10 Questions for Stu and Jess

The time is short.  Stu &Jess Productions will be presenting Ravel’s wonderful L’Heure Espagnole in Montreal the weekend of May 7-9.

Stu and Jess are Stuart Martin and Jessica Derventzis.

Conductor and pianist Stuart Martin received his Bachelors of Music at University of British Columbia under the tutelage of Dr. Terrance Dawson in Piano and Dr. Robert Taylor for conducting. In his last year, he was Assistant Conductor of The UBC Concert Winds. Stuart has also been student of Dr. Mark Shapiro at the European American Musical Alliance in Paris, France. In 2013, Stuart was the assistant conductor for Opera NUOVA’s “Don Giovanni”, and an assistant conductor at Accademia Europea Dell’Opera (AEDO) for “La Bohème”. During his time at NUOVA and AEDO he met Jessica Derventzis, and together they created Stu&Jess Productions, a chamber opera company. For their inaugural season, they produced Menotti’s “The Medium” and Bizet’s “Le Docteur Miracle” in Montreal. Just recently, they produced Ravel’s “L’Heure Espangole.” They also commissioned and premiered a new opera, “La Gioconda”, in which Stuart wrote the libretto and another NUOVA alumni, Pasquale D’Alessio, composed the music. This work has also been given a residency with Main & Station to be developed in August 2015. In the 2014 season of Opera NUOVA, he was the assistant conductor of “Candide” under Gordon Gerrard, and had the privilege of conducting the final performance. Stuart also conducted and coached the opera scenes class at the Vancouver Academy of Music for their fall and winter semesters. Coming up for the 2015/2016 season, Stu&Jess plan to produce an opera in Vancouver and Toronto.

Jessica Derventzis is a stage director from Toronto, Ontario. Originally a pianist, Jessica began her studies at Queen’s University as a music major, but quickly added theatre to her studies after accompanying rehearsals for the opera company in her first year, and falling in love with theatre. She went on to direct “Les Dialogues  des Carmélites” and “Trouble in Tahiti,” stage manage “L’Elisir D’Amore,” produce “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Into the Woods”, design props for “Cabaret,” and become president of the Queen’s Student Opera Company.  After graduating, Jessica took over the theatre department at her old high school, Mentor College. She spent 5 years there moulding young minds and directing over 20 productions including: “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “Crazy For You,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and Neil Simon’s “Rumors.”  Jessica also assisted at the summer opera programs Opera Nuova and AEDO. These programs introduced her to Stu Martin who quickly became her best friend and co-creative mind behind Stu&Jess Productions. So far, they have produced “The Medium,” “Le Docteur Miracle,” and “L’Heure Espagnole” together in Montreal.  Jessica also had the honour of assisting Rob Herriot on two productions with the Calgary Opera in 2014 “Candide” and “Le Portrait de Manon”. Coming up next, Stu&Jess will be writing and adapting their own works and taking their company on the road to Vancouver.

It’s almost time. Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole goes on May 7.  I had to ask them ten questions, five about Stu & Jess, five more about the opera they’re producing.

Ravel Poster resized

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

STU:  I would love to say that I am a balance of both but that’s not true. Although I get a few things from my mom, like music, sensitivity and a good liver, I am more like my dad. My dad is a brilliant businessman. He is head strong, completely willing to struggle before coming out on top, and someone who people rely on. I find myself looking up to him and wondering how he does it, but then realizing I am that person, and it shows in the business I am building. Growing up my parents were always very supportive of music, but there wasn’t a lot of music around, except for Barbra Streisand, thanks mom. I grew up around politics, my mom is an elected politician, and business, both my dad and my brother are chartered accountants, and my sister a manager of a bank. There was this really nice balance of how to effectively talk to people, and also build a business. I took on these traits and put them towards music. Conducting needs my moms sensitivity, especially with singers, they are physically connected to their instrument, and you need to be very aware your words. Business side of conducting needs dads skills, organizing, managing, motivating and then ultimately having a successful product you can sell to people.

JESS: This is a complicated question, as I grew up with my mom and step-father, dad and step-mother, plus two very loving grandparents, so I am definitely an amalgamation of all of them. Each is also from a different part of the world, so culturally I am a mixed-bag (Greek, German, Austrian, English, and Portuguese) I find myself saying things that my dad says all the time. He swears a lot in Greek so those have become my favourite curse words- no, I won’t repeat them here! I also look much more like my dad than my mom. However, it’s my grandparents (my mom’s parents) that I think of the most when it comes to decision making, life choices, and general attitude of who I would aim “to be like”. “What would Omi and Opa think of this” pops into my head more so than any other adage.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about your musical life?

JESS: The best thing about my musical life is that I chose to have it. I decided very early on that I would study piano at university and figure out a career after that, much to the chagrin of my family who wanted me to choose a career path that led to better job security. I’m very happy that I stuck to my guns. Luckily, playing piano for singers led me to the rehearsal hall. In turn, I became a theatre teacher and now I direct operas and run a company with one of my best friends. There are still moments where there is no contract or show on the horizon, or I consider going back to teaching, but ultimately, the fact that I am choosing to be an artist and make music my life, rocks.

STU: The best thing about my musical life, is feeling the high after a performance, or the pride I feel looking back on a production that I have poured months into. The worst thing about my musical life is waking up at 4am having whatever piece I am working on, waking me up and repeating itself incessantly. The only thing I can do to stop it from spinning is listening to David Attenborough talk about penguins or fungi.

