The following conversation with soprano Laura Claycomb began in the administrative offices of the Houston Grand Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is greatly appreciated. It has updated my previous interviews with her [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb Part 2] and has continued subsequently on a wide range of subjects
[Below: Texas Lyric Coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb, resized image of a Sergio Valente photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
Wm: Your most recent performance that I’ve had an opportunity to review took place at the Houston Grand Opera, where you were performing the role of Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”.
I understand that most of your colleagues in that cast were originally contracted to sing Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” with Anthony Dean Griffey, Susan Graham and Wendy Bryn Harmer, and that they all agreed to allow the company to change the opera to “Fledermaus”.
Griffey, who was Mozart’s Tito became Strauss’ Alfred. Graham, who was Mozart’s Sesto became Strauss’ Prince Orlofsky, and Harmer, who was Mozart’s Vitellia became Strauss’ Rosalinde. Every one of them agreed to take quite different assignments than “Clemenza”. How did you come to be part of that transformation?
LC: Changing operas while retaining their casts happens a lot more than you probably know. The opera company decides to do one thing, and eventually decides to change things (sometimes for reasons of money, but sometimes for artistic reasons, or to balance a season because other operas in the season have changed.)
Wm: It’s my understanding that once the HGO management decided they wanted to do David Pountney’s new production of Weinberg’s “The Passenger”, they wanted to include a popular, light-hearted work in their season.
LC: I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, it was hard to convince me to take on Adele, as I had memories of me, as a 20-year-old, struggling with the high D’s and the acting in this opera. I was a senior at SMU when I made my professional debut at the Shreveport (Louisiana) Opera in this role. Hmm! I think perhaps now I don’t have trouble with the D’s and my acting. ha ha!
Diane Zola, Houston Grand Opera’s Director of Artistic Administration, had come into my dressing room after my last show as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. She convinced me that they couldn’t do “Fledermaus” without me. They needed an “I Love Lucy” type of character for Adele, and wanted me. How can you say no to that? Suzy Graham would be performing in it, as well as Tony Griffey, so I jumped!
Wm: It was quite a joy watching you all in that production.
LC: I really liked the Australian production of “Fledermaus” that Houston mounted – it’s clever, good-looking and not your run-of-the-mill Viennese shtick.
[Below: Each separately contemplating a night in a Manhattan night club are, from left to right, Adele (Laura Claycomb), Rosalinde (Wendy Bryn Harmer) and Eisenstein (Liam Bonner); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
No one would have ever imagined casting Griffey as Alfred. He is so sweet and shy until he gets onstage, but he is hilarious in the role. Offstage, the man can high-kick higher than the best of the Rockettes, and had us in stitches with his Latin Lover shtick during the rehearsals. Wendy Bryn was about to lose it during some shows, he was so funny.
Wm: So few of his roles give him much opportunity to be funny onstage.
LC: He was a figure skater on roller skates as a youth like me (although he actually did competitions and stuff, I believe!), so we were always trying to figure out how to work that into the production. Alas, it never materialized.
But he was pretty hilarious, roller skates or no. Liam Bonner as Eisenstein was absolutely fantastic, Susan Graham was “luxury casting” as Orlovsky and a joy to work with, as always, and our entire cast had loads of fun.
It’s always different when you have to dance in a show – it adds a certain light touch and energy to the whole show, and, for some reason, it brings a cast together more than usual.
Wm: I assume that as a Dallas gal, you deliberately gave Adele a Texas accent.
LC: We decided once we got into rehearsals that Adele had a big Texas drawl rather than the original production’s Bronx accent, as it was more fun for the audience and certainly a hell of a lot easier for me. We managed to add in a few funny phrases, which we had fun researching. (“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!”) Most of them involved farm or local animals of some sort. I think it’s a Texan thing. (You never question it if you’re from here!)
[Below: Laura Claycomb as Adele in the 2013 Houston Grand Opera production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
It’s always exciting for me to be with this caliber of people on stage, playing off one another, and that includes Jason Graae, a Broadway actor who was the original voice of Lucky Charms, in the non-singing role of Frosch.
One of his ad-lib physical gags towards the end of the run had us all in stitches, and we all had to break character and just laugh with the audience: it made me feel like Harvey Corman for a moment. The more we laughed, the more the audience laughed; it was a couple of minutes until we all (audience and cast) could get ahold of ourselves.
Just the mimed part of Liam and Reggie in the last act (with Liam stuffing Reggie [Reginald Smith, Jr as the lawyer Blind] into a cupboard) was worth the price of the ticket.
Wm: It sounds like that even though you were reluctant to sing Adele, you got through the experience just fine.
LC: It was a blast, but I don’t know, however, if Adele is a role I would want to sing again. She doesn’t have a lot to sing, but SO much to SAY. I only figured out after the show how to best memorize spoken lines. I used to believe I just needed to think them and know them and understand the flow of them, but I’ve discovered that didn’t help much. I was terrified of the dialogues!
Wm: So what helped you learn the dialogues?
LC: Well, I actually had a breakthrough months AFTER the shows were finished as to why it had been so hard for me to learn them. Believe you me, I had worked on them on my own, but just not the right way. We’re taught to sing but never taught how to TALK or to memorize just words without music!
