Ten questions for Aria Umezawa

Aria Umezawa is Artistic Director and a founding partner in Opera Five, an opera company that has been producing live opera & video. They’re (in)famous for their unpretentious sendups known as “Opera Cheats”, a relatively painless pathway to classics such as Madama Butterfly.

You may not be quite so infatuated with Puccini (or Pinkerton… but who is come to think of it) after this kind of intro, but hey, what did you want, reverence? Opera Cheats is but one of several fun directions being pursued by Opera Five, fronted by Aria Umezawa.  

Opera Five kick off the new season with two September events. First up is their fundraiser “Equinox: Day vs Night”, celebrating/bemoaning the autumnal arrival of darkness (alas!) as an epic battle between voices light and dark on Tuesday September 9th at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu. The following week they’re presenting Reynaldo Hahn’s L’île du rêve and Jacques Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan at the Alliance Française de Toronto – Centre cultural Theatre 24 Spadina Rd (North of Bloor), on successive evenings September 19th – 21st.  I interview their artistic director Aria Umezawa, asking her 10 questions: five about her and five more about the French double bill coming Sept 19th.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Aria Umezawa

Aria Umezawa

This may be a bit of a cop-out, but I am a pretty even split between both my parents. I’m half-Japanese, and half-Irish-Italian, but I look like neither ethnicity. I’m a comic book nerd like my father, and endlessly enthusiastic like my mother. If anything, I’d say I’m most like my grandmother on my father’s side. Even though we don’t speak the same language (she is Japanese), and I didn’t have a lot of contact with her growing up, there are some incredible parallels in our interests and lives. Our love of music and food, our ability to laugh at ourselves, our good-natured clumsiness, and our tendency to view the world through rose-tinted glasses. Every so often another common trait will pop up, and I find myself marvelling at how similar we are.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being artistic director of an opera company?

There are two really awesome things that come to mind about being the Artistic Director of an opera company like Opera 5. The first is getting to research and uncover all these hidden gems in the world of opera. To date we’ve done rarely performed Spanish operas, contemporary American, obscure Rachmaninov, Canadian premieres, and unfinished Debussy. As an opera geek it’s pretty exciting to dive into a piece you’ve never heard or seen before. The second is having the opportunity to collaborate with such amazing artists across the board. Not only has Opera 5 worked with amazing singers, but we’ve seen some mind-blowing instrumentalists, conductors, composers, designers, stage managers, and stage directors. I get to learn and grow from all these people, and help them put their amazing talent on stage. It’s always inspiring to witness the endless creativity of these young artists.

The worst thing about being an Artistic Director for a company like Opera 5 is having more dreams than can realistically be accomplished. We’re never lacking for ideas, but trying to figure out when the best time is to launch projects relative to our resources is always tricky, and sometimes incredibly disappointing. Guess you’ll have to wait for the ten-course tasting menu served alongside Don Giovanni just a little bit longer!

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

This is really embarrassing, but I love action movies, Star Trek, and movies based on comic books – anything with explosions really. Yes, yes, I love opera, classical music, musical theatre, straight theatre, world music, blah, blah, blah… but sometimes I just need to see something blow up spectacularly. This need for explosions extends to my love of pyrotechnics in stadium pop concerts like Britney Spears’ Circus Tour. It’s horrible, I know. Someone once told me I simultaneously have the best and worst taste in music of anyone they’ve ever met. I like to think I am just honest about my tastes.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I don’t even have to think about this question: I wish I could survive in the wilderness. I wish I could start a fire, fish, hunt, tell the difference between edible and poisonous plants, make shelter, and fashion helpful tools out of rocks and wood. The whole nine-yards. I imagine I would not be horrible at the aforementioned tasks as I am right now, but I have not had the opportunity to test my theories of survival. Fingers crossed in the event of a natural disaster!

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?

I love to cook and feed people. Swing by my place on a day off and you can expect I’ve cooked something in large quantity, and am looking for someone to share it with. Just today I made a stuffed salmon, homemade popovers, and wild rice pilaf. Luckily Rachel Krehm, Opera 5’s General Director was over to help me eat it all (she brought watermelon, my favourite thing to eat at any time of the day).

