely in my career has so much shared history converged on one project.

One of my most rewarding and sustained associations has been with soprano Patricia Racette, whom I've known since the beginning of her career in 1988. That year, she entered the Merola Opera Program of the San Francisco Opera Center, for which I served as music director prior to my appointment in Houston. Patricia's diverse assignments at HGO began the same night as my own, in the 1998-99 season, in Verdi's La Traviata. Her subsequent appearances at HGO show the depth of her unique talents: Love Simpson in Cold Sassy Tree, Margherite in Mefistofele, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, and her unforgettable Jen°ufa last season. She frames this celebratory year, opening the season as Puccini's Madame Butterfly and closing it as Alice Ford to Bryn Terfel's Falstaff in Verdi's extraordinary valedictory opera.

Patricia was born near Squam Lake, New Hampshire, known to the rest of us as Golden Pond, the setting of the famous film starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. I've always associated Patricia with Hepburn, not simply because of a lake. While Patricia bears no physical or (thankfully) vocal resemblance to the late actress, her career has the qualities of a role which might have attracted Hepburn: feisty, intelligent, full of heart, courageous, the quintessential New Englander.

Opening HGO's 50th season with Patricia as Butterfly, (her first "grown up" performances of the role, she likes to say; since she sang the work in the pedagogic setting of Merola in 1988), is a nostalgic project for both of us. While it's often said that I "trained" Patricia it would be more accurate to say I witnessed her arrival and provided a comfortable sounding board for her instincts. I had never met anyone as intensely present as she and I've never encountered anyone so unshakably honest. On the first day of the annual Merola Program, the 20 participants (chosen from 900) are normally brimming with the overdone politeness brought on by sincere fright. Patricia walked into my office in the first hour of the 1988 program and asked, "How do I apply to be an Adler Fellow?" (Adler Fellows are the San Francisco equivalent of the Houston Grand Opera Studio artists.) I politely explained that one didn't "apply" for full-time employment in the arts; one was "chosen." She said "Okay!" and left. A year later she was in rehearsal for her first assignment as an Adler Fellow covering the great Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar as Alice Ford in Falstaff. Pilar was a perennial figure on the SFO stage in those years, and I'll never forget Patricia's reaction the first time she heard her‹ "She sounds like a ray of sunlight." When I heard Patricia's Metropolitan Opera debut, as Musetta in La Bohème, I remembered the remark, and felt a deep sense of continuity, with Patricia's voice beaming through the vast Met.

Beyond the radiance and fullness of her voice, and a timbre easily recognizable with one note, she has maintained the level of dramatic inquisitiveness and honesty that distinguished her as a novice singer. Her most frequent rehearsal utterance, in full New England accent, is "why?" and director, conductor, and colleagues need to be willing to collaborate with her on answering the question. What is she looking for? She's looking for the truth of the piece here and now, the depth of the text as it relates to the music. She thankfully has as little patience as I do for the all-too-frequent "this is what has always been done." Is this "temperament"? Sure. But it is precisely what temperament should be. In another era, she would have regaled Johnny Carson with naughty stories or sung duets with Carol Burnett. Classical music, particularly opera, has sadly disappeared from large public forums such as talk shows (in the 1970s Beverly Sills didn't merely appear on The Tonight Show; she hosted during a Carson vacation week) and variety shows (remember Eileen Farrell and Marilyn Horne appearing together on The Carol Burnett Show?).

But I feel in danger of giving you the wrong impression: Patricia, the artist, is serious and uncompromising. But Pat, as she's known to her friends, has a wicked sense of humor and a laugh that could bend steel. She is a gifted physical comedian and pristine mimic, qualities rarely summoned in opera. One of my most cherished memories of her involves a private fund-raiser for the San Francisco Opera: Patricia was scheduled to sing excerpts from Madame Butterfly but she sprained her ankle on the afternoon of the performance. Instead of canceling she decided to utilize the crutches the doctor had forced on her. They became everything: bizarre arm extensions pointing to Pinkerton's ship, an air guitar, a swab, a hairpin, and finally, right out of the Marx Brothers, she used them to (pretend to, of course) whack Suzuki in the face. The audience heard very little that night: it became a pandemonium of laughter and Pat never cracked a smile, which was what actually made it so funny.