[Below: Laura Claycomb in a George Souglides costume for the Czarina in the 2014 Bergen Opera production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
First of all, I needed someone else to cue me when I was learning it – I had learned it on my own, and would make a huge annoying PAUSE when we got into rehearsals when it came to my line. Instead of “thinking” the lines, I finally learned that you just have to get them into muscle memory and only then work on your delivery and meaning. It sounds so counter-intuitive, but it’s true. And I learned that by having to learn a Russian opera!
Wm: Which brings us to your second role of this conversation.
LC: I was debuting a new role – the Czarina of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” in a new production by Mark Lamos in Bergen, Norway a few months later.
I’d never thought about it before, but for the past two decades, I have done operas in languages I actually speak. My German may be pretty bad grammatically, but I do speak it; and my French, Italian and Spanish are fluent. However, my Russian, pronounced wonderfully, is pretty rudimentary.
For this show, I had worked my butt off, making a word-by-word translation in my score of the Russian, and I had memorized the music while memorizing the ENGLISH translation of every word, so that I would know exactly what I was saying at every moment. I decided to put in the Russian transliteration only once I had the meaning in my head with the music in my own language.
WRONG WRONG WRONG! Baaaad idea! I just couldn’t memorize the thing (and I’m normally a REALLY quick study; ask anybody!) I had tried to teach my brain in a logical manner, but the brain doesn’t actually learn in a logical manner!
Wm: How does the brain learn to sing in an unfamiliar language?
LC: I finally figured out that I had to just chuck the English meaning out of my brain and get the Russian SOUNDS into my mouth mechanically. Finally, when they tripped off my tongue without me having a clue as to what they meant but were there just mechanically, I went BACK and added on the translation I had so painstakingly bashed into my brain before.
This whole experience helped me realize that I’m a mere mortal who has to memorize the thing into my muscle memory like everyone else. I guess, since I spoke the languages I was singing in before, I hadn’t noticed this process until now. I only noticed it with dialogue and truly foreign (to me) languages.
[Below: Laura Claycomb as the Queen of the Night in the 2014 Bregenz Festival production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a production photograph for the Bregenz Festival.]
It helped me immensely with my dialogue for the Queen of the Night in Bregenz this summer, and next I’m learning some Szymanowski songs in Polish. Now I know how to go about it. You just have to make sure to not forget to add back in the meaning once you’ve got it memorized. 😉
Wm: I was very interested in your taking on the role of the Czarina of Shemakha in Rimsky-Kosakov’s “Le Coq d’Or” in Bergen, Norway earlier this year. It seems that there a lot of Russian fairy tale operas that would be well-received by 21st century audiences. What were your thoughts about that experience?
LC: It was great to put together a show with Mark Lamos again after so many years. I did Mozart’s “Finta Giardiniera” with him towards the beginning of my career (again, with Patrick Summers conducting!) at Washington D.C. Opera. This year, we had a great time putting together this amazing Russian piece, and I had the most gorgeous costumes made by George Souglides, who also did the set design.
[Below: Laura Claycomb as the Queen of the Night in Bregenz with her Pamina, Anja-Nina Bahrmann; edited image of a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
I had this huge collar with three gigantic golden crows that hovered behind my head. I desperately wanted to steal my gold costume under it – ha ha! (We don’t get to keep costumes, for those of you who don’t know!) It was all sequined on the top, with golden feathers on the bottom. My red gown which went on top of it had a huge train with red feathers – so sumptuous!
The real kick for me was when the Russians in the show (and in the orchestra) commented on how great my sung Russian was. Quite the compliment, and appreciated, considering how hard I had worked on it!! I couldn’t have done so well in the show without the choreographer, the ever-talented Seán Curran who translated Mark’s wonderful ideas into graceful movements for my body.
[Below: Laura Claycomb checks out her George Souglides costume for the Czarina in the 2014 Bergen Opera production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
Bergen Opera is a relatively small company, but the administration, led by the vivacious Mary Miller, has big plans and do excellent work with very ambitious programming. I’ll return there to do Tytania in Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” next year. It’s a fantastic place to work and a company to watch.
Wm: In the year 2014 an opera company in the Western European city of Bergen, Norway was presenting a Russian opera about a country’s leader whose actions were considered quite madcap. Were parallels drawn with any “current events”?
LC: At first, I was a little bit disappointed that nothing in current events was being commented on politically with the piece, but that’s really not Mark’s bag, and productions are planned years in advance, in any case. When we arrived in Norway, Russian president Vladimir Putin had just started the foray into Crimea.
It was interesting to get all my Russian colleagues’ points of view on the subject: they see the facts on the ground that it’s mainly a Russian-ethnic area and that Russia has made sure their people are there. And the Ukraine has had a corrupt and pretty useless government for a while, backed by the U. S.
But my colleagues’ arguments sounded a little like the realpolitik going on in the Middle East, frankly, so I’m not too convinced. I won’t wade into that quarrel. Anyhow, the show commented on the stupidity of people in power in a more general manner without being overtly topical, giving it a more general appeal – which is true in every society! and it was a huge success.
This discussion is continued in: A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, Part 2