Watch your mouth, sister! Divas at Tacoma Opera

21 Mar

March 30 is opening night for the Tacoma Opera (TO) production of La Bohème. In this production, Giacomo Puccini’s drama about a group of struggling young artists (bohemians, get it?) in 19th-century Paris time-travels to post-WWII Paris in 1947. Peter Serko is a Tacoma photographer documenting the dress rehearsals and behind-the-scenes activity of the opera company, established in 1968. We caught him in between projects to talk about opera in Tacoma, why he is obsessed with it…and why others are saying, bravo, too.

TACOMA ARTS: Hi Peter. La Bohème is opening March 30 at Tacoma Opera. What are you going to wear?
PETER SERKO: [The dress code] runs the gamut here in the Northwest. Some folks really like to dress up, yet Northwest casual is perfectly acceptable. I keep threatening to get a tux but I have never really looked good in a cummerbund. If I am going to opening night I like to at least wear a sport coat and tie. I think the dress-up thing is kind of fun and makes the evening different from a trip to the movies.
TA: I think REI has a Gore-Tex tuxedo…It will be news to some people that Tacoma has its own opera. When did you start photographing the opera company? Tell us a little about your project.
SERKO: I started photographing rehearsals during the 2008-09 season….It is an amazing thing to watch [an opera] unfold in a very short time. My efforts are not all together altruistic; I get to see what few opera fans ever see, it is a real treat. I have been at it long enough that the singers and staff don’t notice me and I just move freely around in rehearsals and backstage when we get in the theater. I’m just part of the scenery; that is the way I like it.

Trouble In Tahiti, Tacoma Opera. Photo: Peter Serko

TA: Kind of like a wildlife photographer – a bush that moves from place to place. Many people have never been to the opera. Some consider it fusty or a bit fancy. Is it possible to go from Ding Dongs to tiramisu, musically speaking? Does opera have something for everybody?
SERKO: Opera has been around for over 400 years. It is one of the oldest western musical forms. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the major form of entertainment: it was the “March Madness”, Dancing With The Stars, and American Idol of  its day. Performances were raucous events with vendors selling food and merchandise during the performance like we see at baseball games today. It was entertainment for the masses. [Present-day] opera is not a cheap night out but the timeless stories it tells are for everyone. Anyone who loves to hear the music of the great musical geniuses of their age sung by talented artists will enjoy opera. Tacoma Opera doesn’t do lavish productions but the singing is always first-rate.
TA: What if the libretto, or text of the work, is in another language?
SERKO: With the advent of [projected] supratitles in English, above the stage, the issue of language is not a problem.
TA: You were a family therapist for a number of years; what blanket statement would you make about the melodramatic plots and the relationships between characters in opera?
SERKO: Lots of pathology for sure. Only in opera can two people meet one minute, propose marriage in the next measure, only to find out in the next act that they are really brother and sister. It is twisted. In opera you need to suspend belief. Everything is over the top, bigger than life, and that is what makes it so enjoyable.

Marriage of Figaro, Tacoma Opera. Photo: Peter Serko

TA: How did you first become interested in opera?
SERKO: Fell in love with opera about 10 years ago. I filled-in for my wife one Sunday matinee at Seattle Opera. She had season’s tickets to go with our friend Gregory. I went and got hooked…Since then I have seen over 70 different operas….Tacoma Opera’s 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro was stunning, the best I have ever seen. I even made a book of it.
TA: There is a lot of talent in this company. I’m told that Robert McPherson, lead tenor in this season’s A Turk in Italy has covered roles at the Metropolitan Opera and will appear with the UK’s National Opera this season. Several TO artists have performed with Seattle Opera, Bellevue Opera, Gilbert & Sullivan. The Rialto, where La Bohème will be performed, is a 1918 gem of a theater.
TA: Malcolm McLaren, the late British music producer and manager of the Sex Pistols, made a brilliant opera album called FANS back in the 1980s. Arias from Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Carmen were sung in lush layers of soul, hiphop and straight opera. Leonard Bernstein loved it. That was my intro to the music.
SERKO: Opera music is a much bigger part of the common culture than we realize. Snippets of music and arias appear in movies, on TV and in commercials all the time. The wedding march we hear in also most every traditional wedding comes from Wagner’s Lohengrin. Great music just works. It endures.
TA: Music vs. narrative – which is more important? I saw Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and thought it would make a great George Lucas trilogy; strong story line, mythological in scale. I love opera’s overblown narratives, the way by the end of the story the stage is strewn with dead bodies…
SERKO: The great composers knew how to use music to tell the story. Opera, by definition, is words and music working together to create a musical drama, to tell a story. In Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it is said that the music played by the orchestra is telling the “truth” while what the characters are saying or singing is not to be trusted. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, opera was contrived to show off the virtuosity of the singers, the soprano and castrati. Opera seria, as it was called, was all about the singers, not about the story. The divas of the day had absolute control, they basically did whatever they wanted.