Cheryl Barker, our alternate cast Cio-Cio-San, and her husband, Peter Coleman-Wright, who sings Sharpless, starred together in HGO's world premiere performances of The End of the Affair. Cheryl and I collaborated on two important productions at the Australian Opera: Baz Luhrmann's famous La Bohème in 1996 (the same production that appeared on Broadway two seasons ago) and Moffatt Oxenbould's ethereal production of Madama Butterfly in 1997. Baz, now more widely known as the edgiest of Hollywood's new generation of directors (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge) developed his cinematic style largely through the three outings of his Bohème at the Sydney Opera House, and his extraordinary production of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. His dramatic visual style, a successful mixture of ultramodern-hip and neo-romantic, had many influences but none more indelible than Cheryl's diaphanous beauty and simple, honest delivery as Mimí. To take nothing away from the performances of the gifted actresses that have populated his films, I always come away from Baz's movies feeling he's trying to recreate Cheryl's Mimi. Cheryl's Cio-Cio-San, well known in many theaters around the world, now comes to Houston as well. For the ultimate Madame Butterfly experience, see both casts. Watching two singing actresses at the height of their powers essay the same role is a rare opportunity.

Peter first appeared at HGO as Rodrigo in Don Carlo in a gallant 11th-hour save. His career has spanned the globe and the repertoire, as he has performed everything from Sweeney Todd to Billy Budd to the great Mozart parts and is now heading into heavier dramatic roles. I have rarely known a colleague so universally liked as Peter. The reason, again, is something the audience never sees, given the repertoire Peter sings. Peter is a tornado of a person, bursting with energy and laughter. He keeps us all in stitches a great deal of the time, effortlessly easing the tensions of the rehearsal process; he lightens everyone around him.

Liverpudlian Paul Charles Clarke and I performed La Bohème in Seattle in 1997. Our Mimí in that production was the eminent Italian soprano Nuccia Focile, Paul's wife. We sailed pleasantly through the three-week rehearsal period, with Nuccia and Paul unearthing details in Puccini's familiar score I'd never experienced in years of conducting the work. After the final dress rehearsal I went home filled with the contentment of having done our best by Puccini. At midnight I got a phone call from Paul informing me that Nuccia was going to have to cancel her performances due to the complications of a pregnancy. Thrilled for them, of course, I was also stunned since none of the rest of us had previously known anything about it. I wonder if Paul has ever forgiven me for asking, "Wasn't she pregnant an hour ago when we finished the dress rehearsal?" Thankfully, Paul and Nuccia gave birth to gorgeous little Katya, who as a toddler liked to corner me and force me to read her favorite books. It didn't take much forcing. Paul and I later had Die Fledermaus performances together at the Metropolitan Opera and, of course, he memorably partnered Renée Fleming in her first Violettas two seasons ago, here at HGO. He returns now as Pinkerton.

Our Suzuki is another Merola alumna, Japanese mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu, who has been the source of many smiles in my life. I remember the extraordinary illustration she made, practically a mural, of everyone involved in the 1993 Merola Program. With just a few strokes of her pen she managed to capture the essence of over 40 individuals with humor and grace.

Music is a great and complex science with deep rewards, but live music's greatest lesson must be that we only have the moment we're in and the people around us. Our individual careers mean little without the context of other careers intersecting and enlightening our own. Perhaps Hepburn said it best: "Life's what's important: walking, houses, family. Birth and pain and joy.... Acting's just waiting for the custard pie. That's all."

Patrick Summers is the Music Director of Houston Grand Opera.

Recommended Reading: