Music review: Austin Opera’s “Aïda” – Luke Quinton, Austin360
Beauty of Life, Library Foundation, ‘Aida’ and Andy Roddick – Michael Barnes, Out and About Austin360
Austin Opera launches its 2015-16 season with the masterful grand opera of Verdi’s Aida, foundational support provided by the Georgia B. Lucas Foundation.
Famous for its Triumphal March and soaring arias, Verdi’s Aida is an intimate story of a love triangle between enemies during the times of war between Egypt and Ethiopia. Graced with some of Verdi’s greatest music, it’s a tour de force of choral scenes, dance, massive sets, and vocal power. Issachah Savage and Karen Slack will make their Austin Opera debuts in this beloved story of ill-fated love and betrayal.
Stage director Brian Deedrick, former Artistic Director of the Edmonton Opera, will bring Verdi’s spectacular opera to life with powerful vocals, themes of patriotism and betrayal, and sets dominated by a looming Sphinx-like stone face that changes from blood-red at sunset to a ghostly shadow peering from the gloom of the final duet.
The key to the staying power of “Aida” for more than 140 years since its premier has been the human story under it all. At the heart of this opera is the story of an Ethiopian slave and secret princess Aida, her powerful Egyptian mistress, Princess Amneris, and their shared love for the ambitious soldier Radames. Their love story, wrapped in complex themes of loyalty, longing, nation and regret, is told in four acts using some of the most intricate and complicated music that Guiseppe Verdi ever wrote, with voices blending like ribbons of sound.
Aida features the Austin Opera Chorus and the Austin Opera Orchestra.
An Opera in four acts with intermissions after Act II and Act III, sung in Italian with English translation projected above the stage.
Learn more about the artists, production team, and the synopsis.
Watch as Debut Artist Karen Slack performs a “Dear Husband” from Kirke Mechem’s Songs of the Slave. Austin Opera is proud to welcome Ms. Slack whose lustrous voice will surely astonish and amaze Austin audiences with its extraordinary beauty and artistry of great dramatic depth.
Cast (in order of vocal appearance):
Ramfis – Peter Volpe
Radames – Issachah Savage*
Amneris – Tuija Knihtilä*
Aida – Karen Slack*
The King of Egypt – Tom McNichols*
Messenger – Soonchan Kwon*
Priestess – Mela Dailey
Amonasro – Donnie Ray Albert
* Austin Opera debut
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi | Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni| Conductor: Richard Buckley | Stage Director: Brian Deedrick | Chorus Master: Julian Reed | Scenic Designer: Robert Oswald | Costume Designer: Annibal Lapiz | Lighting Designer: Michael Baumgarten
More about our Principal Artists:
Karen Slack, soprano singing Aida – Hailed for possessing a voice of extraordinary beauty, a seamless legato and great dramatic depth, young American soprano Karen Slack was most recently heard in the title role of Tosca and as Leonora in Il trovatore with Arizona Opera, Mahler Symphony No. 2 with The Latvian National Symphony, Beethoven Symphony No. 9 with Alabama Symphony, as Aida with West Bay Opera, and her featured role in Tyler Perry’s movie and soundtrack “For Colored Girls” as the Opera Diva.
Ms. Slack made her Carnegie Hall debut as Agnes Sorel in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans, a role she also performed with the San Francisco Opera, and has sung the title role in Aida with Lyric Opera of Kansas City. She made her Metropolitan Opera and international radio broadcast debuts in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Last season saw her as Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking with Madison Opera and Des Moines Metro Opera. Engagements for the 2014-2015 season include company debuts as Serena in Porgy and Bess with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Quad City Symphony, and Tosca with the New Philharmonic. Future seasons will see her return to Arizona Opera. Additionally, she will make her debut with Opera Parallèle, and join the Lexington Philharmonic and the Back Bay Chorale.
West Bay Opera, Aida – “Karen Slack’s deeply felt AIDA seemed modeled on Leontyne Price’s glorious assumption – dramatic in tone, generous in volume, flexible in tempo and luminous on top. Slack paid great attention to the meanings of words, accenting them with an emotional commitment that made her character’s passions believable.” -Jason Victor Serinus, Opera News
Arizona Opera, Il Trovatore – “Karen Slack who sang the role of Leonora, the much sought after heroine, has a voluptuous soprano voice with silvery top notes and a formidable chest register. She seemed to throw care to the winds as she successfully navigated her music’s many pitfalls. The result was an exciting performance of this difficult role.” -Maria Nocklin, Opera Today
Issachah Savage, tenor singing Radames – Praised for his “impressive natural instrument” with “trumpet-like, clear, open-throated, powerful” singing, Mr. Savage is the winner of the 2012 grand prize with the Marcello Giordani International Competition and the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition earning the main prize, audience favorite prize, orchestra favorite prize, and a special honor by Speight Jenkins.
Mr. Savage made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Don Riccardo in Verdi’s Ernani under James Levine and covers Siegmund in Die Walküre at the Canadian Opera Company in the 2014 – 2015 season. In the 2013 – 2014, season, Issachah Savage made his Houston Grand Opera debut as Radames in Aida opposite Liudmyla Monastyrksa and Dolora Zajick. In the summer of 2013, Mr. Savage participated in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for gifted young singers singing the finale to Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Merola Grand Finale concert.
Washington Chorus, The Essential Wagner – “There was an extra thrill in the final selection, most of the last two scenes of ‘Meistersinger,’ with tenor Issachah Savage singing the famous Prize Song….I wasn’t prepared for the easy, rich, warm sound that poured out of him in one of the most beautiful arias in the repertory.” -Anne Midgette, The Washington Post
Canadian Opera Company, Die Walküre: “When Savage sang the opening line of yesterday’s Die Walküre, we immediately knew that we were in store for something quite different. Instead of the usual tenor with baritone colouration and vocal heft, we had a lyric, unforced dramatic tenor, lighter in colour and yet powerful. Savage was careful to pace the first two acts in which he appears – building from strength-to-strength…The roaring ovation that greeted him when he walked out on stage for his curtain call was of a quality and pitch usually reserved for only the greatest of singers.” -Neil Crory, Musical Toronto
Tuija Knihtilä, mezzo-soprano singing Amneris – Finnish mezzo-soprano Tuija Knihtilä is, with lightning speed, gaining a worldwide following. Of her Amneris in Aida, Thomas Michelsen exclaimed “It was first and foremost an experience at the international level, nothing less, to hear Finnish mezzo, Tuija Knihtilä. What a voice! What control!”
In recent seasons Ms. Knihtilä’s performed Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos and Venus in Tannhäuser, both with Oslo Opera; made her debut as Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde in Weimar and participated in the world premiere of Kimmo Hakola’s opera La Fenice. After her return to Oslo as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, she made her Italian debut at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, in a production of Myung Whun Chung. Further highlights of the recent past include her debut as Brangäne in Chemnitz and performances as Amneris in Sao Paulo and Venus in Copenhagen. Her stunning interpretation of Ortrud in Lohengrin in Savonlinna in summer of 2013 received great acclaim from public and critics alike.
Tuija Knihtilä is also a sought-after concert singer. She has worked with Leif Segerstam, Esa Pekka Salonen, Mikko Franck and many leading Scandinavian and European orchestras, including the Helsinki, Tampere and Turku philharmonic orchestras, the Malmö, Lohja and Kuopio symphony orchestras, Kymi and Västerås sinfoniettas, Finnish Baroque Orchestra, Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, and the State Orchestra Darmstadt (Germany), among others.