Turk In Italy, Tacoma Opera. Photo: Peter Serko

TA: Malcolm McLaren told me that some of the Grand Opera divas in history had much in common with the characters they played, sometimes making unspeakable(!) demands before appearing onstage. In your experience…?
SERKO: Playing “the diva” as we think of it these days will result in not getting work unless one is truly a star, and even then it is not much tolerated. As I mentioned, there was an “age of the diva” in the late 17th century. They did and sang what they wanted, even if it was not written. Nobody cared about story or drama, they just wanted to hear vocal fireworks.
TA: I’m no aficionado but I find much of opera music, especially Puccini, ravishing. And it’s interesting how the stories evolve for new generations of audiences. For instance, Tacoma Opera’s current production is La Bohème – a work that was written in 1896 but headlined on Broadway as Rent exactly one hundred years later.
SERKO: One of the thrilling things about opera is the chemistry of the artists. When everything is clicking and everyone is on top of their game it is magic. I have seen performances by the same cast on different nights and felt differently after each….Great music performed by talented artists is a joy to behold.
TA: In a blog you once wrote about an opera butt-pad controversy. Could you explain?
SERKO: Not sure what you mean?
TA: Something about how modern-day singers don’t like to wear them because it makes them look bottom heavy.
SERKO: Hah…oh yeah. Well, how would you like to walk around on stage with a big butt? Not very flattering. The real reason they did not use them for the production was movement on stage. Too many big butts on stage makes it very hard to move. At the Pantages the stage is not all that big.
TA: That colloquialism (most popular with sportscasters), “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” comes from the age of Grand Opera. But opera singers come in all shapes and sizes.
SERKO: That’s true, but I have been astonished to hear the huge sound that comes out of very petite sopranos or mezzo sopranos. To be able to fill a music hall or theater with the sound of one’s voice unamplified [opera singers don’t use microphones] is an amazing skill. It is all about breath and control. I don’t think size really matters for much of the opera repertory except for Wagner. It takes a very unique voice to be able to sing Wagner. You have to have a very big voice and that often goes along with significant body mass.
TA: Why should people go to see La Bohème?
SERKO: It is an accessible opera. There is a reason that it is one of the most widely performed operas in the repertory; it is a charming story set to catchy music. You hear a little bit of everything: arias, duets, group singing including a children’s chorus. It is the perfect opera for the beginner, and there is not brother and sister getting married.
TA: Any other advice for those considering attending for the first time?
SERKO: One mistake that beginners make is buying the cheapest seats and then sitting far away from the stage. If you are new to opera, it is important to sit close where you can get more involved in what is happening on the stage. Buy the best seat you can afford. The nice thing about Tacoma Opera venues is almost every seat is a good seat for the beginner. Sit close, that is my advice.
TA: And, compared to Seattle Opera, Tacoma Opera is a steal.
SERKO: Ticket sales never cover [production] costs but it is really important to sell tickets….TO productions are homegrown, using local and regional talent. They actually employ a lot of people, from singers to musicians to production staff, technical people and so on. Small professional companies are also important to the “opera ecosystem”. Singers need to sing and perform to get better. The bigger companies draw from this talent.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini; Italian with English subtitles. Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St. in Tacoma. Friday, March 30, 8 pm – Sunday, April 1, 2 pm. Tickets $12.50-$64. Info at 253-627-7789. Download an order form OR order online from the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts (visit the website for details).

Peter Serko is a professional photographer who has several published books including Art Changes A City: The Museum of Glass. All photos in this article by Peter Serko.

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4 Responses to “Watch your mouth, sister! Divas at Tacoma Opera”

  1. Jacquelyn Giles March 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Great interview! It’s especially good to hear from an observer with a trained “eye” for visually entertaining show as well as an “ear” for beautiful singing–actually two of each!

    I love the fact that Tacoma Opera casts age-appropriate singing actors–young professionals building careers that will land some of them on major world stages play the young characters, and there is a pool of more experienced singers who perform more mature roles. Disclaimer: I’m a Tacoma Opera fan and Board member (in that order) who had a modest opera career back “in the day”.

    • Tacoma Arts March 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Amazing music in a 1918 theater with great acoustics…doesn’t get any better.

  2. Jennifer Irwin March 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Tacoma Opera is opera so up close and intimate, you feel you are in the show. The singers have wonderful voices. They convey the energy and passion for the music they are singing through their performance. I just love the Tacoma Opera shows AND we have a new director! So La Boheme will be very exciting on many levels.

  3. kérdés August 27, 2012 at 12:53 am #

    Hello my family member! I wish to say that this post is amazing, great written and include approximately all important infos. I would like to look extra posts like this .

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