Soprano  Judith  Raddue  and  Tenor  Carl  Tanner

==  plus  ==

Conductor  Lawrence  Rapchak

Conversations with Bruce Duffie

In May of 1996, the re-constituted Chicago Opera Theater was making preparations for their upcoming three-opera season.  [For more about the earlier history of the company, see my interviews with the founder and Artistic Supervisor Alan Stone.]  To help promote the productions, I had interviews with three of the musicians involved.  Parts of the conversations were aired a few days later on WNIB, Classical 97, and now I am pleased to present the entire discussions.

My first guests were the soprano and tenor of Ariadne, who spoke together about the work.  Later, the Music Director of the company shared a bit more about that work, and continued with details of the other two productions.  This was my fourth interview with Rapchak.  To read the first two 1989 and 1991, click HERE.  To read the third, from 1994 (along with Marc Verzatt who directed Beatrice and Benedict for COT), click HERE.

Bruce Duffie:   I am speaking today with Judith Raddue, who is singing Ariadne, the title character, and Carl Tanner, who is singing Bacchus in the upcoming production of Ariadne auf Naxos
or is it Ariadne on Naxos?by Richard Strauss.

Judith Raddue:   The way they’re doing it here at Chicago Opera Theater is that it’s just Ariadne.
BD:   [With a wink]  How does that make Bacchus feel when she says it’s just Ariadne?  [All laugh]

Carl Tanner:   It doesn’t make me feel too good, but as long as I get a paycheck, I’m happy!

BD:   Does it bother you that you have to wait the whole evening, and come in at the very end of the opera for the long duet?
Tanner:   No, no, I love it.  I’ve done many, many roles where I sit around for a while, and then come in and hopefully steal the show.

BD:   Is it a real love-duet at the end of this opera, or is it just a funny meeting of non-minds?

Tanner:   It’s a little bit of both, but it turns out to be a genuine love-duet.

Raddue:   Oh, yes.

Tanner:   It’s definitely gorgeous.

BD:   It seems like there’s quite a bit of struggle in it.

Raddue:   Yes, but that’s only because she doesn’t realize who he is at first.  Anybody can relate to this.  Forget the fact about any kind of nobility that Ariadne may have.  Anybody who’s fallen madly and passionately in love, and then been dumped, and can’t figure out what happened, is tremendously depressed, and she just longs to die.  I’m not saying everybody gets suicidal, but that’s all she wants.  So when he first comes along, and she realizes that it’s not beloved Odysseus returning to get her, she thinks it’s the God of Death that’s going to release her into the joy that she thinks she wants.  But then he kisses her, and she realizes she’s not dead after all, but this is pretty good, and she’ll go for it.  [Laughter all around]

Tanner:   That usually happens when I kiss someone!  [More laughter]

Raddue:   You’ve got to remember what Zerbinetta sings at the end.  It is the echo of what she has already sung to Ariadne earlier in her huge magnificent fifteen-minute scena, which is as soon as a new god comes along, we surrender.

BD:   So, you’re really glad that it wasn’t Death meeting you?

Raddue:   Yes!  I’m going to get laid!  [Giggles]

BD:   It’s an opera in one act, so what happens in the second act that we don’t see?  Are they happy together?

Raddue:   You don’t have to think about that in opera, unless it’s The Marriage of Figaro, because you know there’s still another play that was written after it.

BD:   Is it easier to work with plays that have follow-ups and prequels?

Raddue:   [Thinks a moment]  Opera isn’t known to bring tremendous literary genius.  So many operas are based on really crappy plays that might have been popular.  The Schiller plays that ended up as operas are great, but the plots always seem relatively simplistic and rather extraordinary.  It’s wonderful when you get to work on a great one.  I loved it when I did Falstaff [by Verdi, with a libretto by Boito which was based on Shakespeare] because you really are working with something that has a source which is very rich.  It just doesn’t happen all that often in opera that you get that lucky.

BD:   Greater texts make for greater operas?

Raddue:   Yes.  There are reasons why Wagner wrote his own, [laughs] and that Strauss worked with Hofmannsthal, or Mozart with Da Ponte.  The Mozart operas most people care about are the three by Da Ponte.

BD:   You’re singing this Ariadne in English.  Does this affect your diction at all, knowing that you have to project every single word?

Tanner:   For me, yes.  I learned it first in German, and then went back and learned it in English.  I find it very difficult because I am in the habit of wanting to go and sing it in German.

BD:   Does the music fit the original German text a little better?

Tanner:   Yes, but we were talking on the way over here about how it’s a wonderful translation.  It’s a verbatim translation, and it fits so well.  You’ll hear that it’s gorgeous.

BD:   Are you glad to communicate more with the audience because it is in English?
pocket opera
Tanner:   Exactly.

BD:   [To Judith]  Do you enjoy singing in English?

Raddue:   I’ve done at least five seasons of six productions of opera in English, so actually I’ve probably done more operas in English than I have in the original language.

BD:   Do you work harder at your diction when it is in English?
Raddue:   Yes!  I know often times people complain that singers have really lousy diction, but it is because English isn’t as adaptable to singing as some of the other languages, even German, because you really have to know how to work the diphthongs.  For me, the closest language to English to sing in is French, because though theyre very, very different, you can’t sing them the same way you speak them.  It took me several years to be able to sing a role in French because I could speak French well, and I wanted to sing it like I spoke it.  You have to be able to modify.  When I was hearing one sound in my head, that’s what I wanted to reproduce in my voice, and it just didn’t work out that way.  English is quite the same, and I had to get used to it.

BD:   Are you able to project all of the thoughts and ideas through the text?

Raddue:   When you do as much Pocket Opera as I did, you have to, because all those words are Donald Pippin’s children, [all laugh] and he wants every one perfectly clear!  [See image at right for more about Pocket Opera.]

BD:   Is that an unreasonable request?

Raddue:   I don’t think so, not if you’re in the audience.  We don’t want to be like the Met or San Francisco that does opera in English with supertitles.

BD:   Have you worked with supertitles?

Raddue:   Yes, I have.

BD:   Do you find them helpful or distracting?

Raddue:   I think they’re great, especially from the standpoint of the audience.

Tanner:   I love them, also...

Raddue:   ...especially for an opera like this.  I saw a whole season of Richard Strauss, and I feel sorry for anybody who had to sit through it.  The German texts were so wordy.

Tanner:   Sometimes when you are out there singing and trying to relate to the audience, they’re all looking up.  Sometimes that’s distracting, so you have to remember not to look out too much, and just concentrate on what you’re doing.

BD:   [Optimistically]  But you know that if they’re looking up, they’re actually seeing what you’re saying.

Tanner:   Exactly, and they’re relating to what you’re saying.

Raddue:   Oh yes.  When we go to a foreign film, you still get Catherine Deneuve’s performance even though you’re reading the subtitles.  It does not take away from the whole presentation.  When you’re dealing with Mozart arias, or almost everything Verdi wrote
except maybe for Otello and Falstaffthe entire aria consists of about four to six lines.  You take a glance, and you’ve got the next five minutes!  [Laughter]

BD:   Exactly, but there’s much more text in Strauss, and you have to convey all of that every minute.

Tanner:   I find it vocally and textually more difficult because I’m used to singing operas like Tosca and Aïda, where there’s not a lot of wordy spoken dialogue.  

BD:   Do you feel it’s a different character from the Prologue to the Opera?
Tanner:   Absolutely!

Raddue:   That’s not how our stage director [Carl Ratner] wants it to be seen.  He has it conceived that the Prima Donna and the tenor in the Prologue have had a previous affair, and neither of them knows that they have been cast together in this show.  They’re just thrown together.
Tanner:   Apparently, there’s some sub-texts there.

Raddue:   He dumped her!

Tanner:   Yes, and he’s very embarrassed.  So when he comes on at the end...

Raddue:   ...she, of course, is horrified.

BD:   She remembers all that?

Raddue:   Yes, so what happens in the opera is really their coming back together again.

BD:   So then you DO know what happens in the unwritten second act!  The tenor and the soprano actually get back together again.

Raddue:   But how do we know that he doesn’t dump her again right after the performance???

Tanner:   I think he gets his check, and he leaves!  [Lots of laughter]

Raddue:   Maybe another woman dropped out of the show because it was this tenor who had serial relationships with his leading ladies!

BD:   Is it much harder to convey all of these feelings in the Prologue, whereas in the Opera it’s much more operatic?

