CHATTING WITH OPERA STAR NADINE SIERRA

NADINE SIERRA

Nadine SierraNadine Sierra is on a mission to redefine classical arts for younger generations.

At only 30-years-old, the Florida-raised soprano is one of the youngest stars in opera today. Amongst her vast accolades, she won the Richard Tucker Award in 2017 and took home the prestigious 2018 Beverly Sills Artist Award by the Metropolitan Opera. A fixture at some of the top opera houses across the globe, Sierra made her house debut at the revered Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2016. Her celebrated performance on opening night broke a tradition dating back to Toscanini when the infamously harsh La Scala audience prompted her for an encore.

On August 24, Sierra will release her debut solo album, There’s A Place For Us. Named after a lyric in Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” the gorgeous record highlights the singer’s boldest effort to date: making opera and classical musical exciting for and accessible to Millennials, Generation Z, and beyond.

Alex Nagorski and Nadine SierraAhead of one of her appearances at this summer’s Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, I sat down with Sierra to talk about her upcoming album, the importance of keeping classical arts alive, how she uses social media as a tool to converse with younger fans, her career highlights thus far, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Why is There’s A Place For Us the perfect introduction of you as a solo artist?

NADINE SIERRA: I always knew that on my first album, I didn’t want to just create something that was like, “here are 10 arias that I’ve done in my life and here’s a pretty picture of me on the cover and that’s it!”

Anything that I do, anything that I produce – if it’s an album, a concert or a recital – I have control over, let’s say. So I always wanted the album to be a project that was more about how being an artist can affect a bigger message. If there’s something that’s happening in another person’s life or in society or the community, I try to address that through art. All over the world, music is something that has been used as a form of protest or as a thing catering to a more powerful message than just itself alone.

There’s a Place for Us is an album that I wanted to create to, yes, show myself as an artist. But with the things that we’ve been presented with in today’s world, especially in this country – with certain messages being sent out into people’s ears – I wanted to just give people who listen to it a little bit of hope. I wanted them to know that if they do feel neglected by certain individuals, or if they feel shunned and ashamed by certain people who have great responsibilities and leadership in this world, that they’re not alone.

I too understand what it is to be singled out. I come from an immigrant mother. My mother’s from Lisbon and my father’s side of the family also came from elsewhere. As we all did. My grandfather basically swam here from Puerto Rico. So I just wanted to send out a message that no matter what the dilemmas we’re facing today are, there will always be, at the end of the day, a place for everybody.

Leonard Bernstein was an advocate for that as well. He was actually a person, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, who was not liked politically. He was a social activist who used pieces of music to talk about those things. He wanted to make people actually discuss those issues after listening to his music and he wasn’t afraid of that. That’s how I want to be as an artist. I don’t just want to show a certain kind of surface façade. I want to show everything else behind that. Because to me, it means something and I’d rather be that way than the opposite.

That’s my big rant about what There’s a Place for Us – what it really means, why I created it and what it was inspired from.

I imagine that curating the repertoire list for your debut solo record is a daunting task. How did you decide what songs went onto the album? Is there a specific narrative you’re crafting by compiling these pieces together?

I got together with two teams because I’m on two labels: DG and Universal. DG comes from Berlin and Universal is in New York. When we were thinking of the list together, I told them that I would really like Brazilian or Portuguese songs to be in the mix. I’m very proud of my heritage. My mother is and speaks Portuguese and her influence on me as both a person and an artist are very big. She was the one who introduced me to opera in the first place. So I definitely wanted to show that side of myself along with the American side of myself.

Then I thought about which American composers I could highlight to make sense with that theme. Leonard Bernstein was a big one – not just because of his beautiful music, but also because he was an activist for humanitarianism. He was a man who fought for many different things in his lifetime. Now that Bernstein has passed away, there are stories of him actually being a gay man and hiding that. Ricky Ian Gordon was also a gay man. They understood what it is to feel outcast or banned from society as Americans.

I added in Stravinsky because he was a man who immigrated into America later into his life, lived in LA, and died in New York. He was influenced by American culture and American history, only to become part of American history in the 20th century.

Stephen Foster is another very big one because the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne was a very big influence in my life. I first was introduced to Marilyn Horne through Stephen Foster because I was watching her on YouTube singing Stephen Foster songs and fell in love with her (and ended up meeting her later!).

I was influenced by the works of people who were from other parts of the world but came into the US. I was also influenced by American composers that were directly affected by US culture and wanted to be more outspoken through their music. Then of course, I incorporated my mother’s background to highlight: what is it to be an American? What does that actually mean?

To me, to be American is to be worldly. Because we are! We’re not just Americans. We’re from all walks of life. So the repertoire list came together as a way of including everybody. I wanted to make sure that nobody would feel left out.

I also didn’t want to exclude our generation and the generations that are coming in now by creating an only heavily opera based album, should they not know anything about opera. I want it to be an introduction to those kinds of people who have never really focused on or listened to opera. I want it to be sort of an easy listen, you know? Highlighting Lenny was a way of doing that because he is probably the most well-known American opera/classical composer for these generations. That was also my strategy in organizing the rep list.

Why do you think that is? Why is it that people in our generation – and young folks in general – don’t gravitate to opera the same way that an older demographic does? What do you think can be done to end the stigma that opera isn’t accessible to audiences our age?

The stigma of what it is to be an opera singer or to listen to opera/classical music has remained the same for years. It is that you have to be older. You have to be white. You have to be rich. You just have to be of a completely different society – and more so an elite society.

But this is not the case! I think it’s very hard to break that stigma and I think it will take decades to do so. This stigma has been associated with this art form for so long.

I have been trying to break it through social media by showing a little bit more about my life. I like to show the actual real side of being an opera singer. It’s not just about the glamour. There’s another side of it too – a side that is not glamorous. My hope is to make the art form of opera a bit more human and a bit more relatable.

