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San Diego Opera Opens 2010 Season With 'La Bohème'

San Diego Opera Opens 2010 Season With 'La Bohème'
The San Diego Opera opens their 2010 season with Giacomo Puccini's classic La Bohème. We'll talk with members of the cast, including San Diego-based soprano Priti Gandhi, who performs the role of the irrepressible flirt Musetta in La Bohème. We'll also talk with San Diego Opera's Dr. Nic Reveles about why La Bohème is such an enduring story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): To some it is one of the most beloved classics in the operatic repertoire. To others, it's the only opera they really know anything about, and to the youngest among us, it is the show that “Rent” was based on. I'm talking about La Bohème, Puccini's heartbreaking salute to the lives and loves of the artistic bohemians of Paris. The San Diego Opera is opening its new season with this perennial audience favorite. And in the cast, another favorite, soprano Priti Ghandi, she's performing – her performing career began here in San Diego. She's performing the role of Musetta in La Bohème. She’s here to talk with us today. Priti Gandhi, thank you for being here.

PRITI GANDHI (Operatic Performer): Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: I’d also like to welcome other star of the opera, Jeff Mattsey. He’s a baritone performing the role of Marcello. Jeff, welcome to These Days.


JEFF MATTSEY (Operatic Performer): Morning, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Nic Reveles is San Diego Opera's Geisel Director of Education. Dr. Reveles, Nic, thanks for being here.

DR. NIC REVELES (Geisel Director of Education, San Diego Opera): Good morning. It’s good to see you again.

CAVANAUGH: Why did the San Diego Opera, Nic, want to launch its 2010 season with this classic, this very well known classic, La Bohème?

DR. REVELES: I like to say that we do La Bohème every five years whether we want it or not, whether we need it or not. It’s – it is the opera that kicked off San Diego Opera. We founded San Diego Opera on a performance of La Bohème. And it, you know, and certainly the bottom line is, it sells very well because it’s an extremely popular opera. But I think that, you know, and, again, as an opera scholar and somebody who adores opera and every kind of opera, I never tire of Bohème. It is a great piece, so there’s every reason in the world to do it again. It’s also, for those people who have never been to opera before, it is a terrific first opera.


CAVANAUGH: Well, for those people, tell us, give us a brief overview of the story if you would.

DR. REVELES: Well, the story is based on a kind of a novel that was by Henri Murger. He wrote it in, I think, the 1840s or 1850s, and it was a reminiscence of his own experiences as a student living in the Latin Quarter and going to the Sorbonne. And he was surrounded by students and artists, poets, philosophers, and these were all bohemians in the sense that they were trying to eke out a living as artists or students, so they were very poor. They lived communally. You know, they lived from gig to gig.


DR. REVELES: And so the characters in the original novel are so colorful and they just sort of jump off of the page. Murger turned the – this Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, which is what he called it originally, into a play and the play became very popular. Puccini and another Italian composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, who wrote Pagliacci, both were working on a version of La Bohème at the same time, which is sort of interesting. Not a lot of people know that there was another La Bohème that premiered a year after Puccini’s in 1896.

CAVANAUGH: I did not know that.

DR. REVELES: Yeah. And it didn’t just quite make it with the audiences. They co-existed very successfully for about 10 years but then the audience voted with their feet and Puccini’s became more popular. But I think it is popular and it is a great piece because Puccini was a man of the theatre, he knew exactly what worked on stage and what didn’t. And I guess for people who don’t know opera and who have never been to opera before, the melodies are immediately accessible and the characters are immediately accessible. You fall in love with these characters from the moment the curtain goes up. It’s really remarkable.

CAVANAUGH: And the music helps you to do that. And…

DR. REVELES: Oh, absolutely. And there’s not a moment in the opera where you don’t hear a melody. It’s one of the remarkable things. And I hope my colleagues here agree, that you don’t feel, as you do in some other operas, older operas, perhaps, that there’s a difference between when the characters are talking about mundane things and when they’re, you know, revealing their spirits inside or revealing their souls, that there is constant melodic invention in this piece that just keeps the singers and the audience moving from moment to moment so you feel like you’re being pulled dynamically through it. And I think, really, that’s what made “Rent”—and I promise this is the last time that I will mention “Rent”—but because “Rent” was based on Bohème in a very sort of structured way and in a very studious way, I think that’s what made “Rent” very successful. It moves very much the same way using the structure of the original opera, La Bohème. And I think that’s one of the things that made “Rent” fly in an evening. You know, it just – you just fall in love with the characters, you go from one hit melody after another, one great moment after another. It’s just a very energetic and electric and dynamic evening of theatre.