Raddue:   Sure!  But Hofmannsthal didn’t write in what Carl sees in the Prologue!  [Much laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you’re a prima donna playing the Prima Donna.  Is it hard for a prima donna to play the Prima Donna on the stage?

Tanner:   Not for her, God, no!

Raddue:   [Gasps]  Liar!  [Much laughter]  No, actually the stage director really does want her to be more sympathetic, which is actually what I find more of a challenge, because it’s not written musically that way at all.  Carl wants it to be more sympathetic, so that the audience can really care about the characters.  He really wants them to connect with what’s going on, and actually what is difficult for me in the Prologue is that there really is absolutely nothing in the music that is sympathetic.

BD:   But Strauss loved the soprano voice.

Raddue:   Not in the Prologue.  There he loved the Composer, and somewhat Zerbinetta, but the Composer is the one that really walks away with the Prologue.  It’s heart-stopping music.

Tanner:   I can honestly say that my personality is nothing like the tenor that I portray in the Prologue.

BD:   Would you rather portray characters that are very close to you, or very far away from you in real life?

Tanner:   For a learning aspect, I like characters that are far away from me.  Then I learn more about what I could be, or how good I can be, more than just portraying somebody that’s very close to my personality.  You get the real me right here in this conversation.  You can see how I am.  I’m just a ‘bubba’ [brother] from the South, [all laughing] since I am from Virginia.  But playing a character that’s not like me is much more challenging.

BD:   Is it like being paid for therapy?  
[Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interviews with Zubin Mehta, and Deborah Voigt.  Images of Tanners recordings are shown at the bottom of this webpage.]

Tanner:   Exactly!

BD:   [To Judith] Is opera therapeutic for you, too?

Raddue:   Yes, actually it has been.  I remember when I did Mařenka in The Bartered Bride... it’s an opera that is rather maligned here in the United States, but it’s beloved in Europe.  She was the most complex character I’d ever had the joy to play.  She had so many different facets to herself, and I remember thinking she’s all my good parts, but even so much better.  I know that for myself.  I also know my dream role is Leonora in Fidelio, because it’s one role in opera where you can actually get back to humanity.  She represents the pinnacle of humanity, and if there’s anything I can learn from that, I’d love to take that back to reality, because of her absolute selflessness, and the fact that she is standing up for what she believes in no matter what the cost.  On the other hand, the character which is the furthest away from me is Musetta [La Bohème], and that was a hell of a lot of work!  [Much laughter]  It came off well, but I was exhausted!  I like a mix of things, because I do like somebody I can relate to, but I try to find something in myself I can put inside the character to make it that more real.  That way there is something I can really bring out to the audience that won’t seem false.  The Countess in The Marriage of Figaro is one of my favorite roles to play, and she is also a challenge.  She could so easily just be the wimpy woman who suffers abuse from her husband.  The challenge is to be able to find the reason for where she goes with that, to really make her human.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean, these operatic characters really should be human???

Raddue:   [Laughs]  I believe so.  I really believe that the more we can make opera human...

Tanner:   ...the greater the audience we reach by making it more human.  Opera’s making a great come-back now, and not just because of The Three Tenors, although they have helped.  But it’s becoming much more exposed to young audiences in a good way, and if we can strive to make it much more human-like, and easier to understand and comprehend, then the bigger the audience which is going to come.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Tanner:   Oh, I hope so.  I was raised on country music, and knew that I had a gift from God.  I could have very easily gone in to country music, because classical music was exposed to me in a simple way when I was in my early teens, and here it is.  Just listen to it once, and form your own opinion, as I did, and now I love it.  This is my life.

BD:   How do we get more of the country audience into the opera house?

Tanner:   Have more of these tours that some of the medium or smaller opera companies do.  They reach out to kids, and the people in outlying areas.  If they can reach out with operas that are very human-like, and not God-like, and not impossible to attain, and that reflect life, then the kids are going to find it
s not so bad.