I was actually talking to a woman in Europe recently and she said, “Yes, but that’s what people wantto see!” But of course, she was older, wealthy, and white. She told me that people want to see a superstar with the Chanel bag and fancy gowns. I said to her, “I think you’ve just hit my point. You’re wrong. Maybe your generation wants to see that, but I don’t think my generation wants to see that.”

I think we’ve come to a point where we’re wanting to see people, especially artists that we look up to, as actually more normal than their art forms might suggest. We want to see that they go through the struggles that people in everyday life go through as well.

For me, that means breaking the social stigma of the classical arts. I want to show people that it is relatable and that you don’t have to be of a certain class or a certain ethnicity to become a part of or to enjoy it.

I get hundreds of messages a day on Instagram and I always try to make it my purpose to answer everybody. It’s important to show people that yes, there is that side that’s really great and lovely, but then there’s the other side of putting in a lot of hard work and going through a lot of struggles and sacrifices. It’s presenting yourself as a real person. Hopefully, that helps introduce younger people to classical music in a way that’s not scary.

It’s interesting when people feel ignorant about something. On one side, they feel more fascinated by it and they want to learn more about it. But then you have the other side where people feel very insecure about not knowing more, so they avoid it at all costs. Maybe psychologically, they think they’re not worthy of looking into it because they don’t belong in a certain group. That’s something I would like to break entirely. I really don’t find that that applies to today’s classical music world. Maybe it used to, but I’m definitely tired of that.

In a few weeks, you’ll be performing at the Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood (which will be broadcast later this year on PBS). As someone who has appeared on the Tanglewood stage a few times already, what is it in your opinion that makes this iconic venue so special? And what are some of your favorite spots to visit in the Berkshires when you’re here?

Tanglewood has a lot of history behind it with all of the great musicians who have catered to its legacy. They built it up to what it is today. It’s so amazing to think about when that started, who it started with, how it’s evolved, and how now our generation is coming into it and still continuing that legacy.

The classical music world is struggling, so to keep up music festivals like this – where you have people’s children and grandchildren coming – is so important to keep that legacy and interest of the classical arts alive.

For me, participating in these kinds of music festivals is not just an honor because of their histories (and then becoming part of that in a way), but it’s also a way of giving back to the community as much as possible so that the classical arts can continue.

As far as favorite spots in the Berkshires – I’ve only been here twice before, but my hot spot because I love farmer’s markets and organic stuff is Guido’s. I’m a city girl and it reminds me a little bit of Whole Foods. I love going there.

I also like just how everything here in Lenox is very walkable. It has that small town charm to it. It seems like everybody knows and supports each other. I recently walked into a coffee shop where I bumped into a musician and she was asking me a few questions about Tanglewood and what I think it is to be a musician. I could just feel from her that this is what this community is about. I really like that. That’s something that I don’t see very often. In the city, you find people are more distant. Whereas here, everybody’s very supportive and its more communal. I love that.

As a performer, do you prefer to be on stage playing a character or singing as a solo artist?

I think I prefer to sing as a solo artist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t like performing in operas. I love that! However, I think performing as a solo artist just gives me the chance to showcase a little bit more of my own personal story that hopefully a few people watching or listening can relate to.

My end goal of being a singer is not about becoming famous, making money, or having a glamorous life. It’s about impacting people, especially young people – even if they don’t sing or if being a classical musician is not in their futures. I just want to be a relatable person so that people may want to explore the art form I’m presenting a little bit further. That’s my hope.

Sometimes I even speak in my recitals and try to share stories that people can get into, because I do find that sometimes solo recitals or concerts can feel very stiff. I like breaking that because then it’s more intimate. I’m always looking for a sense of community. I really love the feeling of bringing people into my community and then feeling us as a collective orbit. Standing as a soloist gives me more chances to do that than being a character does.

As an opera singer, you’re tasked with singing in many foreign languages. How did being raised in Florida by non-musical parents influence and encourage your understanding and love of language?

Well, my mother speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and a little bit of German. So I was very lucky when I was growing up, especially when I got into opera. She introduced me to opera when I was 10. When I was learning Italian songs or opera arias by Mozart, my mother was always my language coach. We would slowly go through all of the languages together. Even today, if I have a question about French, or Portuguese especially, I always go to my mother. She’s the first person I ask. She’s very good at that. My mother was a banker all of her life, but I always told her that she could be a linguist because she is very, very talented at it. She was the one who instilled that in me.

Interestingly enough, my high school (the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts) offered Italian classes. Usually in Florida, Spanish is the language that is taught. But I did get to study Italian for those four years of high school. Plus, I had my mother at home and then I also went to Italy after college and studied a little bit there. So Italian has been very much a part of my life besides just my opera life.

I do think it’s incredibly important for young musicians to learn languages – especially if you want to, for example, play in various orchestras across Europe. You definitely do come across conductors who don’t speak English. They speak French, Italian, or German, and it’s a very useful tool to have I think.

You mentioned that your mother introduced you to opera. What was the first opera that you saw or heard that made you dream of turning your passion for this art form into a profession?

It was Puccini’s La bohème, which I know is very cliché to say. My mother introduced it to me on a VHS tape that she got from the library in Fort Lauderdale, where I was born. We never returned this VHS. We still have it! We even had to have it reconstructed because I had broken it at some point from watching it too much.

When I saw that, I couldn’t get over it. It impacted my very young life in a very big way. After seeing that, I just knew I had to go for it. I knew I had to become an opera singer somehow.

That VHS came from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was the Zeffirelli production that they still do today. It was the opening of that production with José Carreras and Teresa Stratas. Zeffirelli himself directed it and was very heavily involved with each of the singers. That’s something you can absolutely see. Everybody’s so in tune with not only their own characters, but how their characters relate to each other.

