Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian Interview

Foxy lady Bayrakdarian rehearses in her 'vixen' costume
The Cunning Little Vixen
An opera by Leos Janacek
Directed by Doug Fitch
Performed by the New York Philharmonic
Conducted by Alan Gilbert
June 22-25, 2011
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

The New York Philharmonic finished its first season under music director Alan Gilbert last June with Doug Fitch’s stunning, multi-media staging of Gyorgy Ligeti’s fantastical modern opera, Le Grand Macabre, in its New York premiere. In what may become an annual closing event, the Philharmonic has brought back Finch to stage Leos Janacek’s gorgeous opera about the cycles of life among the human and animal worlds, The Cunning Little Vixen, with the full forces of the orchestra performing Janacek’s superlative, singular score with a top cast, which will be led by Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as the foxy female protagonist herself.

No stranger to this role--she has performed it, in the original Czech (these performances are in English), around the world, since understudying it in her hometown of Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s 1998 production--Bayrakdarian discussed how she approaches this unique character while on a break from rehearsals at Avery Fisher Hall.

Kevin Filipski: How familiar are you with Janacek’s Vixen?
Isabel Bayrakdarian: In 1998 in Toronto, I was the cover for the Vixen. I didn’t sing in the production but I did sing some of the rehearsals. I was a member of the COC (Canadian Opera Company) ensemble program for that season. There were a lot of tears the first time I learned to sing this opera because the Czech language is so difficult. But finally I realized that Janacek has written it with the idiom of his language in mind, and it’s wonderful to hear. Now that we’re singing it in English, we have to take liberties within the framework of each bar and modify it so that English accents are highlighted instead of the Czech. We’re making modifications to the standard translation because it has to be singable and current, since some of the lingo needs to be updated. Doing it in English takes a certain amount of changing gears in your mind, but I’ve done the most difficult part, which is the music. Structurally, it changes a little bit, you have to know just when to come in, so it’s a blessing that I’ve done the part many times. It’s a very tricky score, it constantly changes from playful, animalistic lightness to lush long lines.

KF: Talk about your preparation to play a singing fox onstage.
IB: It’s a very difficult role: how do you prepare to be an animal? It takes a certain amount of stamina and physical fitness to run around literally on all fours and sing. But it’s also strangely comforting, because you’re always close to the earth, and you gain strength from it: your center of gravity is as close to the ground as possible. Janacek had a very good three-dimensional idea of who the vixen is. It’s not always written in very long lines so that she must stand and sing all the time, and it’s not written in a chatty way to suggest that she’s always running around. It’s a nice balance as she develops from a youngster to a teenager with opinionated ideals of equality and feminism to a woman falling in love and becoming a mother.

KF: It’s amazing what Janacek was able to do with essentially a comic strip when he turned it into an opera.
IB: This is one of the few operas that children would enjoy it, but the human world is painted very correctly. And you know what? It doesn’t fare well when compared with the animal world, it’s so bleak and so real that you almost prefer to be in the animal world, as opposed to the human world where there are lots of regrets. Animals don’t regret, they always look forward. Nowhere in the score does it look to the past, it’s always to the future. Whereas you see in the human world so many regrets about unexpressed emotions and bitterness. It’s true in many ways, it’s better to be an animal.

KF: What’s unique about this staging?
IB: For starters, there’s an extension into the audience up to row M, which means I’m in the middle of the auditorium, a most unusual place for a singer! But it’s an ingenious way of bridging the audience-performer gap, making the audience part of the action so sometimes they have to look back to see what’s going on. It’s a good way to mirror what’s going on in the opera, where the human and animal worlds are intertwined and are changed by the actions in the other. When I sing in the middle of the audience, the energy will be very different than when I sing in front of them. There will also be lots of entrances and exits through the audience, which you can’t do in an opera house. It’s a very unique way of doing a very unique opera.

KF: Are you ready to sing more Janacek operas, most of which have central female characters (Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, The Makropulos Case)?
IB: I haven’t sung any other Janacek roles yet, but I started to become interested ever since I became a mom myself: I now want roles that are much more substantial, with a deeper dramatic scope that allows more exploration. Also, now I can read Czech very easily, so it will be faster learning these roles than in the past. The Czech words and music are welded together in Janacek’s operas, which have a darkness that is particularly Czech.

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