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Aida at Opera Carolina - Interview with Othalie Graham

October 10, 2013

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    October 10, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

Aida at Opera Carolina - Interview with Othalie Graham

We look forward to the excellent Opera Carolina's rendition of Aida. This company always puts on stage very good, world-class performances, so our readers who are at driving distance of Charlotte, NC, shouldn't miss this opportunity to celebrate Verdi's bicentennial (it's today, October 10th!) and attend one of his main operas by one of the best American regional opera companies.

We won't be able to attend opening night, but will publish a review of the last show on October 27; so, stay tuned.

Opera Lively - Arguably your character's most vocally interesting moments are Act 1's "Ritorna vincitor" and Act 3's "O Patria mia." Would you please comment on how you go about these arias?

Othalie Graham - These two arias are completely different as you know. I find that "O Patria Mia" in the context of the Opera is so beautiful! You are very warmed up by the time you get to the aria and it's a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beauty of your voice. It's also very emotional for Aida as she realizes she will never see her homeland again.

OL - What are the vocal challenges involved in singing the role of Aida? She has a wide range and requires some loud singing above the orchestra, as well as some delicate moments.

OG - This role is very challenging for all soprano's but especially for the bigger voice Aida's like myself. I think it's a very good role for us to keep in our repertoire so that the voice always remains lean, pitch dominant and beautiful. There is nowhere to hide in act three for any soprano. I think it's important to remain calm and not get too emotionally swept up in the music so that your voice remains beautiful until the end. Keeping the icewater in the veins like Callas said in a role like this is very important.

OL - Aida as an opera has been accused of regressing to the extravagance of Grand Opera and relying too much on pomp and circumstance. If, instead, you feel very positive about this opera as I imagine you do, would you provide a sort of defense for it? Why is this opera so great?

OG, - This opera, especially the production I'm involved in now, is the exact opposite of the Grand Opera tradition. There are no animals in this production and although the set is large it's very sparse. Our director instead is focusing on the relationships between Aida and everyone around her. In this production the relationships between each of the characters is very real and we are focusing more on exploring the reality of those relationships and not just Grand Opera gestures. I think that doing this makes the opera more realistic and also a lot more interesting for the audience. Our production is also very physical and quite dramatic.

OL - Aida does have intimate moments, with solo numbers and duets, and Verdi was arguably concerned with individual emotions. So, it is important to highlight these aspects rather than having real elephants on stage, etc. What is in your opinion the best way to stage Aida?

OG - I do love the pomp and circumstance of typical Aida productions but I much prefer to see real relationships between all of the characters on stage. That's why I'm so grateful for this production. The audience has the opportunity to really see Aida explore her relationship with her father and with Anmeris. Both of these are very complex relationships. The paternal relationship in the opera is also crucial for the story to be believable.

OL - What would you say of the character Aida's psychological traits? How do you relate to her as a woman?

OG - I think that her relationship with her father is very complex. Her loyalty to him and to her country really drives her feelings through most of the Opera. Couple that with her intense love for Radames and you have a story that is still very relevant today. I think the most neglected part of the storyline is the relationship between Aida and Amneris. In this production we're really showing that relationship much more clearly. As a woman I definitely can relate to this character. Her intense sense of loyalty, patriotism and her incredible love for Radames are all feelings that most women can relate to.

OL - How do you approach your predecessors in this role? Do you listen to them? Some of the greatest, naturally, tackled this role, like Callas, Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Zinka Milanov. Who inspired you?

OG - Birgit is really one of my favorites. To hear a voice of that size sing so lyrically and beautifully is pretty astonishing. I know that she's not the most Italianate Aida like Tebaldi or Callas but she really is my favorite in all roles. Her Aidas at the Metropolitan Opera from 1961 until 1965 were incredible. Also Martina Arroyo and Eva Turner were incredible as Aida and are singers that I admire.

OL - You are a very accomplished Wagnerian singer, not only having performed significant roles on stage, but having won two competitions focused on Wagner's music. But you also remain faithful to the role of Aida.

OG - I think it's imperative for dramatic sopranos to keep roles like Aida in our repertoire for as long as humanly possible. There is nowhere to hide in this opera at all. Its vocal challenges help to keep your voice well oiled and lined up. It keeps the bloom and the beauty in the soprano voice and both of these are crucial for vocal longevity.

OL - Looking at your resume, one might think that your signature role is Puccini's Turandot, of which you have several performances under your belt. As opposed to a sympathetic character like Aida, the icy Turandot is in some regards is not as appealing as a person (that is, if she were a real person.). How do you approach unsympathetic characters in a way that can enable the public to relate to them?

OG - I don't find that Turandot has to be portrayed in an unsympathetic way. I think that her youth (because my Turandot is young) and her fear make her icy. But I think that there are many opportunities to show her beauty and her vulnerabilities. I always look for the beauty in a character so that I can ensure that my vocalism maintains its beauty. I think that Turandot being alone with her elderly father and being told these horrible stories of her ancestors make her afraid of men. In that fear there is an incredible vulnerability and delicate beauty. In her stentorian first aria there still has to be soft beautiful lyric singing especially when she is talking about Lou Ling.

OL - I am particularly curious about opera in Turkey, a country I'll be visiting in October. You sang Aida in Istanbul. Would you tell me a little about the operatic environment there?

OG - I enjoyed my time in Istanbul very much. It was the first year of the Opera Festival in Istanbul Turkey and the artists were just spectacular. Of course as you know the country is absolutely beautiful. And the arena where we sang was just majestic.

OL - I saw you in the recent gala concert in Charlotte on September 12, and was very impressed with your vocal and interpretation skills. Your voice has been described by journalists as a blend of delicacy and sheer muscle. How do you describe your voice?

OG - I think I would describe my voice as beautiful, lean and very powerful. I certainly hope that you enjoyed that Gala. For me singing the Liebestod with Maestro Meena was absolutely life-changing. I certainly understand why journalists usually describe my voice as having delicacy and muscle because it certainly does. I feel however that the most important thing is to maintain the delicacy and the beauty.

OL - What was special about the Academia of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where you did your training?

OG - The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia is one of the most unique schools in the world. The only focus in the school is on opera training. I arrived at the school without an undergraduate degree in music at all so I was certainly years behind all of the other students. I was a good singer but I needed a lot of work!

OL - How did you get to embrace opera as a career, growing up? Where you exposed to it as a child, or was it an acquired taste?

OG - I was exposed to opera growing up as a child. I certainly didn't think I would become an opera singer but I'm honored to be a singer. When you're given a gift it's your responsibility to do everything that you can to share it!

OL - How are you as a person? What are some of your favorite activities and interests, outside of opera?

OG - I am a lover of espresso and boxing. Unfortunately, I have developed a deep love of shopping in every new city and country that I visit! I'm a voracious reader and I am a news junkie!

OL - Thank you, Ms. Graham!

OG - I am an avid reader of your website.

Questions by Luiz Gazzola Opera Lively

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