People still have this idea that opera singers have no idea how to act or that opera is boring. But in this production, you could really see how the characters and the music came together to create an all-encompassing powerful performance for the viewer. And I wasdefinitely an avid viewer of this thing.

I mean, still today when I watch it, I can’t help but become overwhelmed by it. It’s my childhood! It’s everything that I then devoted myself to as a kid. Because from there I took lessons every week, I studied all the time, I practiced an hour every day and I was very disciplined. I’m so happy I did that because it made me into the artist that I am now.

Speaking of the Met, next year you’ll be returning there to reprise your acclaimed performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. What is it about this specific role and opera that keeps bringing you back to revisit it?

I started learning Gilda when I was 18. These kinds of roles – Gilda, Lucia, Susanna – I started learning little bits of them when I was quite young. They were either used in my warm ups from my teachers or used in order to develop my technique a little bit further. I learned Gilda’s famous aria “Caro nome” first. Then, I got to finally do the role in Florida when I was 23. She’s actually grown a lot on me since then. When I was 23, I only had a certain sense of what this opera was about because I was younger. I hadn’t experienced life in the way that I’ve experienced it now that I’m 30.

The relationship between Gilda and her father is very interesting. I understand this relationship because my father was very protective when I was young. A little bit too protective. I understand what it’s like to be of a certain age, wanting a certain thing and something or someone is holding you back. Even if they’re holding you back for the very good reason that they know you’re going to make a mistake if you’re set free. But that is what life is about!

That’s what Rigoletto is about for me. It shows people that the decisions we make in life, whether they are good or bad, can cater to goodness. I like to believe that the good parts of life will always win at the end of the day.

People say that Gilda is stupid because of the decisions she makes, like having herself be killed for the Duke. But I always remind people that this decision comes from her education of being religious. She grew up in a convent. She didn’t grow up with her father. She grew up with the teachings of Jesus and one of them is that you have to forgive.

She finds out that her father has paid off Sparafucile to kill the Duke. So not only has the Duke sinned, but her father is also about to fulfill a sin. Gilda makes her decision in order to save her father to watch over him in heaven. She wants him to forgive the Duke. Even though her decision is so heartbreaking, she believes that what she puts herself through is for a good result.

That is the point of it and why I love this opera so much. There’s always a lesson at the end. You always learn something. Even though it’s melodramatic and it can be a little exaggerated, it’s exaggerated to hit a specific point that you’ll never forget. To me, that’s the best thing about opera. It can become unforgettable, and I think the music is what does this. As humans, we associate so much emotion through music, especially in opera. That’s why it can have such a big impact on people.

Rigoletto is one of those very impactful stories that hopefully teaches people a lesson. Every time I perform Gilda, I try to learn from her ideas of forgiveness and what purity can bring to a person’s life. She inspires me to seek purity. She teaches me a lot. Even though she’s so young and so naïve, she’s very wise at the end of it all.

At this point in your career, what types of characters are you most attracted to when selecting your next roles?

I’m very attracted to roles of women whose experiences of being oppressed and used are highlighted in the story by the composer. Those characters can be reminders for people watching that these kinds of issues still exist today.

The oppression of women is not just an idea from the past. Because of that, we should be aware and more sensitive to those things that affect people on a daily basis. I like playing these women because I hope that I am able to bring awareness to these issues. I don’t want people to forget them.

But I also like playing women who have a bit more control over their destinies in opera because they’re rare to find. Don Pasquale’s Norina is one of them. I just sang her in Paris. I love this character because she’s kind of like the modern day woman. She takes control of everything around her. She even says, “What is this old man thinking to marry a young woman and control her?” That’s not how life should be. If you’re going to be in a partnership, it should be about supporting each other. I love the outcome of that story. I find it very fun.

So on one hand, I like to play women who are oppressed to send out a message. And on the other hand, I like to play women who already feel very empowered. That’s so rare to find in opera, which is understandable since most operas was written so long ago. It was a completely different mentality then.

You’ve performed at some of the most famous opera houses all around the world – including La Scala, the Paris Opera, and the Berlin State Opera. Do you have a favorite place to perform?

I do! You just can’t beat the Met. I’ll tell you what it feels like because it’s not just about the amazing acoustics – but it’s the way the theater is constructed. It’s such a big theater.

The stage is so far away from the audience because you have the orchestra pit separating the two. You stand on the stage and when you look out, it’s completely black. You really can’t make out a single face yet you can feel the energy of people being there watching and listening to you. It’s fascinating.

So you have this buzz – that at least is what it feels like to me – this buzz of energy throughout the room where you can’t make out anything but this infinite blackness and then the music being sent out into that space. It almost feels like you’re singing in space. It’s kind of a creepy feeling in the beginning and it can be intimidating. But once you get used to it, I think it’s a musician’s paradise. It makes you feel like you can do anything.

I would say my greatest memory in a place that I’ve performed was La Scala. That felt like I was being transported into a completely different world. It was like I traveled back in time to when opera was something that it’s not today. And I was kind of right when I had that feeling because I met with the people afterwards. They all came to the backstage area and I spoke with a few of them. They were all telling their stories of when they went to La Scala when they were however old, which year, who they saw, how long they’ve been coming to the theater and how much love and devotion they’ve put into that theater. That was something that I could truly, truly feel at La Scala.

It was actually a scary experience, because I was the only foreign singer in the cast. I was the only American. Everybody else was Italian, singing an Italian opera by Verdi (Rigoletto), who’s like the La Scala god. Having that in my head plus the fact that it was my debut there was so intimidating. The La Scala audience is known for being brutal and not being scared to boo you if they don’t like you. Even still today. They are very intense.