The Opera Five team, (left to right) Aria Umezawa, Artistic Director, Mai Nash Music Director, and Rachel Krehm General Director

*******

Five more about preparing Opera Five’s production of Offenbach and Hahn, beginning September 19th.

1- Could you give a quick synopsis of the action of the two operas?

L’Île du Rêve is a gloriously Romantic opera that follows your standard soldier meets girl, soldier gets called to war, girl commits suicide plot synopsis. Think Lakmé or Madame Butterfly.

In Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan two ex-patriots wash up on the shore of a land they assume is China, and attempt to assimilate into the local culture. Hilarity ensures.

2- Please talk about the challenges in these two operas.

Both these operas are examples of French Orientalism – an aesthetic that draws influence from Asian cultures. As a result they don’t particularly age well – they can seem insensitive. In a city like Toronto, which prides itself on its cultural diversity, it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Can a French composer truly write to the experience of a Chinese culture? In an attempt to reclaim the racial elements of this opera, Opera 5 is joined by Chinese-Canadian director, Jasmine Chen, who will direct the Offenbach. She is bringing a fresh take to this work, and turning the spotlight back on the French culture. It is going to be a special treat.

Jasmine Chen (photograph by Pierre Gautreau)

Jasmine Chen (photograph by Pierre Gautreau)

Sometimes we find these operas and think to ourselves, “This piece is incredible! Why isn’t it performed more often?” Then we realize one show requires a tenor who can sing a high F (a woman’s high F – not the Queen of the Night one, but still…). This was the case in Ba-ta-clan, so casting was a significant challenge. Luckily we just happened upon a man for whom that note is not difficult. Other times we’ll say to ourselves “Wow, this music is so beautiful!” and program it on the strength of its glorious harmonies, only to come to the conclusion that it has virtually no plot. L’Île du Rêve can certainly be accused of lacking in the dramatic department, but I believe our cast is up to the challenge.

Above anything else, I think the greatest challenge in any operatic performance is giving the audience something they can identify, and connect with. Opera is an overwhelming art form. A lot is happening all at once. Performances teeter on the edge of melodrama and the absurd. So how to you harness the dramatic potential of opera, and create a profound experience for the people who are watching? It seems absurd to any rational human being that a girl would decide to commit suicide after a three-day romance with a man who is destined to leave her, but how can we tap into that profound sorrow and passion and make that the focus of the piece instead? Therein lies the challenge and, for me, the appeal of opera.

3-What’s your favourite moment in the operas?

I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll just say this: the finale of the Hahn is spectacular, and the opening of the Offenbach is hilarious.

4-Talk about how you want to make us feel (even a few words) in these two operas.

I hope the audience feels engaged, and begins to think about this difference between cultural exchange, and cultural appropriation. What is the difference? How do we comment on race in art? How do we borrow from other cultures? Can we borrow from other cultures? What does it mean to live in a multi-cultural city? These are the interesting questions that I think are brought up with this kind of performance.
Beyond that, we span the spectrum of emotional possibilities with this performance. The Offenbach is fun, upbeat, ridiculous, and even offensive at times. The Hahn is tender, beautiful, glorious, expansive, tragic and all the great emotions you would attribute to opera. I hope the audience leaves feeling engaged!

5- Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Two teachers stand out in my mind: my High School music teacher, Mrs. Janes. This is a woman who instilled a love of vocal music in so many of her students. Many of my peers are pursuing careers in opera both in Toronto and abroad, or have themselves become music teachers. To impact so many people so profoundly, and to impart such passion, is something that I think is extremely admirable, and a testament to her abilities as an educator.

The second person is Patrick Hansen – the Head of Opera Studies at the Schulich School of Music (McGill University). I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who invests so heavily into his students. He is never more than a phone call away, and he is an amazing resource and support. His depth of knowledge, his vision, and his relentless gaze to the future of the art form is something I hope to emulate in my own work.

*******

Opera Five present “Equinox: Day vs Night” Tuesday September 9th at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu, and “Offenbach & Hahn” (Reynaldo Hahn’s L’île du rêve and Jacques Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan) at the Alliance Française de Toronto – Centre cultural Theatre 24 Spadina Rd (North of Bloor) September 19th – 21st. For further information about these Opera Five events click image

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