‘Dutchman’ ushers in Livermore Valley Opera’s 25th year
By Lou Fancher
Twenty-five years after Alexander Katsman and a handful of volunteer music aficionados set out to establish an opera company in the Tri-Valley, the Livermore Valley Opera’s music and artistic director is thinking Wagnerian.
Launching Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” (“Die Fliegende Holländer”) last weekend and continuing through Sunday, an “if-not-now-when?” mentality reigns as the German composer’s grand vessel marks the start of LVO’s silver anniversary season.
“It’s big. We wanted to show the community how we’ve gone from being a tiny company to one of the five largest opera companies in the Bay Area,” says Katsman. “Livermore has a new downtown and a beautiful facility in the Bankhead, with the best acoustics and not a bad seat in the house. We have a wonderful orchestra, a big chorus. What better time is there?”
During the company’s first rehearsals in 1992, singers made the sets. The crew and cast were opera singers who wanted to sing and people who wanted to hear them. Sail forward to 2016, the regional professional company’s “Dutchman” features four in-demand principal artists: bass-baritone Philip Skinner (the Dutchman), soprano Marie Plette (Senta), baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (Daland, Senta’s father) and tenor David Gustafson (Erik, Senta’s fiancé).
A 32-member orchestra and three choruses that bring 35 singers to the stage are surrounded by a state-of -the-art set that includes projections and larger-than-life imagery. “It requires unprecedented technical elements for us, but those never surpass the importance of the singers,” Katsman says.
Wagner is known for writing the librettos and music for his operas. The “Dutchman” score reveals the latent influence of Italian and French composers before Wagner’s time, but also forward-thinking structures like leitmotifs — short musical phrases associated with a specific character or theme — and the work’s original one-act, no-intermission format. Modern practice has the opera performed in three acts with an intermission. LVO’s three-act version is sung in German, with English subtitles. Katsman says some people fear a Wagner opera will last for five hours — or feel like it.
“Some operas, you don’t notice the time; others, you feel like you’ve sat for three days. It depends on the music. We kept this production to just under three hours.”
A swift-moving story helps the passage of time. The Dutchman is a man carrying a curse and doomed to sail stormy seas for all eternity until he finds a woman who will remain faithful to him. He can set foot on land every seven years, but doing so has sacrificed the lives of the women who fail to break the curse. Landing at a small Norwegian fishing village as the production begins, Senta, a young woman betrothed to another man, becomes enamored with the prospect of becoming his salvation. Themes of redemption, remorse, hope, despair and love are thrown against the setting’s dramatic backdrop.
“You see Wagner’s genius in his descriptions of the sea,” says Katsman. “In the love duets, gorgeous melodies are wedded to the text.”
Skinner, Katsman says, is well-suited to the role. Casting to type — intentionally selecting a singer whose voice and acting skills match a part — he believes allows people to sing organically.
“If you don’t do that, they can sing beautifully but not be connected. It’s like a person who wears expensive clothes, but the clothes don’t fit them properly.”
On the other hand, Skinner says he’s attracted to roles that challenge him to find new features and capabilities in his voice.
“The more I have performed roles that test me in terms of baritone literature, the more I’ve expanded my range. The extremes, the upper range of the voice, you learn to achieve them,” he said.
“Dutchman’s” longer phrases and sustained, legato notes without word breaks force him to “be smart” about using his breath. An otherworldly monologue early in the opera, “Die Frist ist um,” is Skinner’s favorite.
“It isn’t the centerpiece, but it’s sweeping, a gorgeous introduction to the character,” he said.
Skinner says Plette, whose voice is similar to Skinner’s in that it is expansive in the upper ranges, is “an easy fit” and not “boxed in” as an actor. Katsman says both performers are known by audiences throughout the Bay Area for their broad, expressive theatricality.
Skinner says his life as an opera singer is ironic. “What I do for a living, performing vocal gymnastics, live, I never get to hear it. It’s different, listening to it on a recording or video.”
Of course, if he could listen to himself while singing “Dutchman,” it might ruin the show.
“The first time I heard the opera, it was a recording of Canadian opera master George London. I thought, ‘This is the voice of God.’ Listening with a friend, we couldn’t breathe,” he said. “By the end of the aria, we were rolling on the floor, laughing in amazement at the power of his sound.”
Katsman, asked in what ways opera remains relevant for contemporary audiences, has an answer that’s likely as energetic today as it was 25 years ago.
“Great art is always relevant. Without it, the soul of the nation dies,” he says. “As for ‘Dutchman’s’ story, emotions don’t change, even if people wear different clothes. How many men change their lives because of the women they meet? You can like or dislike Wagner, but what is genius is that he can get in your soul and make you have an experience.”