Producing a fully-staged opera is complicated and expensive. Singers; instrumentalists; dancers; as well as designers and builders of scenery, lighting, and costumes must be coordinated and paid for.
Of course, it is possible to take a shortcut to the essential feature of opera, namely the music, by omitting the staging. Eve Queler with her Opera Orchestra of New York has been a leader in doing exactly that, presenting big voices in little-known works, to the delight of devoted opera fans. However, her enterprise faces fiscal problems because many young opera-goers are turned off by concert-operas’ lack of visual and dramatic elements.
There is a middle way, semi-staged opera, which New Jersey Opera Theater (NJOT) follows in two presentations of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” Performances take place Sunday, March 4 at McCarter Theater, and Sunday March 11, in New Brunswick’s State Theater. The cast includes Sharon Sweet (Turandot), Allan Glassman (Calaf), Barbara Shirvis (Liu), and Raymond Aceto (Timur). Steven Mosteller conducts. Ira Siff directs. Although the State Theater, with space for 1,800, is almost twice the size of McCarter, which seats 1,000, the performing area is about the same at both theaters. In July NJOT will present fully-staged productions of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” and Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” in McCarter’s Berlind Theater.
In NJOT’s “Turandot” the principals are in costume, while the chorus is in concert-dress. Chorus and orchestra appear on stage behind the principals. A shell behind orchestra and chorus will be in place at the State. The comic characters, Ping, Pang, and Pong, use props.
Stage director for “Turandot” Ira Siff sees both pros and cons for semi-staged opera. Siff has directed semi-staged operas for Queler’s Opera Orchestra, and for New York State’s Caramoor festival. “Fully-staged opera has more opportunities for scenic splendor,” he says in a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. “However, with semi-staged opera, you can bring out vivid individual characterizations which you can’t do when there are 800 people on stage.
“Because ‘Turandot’ is a spectacle and a fairy tale, doing a semi-staged version of it is tricky,” Siff says. “There’s not that much room for characterization.” Still, he finds room for individual portrayals in the work.
The opera focuses on the beautiful Princess Turandot, who has agreed to marry the suitor who solves three riddles. Suitors who fail are beheaded. After the unknown Calaf solves the riddles, Turandot reneges on her promise of marriage. Calaf announces that if anyone learns his name, he will give up his right to Turandot’s hand in marriage, and will allow himself to be killed. Liu, a slave girl in service to Calaf’s father, Timur, is in love with Calaf; she announces that she alone knows the name of the successful suitor. When she refuses to reveal the name, Liu is condemned to execution. She commits suicide as she is being led away. Calaf admonishes Turandot for her cruelty, fervently kisses her, and reveals his identity. He wins Turandot by his sincerity, and she announces that his name is “Love.” Comic relief in the opera comes from three ministers of the court: Ping, Grand Chancellor of China; Pang, supreme lord of provisions; and Pong, supreme lord of the imperial kitchen.
“Liu and Timur are the only flesh and blood human beings in the opera,” Siff says. “Even though Turandot becomes three-dimensional at the end, the focal point of human interest has to be bigger than characterization, since the human angle is somewhat absent.”
For characterizing Turandot, Siff turns to her ambivalence about Calaf. She is simultaneously drawn to him, and afraid of him. “My job is to bring out the elements of fear and attraction in the character of Turandot,” Siff says. “I have to invest her entrance on stage with fear stemming from the attraction that causes her to be more freaked out about Calaf than about any of the other suitors.
“She explains this in Act Three in an aria that’s usually omitted,” Siff says, noting that the aria is left out because it was not written by Puccini, who died before completing the opera. Franco Alfano, working from Puccini’s sketches, finished the score.
Aside from giving homage to Puccini, omitting the aria is wise on practical grounds, Siff says. “It helps with the stamina needed for the final melting duet between Calaf and Turandot, which is extremely demanding. However, even without the Act Three aria, it is possible to show that Turandot is afraid of Calaf.”
Veteran portrayer of Turandot, Princeton soprano Sharon Sweet concurs with Siff about the role. Sweet has played Turandot at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in London, Paris, Florence, Beijing, and on film. “We agree completely on who Turandot is and on her physical portrayal.” Siff says. “She’s on the throne, not moving much. We work through voice, facial expressions, and body language. You can stress these in a semi-staged version, so semi-staging is an advantage. The other characters will move a lot, as if their roles were fully staged. The way Sharon moves would fly also in a fully staged version.”
Native New Yorker Siff was born in 1946 to a stock-broker father and a stay-at-home mother, who now lives in Florida. His elder brother is a professor of history at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Siff says that he grew up in the standing room line of the old Metropolitan Opera worshipping the famous singers of the 1960s.
