Our La Bohème Who’s Who
Meet our Bohèmians!
Our guest conductor Daniel Brier chose his musical métier because he likes to be in the middle of whatever is happening. Find out more about Daniel from his interview with Opera Wilmington board member Lynne Herndon.
DB: My father was, and still is, music director in churches as well as a music educator. I grew up watching him conduct choirs, bands, and orchestras on a weekly basis. He was my earliest inspiration. As I grew older, I was not content playing or singing just one part. I wanted to know everything that was going on. Today, I continue to find inspiration in the long hours of study and the wonderful colleagues with whom I make music.
LH: What makes you happiest about your profession?
DB: My mission as a conductor is simply to communicate in a manner which transcends, transforms, nurtures, and edifies. I feel quite happy when a rehearsal and/or performance reflects this mission.
LH: What is something no one knows about you?
DB: I am an obsessive coffee connoisseur—going so far as roasting my own coffee and practicing at least seven different brewing methods. My wife and I are foodies. We have been known to cook elaborate meals you might find in high end restaurants.
LH: What is your favorite piece to conduct? To hear?
DB: Whatever piece I am conducting at present is my favorite piece. I realize this is a cop out answer, but it is true. That said, I am most drawn to masterworks that involve the combination of voices and instruments. Works like La Bohème, Le nozze di Figaro, Brahms’ Requiem, and Britten’s War Requiem all hold special places in my heart.
LH: what has been the biggest challenge in your career?
DB: I love challenges. Thankfully, my profession presents challenges on a nearly daily basis. Very often, I’ll be asked to put together an entire program with multiple moving parts on just one rehearsal. Other times, I’ll be conducting the same program ten times in one week. The challenge there is to make every performance fresh, exciting, and engaging.
Conducting live movies also presents unique challenges—I must keep 90-plus musicians in perfect sync with the movie. Working with jazz musicians, like when I worked with Bobby McFerrin, presents some unique challenges. As a conductor, you have to be able to get in and out of their solos with ease and manage a certain level of unpredictability outside the comfort zone of most orchestral musicians.
For me, however, the greatest challenge is finding more study time.
Jemeesa Yarborough got into opera when she was a high schooler at The Baltimore School of the Arts, which offered only the “classical” arts – ballet, stage theater and classical music – she says. “I started learning art songs and later, when I was old enough, opera arias. I just knew I was made for it. It was as if this genre of music lived in me.”
Asked what she likes best about her performing profession, she says, “The rehearsals! Building the character is my happy place. To create a world with people and emotions is so fulfilling. Great colleagues and talented singers make it even more enjoyable.”
Jemeesa’s favorite musical piece to sing is the role of Angelica in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, in the scene in which she meets with the principessa. “It’s so emotional and Angelica is both fragile and strong at the same time,” she explains.
As an auditor, her favorite “13 minutes of music” is from Puccini’s Turandot.
“The scene is Liu’s final confrontation with the princess, including the ‘Tanto amore’ and ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta.’ Leona Mitchell sings my favorite recording of it, from the Met recording with Pavarotti and Birgit Nilsson. It is awesome!”
The greatest challenge of her career so far, Jemeesa says, is finding “her people.” These include that small but important group that includes teachers and mentors: people who can help you make tough decisions.
“These people encourage and support you,” she says. “I am lucky that my team has been with me for years and they look after me as a person and artist. I am so grateful for them.”
When she’s not learning music or digging into her characters, Jemeesa loves to sew.
“I am still learning but I ultimately want to build a costume for myself including corset, petticoat and all the trimmings,” she says. “I have a weekly sewing meeting with a friend to discuss and create.”
Jonathan Kaufman had never seen an opera until his junior year of college, when his voice teacher invited him to a production of I Pagliacci, in which she sang the role of Nedda. Until then, he had been a music education major with the plan of becoming a choral conductor.
“WOW! I was blown away. I’d never seen an opera before, and my only exposure was Bugs Bunny and that scene in Pretty Woman!” he says. “In hindsight, what a great opera to see first! The genuine emotions and the music that perfectly expressed them made me transcend reality. I wanted to scream Canio’s emotional torture and anger. I felt Nedda’s terror and wanted to fight for my life.”