I remember when I was singing “Caro nome,” you couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear sneezing or coughing or anything like that. It was like you could feel the tiger in the cage and maybe someone was going to let the tiger out. Time was just very still. Everybody was waiting to see, “is she going to mess it up? Is she not?” Finally, when I was done, I felt like they accepted me because they applauded rather than booed me off stage. It’s a very different place to sing opera. If you’re accepted there, you’ve done something right. It is an accomplishment that feels very gratifying when that happens. But getting there is very, very scary.

What would you consider the crowning achievement in your career thus far?

For sure, singing at La Scala. My colleague who I performed with, Leo Nucci, was 73 and is still today singing Italian opera. So for me in my twenties, coming from a completely different generation and a different world of opera, almost felt like I was a child learning from a great master. He taught me a lot in those moments.

It wasn’t just an accomplishment in the sense that people liked or accepted me. It was an accomplishment because I learned something. I learned something so valuable from somebody that I looked up to and I still look up to. I learned something that I felt could cater to my overall purpose of why I’m an opera singer and what I want to give to the art form too. I think that’s probably the biggest accomplishment: the feeling that I can do something for opera itself for my generation.

You’ve also toured with Andrea Bocelli and will be embarking on the road with him again later this year. What have been the highlights of performing alongside such a crossover legend and what’s the best advice he’s ever given you?

He’s so amazing. He’s someone who’s been in the ball game for a while. I don’t think people realize this, but he’s nearly 60 now and he’s still putting on shows where like 15,000 people show up and it’s totally sold out! He’s trying to introduce opera, even though it’s in his crossover kind of way, to young people and to people in general. He does such a brilliant job at that. From my experiences with him, the audiences overall were very receptive and very appreciative of his opera side, which he actually starts most of his programs with. I love that. It shows where his heart belongs and it does belong in opera, rather than the crossover kind of repertoire that he does. Witnessing that was really fascinating.

I’ve also loved learning from him. Even with all of that fame and all of that attention that he’s accomplished, he’s remained so down to earth and just completely normal. He has his kids. His wife is with him constantly. The feeling of family and community is very important to him, which is very important to me too. I understand it well.

The best advice he gave me? To be humble and not to get too egocentric about what you can accomplish as an artist. It should humble you instead because it means giving something really beautiful to the people who are participating in it. I think that will always be my mission in life as an artist. He taught me never to get caught up in what I think is the fake side of it all. Because fame and those kinds of things can be so easily taken from you. They’re not tangible. I’ve learned a lot from my experiences with him.

On a more technical note, how do you keep your voice protected when illness or allergies strike?

That’s always a problem with singers! I am lucky to have people in my life who I really trust. Two of my instructors, my voice teacher and voice coach, have each been in my life for 16 years. If I ever have a problem, I call either one to tell them what’s going on and to ask for advice. I still have lessons with them both.

I’m also very good at canceling things if I don’t find they are good for me. I’m thankfully not scared to cancel if I have to. I think this is a result of the advice from my teachers over the years who always said not to be scared to say “no.” I think that’s how young singers, or singers in general, can preserve their voices very well. Sometimes companies do take that to heart and are offended by it. And maybe they won’t hire you for a few seasons – but if you keep showing the results from saying “no,” by singing well consistently, people kind of don’t have a choice but to then hire you again. They see that you’re reliable. They see that you are a serious artist and will do everything you can to say “yes” and to preserve the voice for a bigger reason: to serve the music as best as you possibly can.

There’s a lot of integrity in that. So I’ve never been afraid of that. If opera or classical music are going to be around for a few more decades, I would love to be a part of that. And the way that I can be a part of that is by paying attention and making sure that I’m always taking care of myself and my voice. I feel like it’s just worth it in the end.

So that’s what I do. No more than that. I’m not the kind of person where I have to wear a scarf all the time or am constantly sipping tea or taking 10 medications at once. I try not to get too obsessive. Because then I think I would just stop doing it, you know? It would be too stressful.

I just try to make singing opera something that I do, not something that I am.


CLICK HERE to purchase Nadine Sierra’s debut album, There’s A Place For Us, available on August 24. And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see her live in a city near you!

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: WORLD PREMIERE OF “LEMPICKA” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

LempickaMaking its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lempicka is a breathtaking masterpiece that is destined to become the next great American musical.

Based on the rags-to-riches story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins in 1916 with the artist and her husband Tadeusz abandoning their aristocratic lives to flee the Russian Revolution. The couple arrives in Paris to start anew, and to survive, Lempicka embraces her all-consuming love of painting. It’s there that she meets Rafaela, a prostitute who becomes both her lover and muse. Suddenly, Lempicka is torn between two worlds: the comfortable life she knows with Tadeusz and the infinite possibilities she is discovering through her affair.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka once famously said. But as fascism casts an increasingly long shadow over Parisian society, the innovative painter must decide who she is – and if she can have it all – in a moment of history defined by intolerance and chaos.

Playing the titular character, Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn the Musical) is a revelation. As an actor, she arms Lempicka with confidence, charm, staggering intellect, a bleeding heart, and a raw, urgent need to express herself through art. As a vocalist, Espinosa is as powerful and talented as the character she’s playing was a painter. Even notoriously hard-to-please critic Ben Brantley proclaimed that “Eden Espinosa’s Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to Ms. Patty LuPone’s Eva Perón” in his glowing New York Times Critic’s Pick review.

“From the very first moment I heard the music, I knew it was special and unique. I knew Tamara’s story needed to be told,” Espinosa posted to Instagram on the show’s opening night. “I’m beyond humbled to portray this unbelievable woman. So proud to share the stage with the kindest, most generous, hearts and spirits. In awe of the talents and visions of the creatives. I have been broken open and renewed. I have been stretched beyond limits. I am new.”

While playing this character may be a transformative point in Espinosa’s career, the audience also has the rare treat of watching her tackle what is a role that she so clearly was born to play. The result is one of those can’t miss, superstar-solidifying performances of the same caliber as Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple or Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, her depiction of Lempicka is so nuanced and multi-dimensional that if it could be captured on a canvas, it would fit perfectly alongside the artist’s renowned self-portraits as a mandatory understanding of her legacy.

