Sebastian Lang-Lessing On Verdi: 'It Speaks To The Human Soul'
This week, Opera San Antonio brings its second major production of the season to the stage of the Tobin Center, Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Opera San Antonio has assembled a cast that conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing says is “to die for,” headed by Dolora Zajick as Azucena (in the role that launched her career back in the 1980s). It’s also worth noting that two Texas voices will be on stage as well, Thomas Soto and Kara Smoot, in small roles. Performances at March 31 and April 2 at 8 p.m.
I had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal with the singers and orchestra this week, and listened intently as Lang-Lessing carefully worked with the musicians and lead singers on timing and phrasing. Hear a short excerpt below:
Later on, I caught up with Sebastian Lang-Lessing by phone to talk about Verdi’s music, the outrageous plot of Il Trovatore, and what Lang-Lessing says is an “obligation” to support opera in San Antonio, based on the tremendous artistic gift to the city that is the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
The below transcript has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the whole conversation, click on the audio player at the top of the page.
Nathan Cone: Before we talk about Il Trovatore, I’m curious—how closely does Opera San Antonio work with the San Antonio Symphony on choosing repertoire to perform?
Sebastian Lang-Lessing: This initiative with Trovatore was really something that I put in our season because I think that it’s important to not only show that we [can] work closely together, but also to share our audience. Because opera and symphony audiences traditionally are quite different. Especially if you go to the big cities like Dallas, Houston or New York. I think that this crossover with mixing our Classics subscribers and converting them into opera freaks, I think it’s the main thing here. And Trovatore is a fantastic piece because it’s extremely powerful music, but it’s a very tough piece on stage because the plot is really bizarre.
Yeah, we’ll get to that! [laughs]
I mean it’s powerful but it takes really genius staging to make it work, you know?
So along those lines, it’s going to be this semi-staged version. What will people see?
Nothing is semi… It’s either/or. It’s a concert version we’re doing, but we have—I mean, we make it very strong in every respect visually. The singers are not just… they don’t, as we say, "park and bark" [laughs]. They walk on stage, they’re human beings, they interact with each other like they would do in a normal opera setting. All these people have done the roles. Dolora Zajick, probably 150 times alone at the Met! So of course they will act, and it becomes a very natural, theatrical experience. Nothing of what we do is "semi," let’s put it that way! It’s a concert version in the respect that we don’t have sets or costumes, but we have everything else of the ingredients that make a great night, and the most important one in Trovatore is a terrific cast. I mean, like a cast to die for. That’s the other upside if you do things like this [a concert version], you can really upgrade the scale of artists you can attract for such an engagement. There was no way that Dolora Zajick would be free for four weeks for production.
Just a few minutes ago, you referenced the plot of Il Trovatore. It’s crazy. There’s kidnappings, two burning pyres, paternity issues… the Marx Brothers even used this as a basis for A Night at the Opera, so that gives you an idea of how crazy the plot is. What do you make of the story as drama?
Well, the interesting thing about Trovatore is it’s actually a very political piece. The trovatore (troubador) is like a singer-songwriter, a revolutionary type, but what he doesn’t know is he happens to be the brother of his biggest enemy. And then we have the aristocratic side on the other hand, who tries to keep their power in place. And then we have two women that interact with this. Of course like in any opera, love is the most important factor, but this opera doesn’t actually have a real love duet. There is a scene between Manrico and Leonora, but it’s not a classic love duet. This whole opera is about political issues, vengeance, also let’s not forget racism towards gypsies. But all these personalities drive their own agenda in a very bizarre way, which makes it difficult to stage, unlike La Boheme or Tosca where the personal relations between people are very clear. Here it is not so clear, but it inspired Verdi to write one of his most powerful scores. It’s extremely expressionist. The colors are very bold. The characters have to be over-characterized in a certain way. So we have the richness of the score against a plot that is very hard to understand, because you’re looking for something that is classic opera. Which Trovatore in a way is not.