Malmö Opera, Aida – “With a wonderfully clear and strong voice, Tuija Knihtilä combines the naturally superior attitude of the Princess Amneris with the uncertainty of a woman in love. In a priceless scene, she has twenty-some dresses to choose from but annoyed she rejects one after the other.” -Bo Löfvendal, Svenska Dagbladet
Malmö Opera, Aida – “The most interesting protagonist is Amneris. Finnish mezzo, Tuija Knihtilä, makes a magnificent portrait of the initially stubborn and cold princess. In one of the more elaborately directed scenes, Ameneris arrogantly picks and chooses from twenty-four different, shiny gold dresses brought forth by twenty-four slaves in identical pale green cotton dresses. Soon, however, Amneris’ feelings and understanding deepen. The tragic becomes palpable as we watch her compromise herself in desperate love for Radames. Knihtilä is impressive in the role. Her dramatic mezzo is passionately effective and immensely focused.” -Åsa Mälhammar, Sydsvenskan
Peter Volpe, bass singing Ramfis – American bass Peter Volpe is a consummate artist of today’s operatic world whose acclaimed vocal and acting ability captivates audiences and critics across four continents. Mr. Volpe’s inspired style and interpretive skill enlivens his repertoire of more than 100 roles in six languages, including signature roles of Don Giovanni, Mephistopheles, and Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin. Of a recent portrayal as Prince Gremin, Opera News wrote that he “managed to create in his single aria and scene of impressive dignity. His full-bodied bass and great candor of tone, together with his intelligent interpretation, won him a well-deserved ovation”
Recent highlights of Mr. Volpe’s career include three broadcasts for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (with Il tabarro and Suor Angelica), Rossini’s Armida, and Verdi’s La Traviata, the Verdi Requiem at the Chichester Festival in Chichester, England, and the popular French grand opera Les Huguenots in the role of Marcel at the Bard Festival; the first time the opera was staged in America since the Metropolitan Opera’s production 95 years earlier
Vancouver Opera, Faust – “Bass Peter Volpe, proved to be an excellent Mephistopheles, both vocally and dramatically, shining from his first big moment – Le veau d’or est toujours debout – onward. Volpe balanced the demonic and comic elements of his character, and the audience responded to his sardonic wit with outbursts of laughter.” -The Globe & Mail
Portland Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor – “The best solo singing, strong and beautiful, came from bass Peter Volpe as a compassionate Raimondo who seemed to foresee events. When Raimondo sorrowfully reported the murder and madness, Volpe joined with Portland Opera’s outstanding chorus in a scene that was richly sung indeed.” –David Stabler, The Oregonian
Egypt, during the reign of the pharaohs. At the royal palace in Memphis, the high priest Ramfis tells the warrior Radamès that Ethiopia is preparing another attack against Egypt. Radamès hopes to command his army. He is in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris, the king’s daughter, and he believes that victory in the war would enable him to free her and marry her. But Amneris loves Radamès, and when the three meet, she jealously senses his feelings for Aida. A messenger tells the king of Egypt and the assembled priests and soldiers that the Ethiopians are advancing. The king names Radamès to lead the army, and all join in a patriotic anthem. Left alone, Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her native country, where her father, Amonasro, is king. She prays to the gods for mercy.
In the temple of Vulcan, the priests consecrate Radamès to the service of the god. Ramfis orders him to protect the homeland.
Ethiopia has been defeated, and Amneris waits for the triumphant return of Radamès. When Aida approaches, the princess sends away her other attendants so that she can learn her slave’s private feelings. She first pretends that Radamès has fallen in battle, then says he is still alive. Aida’s reactions leave no doubt that she loves Radamès. Amneris, certain she will be victorious over her rival, leaves for the triumphal procession.
At the city gates the king and Amneris observe the celebrations and crown Radamès with a victor’s wreath. Captured Ethiopians are led in. Among them is Amonasro, Aida’s father, who signals his daughter not to reveal his identity as king. Radamès is impressed by Amonasro’s eloquent plea for mercy and asks for the death sentence on the prisoners to be overruled and for them to be freed. The king grants his request but keeps Amonasro in custody. The king declares that as a victor’s reward, Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage.
On the eve of Amneris’s wedding, Ramfis and Amneris enter a temple on the banks of the Nile to pray. Aida, who is waiting for Radamès, is lost in thoughts of her homeland. Amonasro suddenly appears. Invoking Aida’s sense of duty, he makes her agree to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia. Amonasro hides as Radamès arrives and assures Aida of his love. They dream about their future life together, and Radamès agrees to run away with her. Aida asks him about his army’s route, and just as he reveals the secret, Amonasro emerges from his hiding place. When he realizes that Amonasro is the Ethiopian king, Radamès is horrified by what he has done. While Aida and Amonasro try to calm him, Ramfis and Amneris step out of the temple. Father and daughter are able to escape, but Radamès surrenders to the priests.
