supporting characters are opera’s unsung heroes

I recently saw a wonderful production of Carmen by Opera Company of Philadelphia, their 2011-12 season opener.

When one goes to see Carmen, one expects the character Carmen to be the vocal and emotional centerpiece of the show. Philly’s Carmen, portrayed by internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, was Carmen–vocally, physically, emotionally. Expectations exceeded.

We all agree that a heavy burden to “deliver” is placed on any singer playing a title role in opera.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen flanked by Tammy Coil (left) as Mercédès and Greta Ball (right) as Frasquita / OCP 2011 / Kelly & Massa Photography

After enjoying the first half of Act I, knowing I could completely trust Shaham in the title role, I settled into the “rest” of the characters–the supporting players– specifically, all of Carmen’s gypsy friends.

It is important for Carmen to have “friends” since she can be perceived as more rogue than *Sarah Palin* if that’s possible.  She dances with Mercédès and Frasquita, she reads cards with them (sort of). These characters help the audience to realize Carmen can play in the sandbox, too, if not always nicely, and provide comic relief, especially Frasquita.

Vocally, however, it’s critically important to have Mercédès and Frasquita, who lend richness to the texture of the show. The gypsy quintet with smugglers Le Dancaïro and Le Remendado are showpieces that demand talented supporting players. By the end of the show, I have fallen harder for Carmen’s gypsy band than I have for the fiery gypsy, if portrayed well–and they were.

Last spring, during the Met’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the nymphs made the show for me. The direction, staging, and costuming mined the full potential of these supporting players. Of course there were other wonderful performances in that production, but I’ll never forget the nymphs as portrayed.

Anne-Carolyn Bird, Tamara Mumford and Erin Morley as the nymphs in the Met's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'

Could you have a Rigoletto without a stunning Sparafucile? Or Un ballo in maschera without the notorious Ulrica, the fortune teller. (Yes, Verdi definitely mined the dramatic and vocal potential of the supporting player).

Who are some of your favorite supporting players in opera?



9 Comments

Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera, opera challenges, Supporting roles

9 Responses to supporting characters are opera’s unsung heroes

  1. Cheryl Ziegler

    Nabucco-It’s is one of Verdi’s ultimate chorus pieces; they are the supporting cast for this Opera; a lot of people just don’t realize it. The Opera becomes more substantial and is carried to a whole new level. A famous Opera singer once said “That you see, hear, and feel something new every time you do an Opera even, if you’ve done it a hundred times.” This I found to be true, by listening and viewing it several times I got a new perspective. With Opera sometimes that is the idea, to get your creative juices flowing and make you think outside your comfort zone.

  2. admin

    The women in this show were just phenomenal. And the ensembles really needed those high glory notes. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Chip Krauss

    I saw this very same production of “Carmen” and could not agree with you more. The soprano playing Frasquita is responsible for hitting all of the high glory notes in the ensembles numbers, and Greta Ball did so with ease, artistry and POWER!!! Tremendous!

  4. I think Peter Grimes is an excellent example. If you think about it, the chorus is really the “villain” of the opera, and it’s always either calmed down by or whipped into a rage by the supporting characters. Plus, Ned and Auntie lend some much needed lightness to the show.

    • admin

      Hmm. Maybe I need to do a post about opera choruses and their importance, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Very interesting, Michael.

  5. Ann Lander

    The supporting characters are great parts for young artists to cut their teeth on. In a recent Tosca, Angelotti was sung by young Polish bass Lukas Jakobski & he certainly got things off to a cracking start.

  6. admin

    Some operas would not be nearly as fulfilling without rich supporting parts and talented performers in them. Thanks for stopping by, John!

  7. John

    Good point! I saw Iphigenie en Tauride last night and was struck by how good the supporting players were. Bar one, they were current or past members of the COC Studio Ensemble. It’s one of the COC’s great strengths that it has a core of talented young singers to call on for supporting roles It was the same last week for Rigoletto. Most of the supporting roles (plus Gilda) were sung by past or present members of the Ensemble.