CAVANAUGH: Before we speak to two of the stars of La Bohème, let’s hear just a little bit of that music. Here’s a little from the opening of the opera. This is a recording of Puccini’s La Bohème starring Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Elizabeth Harwood, among others, accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

(audio of clip from opening of La Bohème)

CAVANAUGH: That’s from the opening of La Bohème. And I always like the opera people to tell me the name of the opening piece. What is that piece called, Nic?

DR. REVELES: Oh, it’s – it’s just the opening of the piece. I mean, the first words are questo mar rossso…

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Uh-huh.

DR. REVELES: …it’s Marcello is working on a painting of the crossing of the Red Sea. And, I mean, again, here’s a wonderful example of what I was talking about. They’re talking about the most mundane things. Marcello is working on a painting. Rodolpho is working on a poem. And all they’re talking about is how cold they are. It’s Christmas Eve.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, exactly…

DR. REVELES: All they’re talking about is how this darn stove won’t…


DR. REVELES: …put out enough heat. They don’t have enough money for fuel. But the tunes, you know, are great. Already, you know, as soon as Rodolpho opens his mouth, you’ve got this wonderful tune, this great melody. It’s just amazing writing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Priti Gandhi, you play Musetta in La Bohème, and you’ve said La Bohème is about friendship. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that?

GANDHI: Yes. Well, the story revolves around a group of friends who are trying to survive in Paris during a cold winter, with very little money and an apartment with no heat.


GANDHI: And struggling to find a good bottle of wine and some bread and cheese. And – and friends go through experiences like this, and it’s a very bonding experience. And when you’re struggling to survive together, it creates deeper bonds, I think, than people who just meet every day for coffee. I mean, they’re struggling to just be able to get from day to day together. And I think that the bonds of those friendships is also what drives – what moves the piece so much…

DR. REVELES: It’s like…

GANDHI: …because it’s so touching and it’s so vital to survival, everyday survival. And I think that has a lot to do with why the piece is also – just catches you right away.

DR. REVELES: It’s like when you’re in New York and you’re struggling…

GANDHI: Absolutely.

DR. REVELES: …and you say, do you have a gig tonight? Yeah, I do. So we can – you can buy beer tonight. You know, you can buy the pizza.

GANDHI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Priti, I want to talk to you about Musetta because she is quite a number. She is quite a flirt.

GANDHI: Yes, she is.

CAVANAUGH: Is it a fun role?

GANDHI: Oh, it’s a very fun role. And I’ll tell you something, having a group of people around you to bounce off this wonderful role, who also encourage that side of you, makes it so much more rewarding and so much more fun and easy to play. I’m really grateful for that because it makes it all the more pleasurable to visit this character every day in rehearsals.

CAVANAUGH: Well, it sounds like it’s a lot of fun but there are also challenging aspects to it. You – There’s like some acrobatic or a shoulder lift or something like that?

GANDHI: Oh, yes. Well, they took out – you know, they took out the back handsprings, so they decided just to keep the shoulder lift.

CAVANAUGH: What is that? Describe that for us.


CAVANAUGH: Why does that happen?

GANDHI: …at the end of Act Two, Musetta has lost her shoe because she’s tossed it to get rid of her older gentlemanly friend so that she can get back together with Marcello. That all sounds very convoluted but it has something to do with the sexiness of the ankle and getting Marcello’s attention. And so she’s hobbling around with one shoe and the guys decide to lift her up on their shoulders so they can follow the parade out. They need to get out of the café quickly because her older suitor is coming back and he’s going to find that we’ve all left the bill for him at the café. So they need to get out very fast and they decide to lift Musetta up on their shoulders so she doesn’t have to walk around without a shoe. And so that’s kind of where the shoulder lift happens. And we follow this big parade out. It took a few tries in rehearsal for me to feel comfortable with that. I’m also wearing a huge dress.

CAVANAUGH: A beautiful dress, right?

GANDHI: Yes, a very beautiful dress. It’s…

CAVANAUGH: You write about the costuming in a blog that you actually did for the San Diego – for Sign on San Diego, right?