Raddue:   Unfortunately, we’re in a country where the kind of funding that would promote that activity might be non-existent anytime now, and that’s something which is very upsetting.  It’s easy to look at some of the major opera companies
such as the Met, or San Francisco, or the Lyricand see the amount of funding that they get.  But if funding by the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] is wiped out altogether, the companies that are going to suffer the most are the smaller ones that don’t have rich Boards.  Ironically, these small companies are often the ones which are doing the more immediate work.  There’s a company in Northern California, the North Bay Opera in Fairfield, which is in a community half-way between Sacramento and San Francisco.  They have an excellent, forward-moving company with wonderful productions, but they’re heavily dependent on grants.  So a company like that will not exist if the NEA is cut.  Nobody can believe there’s an audience in Fairfield, but they’re doing better than Berkeley Opera, and some of the other smaller companies that are closer to San Francisco.  We really have to get the education out there, because we in America don’t have a history of opera for everyone.  Its not just for the elite.

Tanner:   The smaller companies reach out to the novice listeners, and that’s where opera starts.  I love singing for the bigger companies, but the bigger the company, the bigger the budget, and the more headaches they have.  The smaller communities have never heard opera before, and when works are done in English, people can understand.  Unfortunately, funding is being cut all over the world for that.

BD:   Is opera for everyone?

Raddue:   I think it can be.

Tanner:   There’s so much of it out there, that it can be for everyone.

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.  I look forward to seeing you both in the performance.

Both Guests:   Thank you.

===  There was then a brief pause as the singers departed, and the Music Director settled in  ===

BD:   Now it’s over to the Music Director of the Chicago Opera Theater, Lawrence Rapchak, who is wearing several hats these days.  You’re also at the Chicago Symphony?

Lawrence Rapchak:   Yes, I’m a composer-fellow there for the year.

BD:   [Remember, the first use of this material was on the radio.]  You also give a number of pre-concert lectures in the Ballroom, so if the voice sounds familiar, that’s where you have heard him.  Do you also give the pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Opera Theater?

Rapchak:   Yes, I do those, too.

BD:   How did you decide to do Ariadne auf Naxos, and then turn it into Ariadne?

Rapchak:   In trying to define where the company is going, and to help to solidify the profile of the Chicago Opera Theater, we are
as many people knowperforming in the Merle Reskin Theatre, which is the old Blackstone Theater at 60 East Balbo Drive [interior and exterior shown in the photo below].  This will be our second season there.  Last year we had the pleasure of performing The Magic Flute and Copland’s Tender Land there, and having gone through that season, basically it was Carl Ratner, our artistic director, who decided that this season why not pick operas that will be enhanced by the wonderful and elegant jewel-box atmosphere of that theater.


BD:   I notice you choose your words carefully, and call it a

Rapchak:   Yes.  We have selected works that will be enhanced by the surroundings.  Ariadne auf Naxos is a wonderful sparkly intricate and delicious work, and it’s been one of Carl’s all-time favorites.  In fact, since I
ve known him, its the one work that he has been champing at the bit to direct.  So here is this opportunity, and it happens to fit in perfectly with where the company wants to go.  It has the atmosphere and experience we want to provide.

An opera ahead of its time, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos sports a postmodern theatrical attitude even though its music, written just before the outbreak of World War I, is decidedly modernist. Intended first as an appendage to a one-act adaptation of Moliere’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme by longtime Strauss collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera was lengthened with a prologue when Strauss wanted to fill an entire evening bill. The solution was a stroke of genius: the prologue, filled with backstage bickering, sets the stage for the opera within the opera–a tale from Greek mythology of love betrayed and rekindled–to be presented in an aristocrat’s castle. This plot scheme enabled Strauss and his librettist to create various layers of meaning. The frivolous Zerbinetta is contrasted with the noble Ariadne; her fun-seeking troupers intrude on the somber make-believe of the traditional opera by commenting on the impossible ideals it espouses.

At Ariadne’s core is a battle royale between commedia dell’arte and opera seria, between populist entertainment and high art. Strauss doesn’t cast judgment but uses the opportunity to compose ravishing and psychologically telling music in both styles. (In his own career, he zigzagged between the intense psychodrama of Elektra and the Mozartean wit and wisdom of Der Rosenkavalier.) Ariadne, indeed, boasts some of the most entrancing arias and ensembles for singers of all vocal ranges. The cast for this Chicago Opera Theater production includes veterans and newcomers culled from the best of the region’s opera pool: Ariadne is sung by soprano Judith Raddue, Zerbinetta by coloratura specialist Lorraine Ernest, Bacchus (who sweeps Ariadne away) by heldentenor Carl Tanner, and the Composer (a trouser role) by mezzo Janine Hawley. COT’s Carl Ratner directs; Bruce Hangen conducts. Friday, 7:30 PM, Sunday, 3 PM, and Thursday and next Saturday, June 15, 7:30 PM, Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo; 292-7578.