Radamès awaits trial as a traitor, believing Aida to be dead. Even after he learns that she has survived, he rejects an offer by Amneris to save him if he renounces Aida. When he is brought before the priests, he refuses to answer their accusations and is condemned to be buried alive. Amneris begs for mercy, but the judges will not change their verdict. She curses the priests.
Aida has hidden in the vault to share Radamès’s fate. They express their love for the last time while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès’s soul.
A voice that is “dramatic in tone, generous in volume, flexible in tempo and luminous on top.”
– Opera News
Karen Slack “has a voluptuous soprano voice with silvery top notes and a formidable chest register.”
– Opera Today
In less than three weeks, Karen Slack makes her Austin Opera debut at the upcoming production of Aida. Like you, we are over-the-moon excited! With over 200 cast, crew, and orchestra, this will be opera at its finest, most dazzling and epic.
Since Karen and the other principals are now in town for rehearsal, we sat down with Ms. Slack to learn more about her. Simply said: She’s just as lovely and extraordinary as her voice.
What first attracted you to opera?
I was first introduced to opera by my Choral teacher, the late David King at the Philadelphia HS for the Creative and Performing Arts. In the 9th grade we had a music aesthetics class and he played recordings of Maria Callas singing Casta Diva and Jessye Norman singing Isolde’s Liebestod — and I was hooked! That was the day I fell in love with opera. Then in the 10th grade I saw the final dress rehearsal of Bizet’s Carmen with Denyce Graves at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. After that performance, I knew opera was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!
Why is opera special to you?
On a personal level, opera is special to me because it changed my life. I have seen the world, met incredible artists, some whom have become like family, and have had the pleasure of meeting and singing for celebrities and important world leaders. Never in my parents’ prayers for my life did they ever imagine I would do all the things I’ve been blessed to do.
On a practical level, opera is special because it is larger than life and incorporates all the arts into one: vocal, instrumental, creative writing, visual arts, dance (in some cases), and drama. You need everyone to make this incredible art form possible!
How did you get your start?
After deciding I wanted to be an opera singer at 16 years old, I attended the Hartt School of Music for one year. Under the guidance of my voice teacher in college, I entered and won 1st prize in the Rosa Ponselle International competition in NYC at Alice Tully Hall. The prize was $50,000 and two years of study in NYC under the Rosa Ponselle Foundation auspices.
I moved to NYC, took private voice lessons three times a week, movement class, Italian language, piano lessons: It was all very old school. After I completed the two years, I scheduled to make my big NYC recital debut. Much to their disappointment, I decided that I was not ready for a career at 20 years old and applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where I spent the next six years. After graduating from Curtis, I went on to the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera, was awarded an Adler fellowship, and spent two years at SFO.
What are you most looking forward to in your role as Aida?
This is such a special occasion for me, first to have the opportunity to perform under Maestro Buckley who has a rich history in Verdi and is one of the best American conductors around.
Also, I have the pleasure of not only singing a role I love, but perform it with the incredible baritone Donnie Ray Albert as my father. I have admired him since my early years as a student listening to his Grammy award-winning recording of Porgy hundreds of times.
What an honor to share the stage with him and my high school class mate Issachah Savage. We’ve come so far and I can only imagine how proud our music teacher Mr. King must be of both of us. I know he is beaming and smiling down from heaven.
What is your dream role?
My two angels: Ariadne and Aida.
How would you describe your own voice—and how does it feel to sing?
Beautiful, rich, very expressive, and shimmery like silver but warm as rose gold. When I hear a cello, it reminds me of what I want my voice to sound like: rich, deep, and expansive.