GANDHI: Yes, for the Union-Tribune. That’s correct. It’s running for 10 weeks, so I think I’ve had 3 Sundays already. The Union-Tribune wanted me to write a column along with San Diego Opera, they wanted to sort of demystify opera for people and have them get an insider’s look as to what it was like for a singer and life, everyday rehearsals, what we go through, our experiences, and, hopefully, that’s helping people to see the other side of what it means – what it takes to put together an opera.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Priti, you said you’ve grown into the role of a full blown soprano. Can you talk a little bit about that? What – can you – what is the history of your voice now that it has grown into this soprano range?

GANDHI: Well, when I started singing and when I started in the chorus at San Diego Opera, I started as a mezzo. And I see now – there were a few reasons for that. One, I had to get comfortable with singing in my middle range. Two, I don’t think I was ever ready for the psychology of what it meant to be a soprano, and I can say that to you now only after recent thought about it and realizing what it takes to be a soprano. I don’t think I was ever ready for what it meant to be the loudest, highest person onstage. And I think now I had to grow into that role slowly, and I think being a mezzo helped me to edge into that kind of a spotlight in a way which was comfortable for me, in my psychology and in the way that I – Because I came into opera not knowing a thing about it. I’d been taking piano my whole life and that was my musical background. But opera, I had never sung, ever. I was a telecommunications major from UCSD, so for me, the whole industry of the opera house, I had no idea what that was like. And so I think starting as a mezzo enabled me to sort of edge my way in slowly in a way which was comfortable for me every step of the way.



CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

DR. REVELES: …Priti is not telling you everything. And I was her boss for actually for awhile and – when she was in the San Diego Opera ensemble. But I also want to say she was a lyric coloratura mezzo. I mean, she really – the voice has incredible flexibility.

GANDHI: Which you don’t get to see in this role, actually.


GANDHI: The Rossini operas is kind of where I was edging towards.

DR. REVELES: And that’s what I hope that you’ll, in making the transition, we won’t lose, and I’m sure we won’t. But, you know, it’s that flexibility and that ability to sing quickly and to sing roulades and trills and, you know, the runs. It’s so wonderful and so exciting. And that’s what I was always a little afraid of when she was moving up, but I don’t think she’s lost that.

GANDHI: Oh, good.

DR. REVELES: Which is great.

GANDHI: Oh, good.

CAVANAUGH: Well, unfortunately we don’t have a cut from you singing in La Bohème but just to give the audience an idea of what your role sounds like, let’s hear a little of “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s La Bohème. Elizabeth Harwood sings Musetta.

(audio clip of “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohème)

CAVANAUGH: Any excuse to hear more of Puccini’s La Bohème. I’m speaking with Dr. Nic Reveles, who is San Diego Opera’s Geisel Director of Education, and two of the stars of the – of San Diego’s production of La Bohème. I’m speaking with Priti Gandhi and, finally, with Jeff Mattsey. Thank you for being so patient.

MATTSEY: Oh, it’s great.

CAVANAUGH: You are a baritone. You play Marcello. You say that you are – you’re jealous of Marcello. Why? And tell us about him.

MATTSEY: Well, he’s just – he’s everybody’s best friend and he’s the type of person that everybody wants to be, and everybody looks to to sort of guide everything in their daily lives. And I think it’s, you know, one of those – just a character that you really want to be like. I mean, he’s just a great guy, but he’s a very jealous individual, I mean, especially of Musetta and the whole story. But it’s the only person that drives and pushes his buttons the wrong way.

CAVANAUGH: I’m fascinated in the way that you take these roles from production to production and I’m wondering, with the new – with different cast configurations, does your performance change?

MATTSEY: It has to because it has – especially La Bohème, it has to live and you have different comic moments that come about because of the different people that you work with. I mean, I’ve done 75 performances of this opera so far over the last 24 years. It’s the first opera that I ever – that I made my debut with. And so in that time, you know, you have a different tenor that has, whether it be, you know, Pavarotti or it be, you know, Piotr, if it be Jerry Hadley or Ricky Leech. It’s always something different. You have a different quality of tenor that brings a different either weight or lightness to his character. You join in with a different Colline, you know, so – and they may – basses tend to move slower sometimes than others, you know. We’re lucky that Al Walker is not – not a slow mover. He’s, you know, he…

DR. REVELES: No, not at all.

