Conductor Christine Brandes and Director Mark Streshinsky's second go-around with Handel’s Julius Caesar, but for the first time as staff colleagues.
This is exciting: both of you have worked on Handel’s Julius Caesar before, together, in Kansas City. Can you tell us about that production and collaboration? Do you have any memories (good or bad) to share? I heard there was something about Obama’s campaign trail too…
CB: It was a terrific production and such a great cast to work with. Christine Abraham, who was singing Sesto, and I went canvassing for Obama on our days off. It was an amazing experience to do such a thing in Missouri, which was definitely like being on another planet. I had the chance to meet an amazing, older African-American lady whose grandfather was born into slavery and who had the opportunity of taking her 18-year old great grand-daughter to register to vote for the first African-American president! We all went to an Obama rally one evening and I hoisted a little African-American boy onto my shoulders so that he could see. He asked: who is the man in the light. I replied: It’s Obama: Kid: He’s black! Me: Yes, baby and he’s going to be the President. Utterly priceless.
MS: I was also at the Obama rally and remember that kid so well. Kansas City had never seen a baroque opera much less a countertenor, much less two! I remember the company had a lot of people calling in confused as to why a man would sing like that.
What was great about the production was that Chris and I spent time together in Berkeley talking about the flow of the story and cuts… she was more experienced having done the opera before and I was just beginning to learn it, so it was very helpful to my study of the piece. During that production I formed a life-long friendship with David Walker who was Caesar and is now General Director of Palm Beach Opera. When David decided to go into administration, he and I talked a great deal about passion for the art form and how rewarding it can be to make it all happen. My dear friend Gloria Parker was Cornelia.
Gloria is now an artist agent and represents two of the singers in the cast!
Oh that’s fantastic. So: how do you approach Handel? Is there anything unique to the way you approach him versus other early music composers like Vivaldi or Haydn, or the way you prepare for something like Mozart?
CB: I wouldn’t say there are no big differences in preparation. Music is music. There are differences in the nuts and bolts performance practice - how trills and ornaments work, for example - but no big differences.
MS: For me there is a big difference because of the clear structure of a series of arias and (in Caesar) only two duets, with text repeated over and over. The most important thing in my approach is to think very clearly about the story and how I want to tell it so that a modern audience can connect to it. I’ve often done these operas in modern dress so that the action and ideas I plan can connect with the antiquated way the text is laid out. I also make the supertitle translations in as modern a vernacular as I can without becoming inelegant. In this production we have decided to dress the singers in the style of 48 BC but have them using modern props and anachronistic action. This helps to increase the comedy of the piece and we hope people are delighted by it. But most importantly, it is rooted in telling the story in a clear focused way from the very beginning of the production.
West Edge Opera loves a good edit, and I know that you both have been working on edits and cuts within this summer festival’s production of Julius Caesar. What did you know had to stay, and how did you know what could go?
CB: We agreed that some redundancy in the story telling had to go. Aspects of the libretto that did not advance the driving narratives ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were.
MS: There is a clear list of arias that have to stay… They are some of the best music Handel wrote. There are also several arias that are just… meh. So out they went. This makes what would be a four-hour evening now only two hours and forty minutes with one intermission instead of two.
I often move things around in the early pieces to improve the dramaturgy for a modern audience. Xerxes, which we presented in 2011, was a big cut and paste job since several scenes in Act 2 and 3 are very redundant. Our Eliogabalo is unrecognizable from the score that arrived. Without reorganization, the story is confusing and makes little sense. In the case of Caesar, moving the aria “Se in fiorito” two scenes later and connecting it to a later scene when Caesar has to quell the uprising made so much sense when we did it in Kansas City, I wanted to keep it.
Both of you have serious experience working on new and modern operas. What is different about preparing for an early music opera as compared to a modern opera?
CB: The main difference is that with a new opera, one is literally creating it for the first time. The sense of discovery is quite intense. With earlier operas (and this would include Puccini!), one endeavors to re-imagine and re-embody those works. There is always something new that arises in the process and nothing ever feels like it is the churning out of the terminally familiar.
MS: Absolutely agree. Such a different experience when you have centuries of performance practices to accept or push against. A new opera, even the second time out, which I’ve done a lot, is so exciting to approach because the audience really doesn’t know what to expect.
What is the thing that you are walking into the rehearsal process not yet knowing?
MS: Not knowing if the idea of the anachronisms will work or just be in the way. (Breaking news: they work, yay!) Also not knowing what the few singers I have never worked with before will bring to the parts. There is always an adjustment when you get to know a performer so that the staging fits them - not some preconceived notion of how they should play a character that I made up in my head. As a staging director, that’s one of the most exciting parts of the process!