Young singers tackle two ‘children’s’ operas
The explorations and self-discovery of youth have extra dimensions for singers. They have to learn how to fit convincingly into a wide range of characters, with the flexibility to master different musical styles, and often singing in a foreign language.
Two sets of young singers in Pittsburgh are in the midst of such explorations. This week they will perform two great operas about children, which is a rare opportunity for local music lovers, too.
Pittsburgh Opera will present five performances of “Hansel & Gretel” (Hansel und Gretel) by Engelbert Humperdinck starting today at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown.
Carnegie Mellon University will present four performances of “L’Enfant et les sortileges” (The Child and the Enchantments) by Maurice Ravel today through Sunday at the Philip Chosky Theater on the Oakland campus.
“It’s different from anything else I’ve ever sung,” says soprano Suzanne Vinnik, 25, who will portray Gretel in “Hansel & Gretel.” “I’ve never sung the role of a child before.”
Vinnik is a first-year resident artist with the opera. “With a child, you have to think about how they’re different. ‘OK. When I was at this stage what did I do?’ I kind of feel I’m channeling my inner childhood,” she says. “How would I have touched my skirt when I was 4 or 8â¢ As you grow up, you develop different body mannerisms.”
“What’s intriguing about the idea of ‘children’s opera’ is that we somehow seek the simplicity and directness of communication, but operas don’t lend themselves always to just simplicity and directness,” say Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s general director. “There are so many overtones and poetry that surround the … magical aspects of opera.”
Children usually don’t figure much on the operatic stage. Hahn says the operas that do use children play on their innocence and sweetness, offering the shepherd in “Tosca” as a straightforward example.
“Hansel & Gretel” is the best known children’s opera, though Hahn says it’s “more than just a children’s opera.” Its composer, Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), was a follower of composer Richard Wagner and set a libretto taken from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
“The thing about ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is that the kids win,” Hahn says. “They’re smart, clever and undaunted. They stick together and prevail in an adult world of potential malevolence and dance.”
Gregory Lehane says Ravel’s “The Child and the Enchantments” is a kind of fairy tale. “The kid has a temper tantrum and wrecks the house. The (inanimate) objects take their revenge until he displays some kindness. Then they release him from a spell.”
The Carnegie Mellon production he is directing uses 29 cast members, singers and actors, who are between 19 and 22.
Ravel’s opera “is a condensed miracle, very short, about 50 minutes. … His imagination is extraordinary in that such an apparently childlike story has such extremely sophisticated music. It is, therefore, more grown up than a ‘children’s opera’ despite the subject,” says Lehane, professor of drama and music at CMU.
None of Pittsburgh Opera’s resident artists taking the leading roles in “Hansel & Gretel” have been oriented toward Wagnerian operas, which isn’t surprising. Wagner’s writing calls for voices with a size and power that normally blossoms, if it will, in the 30s.
Nevertheless, mezzo soprano Stephanie Lauricella, 27, loves her role as Hansel, which she performed one time as an understudy with Sarasota Opera in Florida.
“It was kind of a tease, that one performance. It’s just been a great experience going through the rehearsal process this time, not as a cover but to develop my own character. He’s a fun little kid. Even though his circumstances aren’t very good, he still seems to have fun, whether in the house or when they’re dancing together or in the woods when he keeps Gretel from being more scared.”
Born and raised in Suffolk County, N.Y., Lauricella has been singing as long as she can remember. She loves musical theater and opera equally and, this summer, will perform in “The Music Man” at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Vinnik’s voice has heft, but she’s already discovered that Italian, not German repertoire is her home.
“My voice is Italianate. I speak the language,” says the first-year resident artist at Pittsburgh Opera. “The temperament comes, I think, from the energy of the people. The music is always so romantic. … What I really love is the emotion and phrasing so much more than the words on the page — the total picture.”
Soprano Alexandra Loutsion, a second-year resident artist at the opera, will sing two adult roles in “Hansel & Gretel” — the mother and the witch.
“I put both on the heavier side of my rep,” she says. “The mother’s sound is very Wagnerian, but there’s only 10 minutes of it. It’s nice to have the opportunity to explore it in such a controlled setting. The witch is a lot of fun. I take more liberties, considering this is a fantastic character, and play with colors I wouldn’t normally use in a human character.”
Singing with Pittsburgh Opera makes a complete circle for Loutsion early in her career. A Canonsburg native, she sang with the Children’s Festival Chorus from 8 to 13 and with the Junior Mendelssohn Choir from 14 to 18.
“The voice is a physical being. As such, it is developing and in transition until the mid-30s, depending on the voice type. Bigger voices take a little longer to develop. My voice has been on the larger side,” she says. “At this age, 28, I have a ways to go yet.”
‘Hansel & Gretel’
Presented by: Pittsburgh Opera
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Jan. 31, 8 p.m. Feb. 3, 2 p.m. Feb. 5
Admission: $50, $40 for today’s preview
Where: Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown
Details: 412-456-6666 or website
‘The Child and the Enchantments’
Presented by: Carnegie Mellon Opera
When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $15, $12 for seniors, $10 for CMU students with ID
Where: Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon, Oakland
Details: 412-268-2383 or website