At his next voice lesson, Kaufman told his teacher how much he had enjoyed the opera and wished it were something he could do. She responded, “You can.”
The following summer, he auditioned for the role of Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, got it, and at the age of 20, made his professional debut. From that moment on, he says, “I was hooked.”
Asked what makes him happiest about his profession, Kaufman mentions two things.
The first is being able to perform with his wife, who is a timpanist. This summer, when she joins the percussion section of the Opera Wilmington Orchestra, will be the second time the couple have performed La Bohème together.
Second, he says, “The fact I am able to participate in presenting such beautiful pieces of musical and dramatic art is a gift. With that, despite any circumstance in life I may experience, if I remember this, happiness won’t be far away.”
Kaufman finds it difficult to identify his favorite piece to sing.
“As a performer and actor, my number-one priority is to become the character and emote what I’m singing so that I believe the words I’m singing and the music used to express the emotions and words is exactly the choice the character would make. That said, whatever I’m singing in the moment has to be what I connect with most.”
But, despite that, Kaufman says, “The simple answer is ‘O, Lola ch’ai di latti la cammisa,’ the opening aria from Cavalleria Rusticana. It’s just a laid back, simple Italian folk song that floats along beautifully. It also helps that this is one of my absolute favorite operas.”
Favorite piece to listen to? “No question: The Act 1 finale of Verdi’s Macbeth. The whole opera is amazing, but that finale is fantastic. It doesn’t get much better.”
Kaufman talks about the challenge of getting to the depths of each character he plays and then re-experiencing the character’s emotions and struggles time after time during rehearsals and performances.
“A good actor cannot numb his or herself to this on stage, or we quickly lose touch with our character,” he explains. “For the audience, whether it’s their first time or their tenth time seeing Bohème, if we do our job well, they do not remain an audience but instead become part of the story. They love with us. They laugh with us. They weep with us. Essentially, they become our character with us. Puccini, thankfully, makes this much easier.”
But after the final curtain, the singer must detach him- or herself from the character and from the work itself, in order to move on to the next thing. Not only is this difficult, he says, but it often involves the wrenching experience of leaving the people with whom you’ve worked to make the production come alive.
Few people in Kaufman’s audiences probably know that he used to be the lead singer in a classic metal cover band covering songs of Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest, Metallica, Black Sabbath, and more.
“I grew up listening to and studying their music, and it is still my favorite genre and era of popular music today,” he says. “If one listens to vocalists such as Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio, and Rob Halford, you’ll hear not only their talent, but the unquestionable correlation to the operatic style. I’ve since retired from performing it, save for the occasional ‘Holy Diver’ by Dio at karaoke.”
In her return to Wilmington, UNCW alumna Mary Claire Curran also returns to her first love: opera performance. In Opera Wilmington’s production of La Bohème, Curran sings the role Musetta Mimí’s coquettish friend.
Asked why she got into opera, Curran says the summer before entering sixth grade she attended a performing arts summer camp where they offered an “intro to opera” class.
“I was hooked!” she says. “My big voice had found a home. It was love.
“I love people and being able to connect to others through song. What I love about opera is the story telling. We may hear the same operas that have been performed for hundreds of years but they remind us that people don’t change–technology may change, but people don’t change and our stories don’t change.”
Most people don’t know that Curran has a knack for investing.
“I dabble in the stock market and have had some good buys,” she says. “I’ll never forget asking about buying Tesla and the stockbroker saying ‘Tesla? Never heard of it.’”
We asked Curran about her musical favorites.
“My favorite musical piece to sing in the operatic repertoire is Vissi d’arte from Tosca,” she responds. “And my all-time favorite piece of music is Clair de Lune–my favorite recording is by Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the movie soundtrack of Atonement.”
Carving out a career as a singer has plenty of challenges. Curran says her biggest challenge as a soprano is getting heard.
“One of the reasons I recently made a career pivot (I am now Senior Publicity and Marketing Manager at Unison Media in New York City) is because I wasn’t getting auditions,” she acknowledges. “Even though I have the talent, I wasn’t heard because of the sheer volume of sopranos in the industry. On the plus side, I now feel in control of my life’s purpose and financial security as well as possessing the confidence that I do have the talent and musicianship to be a professional opera singer.”