One would think, then, that it would be impossible to have eyes on anything but Espinosa’s greatness during this show. Yet part of what makes Lempicka so marvelous and unstoppably delightful is that not only does the rest of the company hold their own, they shine in their individual and undeniable ways.

This is particularly true of the always-fabulous Carmen Cusack, whose impassioned portrayal of Rafaela is as gorgeous and unique as her unmistakable singing voice. As the spark that ignites Lempicka’s artistic fire, the Tony nominee (2016’s Bright Star) delivers yet another unforgettable performance. Like Espinosa, her vocal prowess is a weapon that penetrates deeply into the souls of her audience. Hearing the two of them belt and blend harmonies at once induces the type of full body chills that too few theatergoers ever have the luxury of experiencing first-hand. Despite the nearly three-hour runtime, the show feels too short: you don’t want to ever stop listening to these two powerhouses duet.

Lempicka

Additional standout performances include Rachel Tucker (who like both Espinosa and Cusack has played Elphaba in Wicked) as The Baroness, a bold woman who commissions Lempicka for a portrait based on ulterior motives. As Suzi Solidor, a lesbian whose bar becomes a temporary refuge for the Parisian queer community, Natalie Joy Johnson is a scene-stealer. And as Tadeusz, Andrew Samonsky brings palpable vulnerability to a man who increasingly struggles with living in his wife’s shadow.

With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, the songs of Lempicka are as exquisite as are the talents performing them. Though the musical is set in the first half of the twentieth century, the songs are definitively present-day. With a modern pop flair combined with echoes of the storytelling grandeur of classics like Les Misérables, the richly layered music of Lempicka demands that the cast give their A-games at every show.

The results are catchy, impressive and beautiful—so much so that the fact that the cast recording is not yet available for sale feels like a major crime.  In an era dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals, numbers like the empowering “Burn It Up”, the sultry “Stillness” and the climactic “The New Woman” serve as vivid reminders of how impactful original musicals can still be.

“A friend introduced me to Lempicka and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn’t know who she was. And that’s a wrong in the universe,” Kreitzer told The Berkshire Eagle. “I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open.”

“The music leapt off the canvasses,” Gould continued. “And I didn’t know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time.” Through their combined brushstrokes, Kreitzer and Gould’s songs paint a picture of a phenomenally talented and complex woman whose extraordinary story becomes instantly unforgettable for anyone who listens to them.

Like the score, Rachel Chavkin’s avant-garde directorial vision fuses the period piece with a contemporary sensibility. Chavkin already demonstrated her genius with Broadway’s cutting-edge 2016 musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812– another show that interpolated a perennial story with a distinctly current imagination. With Lempicka, she once again breaks theatrical ground. Between these two shows, it’s quite evident that the Tony-nominated director has a penchant for reshaping the lenses with which audiences observe stories they may think they already know.

Lempicka

Whether it’s completely revamping a Broadway theater into an Imperial Russian ballroom or marrying a sparse set with evocative lighting, Chavkin creates a fully immersive and genre-defying experience for those consuming her meticulous work (think of the grand scope of Julie Taymor mixed with the intimacy of David Cromer). Her brilliant staging is complemented perfectly by Bradley King’s stunning lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’ minimalist scenic design, Montana Levi Blanco’s lavish costumes and Raja Feather Kelly’s magnificent choreography. The sum of these parts adds up to the most astounding, daring and exciting new musical of 2018.

In its 64th season, the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has delivered home run after home run. For Lempicka, this world premiere production is the beginning of a journey that should include a sweep of the Tony Awards, affirming the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Lempicka, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts until August 1.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: LAURA BENANTI HEADLINES BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S ANNUAL GALA

Laura BenantiEvery summer, Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts hosts a gala.

This hotly ticketed event raises funds for two of the renowned theater company’s most important programs, the Playwright Mentoring Project and the New Works Initiative. They focus on providing an artistic home for participants and lifting up the voices of under-served youth across Berkshire County. Shows that have been introduced to the world as a result of these programs include the eagerly anticipated American Son, which will have its Broadway premiere this fall; its all-star cast boasts the likes of Kerry WashingtonSteven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan.

On July 23, BSC’s 24th Annual Gala was headlined by the extraordinarily talented Tony Award winner (and 5-time nominee) Laura Benanti. Along with her musical director Todd Almond, Benanti brought her marvelously audacious one-woman show, Tales From Soprano Isle, to the Berkshires for one exceptional night only.

Benanti opened her set with “She Loves Me in 15 Minutes,” a condensed version of the beloved musical that interspersed the show’s biggest numbers with a hilarious SparkNotes-like summary of the plot. As she sang the musical’s biggest highlights (including ones that her character didn’t perform in the acclaimed 2016 Broadway revival that she starred in), the soprano wasted no time in introducing the audience to the pitch perfect high notes that have catapulted her into a musical theater superstar. While “Vanilla Ice Cream” marked the medley’s showstopper, Benanti’s entire performance showcased her two major strengths: a big voice and an equally big sense of humor.

In fact, Benanti is as brilliant a comedienne as she is a vocalist. Of course, this is no secret to those who have seen her scintillating appearances as Melania Trump on Late Night with Stephen Colbert– a recurring role that has generated a stream of viral sensations since 2016. Not since Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has a comedic impersonation of a political figure penetrated the cultural zeitgeist on such a massive scale while remaining so consistently spot-on.

“I’m not going to assume what your political leanings are,” Benanti told her audience while getting ready to perform as Melania. “Assume!” cried out someone from an orchestra seat. “You know what they say about assumptions,” she swiftly replied with a smile. “I don’t get paid.”

