Opera in the color of Siena: A conversation with Siena Forest

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Minnesota Opera is nationally known not just for its flagship productions, but also its programs devoted to the future of opera. Its New Works Initiative is still riding high on the success of Silent Night, a commissioned opera that has been picked up by other opera companies both domestically and abroad, and has built considerable buzz about its upcoming Manchurian Candidate premiere. Among early-career opera professionals, however, the program that attracts the most interest is MN Opera’s Resident Artist program. Originally started by Dale Johnson to train singers, the program has since expanded to include professional training and apprentice roles for a conductor, a stage director, an artistic administrator, and two coach-accompanists – in addition to six singers.

This article is Part 6 of the Daily Planet’s Opera Week coverage, a series of articles about opera in Minnesota leading up to the opening night of The Elixir of Love. Over the course of seven days, our coverage will examine some of the individuals and organizations that write opera, produce it, and perform in it in the North Star State. You can read Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5 online.

The Daily Planet sat down with Siena Forest, a soprano singer and 2014-2015 Resident Artist, to talk about her experiences in the Resident Artist program. Siena holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in voice from Indiana University, where she studied with the noted vocal pedagogue Carol Vaness.

Give me a recap of the Minnesota Opera season for you.

First, there was La fanciulla del west, which I wasn’t in. There’re only two women in the entire opera, and neither is my voice type. Then Hansel and Gretel; I covered Gretel and sang the Dew Fairy. Now, with Elixir, I’m covering Adina and Giannetta. Coming up is Manchurian Candidate and I’m covering Josie and I’m in the ensemble. Then we’re having Carmen and I’m singing Frasquita. It’s a good season for me! I have a ton on my resume just from this year alone.

How much time does being a Resident Artist take?

A lot of it depends on the [opera’s] schedule and what you’re doing at the time. For example, when we did La fanciulla del West, I wasn’t in that production at all – so I came in for coachings, worked maybe an hour or two a day. Now that we’re doing Elixir, I’m covering Adina and Giannetta, so I’m called to virtually every rehearsal. This equates to 12- or 13-hour days some days, which is crazy. On Tuesdays and Thursday nights, we have chorus rehearsals; on Tuesday and Thursday morning, we usually have some Resident Artist class or coachings… Tuesdays and Thursdays, I generally go from 10 [AM] to 10 [PM].

I’m called to chorus rehearsals because Adina is in the chorus scenes, which means that I need to sit and watch what goes on staging-wise. In this production, every role is covered, so we do cover stagings as well. [This means that] when the principal artists aren’t available, we’re covering and restaging what [they’ve] done.

Is there any responsibility when the principal artists aren’t there for you to later convey things to them?

It’s usually the principal artists conveying things to us, but there’ve been situations where I’ve stood in – for a chorus scene, for instance, where I was called to it as a Giannetta cover, and they [ended up] needing an Adina. Then when Adina [Nicole Cabell] actually came in, I told her went go on – but usually it’s just me standing there and singing.

A slight bit of multiple personalities?

Definitely. I can wear many hats, and I have to.

How long did it take you to prepare these two parts that you’re covering?

Adina actually took me a while…probably two or three weeks to learn the music. I took it slowly, since there’s a lot of coloratura in fast passages, and recit as well. So there’s a lot going on, and it took about three weeks.

Tell me more about how you learn a role. Is there a balance between scores, recordings, and sitting down at the piano?

The first thing I do is translate it. I usually use a Nico Castel book to do that. He’s a coach – a famous person in opera – and he’s written all the librettos [out] and translated and IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet]’d them as well. They come in anthologies, so there’re all the Mozart operas, all the Verdi operas…he takes this [method] and applies it to them. I usually start with that because he does word-by-word translations. If not, I’ll look up the direct meaning.

I want more than just a poetic translation. I want word-by-word, because you have to color certain words certain ways when you sing them – especially in bel canto, which is all about that.

But English opera translations are so wonderful! They fit the music so well!

[laughs] No, they don’t. I’ve yet to find a translation of an opera into English that really works. There’s always some problem with it.

I’ve heard a few translations of Hansel and Gretel that seem really good, but once you hear it in the original German…

Exactly. One of the problems that I’ve found with Hansel and Gretel is that the libretto rhymes, so if you want to translate it into English you can either try and maintain some sort of rhyme scheme in it, or you can stay true to the original meaning. Words that rhyme in German aren’t going to rhyme in English. A lot of time [the translators] are stuck trying to find ways to navigate that. It’s hard to find a middle ground.