"There is an honesty in Verdi's music... that speaks to the human soul." --Sebastian Lang-Lessing
But as music—and even like you said, without a traditional love duet—you do have beautiful pieces like ‘On the rosy wings of love,’ and ‘Di quella pira.’
‘Di quella Pira,’ of course! You have love and hate, and vengeance, and all of this, and joy… there’s no question. You have folk [music] when it comes to the gypsy choruses. But it [also] shows all ranges of human emotion, which is also fantastic. I find is it’s hard to take a side in this opera, with anybody, because you understand what is driving every single person. You understand… yet it’s hard to sympathize with what they do.
What is it that you love most about Verdi?
What I really love is that there is no superficial coating on what he writes. Everything is very bold and direct. And everything is driven from this inner rhythm, which is extremely powerful, and that’s also the biggest challenge for us. Because there are these moments of suspension and flexibility that you create within this continuing pulse that goes through the whole piece. There is an honesty in his music that is actually hard to describe, because it is so powerful and direct, and it speaks to the human soul, as I said with no sugar coating. There is never in Verdi—even the most beautiful melody—a moment where you have the feeling now you get an overload of icing on that cake. Never ever. A lot of great composers attempted sometimes to do that. Even if it’s just for good effect. Verdi doesn’t need that. He is not interested in that at all.
You’ve conducted Salome and Madama Butterfly at the Tobin now. What have you learned about conducting opera at the Tobin Center?
The first thing I have to say is that the pit at the Tobin is probably one of the best pits I’ve ever been in. The reason I say that is just that the orchestra has enough room, and the pit blends the orchestra into one entity. But it doesn’t degrade the orchestra to a secondary element.
…yet it doesn’t overpower the stage to a degree that you only hear the orchestra. So it really finds the right balance. Quite frankly, the acousticians put a lot of energy in building a great concert hall, and nobody ever really was aware that the side effect of creating the pit also turned into one of the greatest miracles in recent history of constructing opera houses. The flexibility of the pit is enormous. It’s also really comfortable to play in. And it has this advantage of filling the hall with rich sound without killing the stage. And quite frankly I’ve never seen a similar ideal pit configuration.
I think it’s something we need to cherish. It’s not a question of money and support. We have no choice in making opera in San Antonio a really steady and sustainable art form. There has been a lot of talk and backlash, and there’s been a lot of fights within performing arts organizations… I believe in inclusion. Everybody who is in the performing arts with any interest in opera in San Antonio should be a partner, and we should all work on this together to make it really work! Because it’s a wonderful art form. It’s not dying at all. I just conducted Rosenkavalier in Beijing. They invested billions to construct one of the most gigantic opera houses. So did Abu Dhabi. So did Oman. Countries that don’t even have a tradition in Western art forms!
It sounds like what you’re saying is that what we have here, that we probably have never had before in San Antonio, is a real artistic opportunity.
I would even say it’s an obligation. Having the possibility to perform opera at its highest level because you have the location to do it in is an obligation for us to support the art form. But what it takes is for you to leave your ego aside and make this work. And make it something. Because egocentrism in this art form doesn’t help anybody. It’s not about a personal agenda, it’s delivering an art form to the community that they haven’t really had the chance to discover in the last few years. Also because there was no real location for opera in San Antonio. The failure of the old organization was mostly due to the lack of a real venue that is suitable for opera. And now we have a fantastic opera orchestra in the San Antonio Symphony. I think we are in a very fortunate position, and we will make that work. These concert operas, for example, are a great stepping stone into developing the art form, creating more buzz, and into giving San Antonio what it deserves. Everything needs to be at the highest level. The cast that we are bringing this weekend… the Met would be happy to put these people on Trovatore. They would be extremely happy!
Right on. Well maestro, thank you very much, I appreciate your time today.
You’re welcome, Nathan! And thank you for all your support.
Opera San Antonio and the San Antonio Symphony will present a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi's 'Il Trovatore' on March 31 and April 2 at 8 p.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available online or by calling 210-223-8624.