“Regardless of your political beliefs, I think we can all agree that Melania never expected to be First Lady of the United States,” Benanti continued. “Gold toilets? Yes. But the White House?” Then, it was as though she flipped a switch that instantaneously transformed her accent and Blue Steel pout into her now signature impression of the Obama birther conspiracy theory propagator.

As Melania, Benanti performed a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” that—yes, there’s no other way of saying it– brought the house down. This time plagiarizing Sondheim’s melody and refrain, her Melania retooled the lyrics to apply them to herself – including zingers about self-imprisonment, wealth, and Kellyanne Conway. Benanti’s comedic instincts, timing and writing seamlessly came together in this standout song – as clearly evidenced by the rapturous applause and fervent whistle blowing that immediately followed its final note.

Always quick on her feet, Benanti is at her best when playing off the energy of a live audience. Whether it’s saying, “God bless you” to a sneezing audience member in the middle of a song or finding a clever way to incorporate someone else’s ringing cell phone into her performance, her constant adlibbing adeptly demonstrated her ability to command the stage.

Taking the audience on a musical journey through her illustrious career, Benanti not only underlined her impeccable skills as a raconteur, but she also provided rare insights into what it was like behind the scenes when she was working on some of the best-known shows of the past two decades.

She recalled her Broadway debut in the 1998 production of The Sound of Music, when at only 18, she played Maria von Trapp’s understudy. When the show’s star went on a two-week vacation, Benanti was finally ready to take center stage as the world’s favorite former nun. Yet despite all of her confidence and excitement, nothing had prepared her for her first panic attack. It occurred a mere seconds before she was to run out on stage with her arms stretched out wide (àla the iconic Julie Andrews pose) for the opening number on her first night.

Benanti then sang “The Sound of Music” exactly as she did during that harrowing inaugural performance – with her arms locked above her head, profusely shaking, mock wiping sweat from her armpits, stammering her words while keeping her face lit with a full deer-in-headlights expression. Watching Benanti reclaim what was truly a traumatic experience into a master class of physical comedy was as inspiring as it was hysterical.

Similarly, Benanti shared two amazing stories about her frequent collaborator and Broadway legend, Patti LuPone. In the first, Benanti was playing the role of Louise (for which she won a Tony Award) opposite LuPone in Gypsy. When they first met, Benanti was nearly starving herself for her role. LuPone asked her to get drinks after rehearsal, and – like any young actor spending one-on-one time with PATTI LUPONE would do – Benanti ordered the same as her co-star: two double vodkas with lime. The next morning, she couldn’t remember anything beyond the first 45 minutes of her night out and woke up fully clothed in her apartment shower with the water pouring down on her. “What happened to you?” asked her alarmed then husband when he found her. “Patti LuPone,” Benanti deadpanned.

In her second LuPone story, Benanti took us back to the 2010 production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At one point in the musical, she was to descend to the audience in a harness attached to the ceiling. During one performance, she broke her pelvis executing this stunt and passed out. When she came to, LuPone was holding a bag of ice on her crotch. “What happened?” Benanti asked her co-star. “Doll, you broke your vagina!”

But the night wasn’t entirely full of laughs. Before announcing her final song (and quipping, “Oh, you’ll be fine” to the cumulative groans from the audience that the show was ending), Benanti told a heartwarming story about her mother. She recalled how as a little girl, the moment that made her realize that her mother had an individual identity aside from “mom” was when she caught her singing Kander and Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing” on their staircase.

This scene in Benanti’s youth also opened her eyes to the enormous sacrifice that her mother made. She set her passion for performing aside to raise her and her sister. Today, Benanti and her mother Linda regularly tour their mother-daughter concerts all around the country.

Laura BenantiIn a tribute to both her mother and to her year-and-a-half old daughter, Benanti closed her set with a stunning acapella take on “A Quiet Thing.” As she sat without a microphone and with her legs dangling from the edge of the stage, Benanti filled the theater from wall to wall with her gorgeous voice. It was easily the cherry on top of an already unforgettable evening.

To call the Annual Gala a success for Barrington Stage Company would be a massive understatement. This year, they raised a record-breaking $140,000 ($100,000 of which will go towards the Playwright Mentoring Project).

“Thank you for supporting live theater,” Benanti told the crowd. She expressed that in these times wherein so many people are dismissed as “other,” the unparalleled sense of community, empathy and understanding live theater can provide is of the utmost importance.

And with that she took a final bow … along with the giant bouquet of flowers off of the piano.


With her exquisite voice, humor, and storytelling, Laura Benanti puts on a must-see show. Don’t miss Tales from Soprano Isle, touring across the United States this summer!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2” WITH DIRECTOR JOE CALARCO

IT’S SAID THAT WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS.

At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer decides to (spoiler alert!) leave her husband and children to start a new life. This game-changing examination of gender roles and 19th century marriage was bold, controversial, shocking, and liberating in ways that were never seen on stage before the time of the play’s publication.

The lingering question of where Nora’s journey took her next is now being answered in the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Picking up fifteen years after Nora closed the door of the Helmer house and on her old life, this new play written by Lucas Hnath finds Nora returning to her previous home to finalize her divorce. What ensues is yet another brilliant and poignant exploration of identity and society that expand upon both the world and ideas that Ibsen presented over a century ago.

Now playing through July 28 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Joe Calarco. I chatted with the director about the show, the timelessness of Nora’s story, the impact of the #MeToo movement on this production, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: A Doll’s House features one of the most iconic endings of all time. What is it about Nora’s story that makes her such a fascinating character to continue exploring beyond the groundbreaking source material?

JOE CALARCO: Well, Ibsen’s original play was incredibly controversial. When it first premiered in 1879, many were appalled by it, finding it an attack on the institution of marriage. It was forbidden to be performed in London. For the German premiere, the actress playing Nora refused to play the last scene, saying she could not imagine a mother leaving her children. So Ibsen wrote an alternate ending for that production – though he felt doing so was “an abomination.”