Chicago Reader, June 6, 1996  

BD:   The rest of your season has one other well-known opera, and then a pastiche.

Rapchak:   Yes.  the pastiche is ostensibly by Mozart.  We’re calling it The Best Opera Mozart Never Wrote!

BD:   Is all the music from Mozart’s pen?

Rapchak:   Yes, all of it is Mozart, and most all of it is from his final ten years of his life in Vienna.   So it’s all really top-quality stuff.  The title is The Jewel Box, and there are arias from unfinished works, or arias which were written specifically to be inserted into other composers’ operas
for specific singers.  That was the custom of the day, and often they made cruel technical demands on the singer.  Clearly by looking at this or that aria, you can see what special facilities these singers had when they commissioned Mozart.

BD:   You have to be very careful in selecting singers that have those facilities.

Rapchak:   Yes, to try to match up.

BD:   The pastiche has taken bits and pieces here and there.  Could it again be rearranged and re-pastiched?

Rapchak:   I think so, but all of these arias and ensembles are performed complete in and of themselves.  They have been ordered in a specific way by Paul Griffiths, who is the music critic for the New Yorker Magazine.  This idea occurred to him several years ago, and the work was first produced at that time.

BD:   How is it all strung together?

Rapchak:   Very loosely!  In a way it is an opera that parallels very closely the dramatic argument of Ariadne auf Naxos.  In both we get wonderful glimpses of behind-the-scenes activities at the production of an opera.  Of the seven characters in the The Jewel Box, all of them have counter-parts in Ariadne auf Naxos.  We see a young composer in both operas.

BD:   Is it the young Mozart?

Rapchak:   Yes, we’re playing it that way.  We’ve also moved Ariadne to the late nineteenth century, at about the time when young Strauss would have been an idealistic head-strong youth, such as we see in his opera.  Both operas have a troop of commedia dell’arte-inspired characters who are there to perform.  They do their thing on stage, and both works have a Prima Donna, who inspires the composers to some degree.  Both have a father-figure of sorts.  In The Jewel Box it is a father, a bass, who is sung by the marvelous Chicagoan Kurt Link.  He’s parallel to the Composer’s mentor, the Music Master, who is sung by Chicago baritone, Bruce Hall.  So, the combination of these two offered many wonderful possibilities, and in fact we’re playing them basically in repertoire.  Ariadne opens on June 7th, and The Jewel Box opens a scant week later, on June 14th.  They use a variation of the same set, though it is somewhat reversed in a most ingenious way.  The set designer is Todd Rosenthal, who designs at the Court Theatre.  The director of The Jewel Box is Charles Newell, who is the artistic director of the Court Theatre in Hyde Park.  This is his operatic debut, and we needed a director with a specific theatrical sense to take this rather sketchy libretto that Paul Griffiths has fashioned around all these wonderful Mozart ensembles and arias, and really bring it to life.  From what I understand, it’s going very well.

BD:   You’re not conducting?

Rapchak:   No, I’m not conducting either of these, but as we’re now taping this interview, both operas are in full-swing in rehearsals.

Lawarence Rapchak served as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater for five seasons, conducting the Chicago premieres of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, Ullmann’s Kaiser of Atlantis and Hagen’s Shining Brow.

rapchak He also led the company’s acclaimed recording of Menotti’s The Medium, of which the British Opera - The Rough Guide said “this performance is so rivetingly theatrical, and much of the praise should go to Lawrence Rapchak for his powerfully atmospheric direction,” while Le Monde De La Musique wrote “Lawrence Rapchak conducts this compact drama perfectly”. [The front and back covers of this recording are shown below-right.]

In his eighteen seasons as Music Director of the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra (IL), Mr. Rapchak conducted the Chicago-area premieres of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 and Michelangelo Suite, Richard Strauss' Panathenaenzug, Franz Schmidt's Symphony No. 1, the Hans Rott Symphony in E Major and the North American Premiere of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor by Josef Bohuslav Forster. He appeared with The Chicago Symphony and Maestro Christoph von Dohnanyi as auxiliary conductor in Ives Unanswered Question, and served as Director of Educational Projects for The Chicago Philharmonic in conjunction with the Ravinia Festival.

