When Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot was discussing the Symphony’s 2013-14 offerings earlier this year, he pointed to this week’s performances of Verdi’s Requiem as a major event on par with the Symphony’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem last season.
The concert, Morlot said, would celebrate both the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth and the achievements of a musical figure closer to home: Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins who, after 30 years at the helm of the opera, is retiring at the end of this season.
Jenkins was involved in casting the four soloists and, in a recent interview, said he’s found “four very exciting young Italianate voices” for the project.
The demanding soprano part goes to Canadian Joyce El-Khoury, described in a recent profile in Opera Canada magazine as “the proverbial complete package — great voice, great looks and a great stage presence.”
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The soprano part is important, Jenkins explains, because of the closing “Libera Me” (“Deliver Me”) section that sums up the spirit of the whole piece.
“I don’t think there’s anything Verdi ever wrote that is more challenging for the soprano, because you’ve got to do everything. You’ve got to float an A. You’ve got to sing a high C. You’ve got to sing low notes. And you’ve got to make it all expressive. … I’m very excited to hear Miss El-Khoury sing this.”
Although the “Libera Me” was originally written in 1868 as part of an unrealized memorial for opera composer Gioachino Rossini, the Requiem as a whole dates from 1874 and pays homage to Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi revered. The soprano part was written for Teresa Stolz, for whom he also wrote “Aida.”
“The way you look at the Requiem,” Jenkins says, “is another ‘Aida.’ It’s one of the greatest pieces of music he ever composed. It has everything in it. It has duets. It has ensembles. It has solos. … There is not a single note of the Requiem that is not first-class.”
For bass soloist Jordan Bisch, who sang a small part in Seattle Opera’s “Amelia” a few years ago, the Verdi concert marks something of a homecoming. In a phone interview last week, the 32-year-old singer explained that he grew up in Seattle, Tacoma, Edmonds, Everett and, briefly, Kansas, before he settled down for junior high and high school in Vancouver, Wash.
His sisters and mother were music lovers, with a special fondness for musical theater. But Bisch himself had no interest in singing until his junior year in high school.
He found a voice teacher, Portland-based Richard Lippold (now a singer with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus), who told him: “You have a real operatic voice.” And that was that.
“I didn’t start singing pop music or rock music or even musical theater,” Bisch says. “I was doing opera kind of right out the gate.”
Bisch, like the other soloists on the program, is relatively new to this Requiem. He gave his first performance as bass soloist with a professional orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, in October.
When asked about his approach to it, he says, “You would hope that there was really only one approach to this piece of music — and that would be the NBC Toscanini recording, which is fabulous.” (That’s an opinion Jenkins shares.) “The music is really this great, lush bel canto Italian music,” Bisch continues, “and there’s a certain style to that.”
The four soloists will be enjoying a bit of a school reunion onstage. Bisch, El-Khoury and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford were all in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program together, and tenor René Barbera did his undergraduate work with Bisch’s younger sister, an aspiring opera singer.
“René has sung a lot of that Italian music in this style,” Bisch says, “so he’s very adept.” (When Barbera appeared as Prince Ramiro in Seattle Opera’s production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” earlier this year, a Seattle Times critic praised his “bravura coloratura technique” and his ability to “caress a vocal line with smooth, easy intimacy.”)
This will be Bisch’s first time on the Benaroya stage, and he has a particular boyhood reason to take pleasure in it.
“When I was a kid,” he explains, “we had the Seattle-themed Monopoly game.” Benaroya Hall was one of the properties players could buy — and now he’ll be singing there.
“It might sound silly,” he says with a laugh, “but that actually means a lot to me.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org