Category Archives: Supporting roles

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?



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