[After] I start translating, I usually get a bunch of recordings – three or four, to get an idea of how things are sung differently. Especially with this opera, it’s about what the artist brings to the role: [Mirella] Freni will do different things than Barbara Bonney did than Joan Sutherland. It’s about listening to see what they’ve done with it, what you like and don’t like, and you pick and choose.

I personally [then] sit down at the piano and go through all the notes, and [only] then I add the text in. It’s a multi-layer process.

Tell me more about the listening to recordings. Is this active listening, sitting down with a score, listening in a blackened room, at the gym…?

Definitely. If I’m going on a walk, I’ll put it on just to get it in my ears. I’ll also sit down with the score and go through it and listen to it that way. It’s mostly about getting it in your ear and your body – like making a new friend. Really, you just get to know this piece in all these different ways. It’s fun! A really fun process – I like it.

And then you break up with them?

And then you break up with them.

And see them down the road?

[laughs] And hopefully see them again, if it was a good relationship.

Are you sure that “friend” is the right word here?

…sometimes enemy, depending on the passage. [laughs]. It’s nice – every role, I’ve always wanted to do again. I’ve never left something and thought, “Oh, thank God that’s done!”

You need to sing more modern opera.

I did! I did [a developmental workshop for Stephen King’s] The Shining. Learning the music for that was the worst, but when it was actually learned and performed, I loved it.

On the topic of lessons: I was talking with René Barbera, and he said that when he learns a new role, if he finds it’s not fitting right in the voice he will go back to his teacher – in some cases flying her to wherever he happens to be in the world. If the mechanism isn’t fitting right, he says, you want someone better than you to work that out. Since there’re large gaps in your schedule in-between when one production ends and the next one’s rehearsal starts, you’re presumably learning some of the music then. Where do lessons fit in that?

Every Tuesday, George Smith – our voice teacher at the Opera – comes in. They give us a stipend and we take lessons with him; he’s a [vocal] technician. I’d never worked with one before – hour-long lessons filled with vocal exercises. It’s about training the voice.

My previous lessons were more about repertoire – maybe 15 minutes of warming up, and the next 45 on singing a piece. It’s got me in contact with my voice in a much different way, and it’s been really fulfilling. I’ve really enjoyed my time [studying] with him, and it’s been a new experience all around. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Do you do master classes?

As Resident Artists, we have a Resident Artists class. It depends on the schedule, but we usually have it it in once per week; we sing arias and new pieces that we’re working on. We give feedback to each other; Dale is there, Rob Ainsley, and usually Floyd [Anderson] as well. They give us feedback, whether it’s musical or acting-wise.

Since you’re about halfway through round one of the program now, what have some of the most fulfilling parts been?

My favorite part of the job so far was getting to sit in on the Resident Artist auditions in Minneapolis. That was the week of Hansel and Gretel performances, when they had the RAP auditions here…we were allowed to sit in on the auditions and almost be part of the panel. Most of the [other Resident] Artists didn’t sit in, but I did it as much as I could because I got to sit between Dale, Floyd, and Rob and see the other side of the audition. It was so enlightening, and so incredible to have them treat me as an equal and tell me what they heard in people’s voices – what they liked and disliked about singers. [It was also good] for me to apply that “That’s distracting how she’s moving her arm a lot – do I do that in an audition?”

It allows you to put yourself in that position. You always wonder what they talk about, what they look for. To be “Look at this on their resume, what does that mean to you?” and also to see what arias people are singing…. “Why did you pick that as the next aria for them?” In most cases, it was because it was the shortest, but it was [overall] something that I’d never experienced before, and I loved it.

I also love secrets, and it felt like a secret being behind the scenes – I really enjoyed it!

Any dark secrets about the people coming next year, besides yourself?

You’re going to see a bunch of people return.

That’s okay – I’m used to seeing Vicky [Victoria Vargas] come back.

She’s one of the successful graduates – they really like her.

NOW she’s a graduate. She was in the program for four or five years.

You’ll see some new faces this year, but a lot of the same ones.

If you come to the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions on the 31st, you’ll see some familiar faces, too.