The play opens with the stakes already incredibly high. Nora knocks on a door – the same one she walked out of fifteen years prior. Now a successful writer, she has evolved a great deal since the last time she stepped foot in the Helmer house. How challenging is it to maintain this same level of tension throughout the duration of the entire show?

Honestly, that tension is so beautifully written into the play by Lucas Hnath that it wasn’t a challenge at all. The play is a series of two person-sparring sessions between different characters. The tension is there because of the loaded 15-year history all the characters are bringing into those interactions.

What does Obie Award winner Laila Robins bring to her interpretation of Nora that audiences may be surprised by?

I’ve known Laila for a long time. I first saw her in Albee’s Tiny Alice at Second Stage in New York years ago and became determined to work with her. We ended up workshopping the musical Picnic At Hanging Rock by Daniel Zaitchik at Lincoln Center and at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference but we had never done a full production together. The minute I read this play I thought, “Laila has to play this part.” She is always surprising to me. She makes choices most actors don’t think of, so those who know her work will just revel in getting to see her rip into a character that demands so much from any actress playing her, and boy does she meet those demands. If you don’t know her work, then you will have the great joy and thrill of seeing one of the best actresses we have just killing it. She’s as good as it gets.

A Doll's House, Part 2

Although it’s set in the late 19th century, the play remains very topical to contemporary audiences. What is it about this story that makes it so timeless?

It was way ahead of its time when first written in terms of showing a complicated three-dimensional woman who has a clear understanding of self on stage. The box she’s put into in her marriage is suffocating her and she makes a decision she has to make in order to survive – a decision that was considered unforgivable by many when it first premiered well over a hundred years ago. Watching audiences during previews and seeing some people gasp or look shocked at things Nora says is a sad reminder that times have not changed as much as some would like to think they have.

How has this production been influenced and/or shaped by the #MeToo movement?

To me, context is everything in the theater. What is happening in the world allows or forces an audience to hear things differently. The first use of the “me too” phrase was in 2006 by Tarana Burke as part of a campaign to unite and support women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. The phrase did not become widely known about until (surprise surprise) a white woman appropriated the phrase and used it as a hashtag on social media in October of 2017 to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment. The original Broadway production of the play closed in September right before the hashtag became widely used on social media.

I think hearing the play in the current environment ignites an audience in a very immediate way and in different ways, depending on who they are and their feelings about the movement. On opening night when Nora yells, “I don’t need a fucking savior!” some people cheered and I could see others a bit more cold to it, maybe threatened by it. That’s what good theater does— startles, provokes and creates the opportunity for conversation.

Often times, sequels to beloved classics by different authors tend to not be embraced the same way that the original stories are. Why do you think Lucas Hnath’s play has become such a hit?

It’s a damn good play even if you haven’t read the original! It stands on its own as a really good play. But anyone who knows Ibsen’s original has wondered what happened to Nora after she slammed that door and this play allows you to engage with that question.

Is there a specific scene that you’re most excited for audiences to see? If so, which one and why?

Every scene is a tour de force. Each one is almost a three act play unto itself in terms of how they’re structured so I love them all. But I find the Emmy scene the most surprising because I think an audience has its own ideas of how Nora’s absence will have impacted her children. And Nora wonders too, of course. So in that moment when Emmy first appears, the audience is in the exact same place as Nora is – and where Emmy is in her life isn’t at all where Nora expected her to be and I think most audiences have the same response.

What are some of the key takeaways that you hope audience members have after seeing this production?

I know they will be knocked out by the performances and I hope they leave talking about the play and discussing how far we’ve come or not come as a culture in terms of how we view women.

When you were laying out your directorial vision for this production, did you approach it more as a brand new and standalone piece? Or was it more similar to working on a revival since the characters and their backstories are already so well known?

I think the play stands alone as a great piece of writing, but of course our knowledge of Ibsen’s play informs so much of how you view the characters. We read parts of Ibsen’s play in the early days of rehearsal and that was fascinating— to see who Nora was and who she has become— or as Hnath has Nora say about who she was in the marriage “That’s not me. That was a thing I was doing because if I didn’t do it, then you wouldn’t have listened to me about anything that was important to me.”

As the recipient of several Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, along with numerous nominations, what would you consider your signature touch as a director? 

I think I provide a safe rehearsal space for actors to take risks so I hope the plays and musicals I direct always have very raw, honest performances in them. I’m fortunate enough to work with designers who share the same aesthetic as I do and we always challenge each other to up our game. I think visually my shows are always very striking without getting in the way of the performances— the design is always there to support the actors.

How will this production be both similar to and different from last year’s Broadway production?

I actually didn’t see the Broadway production, which I’m happy for. I didn’t have any images to influence me or to have to fight against. I feel very strongly as a member of the directors union, SDC— I sit on the Executive Board— that a director’s work is their work and it should not be replicated without permission. It is a director’s job to bring their own vision to a piece. The script itself demands certain things, but I think our production is even more spare visually than the Broadway production, allowing the actors to carry the play. I think, like on Broadway, the audience will see four master actors tear into a great play.

You’ve worked on many shows at Barrington Stage Company, including Ragtime and The Burnt Part Boys. What is about this specific theater company that makes you keep wanting to work on more projects here in the Berkshires?

Julie [Boyd, Artistic Director of BSC] has always been so supportive of me. BSC is like a second artistic home for me. I’ve gotten to work on new work here both as a director and as a writer and I’ve gotten to re-examine existing work like Ragtimeand Breaking the Code. Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece. That’s a gift.

The show has its final bow on July 28. What’s next on your plate? And what are some dream projects you hope to work on in the near future?

