July 19, 2008

Director Builds Characters Young Singers Learn Opera’s Theater Side From Ed Berkeley

By Marc Shulgold

Ed Berkeley looks more like a member of your bowling team than a studious opera director.

For 15 years, this gentle fellow with the scruffy beard, compact build and untucked shirt has headed the Aspen Music Festival's nationally respected Opera Theater Center.

Each year, he auditions hundreds of young singers, selecting a handful to join the summertime fun at the Wheeler Opera House downtown.

That's where we found him on a recent Saturday morning - leaning against the proscenium, dressed in his typical untucked polo, shorts and tennies. Don't let the casual look fool you: Berkeley was riveted on his young charges as they offered some opera scenes.

He paid no attention to the singing. That's not his job. He's a man of the theater, so it's all about the acting, the characterizations, the believability.

"You can't do fake acting or melodrama in this small house," he said of the intimate Wheeler, during a backstage chat the following day. Even the smallest facial expressions are clearly visible to those attending an Opera Center performance, so Berkeley knows there's no place to hide.

And he understands the connection between good acting and good singing.

"What they're able to communicate through their bodies makes them better singers," he noted. "I've taught acting for singers (at Juilliard). Look at Shakespeare - he's so rhythmic, it's an easy transition from speaking his words to singing them."

At the Saturday master class (presented, as usual, before a packed house), brief scenes from Britten, Ravel and Purcell were performed uninterrupted - followed by a few suggestions from Berkeley.

He borrowed a page from Stanislawski's theory of method acting, suggesting that students find motivation from personal experiences and project them onto their characters. These are heavy concepts for young singers who've been so focused on their vocal production that the acting has been given scant attention - just as in many of the world's opera houses.

Not in Ed Berkeley's world, where opera stagings are never just about the singing. His productions have offered a mix of the whimsical, the bizarre and the profoundly touching.

He's presented cutting-edge new works by Thomas Ades and HK Gruber, he's boldly shifted the action of such standards as Carmen into unexpected times and places (Escamillo, sung by a shaven- headed black baritone, arrived onstage astride a red Harley). But it's not simply about being outrageous.

"We can't just do a conventional production," he said. "What's the point? Maybe we'll strip it down, with a strong visual conception - something that will engage people.

"We have a smart audience. A lot of them have seen standard productions. So what if we do something off-track?"

This summer's version of Rossini's Cenerentola (Cinderella) was set in a trailer park, decorated with pink plastic flamingos.

"We didn't violate the story or the music," Berkeley insisted. "I thought of how far (Cinderella's) family has fallen, how they still had pretensions to be something better - to escape the trailer park."

Berkeley expressed joy at turning bright young voice students into singing actors (superstar Renee Fleming is an alumna), while using his imagination to create unforgettably original productions.

"Being here has been terrific for me. Maybe this is where I was born to be."


Aspen Festival highlights

* Tuesday: Renowned pianist Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach's Goldberg Variations.

* Thursday: The Opera Center Theater unveils Hansel and Gretel.

* Aug. 2: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is joined by student musicians.

* Aug. 6: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet returns to the Music Tent.

* Aug. 12: The summer's fairy-tale theme continues with Massenet's opera Cendrillon at the Wheeler.

* Aug. 17: A small army performs Schoenberg's gigantic Gurre- Lieder.

* Information: 1-970-925-9042


Three days, four shows

Rocky classical music critic Marc Shulgold's take on some performances last weekend at the Aspen Music Festival:

* Friday: Things were a little off-kilter as conductor Lan Shui led the mostly-student Sinfonia in the Benedict Music Tent. The Singapore Symphony music director chose overly quick tempos in this Smetana-Beethoven program. The gentle flow of the Moldau was lost in his reading of that excerpt from Smetana's My Fatherland. Impressively, Shui conducted from memory. Too bad he forgot to wait for the orchestra to tune up before walking onstage. The pianist in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was young Sunwook Kim. His playing was impeccable, his interpretation generic.

* Saturday: Music director David Zinman was joined by festival favorite Emanuel Ax in contrasting piano works: Mozart's E-flat Concerto and Strauss' Burleske. Ax easily changed gears from Mozartean elegance to Straussian bravura. Curiously, Zinman programmed all 10 Dvorak Legends - combining with Shui's Smetana from Friday to create a sort of Bohemian Rhapsody.

* Sunday: Perennial Aspen visitor Sarah Chang plowed through Sibelius' Violin Concerto with James Conlon and the Festival Orchestra. Her manner was distant, her tone not particularly attractive - yet this was intense music- making, enhanced by the muscular accompaniment from Conlon and company. After providing an intriguing spoken introduction to Zemlinsky's rarely heard Mermaid (played by the CSO last season), the conductor made a strong case for the Austrian composer's more frequent appearance in symphony concerts. That night, the Opera Theater Center presented Rossini's take on the Cinderella story - La Cenerentola. Ed Berkeley playfully set the action in a trashy trailer park, with the title character (sung brilliantly by Julie Boulianne) struggling for royal attention with her goofy family (sisters Angela Mortellaro and Heather Jewson, and stepfather Eui Jin Kim). The sheer tackiness of the setting, combined with Rossini's vocal gymnastics (handled with remarkable poise by the cast), made for a fun night at the Wheeler.

Originally published by Marc Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News.

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