In addition to being one of Santa Barbara’s greatest cultural treasures, the annual full-dress opera produced by the Music Academy of the West has to be among contemporary music’s most concentrated efforts. Every year, Marilyn Horne and her extraordinary team of directors and conductors comb through hundreds of strong applicants to assemble a cast of the world’s top young singers, and from there they all proceed with just one thing in mind-a triumphant performance on the first weekend in August at the Lobero. It’s like a season in two performances, and the atmosphere reflects both Horne’s unparalleled knowledge of the tradition and her students’ and colleagues’ talent and enthusiasm.
This year, the opera is Mignon, a Romantic work by French composer Ambroise Thomas loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic novel Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre. The hero Wilhelm (Joshua Stewart) must decide between two women, the strangely childlike and pure Mignon (Simone Osborne) and the seductive actress Philine (Celia Zambon Wollenberg). The matching in this opera between the vocal ranges and the social status of the characters compels attention, with the hero of the bildungsroman appearing as the prototypical bourgeois tenor, and the mad Lothario (Gutemberg Amaral) fulfilling the baritone’s promise of rivalry, and disruption. In anticipation of this weekend’s performances, I spoke with director Casey Stangl while Indy intern Carolina Beltran interviewed Celia Zambon Wollenberg. For a longer version of the interview with Wollenberg, as well as Beltran’s essay on attending the Academy’s vocal masterclasses at Hahn Hall, visit independent.com.
Charles Donelan: As a director, you come from a theater background. What is different about directing an opera?
Casey Stangl: The core of what I do with opera is similar rather than different because we are always working with character and motivation. These young singers all really want their acting to be viable, and they look at it as another opportunity to achieve the same kind of distinction that they have with their voices. I work with them to connect their singing to their characters’ motivations, and to get them singing thoughtfully. There are certain differences, though, such as the frequency of repetition. In an aria, and in the course of an opera, a singer may have to approach the same line several times. Each repetition takes place in a different context, and I work with the singers to help them realize those changes. They need to know what’s different when they are singing it this time, as opposed to the last.
CD: So motivation really matters for you.
CS: Yes. Opera should be incredibly visceral. It’s when it passes into the primal that it realizes the form. The more the singers are tapped into their emotions, the better it works.
Carolina Beltran: Who are you playing, and what is she like?
Celia Zambon Wollenberg: There are two main female characters in the opera. There is the title role, Mignon, who is a little bohemian orphan, and then there is my character, Philine, the loud coquette. Philine is flirtatious, and blonde, and she loves to have men drool over her. And then there’s the tenor-you know, the romantic interest-and there is the bass. He looks like a vagabond but turns out to be the father of Mignon, and they are reunited at the end. I hope I’m not spoiling it for you! It’s a beautiful story, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.
Mignon will be performed twice, once on Friday, August 7, at 7:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, August 9, at 2:30 p.m. Both shows are at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, call 969-4726 or visit musicacademy.org.