Stephanie Sundine knows Puccini’s “Tosca” from dual angles. Her first encounter with the piece was in the role of the passionate heroine. Her next three encounters were as director of the work. Sundine is in the director seat once again when Opera New Jersey and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra present the tragic drama at McCarter Theater, Friday, February 3, and NJPAC in Newark, Sunday, February 12.
Valery Ryvkin conducts members of the NJSO for the performances. Kara Shay Thomson sings the tempestuous opera singer Tosca. Jonathan Burton is her artist-lover Cavaradossi. Scott Bearden plays the treacherous police chief, Scarpia, who maneuvers Tosca into providing information he wants by taking advantage of her tendency to jealousy. Spoiler alert: Tosca kills Scarpia and commits suicide before the opera ends.
Each of the three acts of “Tosca” takes place in an existing location in Rome. Opera NJ, using Google maps, has made available a virtual walking tour of the locations at www.operanj.org/performances/tosca_tour.html.
“Tosca” is very much in evidence this season. The work is on the roster at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in late January. The “Tosca” of London’s Covent Garden opened New Brunswick State Theater’s series of live HD performances of opera and ballet in November. Richard Russell, the enterprising general director of Opera New Jersey, hosts the State’s programs with a pre-concert talk and question period before each presentation. Asked about “Tosca’s” omnipresence, he observed, “Every ‘Tosca’ is a good ‘Tosca.’”
The ONJ performance is in Italian, with English titles. Michael Schweikardt is the set designer.
“The production is immensely challenging for the set designer,” says director Sundine in a telephone interview from her New York City studio. “His designs have to work for two venues. At McCarter the orchestra is on stage, behind the set. At NJPAC the orchestra is in the pit.
“Live flame is permitted on stage in both venues, and real candles are used,” Sundine says. “The props can be done well in advance. Puccini’s stage directions provide clues, like ‘picks up quill pen to sign.’”
Sundine finds Puccini a formidable help in bringing the opera to life. “Puccini’s stage directions are very specific,” she says. “More than any other composer, he is specific about what he wanted to happen. He is strongly a man of the theater.
“I’m very tuned into Puccini’s directions,” Sundine continues. “He helps me find the arc of each character.” Armed with the composer’s directions, she formulates the stagecraft needed for a definitive interpretation.
“Puccini himself is the source for body language, facial expressions, and physical movement,” Sundine says. She distinguishes between body language and physical movement. “Body language could be the tilt of a head or the placement of a hand on the hip. Physical movement might show the strength of the intent when going from point A to point B.”
The detailed stage directions are not unique to ‘Tosca,’” Sundine says. “Puccini does the same thing for all his operas. He shapes things in a marvelous way. Verdi does it to a much lesser degree. Mozart does almost nothing.”
To demonstrate Puccini’s omnipresence in stage directing for his operas, Sundine opens her score at random. She reads aloud his directions on a single page in a scene from Act II. For Scarpia, the composer stipulates “inquiring maliciously.” Later he indicates, “Puts chair in front of Tosca. Staring at her, he sits down.” Tosca is told to “reply annoyed, insistingly,” and Scarpia’s response is designed to be “irritated.”
On the next page Sundine finds six different Puccini commands.
She leafs through Act I tracking down a particularly telling Puccini guideline for the Sacristan, who discovers artist Cavaradossi’s untouched lunch basket. “‘He rubs his hands ironically,’” Sundine quotes. “‘Cannot suppress a joyful gesture and a greedy look at the basket, which he puts aside carefully.’
“I just love how Puccini interprets his pieces,” Sundine says, “but that doesn’t leave me out of the equation. There are some places where he has written nothing.
“As a director, I make sure that the relationship among characters is completely clear. As a singer for 25 years, I relished using body language, facial expressions, and physical movement.”
Still, Sundine is careful about imposing her personal strategies on others. “Singers bring their own individuality to a role,” she says. “I’m always interested to see what a singer brings. The principals in the Opera New Jersey ‘Tosca’ have performed their parts before. I will respect that.”
