Opera’s earliest masterpiece, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea (1643), takes us to a world where virtue is punished and ruthlessness and ambition are rewarded in a republic in which the head of state behaves very badly. Roman Emperor Nero and his consort Poppea have no compunction about sweeping aside anyone who stands in the way of their union – including Nero’s wife Ottavia and his teacher, the philosopher Seneca. After all is said and done, the couple rejoices in one of the most beautiful duets ever written.
This compelling drama, filled with stunningly gorgeous music, features a large cast of UW-Madison students accompanied by an ensemble of authentic period instruments.
David Ronis, director.
DATES: Friday, November 16, 7:30 PM; Sunday, November 18, 2:00 PM; Tuesday, November 20, 7:30 PM.
This is a ticketed event. Adults $25; seniors $20; students $10. To avoid long lines, we suggest arriving 30 minutes early or buying tickets ahead of time, either in person or online. Please see link below.
So how does someone bring to life an almost 400-year-old opera about a 2,000-year-old story? Thomas Aláan and Benjamin Hopkins, who play Nero on alternating days, explore what it takes.
Benjamin Hopkins is a first-year doctoral candidate studying vocal performance with a minor in opera directing. He and his wife are from Oklahoma and moved to Madison a few months ago. He is the marketing and operations manager for University Opera and also teaches private voice and piano lessons through the University’s Community Music Lessons program. Thomas Aláan is a first-year doctoral student in music who lives in Chicago, where he conducts choirs at Holy Name Cathedral and runs his own “early music” ensemble, the Bach and Beethoven Experience. His UW-Madison research focuses on traditional Irish music.
You’re singing really old music in Italian. How do you prepare for this work?
Ben: “One of the challenging aspects of singing this role is the fact that there is very little orchestral support which leaves the singer often feeling quite exposed. This requires all of the singers to know the music, the words and the translation backwards and forwards. The very first step in studying this role was to take the text independently from the music and speak it fluently in a way that was genuine with dramatic inflection. The fundamental goal is to communicate and that means the words must be sung in a way that is believable and natural.”
Thomas: “This is the not-so-fun part of the job. Learning the music is like the kitchen prep before you actually start cooking the meal. First, I pull out my cutting boards (I print the music) and I break out my cookbook (translate the text from Italian to English). Then, I cut up all the vegetables and other ingredients (I break down the music into its basic components — rhythms, notes, and language — and practice those individually and in combination). Finally, I try to familiarize myself with the cooking instructions so I can start cooking (I memorize all the music). This whole process is done on repeat for many hours over many months… usually sitting in front of a piano, but sometimes in the kitchen cooking or on a bus heading somewhere. I know, it sounds super glamorous.”
And beyond all that music, you have to develop a character! How do you do that?
Ben: “Throughout my career as a performer, I have always been cast as the role of ‘the good guy’ which makes this study a completely different experience. Nerone is a character that presents a good challenge for me to impersonate because he has to be someone who can show love and then in the next moment be ruthless and have the ability to kill without a second thought. Nerone is a self-absorbed emperor who has tremendous power and acts only out of selfish demands. I really have to get outside of myself and explore a variety of extreme emotions in order to effectively communicate.
Thomas: “I had to relearn this process because I haven’t really done stage work in about eleven years. Fortunately, a lot of this can be intuitive if you follow the script. You have to know what you’re saying, who you’re talking to, and how they’re responding to you. You also have to be conscious of where the story is going so you can make sense of how your character develops over the course of the show. Nero is a really despicable character and has no regard for anyone but himself and acquiring power. I’ll be honest that I drew inspiration by looking to fascist leaders throughout history including Napoleon, Mussolini, and even Trump. I’ve spent several hours watching video of Mussolini and Trump. They’re so similar! I’ve incorporated some of their mannerisms into my interpretation, including Mussolini’s frantic hand waving and Trump’s slouched sitting posture with hands folded into a steeple.”
Why should people come to see Poppea?
Thomas: “Everyone, including opera-skeptics, should give this show a shot. Monteverdi really worked hard to make the show first and foremost a play… but set to music. The music is absolutely beautiful — if you didn’t know what was happening you’d think the show was one happy sing-song wedding — and despite being saturated with a lot of intellectually deep meaning, it’s also intuitive and approachable to folks who don’t know much about music.”
Why is this performance of Poppea special or unique?
UW-Madison Opera’s production of The Coronation of Poppea is unique for a number of reasons. The orchestra will play authentic Baroque instruments and will also be placed on the auditorium floor, visible to the audience, rather than in the orchestra pit. This allows a more intimate connection between the audience and the performers in this production and is traditionally the performance practice of the Baroque era. In addition, the casting of the lead male role, Nerone, is particularly interesting in the fact that it will be performed by two different voice types – Thomas, a countertenor, and Benjamin, a tenor. Both singers come from very different backgrounds in their study of music, which offers a unique experience for the audience due to the varying of singing styles and dramatic choices.