Mr. Rapchak has also conducted for Ravinia’s Kraft Saturday Morning Series, The Civic Orchestra of Chicago's community outreach programs, as well as guest appearances with the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic, Marion and Muncie (IN) Orchestras. He also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the Northwest Indiana Symphony, Music Director of Chamber Opera Chicago for eight seasons, and has guest conducted the Czech Radio Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra in concerts and recordings of his own works.

His orchestral work Saetas was commissioned and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi in 1997, and was hailed by the Chicago Sun Times as "the most welcome kind of new work." Saetas was subsequently performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His works have also been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Omaha Symphony and the National Orchestral Association in Carnegie Hall. Mr. Rapchak's Orloj and the chamber opera The Lifework of Juan Diaz, based on a story by Ray Bradbury, are also commercially available on CD, both with Mr. Rapchak conducting. He is listed in the authoritative Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, and has spent many seasons as pre-concert speaker for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Rapchak was born in 1951 in Hammond, Indiana, and studied composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Donald Erb, Marcel Dick, and Leonardo Balada. He also studied conducting with James Levine.  He now resides in Whiting, Indiana with his wife, Celeste, and their three whippets, Penny Pasta, Otis, and Katie O'Toole. He is the son of Chicago radio personality Mike Rapchak.

BD:   What’s the third opera of your season?

Rapchak:   The Italian Girl in Algiers.  It is also an opera which has a wonderful sparkling jewel-like intimate sunny feel to it.  We’re going a little further into the summer this year, and we’re looking for operas that are essentially light fare.  Certainly The Italian Girl in Algiers is from that period of operatic history when the orchestra was small and intimate, and the cast has the intricate nature of the comedy, with the recitatives which lend it to a very close-up and personal presentation.

BD:   I understand you will be conducting that one.  Are you sticking close to the original Rossini score?

Rapchak:   We are!  We are sticking very close musically to Rossini.  In fact, Dr. Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, is the General Editor of the new Rossini edition, which includes scholars from all around the world.  They are painstakingly revising Rossini’s autograph scores, and early manuscripts.

BD:   You’re doing your production according to the new edition?
Rapchak:   Yes!  We’re using the new edition, which makes many, many changes in both the orchestral and the vocal writing.  There are a lot of things which have fallen by the wayside through this or that interpretation later on in Rossini’s life.  It’s quite obvious in many instances that later interpreters felt Rossini couldn’t have meant that!  Because he wrote this thing in twenty-seven days, he obviously didn’t mean this wonderful bizarre harmony, or this sort of unexpected accent.  So they’d tidy it up and make it more conventional.

BD:   Rossini knew what he was doing, and even revised the score for later productions.
Rapchak:   Rossini was an incredible innovator of pure sound.  We all know his great crescendos that he built in all of his overtures, but in the musical numbers we see what he did in the orchestra with some of the strange sounds that he asked the strings to produce.  There are bowing in various ways, using the bow to strike the strings in certain ways, or to play on the bridge of the violins, called sul ponticello, to give a specific glistening glassy sound.  There is also the way he orchestrated sheer kinetic energy in his music.  That’s what makes it so bustling and so lively.  Then, when you see all the articulations that he wrotenot only in the instruments, but in the voices, and particularly in the ensemblesit’s amazing.  In a small relatively intimate, non-reverberant space like the Merle Reskin Theater, all of this will aurally leap to life. 

BD:   Now you’re doing the work exactly as Rossini wrote it musically.  Tell me about your production dramatically and scenically.