You will meet Andrew René as Marcello in La Bohème this summer. Marcello is a poor young painter who is part of the “bohemians” of the opera’s title. But Andrew is a modern-day baritone who loves opera:
“I particularly enjoy the fact that opera takes all of the performing arts and combines them into one art form,” he says. “That’s what originally drew me in. Experiencing the lush sounds of the orchestra, the inventive sets, atmospheric lighting, movement, acting, and virtuosic singing as a single phenomenon is quite a thrill. Seeing a roomful of people excited to watch opera makes me very happy.”
He loves to get involved in every character:
“What makes me happiest about opera is being able to explore the roles I play, both musically and dramatically. Each character has his or her own strengths and flaws, and I find the process of discovering those details particularly rewarding. Sometimes, that process teaches me something new about myself too.”
Andrew has particular opera favorites: “One of the most rewarding pieces for me to sing is, in fact, La Bohème. Another favorite is the sextet from the second act of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. My two favorite works to listen to are Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly, the first two operas I heard.”
And on the subject of getting work, Andrew comments: “Auditioning has been and still is the biggest challenge for me. Specifically, it’s a challenge financially but also in terms of skill and planning. How will I get to the audition? May I sing what I want or do they have certain repertoire requirements? How do the requirements of this company differ from another? When are the deadlines for submission? Can I pool multiple auditions into one trip? Will my work schedule allow me to go? Do I even have enough funding to begin answering these questions? It can be a complicated matter.”
When he is off work, he likes to walk around and take photographs, saying it helps him to understand his environment. He aspires to one day own a camera of professional quality.
Scott Ballantine is our Schaunard, a musician and one of the bohemians, in La Bohème. He is a baritone. We asked him what got him into opera, and it has everything to do with La Bohème:
“I got into opera because my first voice teacher introduced me to classical singing and I knew I wanted to be able to make sounds like that. However, I knew I was hooked on opera after I heard La Boheme for the first time in high school. I was in the chorus for a local production in my home town and spent every free minute in my car listening to the La Boheme for months.”
Scott is happiest telling stories on stage. He loves being part of opera that has an impact on the community. His favorite piece to sing is anything by Puccini, and his favorite to hear is Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. His most challenging roles have often been the most rewarding, particularly the title role in Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Hannah Before in As One.
Outside of his opera experience, Scott sang back-up for alternative rock musician and composer Ben Folds on three occasions in Utah, Colorado and Texas.
Carl Samet will sing the role of Colline in Opera Wilmington’s La Bohème this summer. Colline, a bass, is one of the bohemian friends who is a philosopher.
Carl was “discovered” by a music counselor at his camp when he was a teenager. She encouraged him to pursue singing, and he says he hasn’t ever forgiven her. Seriously, he loves opera. As he says, “Operatic performance encompasses the highest level of physical demands, historic and musical awareness, and artistic freedom. What’s not to like?”
Most people don’t know he trained as a choral conductor, and is a pretty good country singer who aspires to be the next George Jones. He could perform Gilbert and Sullivan all day, but if he were stranded on a desert island he would want the Fauré Requiem (and would want to conduct it!).
The biggest challenge in his career has been finding the right teacher, but he has: Nancy King!
David N. Williams will sing dual roles in our production: Benoit, the landlord, and Alcindoro, the hapless suitor of Musetta.
He says that during his freshman year in college, his voice teacher told him he had potential. But it wasn’t until he was assigned to sing the verismo aria, “Zaza piccolo zingara” from Leoncavallo’s Zaza that he got hooked on opera. He also enjoys the contact with colleagues that singing and teaching still bring him. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 1966-68 and had the unique experience of conducting choral music there to celebrate the Pope’s visit to South America.
His favorite aria to sing is Umberto Giordano’s “Nemico della Patria” from Andrea Chenier, and his favorite to hear is “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, especially if Pavarotti is the artist.
The biggest challenge in his career was learning and performing Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, but the hardest challenge was the role of Michele in Puccini’s Il Tabarro.