MATTSEY: We – the four of us have hit it off very well in this cast, so there’s a great bond of male testosterone that runs around on the stage, so it helps to have that situation, that everybody’s onboard, and Malcolm MacKenzie, all four of us are just having a wonderful time. And then you mix in the girls amongst that and they’re all on board for all this sort of, you know, frivolity, I guess you want to say. And when you were speaking of friends, it’s – for those of you who don’t know opera, it’s really a combination of you take Seinfeld and Friends…

GANDHI: Uh-huh.

MATTSEY: …smash it together, and you have La Bohème.

DR. REVELES: Umm-hmm.

GANDHI: How true.

DR. REVELES: Umm-hmm.

MATTSEY: It’s, like you said, the media, just mundane things of life that you speak about and yet it’s light banter and it’s funny and you enjoy…

DR. REVELES: I mean, Bohème is ultimately a tragedy but there is so much more to La Bohème than that, and there is a lot of comedy and there’s a lot of banter back and forth…

MATTSEY: Just back and forth.

DR. REVELES: …between all of the characters. It’s wonderful.

GANDHI: It’s kind of the – Puccini’s version of what we call our sitcoms of today because if you look at their dialogue and you translate it, it’s hilarious. I mean, it’s so funny. Their café conversation, I laugh every time I listen to it.

MATTSEY: Well, my favorite line is when Rodolpho says, the angels go naked.

GANDHI: Yes, that’s my favorite line, too.

MATTSEY: Of the entire piece, it’s my – it’s…

GANDHI: That’s my favorite line, too.

DR. REVELES: No, but I have a favorite word. And…

CAVANAUGH: I know what it is.

DR. REVELES: And that’s the word that Priti as Musetta throws at Marcello.

GANDHI: Rospo.

DR. REVELES: I love that. It means…


CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

DR. REVELES: But you – and before – and prior to that, you call him a…

GANDHI: I call him a housepainter.

DR. REVELES: A pittore…

GANDHI: Pittore de bodega.

DR. REVELES: Is that great? These wonderful insults, they just roll off the tongue.

GANDHI: And he calls me a…

GANDHI/MATTSEY: …viper and a witch…

DR. REVELES: Vipera strega.

MATTSEY: Vipera strega.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, you know, as we get closer and closer to opening night, do you do anything in particular to conserve your voices or conserve your energy for the opening? I’m going to ask you first, Jeff.

MATTSEY: Well, during production week it gets rather busy. You have long technical rehearsals with – on the set and on the stage, figuring out which door, does it open in or out, so you don’t hit your head on the door as you walk through the…


MATTSEY: You know, you figure out the lighting, you figure out all that. So those tend to run late into the evening. And then with the sitzprobe, which is the – what we sometimes call the sit and sing, with the orchestra, the first time through really with the orchestra to set tempe and things like that. So with four straight days of singing the opera, it can wear out the voice. I mean, it’s just like, you know, nobody’s going to run a marathon four days in a row. So it’s the use of the muscles and the technical aspect of your voice that you have to make sure you save it for opening night. And so in the week, you’ll use the term ‘mark’ is the term where you either, you know, instead of singing the high notes, you sing them down the octave or you sort of sing them half-voice or you place it so you know what you have to do physically, and that’s part of the training of an opera singer, is you know what you need to do to make sure that when it comes to opening night, your voice is ready to go.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.

DR. REVELES: Yeah, we were talking about that in the green room beforehand, that marking can be dangerous. You really do have to know how to mark.


DR. REVELES: And I find younger singers particularly, the singers often that came through our program didn’t really know how to do that. And then that there are other singers, who are more experienced, who actually it’s safer for them and it’s better for them to just sing out.


DR. REVELES: You know, you just have to sort of make that up as you go along and how your voice feels.

GANDHI: Absolutely.

DR. REVELES: Wouldn’t you agree?

GANDHI: You have to – you gauge your own instrument, absolutely. Every singer is different. And then you have singers who seem to have cords of Teflon and never seem to need to mark…


GANDHI: …no matter how many days in a row they sing.



GANDHI: And you have to know, as a singer, you can’t go in and compare yourself to those kinds of singers.


GANDHI: You have to know, this is my limit. I know that I need to mark tonight, so that I can be fresh for tomorrow.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. You get to know that, of course, as you go on in your career.