A graduate of New York City’s Cooper Union with a degree in fine arts, Siff studied voice privately and made his debut as a tenor in 1970. He performed in opera, operetta, and musicals in New York City. Turning to parody, he performed in cabaret. His primary professional move was establishing himself as a voice teacher and coach.
In 1981, in addition to teaching and coaching voice, Siff founded La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York, a travesty troupe featuring falsetto sopranos in drag. He himself appeared as Vera Galupe-Borszkh, the world’s only “traumatic soprano.” In addition to standard operatic repertoire Siff, as Madame Vera, starred in “The Abduction of Figaro,” the purported work of Peter Schickele’s mock discovery, the invented composer P. D. Q. Bach. Gran Scena developed an international following, appearing in Europe and South America before it was dissolved in 2001.
Before Gran Scena closed, Siff created a perennial show called “The Annual Farewell,” a parody of diva farewell recitals in which the ostensible retiree is Vera Galupe-Borszkh, Gran Scena’s star. The Annual Farewell continues to flourish. The 21st Annual Farewell recital is scheduled for New York City’s Symphony Space on Wednesday, May 2, Friday, May 4, and Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m. “I change the program in New York,” Siff says. “Many people have seen it for 20 years. When I’m on tour, I take my greatest hits.”
Keeping up the farewell recitals of Madame Vera is noticeably less demanding than preserving Gran Scena. “Gran Scena was a full-time affair with rehearsing, planning, managing, and making artistic decisions,” Siff says. “It was a full-time part-time activity. After 20 years, I was getting tired of sustaining Tosca and Aida in falsetto. The roles are bad enough if you’re singing in your normal voice. We were getting a lot of repeat bookings and not finding new places.”
Winding down Gran Scena in 2000 led Siff to start directing opera seriously. “I went to Bob Lombardo to ask if he would handle Gran Scena in order to postpone its closing,” Siff says. Lombardo is a New York artists’ manager who represents singers, directors and producers, choreographers, and conductors. “I was looking for fresh contacts and someone to take over some of the work of Gran Scena. Lombardo didn’t want to take over the company. He said, ‘I want to represent you for directing.’ He had seen my directing in Gran Scena. Lombardo put the directing bug in my head. I thought maybe it was time for a life change. My first project as a director was ‘Tosca’ with Aprile Millo for Connecticut Opera.” In summer, 2008, Siff directs Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” for James Levine at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Siff manages to meld his long-established career as vocal teacher and coach with his new career as a director. Indeed, he cannot suppress his basic expertise. “It’s hard not to be a vocal coach,” he admits. “Direction comes from the score and markings and the color of voice transmitted through the body. I do not paste a physical performance on singing. Operatic acting, as Maria Callas [the legendary diva] proved, is primarily vocal. I respectfully request the conductor to allow me to make phrasing suggestions to strengthen the singers’ dramatic performance. Since most conductors started out as coaches, they know exactly what I mean.”
As a director, Siff is no longer able to wallow in the hilarity that he dished out for Gran Scena or the ridiculousness of the Annual Final Recital. However, as a director, he still sometimes gets a chance to enjoy the fun “There aren’t many jokes in “Turandot,” he says. “The humor comes from Ping, Pang, and Pong, who have the physical shtick. In Mozart there are huge amounts of comic byplay.”
In addition to performing and directing, Siff is on hand for other matters operatic. He has appeared three times on the intermission features of the Saturday matinee operas broadcast on conventional radio, on Sirius satellite radio, and on the Met’s high definition movie transmissions. (See U.S. 1, February 14, 2007.)
In addition, he is currently working on an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera in the Parks to be published in the June issue of Opera News. He says that the heavily nostalgic piece is about “things I saw in the parks growing up. I used to go at noon to find a place on the grass for an 8 p.m. performance.”
For Opera News Siff has written about a batch of opera luminaries. They include Renata Scotto, Aprile Millo, Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge, Montserrat Caballe, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ben Heppner, Will Crutchfield, and Beverly Sills. Opera News has also published more than 200 of his reviews of CDs and DVDs.
And, by the way, in addition to his private teaching and coaching, he teaches at Renata Scotto’s Westchester County Opera Academy. In all affairs operatic, keep watch for Ira Siff. He’s sure to turn up.
Turandot, Sunday, March 4, 3 p.m. New Jersey Opera Theater, Matthews Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787, and Sunday, March 11, 3 p.m. New Jersey Opera Theater, State Theater, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. Semi-staged performance of Puccini’s final masterpiece. $43 to $65.