Singing for me just makes my soul feel good. It’s work, yes, as we are always trying to make it better. But in the few times in our vocal lives when all the stars are aligned, and the breath is working brilliantly, and your throat is free and open…it can feel like magic!
That is what we are always striving for: Not perfection, but magic! HA! Keep searching!
In just 10 days, Tuija Knihtilä makes her Austin Opera and U.S. debut on November 7th at the Opening Night of Verdi’s epic Aida. We are thrilled to host this talented soprano’s first visit to Texas.
Along with over 200 cast, crew, and orchestra members, Tuija is deep into preparations for one of Verdi’s biggest and most spectacular operas.
Even given her extremely busy schedule, she was able to find a moment to speak with us so that we could learn more about her transformative first experience of opera, her favorite character to portray, and why Amneris is such a profound role to sing.
What first attracted you to opera?
The first opera I ever saw was Magic Flute on the television at the age of five or six. I was mesmerized, and immediately after insisted that my mother call the television company so they would show it again.
Why is opera special to you?
Opera is a wonderful art form because it combines singing, acting, beautiful music, and storytelling.
How did you get your start?
Even though I studied ballet and the piano, I always loved singing. As soon as it was possible, I started vocal lessons and changed my major at the music school I attended from piano to voice.
What are you most looking forward to in your role as Amneris?
Amneris is a role I’ve performed quite a few times, and I love to sing it. It is not only because I find Verdi’s music very powerful, but also because the character of Amneris is extremely interesting.
She develops from a young, spoiled daughter of Pharaoh, to a woman in love who is rejected and ends up betraying her great love and regretting it immensely. What a wonderful storm of emotions to convey every evening!
What are some of the more interesting places you have performed?
A few of my favorite opera houses in the world are La Fenice in the magical city of Venice, Italy and Oslo National Opera in Norway, with its wonderful acoustics and the view of the sea from its cafeteria. I also very much enjoy the Savonlinna Opera Festival stage in Finland. It is an old partially-ruined castle where seagulls sometimes participate in the performance by flying above the stage.
What is your favorite role?
My favorite role is usually the one I’m currently singing. But, in the future, I would love to perform Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal.
What are you most looking forward to in your first visit to Texas?
I am looking forward to the warm and sunny weather, because it has been between 38-54F in Helsinki and, sooner than I care to think, the days will be shorter and shorter. Also, I’m very excited to work with the Aida team and have a great working process with everyone!
When we decided to bring Aida back to Austin for the first time in 15 years, we knew that we would need a stage director with immense talent, charm, and vision. Enter Brian Deedrick from Edmonton, Alberta. Of course, he’s immersed in preparation for this Saturday’s opening night (we can’t wait!), but Brian did take time with us to answer a few questions. He’s irresistibly insightful and hilarious, and we hope that you enjoy what he has to say.
Why is opera special to you?
The German’s have this fantastic word: Gesamtkunstwerk. It means “the totality of art,” the bringing together of everything. I think opera, more than any other art form, does that. You have design and visual components, the aural and oral, drama, and theatre. It all comes together. And, you get to play in the biggest sandbox of all. With opera, you could have 100 people onstage. I just love that size and scope. The passion lifts you up to the same levels as the size and scope of the opera.
What did you just finish directing, and what is next after Aida?
I just finished Boito’s one and only opera Mephistopheles for Knoxville Opera. It is definitely unique. Next up will be playing tour guide in Berlin. It’s fun. At about the point when you’re so tired of working on these great big operas, you go back to Berlin to spend many weeks explaining its glories. And, just about the time you get tired of silly questions like, “Why did Hitler build the Berlin Wall?” it’s time to come back to opera. It’s a really healthy schizophrenia.
What do you love about the story of Aida?
People will often say about Aida that the first half is all about pageantry. But after the first intermission, the opera really begins. That is when you get into the relationships and the deepening of the characters, the world that opera is really about. One of the great things about opera being such an elevated art form, it also means the relationships are bigger: Man vs Nation vs Universe. It’s appealing. Boy oh boy, does it do this in Aida. But, when it comes right down to it, when you strip everything away, it’s so immensely popular because it is a completely accessible story. Two women are in love with the same man. He can only love one of them. And the other one obviously decides he made the wrong choice! It’s straightforward, and people can respond to that.