Yup – all of the gentleman. It’s actually all of the gentlemen who’ve advanced [to the regional level], all of the male Resident Artists. [Gerard Michael] D’Emilio did it in a different district, but those three boys are all competing. It’s a Minnesota Opera-heavy time right now! Shannon [Prickett] and I both didn’t compete this year, but we’ll see what happens next year.

What are your plans for the summer?

I’m going to stay in Minneapolis, take lessons, and work on repertoire. I’d like to find out what direction my voice is going in. It just has qualities of different fachs, so I don’t know if I’m a light lyric or a coloratura… I want to explore more coloratura rep, learn some competition arias for next year… It’s hard to prepare your own music when you’re working so much, because the time that I have free I have to devote to learning Adina [for Elixir], Manchurian, and all these different musical things…it’s hard to work on your own solo rep. I’m excited to devote my time to that this summer.

Do your summer plans include gigging in some shape or form?

I’d love to gig, and to do straight theatre – to be in a play, chamber music, the whole thing. I’m open to new musical experiences and it’s just a matter of getting them.

If I recall correctly, Indiana University’s voice program doesn’t allow much leeway in studying outside of the program. Usually it’s a case of music is in one house and theatre in another, and ne’er the twain shall meet, except maybe the techs… Did the instruction include training in monologues, scene preparation, et cetera?

No – and I think that’s one of my complaints about opera preparation today: they don’t really focus on acting. That, at least, is my experience and what I’ve seen from this generation of singers. There isn’t that theatre knowledge.

[Spoken] theatre staging is very different from opera staging because we have to be [especially] aware of acoustics, the directions that we’re facing. It limits you a lot.

When I went to Central City Opera two summers ago, we did monologues. Mine was from Agnes of God… It’s based on a true story from the 70s. Agnes is a young nun, in this convent, and she gets pregnant. She doesn’t tell anyone, ends up having the baby in her room, and someone finds her in the room, hemorrhaging, with the baby in the trashcan – strangled with the umbilical cord. The play is only three characters: the head of the convent, Agnes, and the therapist. The therapist’s job is to figure out for the court if Agnes is crazy. Agnes says that God talks to her and that she has no memory of killing her child or how she got pregnant. It’s about trying to find out if God is actually speaking to her, or if she’s insane – whether she’s going to a mental hospital or to prison. I did this super-creepy monologue that ends with her saying “God loves you.” I did it in the creepiest voice, and I loved it.

[In spoken theater] you aren’t tethered at all to music. At times, [opera]’s constraining, because you have limited options based on what the music supplies you with. Say you have a line of text and the music sounds happy…you’re limited, really, to that realm. Without that music, you can deliver it any rich way. This made [monologue work] freeing and a lot of fun.

It was also interesting learning a text away from music, because my mind is so linked to that. Even when you just play a piece of music, the text pops into my head from that. To find that association with text without music was hard, but I found it through writing it over and over again…

I’m really excited to do straight theatre. I think it will be fun, and a way for me to work on acting just as acting.

Tell me why I should see Elixir of Love. Will it show me how to solve all of my love life problems?

It will not do that.

What if my date’s really, really into opera?

Well, maybe…there are some really romantic arias in this.

Aren’t they mostly written for tenor, though?

That’s okay – if he’s unavailable, she’ll go for the next best thing, which is her date, right?

The music for this opera is just out of this world. Two of the most famous tenor arias [“Quanto è bella, quanto è cara” and “Una furtiva lagrima”] are in this show alone. Adina has gorgeous music as well, and if you haven’t seen an opera this would be a great one. First of all, it’s short; second of all, it’s really funny – and no one dies. You’ll be laughing!

Nicole [Cabell] is an amazing Adina. The way she carries herself and portrays this role is stunning, and the way that she sings is mesmerizing. Leonardo [Capalbo], the Nemorino…he has a gorgeous voice. I’ve never heard a tenor voice that’s open all through the registers [like his]. If there’s an example of someone who’s completely open to the text, it’s him… I think he’s a phenomenal actor and singer. Just seeing the two of them alone, on top of which there’s amazing music… I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t see it.

I’m going to go ahead and edit out all the nice things that you said about Nicole, because people just won’t think your saying good things about another soprano is plausible.

[Laughs] It’s a strange world we live in.

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