Rapchak:   Interesting that you should ask, Bruce, and thank you.  The Chicago Opera Theater, is looking to go in a somewhat more cutting-edge direction, and this will actually be our first experiment in doing a legitimate updating of an opera.  This is nothing new.  Many houses do it, and in Germany they’ve been doing it for the last forty years.  But this is somewhat of the new tone, a new profile we want to try to establish for the company, and I must say that as far as updated concepts go, I have very mixed feelings on them.  Many are gratuitous, and are done just for the sake of doing something different.  But occasionally you come across a concept which you think about and say yes, absolutely!  The tone of the music, the way it brings the characters to life, and a new setting of it work.  This one really resonated with me, and a lot of it is actually based on research that we’ve been doing.  When Rossini wrote this in 1819, it was much more than just a fun thing to see this Italian woman go over in Algeria, and roll up her sleeves, and give a trouncing to the local Mustafà, the Pasha.  It was fine back then, but for us, nearly two hundred years later, it’s a wonderful funny little trifle.  It’s a fluffy, exotic fairy tale.  It’s very remote.  But you have to realize that the citizens of Venice were in their third century of being beset by the terrorists of the day, which were the Barbary Coast Pirates in Algeria, in Libya, and Morocco, and Tunisia.  In fact, Venice was at the end of a two-century decline as the World’s Seaport and Great Merchant Center.  This was largely due to the continual terrorist attacks, and certainly many people who were in the audiences in 1813, knew of people who had relatives or were themselves victims.  The opera is supposedly based on a true happening, but it was well-known that Italian tourists and merchants were continually being raided and ransacked, and taken prisoner and sold into slavery.  So, when Rossini’s audiences saw this, there was a whole different level of experience and resonance for what was happening dramatically in this opera.

BD:   Are you trying to give the Chicago audiences in 1996, this kind of immediacy?

Rapchak:   Yes, by updating it somewhat.  Carl and I thought about what the parallel to the current day of 1996 would be.  With our eyes on the map of that region of the world, this is an updated version of Mustafà, the Pasha.  He calls himself the woman-tamer who wants one of those gorgeous Italian women for himself.  But believe me, the way Rossini brings these characters to life, with the sparkly music we all know, certainly L’Italiana is probably his sunniest work of all.

BD:   Will the costumes and everything be current?

Rapchak:   Yes!  Isabella does not arrive by ship in searching for her long-lost love in Algeria.  We see a helicopter having crashed in the desert.

BD:   Is she the pilot?

Rapchak:   No, she’s a passenger who is looking for her long-lost lover, Lindoro, the tenor, who has been captured.

BD:   So, it’s not a one-woman rescue team?

Rapchak:   No.  Not at all.  I’ve selected a wonderfully adept comic cast, including Chicagoan Philip Kraus, who plays Taddeo, Isabella’s older suitor.

BD:   He usually plays those kinds of characters.

Rapchak:   Right, and he’s accepted it.  I had a long talk with him, and he’s agreed.  I’m just tickled to death by it, and it’s going to start coming together in a few weeks.

BD:   When does it open?

Rapchak:   It will open on July 5th, and run for two weekends.  I’ll say no more about it, but I guarantee a good time will be had by all.  It’s going to be an experience that will be long remembered in the town.

BD:   I especially love the end of the first act, where the characters make all kinds of weird sounds in various rhythms.

Rapchak:   Yes.  In Gossett’s edition, you read that Rossini had written a percussion part for that finale, but most of the percussion was cut.  There’s no timpani in the opera.  There is a note where he called the percussionist idiots, imbeciles, and drunkards who can’t play.  So he cut the part.  When I talked to Gossett about it, I told him that I really wanted to restore some version of the percussion in this finale.  Perhaps I’m going to take one step more than I should, and do little things in the percussion section very delicately to compliment all those vocal sounds.

BD:   Do you think that Rossini is patting you on the head, or kicking you in the behind for doing this to his score?

Rapchak:   I hope he is pleased!  I asked Gossett what the difference was between one staccato mark and another staccato mark, and he often said he was not really sure!  He really didn’t know!

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  And he’s the authority!

Rapchak:   Yes, he is a true authority, and this only enhances his authoritativeness.  He knows because he’s explored it all.  We don’t really know why Rossini would use conflicting staccato markings.

BD:   Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as the relationships are correct.  He wants different kinds of sounds, so if you’re consistent with each marking, then you get the right relationship between them.

Rapchak:   Exactly!  That’s why Gossett said he doesn’t have a cut-and-dried airtight answer.  He says that he’s been very thorough in his researching, and is presenting you with Rossini’s thoughts.  At that point he backs off, and says that it’s yours to deal with.  On a number of questions he’s said to just try it.  If you don’t like it, change it.  He said that again and again to me about things, and this is refreshing.  He wants us to be aware of what’s there, and through his research get for a feel for the true style, and the world of thought that went into this piece.  Then we must make intelligent decisions about it.

BD:   Thank you for sharing your ideas about these works we
re about to see.

Rapchak:   Thank you for having us here for your radio audience.


========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1996 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on May 25, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.