I get a little bit of a break, which I’m looking forward to because this is my third show in a row since April and I’m looking forward to letting my brain recharge. I’m a writer as well as a director and I have a new play I’m looking to finish. I’m Director of New Works and Resident Director at Signature Theatre outside of D.C. and I’m directing two shows there next season – the first being Heisenberg starting rehearsals in August. I also write a world premiere one-act play each year for Signature’s education program, Signature in the Schools, so I will be getting started on that soon. I’m looking to expand the play we did last year, 12 Million Footsteps, about the Syrian refugee crisis, into a full length play, which I’m going to develop with some Syrian actors. Another theater in D.C.— 4615 Theatre Company — is producing the world premiere of another play of mine, Separate Rooms, next spring.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through July 28.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEWS: “THE CLOSET” AND “THE SOUND INSIDE” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown Theatre Festival

You know it’s officially summertime in the Berkshires when the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival kicks off. This year, the iconic institution celebrates its 64th season, holding its inaugural performances last week.


Up first on the Main Stage is The Closet. Written by Douglas Carter Beane (XanaduSister Act) and inspired by the French play Le Placard by Francis Veber, this world premiere comedy is running from June 26-July 14. Starring Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs; How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award nominees Jessica Hecht (A View from the Bridge) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me), as well as Ann HaradaBen AhlersWill Cobbs and Raymond BokhourThe Closet is an uproarious contemporary farce guaranteed to make its audience ache from non-stop laughter.

The Closet

Set in modern-day Scranton, Pennsylvania, the play tells the story of Martin O’Reilly (Broderick), a middle-aged man who’s all but given up on his dreams of a bright future. He’s barely holding onto his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his son (Ahlers) thinks he’s too boring and ordinary to spend even a minimal amount of time with him. At work, his impending firing is an open secret that office gossip queen (a scene-stealing Harada) loves to spread. Meanwhile, Martin obliviously and regularly accepts baked goods from his co-worker Patricia (Hecht), whose crush on him is as subtle as the giant crucifixes that adorn the office of the Catholic supplies distributor where they work.

Martin’s life is soon turned upside down with the introduction of his new roommate, Ronnie Wilde (the always hysterical Ashmanskas) – a flamboyant man who is as loudly boisterous as the patterns on his blazers. It’s not long before Ronnie infiltrates both Martin’s personal and professional lives.

Upon learning what Martin’s boss, Roland (Cobbs), is planning on doing at lunch that day, Ronnie concocts a wild and lavish scheme to convince Martin’s colleagues that the two of them are a gay couple. As a result, he can argue that if they do let Martin go, it would be because he was gay. Therefore, the already-floundering company would get terrible PR for its discriminatory treatment of a gay worker (despite the fact that they would be completely within their legal rights to fire him for that reason – Ugh).

The chain of events that ensues is a rollicking and whimsical ride in which every character is ultimately pushed to come out of their own respective closets, whatever they may be. Brilliantly directed by Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive), The Closet is an undeniably laugh-out-loud satire about political correctness, yearning to fit in, and the pursuit of love in extraordinary places.

An equally intelligent and slapstick comedy, The Closet manages to both entertain and pack a poignant punch. After all, there’s an encouraging message at the heart of the show: live life as your most authentic self. In these uncertain times, that’s a reminder that’s never in short supply.

The Closet


The Sound InsideUp first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s more intimate Nikos Stage is another world premiere play. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter) and starring Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds; Angels in America), The Sound Inside is the absolute must-see show of the summer. Directed by freshly minted Tony Award winner David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), this cerebral drama runs from June 27 – July 8.

Although she enjoyed some literary success early in her career, Yale University professor Bella Baird (Parker) hasn’t published a novel in nearly two decades. Now in her early 50s, Bella is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 20% chance of survival.

Enter Christopher (Will Hochman). A freshman in one of Bella’s English classes, Christopher is unlike his contemporary peers. He doesn’t “do e-mail” and prefers discussing the merits of William Faulkner to taking selfies. One day, he shows up to Bella’s office hours without an appointment. Despite his professor’s insistence that he follow protocol and schedule a formal session through the university’s online calendar, Christopher keeps appearing unannounced. He tells Bella that he’s writing a novel and that, as someone enamored by her class, early prose and expertise, he needs her help in fleshing it out.

As Bella and Christopher spend more time together, she aids him in developing not only his novel’s characters and plot, but also (most importantly) his literary voice. At one point when his new mentor asks for an update on his progress, Christopher explains that he can’t think about anything other than his book. He says he feels like the novel is writing him instead of the other way around. With a knowing smile, Bella describes this as “the free-fall,” the part of a writer’s process in which their work begins to pour out of them like a faucet. This is the point when the author’s mind becomes so completely consumed by their story that the lines between what’s real and what’s fiction become a blur. It’s the stage that can only be reached when you listen and give in to the sound inside.

But as Christopher inches towards the milestone of completing his first draft, Bella becomes consumed by a different kind of force. In order to achieve the harrowing new goal she’s set for herself, she needs someone to help her – but as discreetly as possible. A prized loner with a rapidly intensifying disease, she decides to turn to the one person who she feels she can fully trust: her student. The result is a staggering exploration of not just what people are able to do for one another, but also what mortality means for an artist.

Parker’s tour-de-force transformation into Bella is a master class in stage performance. Her nuanced and raw portrayal allows audiences to peel back enough layers of Bella to become fully immersed in her audacious and often erratic psyche. Parker’s performance skillfully juxtaposes Bella’s sorrow and confidence, painting a vivid portrait of a simultaneously hungry and depleted woman on a quest to define her legacy.

The jaw-dropping reveal in the play’s climax dares its viewers to refocus the lens through which they not only examine Bella but also the overwhelming and sometimes shocking power art can have over its creator. The Sound Inside is a bold, remarkable and unforgettable character study that will haunt, challenge and inspire you long after the curtain closes.

The Sound Inside

Originally published on PopBytes