Luhrmann conducts class for opera singers

MUSIC

Placido Domingo brings film director to program

May 28, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Think of the moment," the director says to his young cast. "And -- action!"

But this isn't a sound stage, and there are no big cameras rolling. The action unfolds instead in a large, mostly bare rehearsal room at the Washington Opera Studio in Takoma Park.

Members of the Vilar/Domingo Young Artists Program are being put through their paces by Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director whose films include Strictly Ballroom and a nominee for the 2001 best picture Oscar, Moulin Rouge.

This master class on acting is the kind of starry venture you might expect in the inaugural season of the Opera Studio, funded by a $5-million grant from mega-philanthropist Alberto Vilar. Washington Opera artistic director and superstar tenor Placido Domingo selected 11 singers and two pianist/coaches.

Among the vocalists is another tenor who is already something of a star -- Daniel Rodriguez, the New York City police officer whose singing at post-Sept. 11 memorial events and whose compact disc, The Spirit of America, have earned him a wide following.

As it turns out, Rodriguez is absent from Luhrmann's class, which is introduced personally by Domingo. The others get to sample the energetic, amiable director's combination of old sayings ("The future is in your hands") and almost maniacal analysis of words and gestures.

Looking like one of the Bee Gees in his casual-chic black suit and unruly mop of blond/gray hair, Luhrmann forces the singers to think about each move in scenes from Puccini's La Boheme, an opera particularly associated with him.

In 1990, he staged a remarkably appealing production of it for the Australian Opera, with the action updated to 1957; a film of it was broadcast on TV in this country. Come December, Luhrmann's Boheme is due to hit Broadway, where it will be presented like a traditional musical in daily performances.

"You can't not be deeply affected by Boheme," Luhrmann, 39, says before plunging into the master class. "Living for the moment, falling in love at an impossible pace -- we've all done it."

The director has finished hiring three casts for the opera.

"My dream is that it will be ongoing -- moving into England, Europe, Asia," he says. "Casts will come and go. I hope it will be a great breeding ground for young singers, in a way like the Washington Opera Studio."

Touching an audience, especially those who "have a fear of the grand temples of opera," is the goal of Luhrmann's art -- and this class.

"The experience I love above all is where true life and true drama were on stage, united with the music, and you could hear a pin drop," he says.

"Imagine if we could do that every day. I think we owe folks that. You cannot get casual about this mission. If you deliver that magic, they'll follow you forever."

Luhrmann then tried to unleash some of that magic within the confines of the rehearsal studio. He had one advantage going into the class.

Today's opera world may not boast voices of golden-age caliber, but most vocalists now -- including the Washington Opera Studio members who got a chance to work with Luhrmann -- could act rings around the stand-and-sing types of old. Still, Luhrmann wants a lot more from them.

Matthew Wolff, a 22-year-old tenor from Virginia, and baritone Hung Yun, 32, from Korea, go through the opening duet of Act 4, as the director watches intently through nearly squinted eyes. Then he pounces.

"What are you saying?" he ask both men. Haltingly, they translate their lines into English. Luhrmann still isn't satisfied. He asks Yun to switch to his native tongue and speak the whole scene. Suddenly, the baritone is communicating more deeply, as if he means every word.

"When it is in Italian, it has to be the same," Luhrmann says.

Later, in the opening scene of Act 3, the director works on one of Yun's gestures -- pointing out to a shivering Mimi the painting that the baritone's character, Marcello, has done. Yun keeps walking away from Mimi (soprano Eugenia Garza, 26, from Mexico) and spreading his arm wide, a stereotypical operatic motion Luhrmann won't abide.

He urges Yun to tone things down, to keep his focus on Mimi, and not play to the balcony.

"If you believe what you're saying, don't add things on top of it," the director says.

Each time a singer follows his advice, the thrice-familiar snippets of Boheme come to life in surprisingly effective ways.

The last singer up is Valeriano Lanchas, a 25-year-old bass from Colombia, who has clearly been absorbing the class. As he sings the Act 4 "Coat Aria," he keeps his movements to a minimum, internalizing the music.

"There was a moment there when I believed it," Luhrmann says, before continuing the process of digging for still more nuance, more truth.

`Don Giovanni'

While the Washington Opera has only just entered the business of providing a program for aspiring singers, the Baltimore Opera Studio started in 1998 with a variety of master classes, community outreach projects and performance opportunities.

Members of the 2002 program, who have been featured in supporting roles during the company's season, take center stage this week in a new staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Sebastian Catana sings the title role, with Daniel Olson as Leporello, Julia Dennard as Donna Anna, Taylor Hargrave as Don Ottavio, Ryu-Kyung Kim as Donna Elvira and Yuri Saenz as Zerlina. Troy Clark, a member of the 1999 Opera Studio, returns for the role of Masetto.

Henry MacCarthy is the director; Lara Webber conducts.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the McManus Theater, Loyola College, 4501 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10. Call 410-727-6000.

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