Sundine extends her directorial attentions to members of the chorus, as well as to principals. “Choruses are not wallpaper,” she says. “In ‘Tosca’ the chorus sings a `Te Deum.’ In certain cases, I portray some of the chorus members as family groups; in others, I have two women arrive together; in some cases, people come alone. The chorus members are expected to have a point of view and to be expressive emotionally.
“They must be completely connected. I encourage each chorus singer to take on the role of an individual with their own history.”
Sundine grew up in Moline, Illinois. Her father was a newspaper owner and editor. Her mother was one of the first women in the United States to have her own TV talk show. In third grade, Sundine already knew that she wanted to sing. She earned a bachelor of science degree in music education from the University of Illinois, Urbana.
As a singer Sundine has appeared on three continents in repertoire ranging from Mozart through Wagner and Verdi to Janacek and Richard Strauss. “When I started performing, I was as green and stiff as anyone,” she says. “I was a scared mouse at first. But I became a ‘scene-chewer.’” A “scene chewer,” she explains, “is someone who is very involved and very expressive on stage. I sang Italian, German, French, and Czech, and translated every word I sang.”
When chronic laryngitis threatened Sundine’s vocal career in 1998, she followed her husband’s advice and turned to directing. Her directing career is fundamentally shaped by her experience as a vocalist.
“For me singing is a very visceral experience,” she says. “It’s emotionally and physically involving. I missed this when I had to give it up. As a director I understand what singers go through. To be fully successful you have to get in there and dig physically, emotionally, and viscerally. It’s a satisfying and joyful experience. I like to share this insight with singers.”
To her know-how as a singer, Sundine adds a microscopic knowledge of physically effective depiction on stage. Her acting workshops help singers become aware of their entire bodies. “Frequently, inexperienced people may sing to the floor,” she says. “Or they may have a drifting left arm. I ask them, ‘What do you want to say with your left arm?’
“Everything must be chosen and affirmed. It has to be done without stiffness. Singers think they have to gesture. When there are meaningless gestures, I mimic them during a conversation afterwards to stress that gestures must be meaningful.”
Sundine’s acting workshops tend to last for two weeks. “I help develop performing confidence,” she says. “I stress knowing every single word for a role and knowing everything possible about a character. There is a lot of intensive work in the two-week period.”
In summer, 2011, Sundine gave an acting workshop for Opera New Jersey. She will do it again in 2012. “We have an ongoing relationship,” she says.
Sundine’s husband, conductor Victor DeRenzi, artistic drector of Sarasota Opera in Florida, joins the ONJ summer roster as conductor for ONJ’s “Il Trovatore” in July.
DeRenzi plays a part in ONJ’s “Tosca” through the English titles that accompany the sung Italian. The “Tosca” titles, as well as titles for other operas are provided by “Words for Music,” a company co-founded by Sundine and DeRenzi. “We were renting titles at Sarasota Opera,” Sundine says. “Some titles were translated inaccurately. So we decided to do the work ourselves. We want titles to be accurate and to be read quickly so viewers can turn their attention back to the stage. Each of our titles is no more than two lines.”
Sundine met DeRenzi while she was auditioning for Verdi’s “Falstaff.” The couple’s daughter, Francesca DeRenzi MacBeth, has followed her parents into the arts. A ballet dancer, she has worked as a stage manager. Now she is the production activities administrator for Juilliard’s vocal arts department.
Sundine’s openness is a good match for her articulateness. She turns 65 on April 1. “I never lied about my age,” she notes, “but some places list me as younger than I really am. I was born in 1947. My husband and daughter will give the party. I’ve done similar parties in the past. This one will be for me.”
Tosca, Opera New Jersey, McCarter’s Matthews Theater, Princeton. Friday, February 3, 7:30 p.m.; and NJPAC, Newark, Sunday, February 12. Puccini’s tragic three act opera in Italian with English supertitles. $25 to $125. A production with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. 609-799-7700 or www.operanj.org.