What is your favorite scene in Aida and why?
I would have to say it’s the boudoir scene, the huge encounter between Amneris, Queen of Egypt, and Aida, Queen of Ethiopia, disguised and enslaved in Egypt. It’s just the two of them. I love that collision and clash – the battle between two incredibly strong women. It’s the first scene that’s really “opera” in the First Act. And it’s always fun to do when you have two great singers like we do – Karen Slack who plays Aida, and Tuija Knihtilä as Amneris – when they really dig into it and they see it in a whole different way. I love that scene.
Tell us about the set, have you worked with it a lot?
I’ve worked with the set a lot. It was originally built in Brazil and the directions and drawings were in Portuguese. When it came to the U.S., Opera de Quebec had purchased all these great storage containers sight-unseen. I was there to help them unpack, and it turned out that there were not only all these great set pieces and props, but costumes, too. And, of course, the astonishing sphynx head. It’s breath-taking. It’s an overwhelming statement of the symbolism dominating the stage. You get the sense that Egypt dominates this world, and poor Aida is against the forces surrounding her.
The set has gone through several other companies, and it is now with Opera Carolina. That’s part of the thing with Aida: It’s such a huge monster piece to produce, that to find a set that makes it affordable is hard to do. If you ask any city that hasn’t had Aida in a while, it’s usually their answer as to why they haven’t done it —cost. But, this set was done in a style that makes it an affordable and attainable production.
Our production of Aida will require over 200 cast, crew, and orchestra members. What’s the secret to turning all these working parts into one seamless unit?
It’s all about working with very good people and being as organized as humanly possible. You don’t have the opportunity for a lot of improvisation or inventiveness. With Aida, you have to come in ready to hit the ground running. With all departments, we’re all storytellers, from makeup to crew, the conductor and singers, we’re here to tell the story from our own angles—with the challenge of balancing both the intimate story of these characters set against an immense and exotic landscape of Egypt. But, the ones really putting it out there are the cast members. So, you’re thankful when you have a fantastic, very large team like this one helping put it together.
If you could sit Aida’s three lovers down and give them advice, what would you say?
I’d tell them to get over themselves, you know? Amneris, find a new guy on Tinder. Radames, make up your mind: do you want to be the great soldier, or do you want to find the great love of your life? Aida, hurry! I hear there’s a Greyhound bus leaving for Ethiopia. Be on it.
If you had to participate in stage animal gags, which animal(s) would you tolerate having onstage?
I have participated! For one show, we had a great big horse. I was against the idea, and I did not want to do it. Absolutely, at the peak of the Triumphal Scene, the horse rode out on stage center and it did exactly what horses do on stage center. The audience was convulsed with laughter, the stage had to be cleaned, and no one could carry on. So, out comes the guy with the shovel, and that started them laughing all over again. I’m pretty sure we went into overtime that night.
Animals I would tolerate: The best Aida I have ever seen was done by Buchanan Park Elementary School in Hamilton, Ontario. Their headmistress always condenses down whichever opera is in town— La Bohème, Carmen, and the whole school gets involved. When we were in town for Aida, the cast was invited to attend. It was the most fantastic privilege. In preparation, they had learned all about Egypt and had cooked Egyptian food. But, they couldn’t have the whole school in the opera. So, for the Triumphal March, they invited first and second graders to bring their pets from home. Sure enough, all of a sudden at the point of the Grand March, in come these little boys and girls with their pets! One kid had a gold fish in its bowl, and another kid had his pet lizard. A little girl had a little kitten in her arms. There were a few terrified dogs being dragged along the slippery gym floor. And oh, there was a little boy holding this big tortoise. It is the single most beautiful, touching, and heartwarming thing I have ever seen. It was the perfect engagement of audience and those kids—there has never been a prouder performer on any stage.
So, if you will provide me with 50 First and Second Graders who have brought their pets from home, I will happily deal with animals.