GANDHI: Yes, by trial and error.


GANDHI: By weeks where you realize, wow, I really sang too much this week and you start to, every production, you gauge, what was my experience last time? I know the limits of this role, what is my stamina this week? Did I get enough sleep last night? How am I feeling today? And every day you’ve got to wake up and you’ve got to check in with your body and your voice and you’ve got to honor that. You’ve got to honor your instrument…

DR. REVELES: And this is one of the…

GANDHI: …and you have to have no ego about it either. I mean, you’ve really got to put away your ego…

MATTSEY: Yeah. Yeah.

GANDHI: …and know if I need to mark tonight and there are people out there and it’s just, you know, a technical rehearsal, I can’t sing for the sake of my ego. I’ve got to save it.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, sure.

DR. REVELES: And this is something that the conservatories and the schools of music do not teach young singers.

GANDHI: No. No, they don’t.

DR. REVELES: They don’t teach marking.


DR. REVELES: You just have to learn that. You sort of…

GANDHI: You find out yourself.

DR. REVELES: …apprentice with another singer.

GANDHI: Right. And you usually find out the week you lose your voice. That’s when – that’s when you find out.

MATTSEY: You’ve done a little too much.


GANDHI: Yes, exactly.


CAVANAUGH: Now, I do – I hate to come away from this conversation because it’s so fascinating but I do want to talk briefly about the next opera…


CAVANAUGH: …in the season because we’ve got you here, Nic, and it’s Verdi’s Nabucco.

DR. REVELES: And you know that I’m out there doing nothing but talking about Nabucco. It’s really – it’s a fascinating opera. It was Verdi’s third opera but his first big success. And it sort of made his name in Italy and then, of course, because Italy was the home of opera at this time in the middle of the 19th century, it just sent his name throughout Europe. It’s a great opera based – The deep background is the Babylonian exile of the Israelites in the 5th century BCE and about Nabucco, which is the Italian short name, nickname, for Nebuchadnezzar.


DR. REVELES: So Nebuchadnezzar, of course, brought his Babylonian hordes to Jerusalem because the King of Judah had been, quote, unquote, bad. They had become quite corrupt and they were really sort of, you know, nosing into Babylonian territory. And so Nabucc – or, not Nabucco, Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed Jerusalem, destroyed the first temple, and abducted 30,000 Jews and took them to Babylon for 40 or 50 years. So that’s the deep background. The actual opera is about Nabucco’s two daughters, one a daughter by a queen and one by a slave. The one by the slave is Abigaille, who is the evil daughter. The good daughter is Fenena. And so there’s a love triangle, of course. Because it’s opera, it’d have to be sort of all about that. But the interesting thing to me is the deep background, the Biblical background. It’s really sort of fascinating to see how the opera plays on different levels, on different layers. It is pure Verdi through and through. You – Even though this is a very early opera in Verdi’s career, you can tell that it’s Verdi. The personality is there, the dynamism, and the constant search of this genius of a composer for dramatic truth. Every character is lined out musically so perfectly. It’s an extremely challenging opera, not only for the soloists but for the chorus. And, in fact, based on his reputation for having written this piece, he was called ‘il papa de coro,’ the father of the chorus…


DR. REVELES: …in opera. And I find fas – once I heard that, because I’d never heard that before really digging into Nabucco, I realized, well, yeah, there are all sorts of recordings of highlights of choral singing from Verdi. You don’t find a Rossini choral highlights…

CAVANAUGH: No, you sure…

DR. REVELES: …or Bellini or Donizetti or any other composers that were writing at the time. He really wrote gorgeous, and sometimes very challenging, choral music. And all of it’s in Nabucco.

CAVANAUGH: We have to end it. I’m so sorry.


CAVANAUGH: But I want to thank you all so much for being here and talking with us. I learned a lot and I – it was just a pleasure. Thank you so much.

DR. REVELES: Thank you, Maureen.

GANDHI: Thank you.

MATTSEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Nic Reveles and Priti Gandhi and Jeff Mattsey. And we’re going to be going out on music featuring your role in La Bohème. I want to tell everyone, Puccini’s La Bohème will be at the San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre January 30th and February 2nd, 5th, and 7th. Thank you once again for being here.

DR. REVELES: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And stay with us. These Days will continue in a moment.

(audio of clip from La Bohème)