The Year of the Understudy at Santa Fe Opera

Shelley Jackson and Joseph Dennis go centerstage at SF Opera

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Two-thousand fourteen may be remembered at Santa Fe Opera as the year of the understudy. First there was Shelley Jackson, a second-year apprentice, stepping in as Norina, the female lead in “Don Pasquale.” Laura Tatulescu, the soprano originally cast in the role, suffered from severe allergies, and dropped out of the production after a few performances. Then Joseph Dennis, a blond, strapping, 29-year-old tenor from Texas (his identical twin, Joshua, is playing Jaquino this summer in “Fidelio”) found out that he would be taking over the title role in “Dr. Sun Yat-sen. ” Warren Mok, the original tenor, who not only sings but founded and directs Opera Hong Kong, was called back to China with work-related issues.

“On opening night, I was unnaturally calm and focused,” Jackson said. “I was in crisis management mode. The second time, they pulled me out of a chorus rehearsal to tell me. I wasn’t as rested, but I think I actually did better.“ “It was the first time I had ever done an entire role in a large house,” said Jackson. “I’ve been doing opera a long time scholastically, but this part is major. Major. Norina is long and all-encompassing,”

Jackson’s previous leading roles included “Violetta” in “La Traviata” in a 200-seat house at the Academy of Vocal Arts, in Philadelphia, where she went to school. “I knew that Santa Fe seats 2,000 and has a certain acoustic, but I needed to learn and judge vocally and in terms of acting, body movement, even energy, what was reading.”

Going into the performances, after a furiously concentrated rehearsal period, supported by everyone from fellow performers, the conductor and director, and even the tech apprentices who were rooting for her backstage, Jackson says she told herself, “either you can be a student about this and try to do everything perfectly, or take the opportunity and run with it.”

Reaction was positive, including thunderous applause on opening night, but that wasn’t the end of it. “Laurent Philippe, my long-time coach, wrote five pages of notes (about her performance).” Julia Faulkner, one of the visiting professionals hired to work with the apprentice singers as part of their summer training, offered more individual coaching. “At one rehearsal, the Italian coach, Corradina Caporello, was speaking in Italian, and the director, Laurent Pelly, was speaking to me in French, and I just had to stop and say, “I’m in a nervous state here. I can do two languages, (including English) but not three. I don’t really speak French.”

“That 48-hour rehearsal period was like two years of acting class and vocal class in two days. I like rehearsing a lot. That kind of intense rehearsal is as much fun as being on stage. I like pressure. I’m very type-A. Laurent (Pelly, the director) discussed my physical movement after the first performance. I tend to be fluid, graceful and sometimes goofy on stage. He wanted Sophia Lauren.”   “I went to school with Zach Nelson (who plays Dr. Malatesta) and my first major duet is with him. The whole time, I was just looking into his eyes. Later, near the end of the opera, I wasn’t sure my voice was going to make it. Alek (Shrader, who plays her love interest, Ernesto) was giving me this look, as if he were saying, ‘hold on!”

Brenda Rae, the soprano lead in the double-feature production of “The Impresario” and “Le Rossignol,” will take over the Norina part in “Don Pasquale” for four performances beginning on July 29. Jackson, who took over the part on June 28 (opening night) and again on July 9, will have two more opportunities to star in “Don Pasquale” in Santa Fe– August 19 and 22.   “You learn something new every time,” Jackson said.

For Joseph Dennis, the challenges go way beyond convincing the audience that he is a Chinese revolutionary. “The language is difficult, and the music is very 21st Century. Just one or the other would be challenging, but this is….difficult.” “I’ve been studying the role for months, and for the majority of that time, I’ve been terrified. The orchestra doesn’t play with you. You can’t get notes or rhythms from the orchestra. Some of the music is written to sound improvised, but if you don’t sing it exactly right, it doesn’t work. But the more I study, the more I begin to hear patterns. Honestly, there are melodies that are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard—like ‘La Boheme.’”

Dennis is a second-year apprentice and was assigned the responsibility to cover the role back in October. He actually lived in China, in 2003, teaching English in Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai. “Mainly I remember swear words, but I think it did help out some with my ear and with speech patterns. In the Chinese language one word or syllable can mean eight different things. I have to remember which one syllable to emphasize. There is still a little delay in my inner translator, a lag-time between what I am singing, and what I understand that I’m saying, dramatically.”

He had an opportunity to discuss the role with Mok before the previous leading tenor left Santa Fe. “We talked about the difficult parts, and how he worked through them.” This particular tenor part is written with very high and very low passages, but also, extended periods in the difficult middle range of the voice, the “passaggio,” according to Dennis. “Right where you crack.” Mok and Dennis also discussed the importance of diction, how to speak proper Beijing Chinese.” Dennis said that the composer, conductor and Mok all speak slightly different dialects, and have different accents, but the standard is the Mandarin used in Beijing, the capital.

In terms of the acting challenges in the role, Dennis said that Sun Yat-Sen had a very Western upbringing and education and straddled both worlds. The challenge is how Western and how Eastern to portray the man in his personal life. “I’ve lost sleep over that one,” he said. “He is like the Chinese George Washington. What would I think if I went to an opera where a Chinese guy with a funny accent was playing George Washington? I’m trying to get the diction down.”

Having his identical twin in Santa Fe during this experience has also been invaluable. “He was the one who got me started singing opera! We have the same voice. We give each other lessons and that way we can hear (in each other) what the audience hears, and trust what it is we’re feeling. I want Josh to understudy the role now because the more I teach him, the more I learn.”

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