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Interview: Vanessa joins drama and young talent

Boulder Opera opens its first complete opera this weekend with the rarely-performed American opera Vanessa. Premiered in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera, this woeful tale won composer Samuel Barber a Pulitzer Prize, but it has never become a fixture of the repertory (in Colorado, its most recent performance was at Central City Opera in 2005). The fledgling company in Boulder [full disclosure: I directed the 2013 production of Die Zauberflöte] is not taking the easy route by producing this emotionally and musically complex work. The story, written by Barber's partner Gian-Carlo Menotti, centers around Vanessa, who lives with her niece Erika and her mother the Baroness. We come upon them in the depths of winter in a nameless northern country, where Vanessa has been waiting for 20 years for the return of her former lover Anatol. A man named Anatol does appear, but he is the son of her now deceased lover. A complicated love triangle ensues, and the opera ends almost where it started, but now it is Erika who waits, alone in the cold house. I sat down with conductor Michael Tilley and soprano Meagan Mahlberg, who sings the lead role, to ask what makes this piece special and significant.

Soprano Meagan Mahlberg
photo by Sarah Fletcher

Ruth Carver: The show won the Pulitzer Prize at its premiere in 1958. Why do you think this opera has never achieved popularity?
Michael Tilley: I think Vanessa has not entered the standard repertory yet for several reasons. Firstly, the original version calls for a huge orchestral ensemble and a large chorus, including dancers. The initial sets for the Met's production, sadly destroyed by fire in 1973, were quite extravagant. Thus, it is not an inexpensive production to mount. Further, Barber's music defies easy categorization, easily assimilating diverse techniques in a milieu which rewards repeated listening. Also, the theme of the opera is not one which panders to audience expectations. No pat answers are given to the existential dilemmas in which the main characters find themselves, just a messy and beautiful and heartbreaking window into human love and loss.

RC: Meagan, how does a young singer like yourself prepare to portray the more mature character of Vanessa, with years of emotional pain in her?
Meagan Mahlberg: Frankly, I have gone through more than the average person has by my age. I am both blessed by and cursed by my life experience, it has formed me into who I am today, a person I wouldn’t give up for the world. From having run with the bulls in Spain to having lost my brother at a young age to a terrible accident, [my] life has been rich with emotion....With Vanessa specifically, I can combine the feeling of longing for a lover (from when I missed a lover of mine who was overseas for over a year) multiplied by the heart wrenching pain of longing to see someone after years and years (it has been 15 years since my brother passed away and daily I think of how much I miss him and would love to see him again). So between these two very real life experiences, you can see how I can imagine, with not so far a stretch, how one might feel waiting for a lover for 20 years.

RC: Has your preparation for this role differed from other roles in your repertoire?
MM: This really can be broken down into two different categories, musical/technical preparation and character/acting prep...I tend to keep these two categories of prep somewhat separate at first. Musically, I spend a great deal of time becoming endlessly intimate with the score. I will drill notes, rhythms, dynamics, expression markings etc. until they are mindlessly second nature....All the while that I am being a mathematician about the music, I am learning all of the pieces of the puzzle for the character. When it is time to put it all together on its feet, I rarely am thinking then about, “oh what is my note here?” or “how many beats until my entrance?” I let muscle memory play the music and I just emote. I become the character and react as her, not as me interpreting her.

RC: Michael, what are the challenges/rewards of doing this emotional and dramatic music with a younger cast?
MT: Vanessa is a daunting task for the most seasoned performer. Barber's harmonic language, while consistent and organized by an almost obsessive devotion to motivic ideas, is idiosyncratic and requires incredible discipline in both execution and performance. Our young cast does a superb job of entering into the exotic world of these severe and self-obsessed characters.

RC: Vanessa is fairly delusional - Meagan, how can you and other modern women relate to her?
MM: The delusion of Vanessa is centered around a couple main concepts that are entirely timeless: an obsession with remaining young, associating acceptance of love with youth and beauty, and a willingness to convince herself that her situation is ideal...settling for the wrong man, and denial of recognition of any evidence that her lover is untrue or bad for seems to me that the delusions of Vanessa are more relevant now than ever before. Raise your hand if you know someone who has stayed in a relationship too long because she is afraid that she won’t find something better? Placing veils over all the mirrors and portraits in Vanessa’s house is only the metaphor for her refusal to face herself. To accept herself as she is. Perhaps a refusal to face the truth that she feels that she somehow wasn’t good enough to keep Anatol around. This, to me, sounds like an all-too-familiar story of women everywhere and in any time period. Opera tells timeless stories. Common archetypes of the human experience that can speak to our souls just as well now as in any time before. All the more reason to have more opera in your life!

RC: Michael, why is this an important opera to produce right now in Colorado?
MT: Boulder Opera seeks to present underperformed works in a highly integrated and interdisciplinary context. Vanessa provides a perfect opportunity to develop new audiences for opera in our community by utilizing the rich variety of homegrown talents available right here at home. [Everyone should] join us for this gorgeous meditation on life and love and self-knowledge!

Vanessa by Samuel Barber with Boulder Opera

The Dairy Center for the Arts

Boulder, CO

Friday, February 28, 2014 7:30 pm
Saturday, March 1, 2014 7:30 pm
Sunday, March 2, 2014 2:00 pm

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