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

STU: I listen to a lot of podcasts on history. As for music, besides “classical” I listen to anything that makes me want to sing as loudly as possible in my car. Right now, OMI-Cheerleader. I also watch a lot of documentaries.  I have exhausted every documentary in Netflix, and have watched every episode of Nova Science Now.

JESS: In high school, I always wanted to write for Rolling Stone magazine because I love pop culture and the movie Almost Famous. I listen to a lot of popular music: scour the blogs, listen to the radio, and type random things into my iTunes search to see what pops up. I love jazz music most of all and the evolution of THAT style just makes me giddy. My iPod will happily jump from Dixieland to Trombone Shorty.

My favourite TV show is Saturday Night Live. I watch that a LOT

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

JESS: Dancer/choreographer. As a director, I choreograph all the time-to a certain degree. But I’m talking, give me a brand spanking new Broadway musical, a rehearsal hall with a wall of mirrors, and a chorus of tap dancers and let me choreograph THAT! That would be amazing.

STU: I want the ability to have a conversation with my dog. That would be enlightening, especially to find out the reason why he only brings back the ball half of the time. A real skill I would love to have is picking up languages quicker. I love learning new languages, but often I start learning one language it just begins to replace the others.

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

STU:  Favourite things to do are going to the park with my dog, and drinking wine while playing board games with friends.

JESS: I’m an avid walker. Walking helps to clear my head, work through a show, or simply unwind. Especially when travelling to new cities, walking and exploring is my favourite way to spend an afternoon.

*******

Five more about staging L’Heure Espagnole  in Montreal May 7- 9.

1-Tell us about the history of your partnership, how you came to work together and the previous operas you’ve produced.

JESS:  My first encounter with Stu was in the hallways of the residence where we were both staying in Edmonton. We were both assisting at the opera training program, Opera Nuova. I was complaining about the pillow on my bed, and he overheard me and loaned me his because he had brought two of his own from home. We were friends instantly. Our friendship blossomed from there with late-night bowls of cereal, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and chatting about our thoughts on the opera and music worlds. Later that same summer, we both went on to do another program in Italy together called AEDO. As a budding director and conductor combo, we knew that we would spend a lot of the beginning of our careers assisting, which is very beneficial, but we were also anxious to stretch our own creative muscles, which was how Stu&Jess Productions was born. For our first production, we decided on Menotti’s “The Medium.”

An earlier production: the Medium

An earlier production: the Medium

The eerie plot and gorgeous score drew us in right away. We brainstormed singers that we knew who could pull off the challenging roles of Baba and Monica, and decided on two awesome gals who were studying at McGill at the time, Samantha Pickett and Chelsea Mahan. That is how our love affair with Montreal started. It was also when Stu and I realized how well we actually work together. We trust each other, respect each other’s work, and share the same philosophies for the rehearsal hall; we are both all about collaboration.

2-Talk about what drew you to present Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole

STU: When deciding on our next opera, it takes about 2 or 3 weeks of constant listening and reading. We started looking into a few one-acts that people had suggested, but they just didn’t stick. One rule of thumb that Jess and I go by is, if one of us doesn’t like the opera, we drop it and keep looking. There is no point in doing something that we both aren’t passionate about. I can’t remember who found the Ravel first, but I remember listening to the overture and instantly getting excited. Ravel puts in metronomes at the top of his score to set the scene of the ticking clocks in the shop. Amazing. Then this music starts, and the characters burst through this musical landscape. Each character has their own style of music, Concepcion’s being frantic with hints of seduction, Ramiro being dumpy and innocent, Don Inigo has pompous rhythms and waltzes, and so on. Also it’s such a pay off with this opera because there is no ensemble singing until the finale. You hit the finale and it is this beautiful habanera, with peppy rhythms and accents. When they start singing together it’s like this wave of release of tension that you have not been aware was building. Drama wise, it is also quite wonderful. Fast paced, you can connect with these characters, there’s a clear story, and it’s hilarious.

From rehearsals of L'Heure Espagnole

From rehearsals of L’Heure Espagnole

3) Why this place in Montréal?

JESS: We used this same venue for “Le Doctor Miracle” last season. When we decided on “L’Heure,” this venue popped right into my head because there is a gorgeous, large staircase attached to huge catwalk. In “L’Heure,” our protagonist Concepcion’s lovers are carried to and from her bedroom encased in gigantic grandfather clocks. The stairs add great depth to the setting, allowing us to play with the levels and really encompassing the audience. They will hear commotion upstairs in Concepcion’s bedroom, watch the clocks move up and down the stairs, hear the footsteps, laughter, and any singing that goes on up there.

Stu and I have always been drawn to atmospheric venues, as opposed to traditional theatre spaces. For “The Medium” we used an old church that a man has turned into his home. When the audience walked in, it was like they were in Baba’s apartment. They were so close to the action that they were practically at the séance with the other singers. We crammed 40 patrons plus a 17-piece orchestra into this living room. It was an explosion of sound and a really cool environment in which to experience that particular piece.

In terms of choosing Montreal, it seemed like the perfect fit for Stu and I in the beginning. As I mentioned before, the singers we wanted for “The Medium” were all in school here, so that was the jumping off point. Toronto has a rather large community already to indie opera companies, which is awesome, but Montreal does not. There is only a small handful of companies doing what we do, so we felt that this would be a great place to start and build a niche for ourselves. The art and music scene is already so vibrant, we wanted to explore that.  It has since become a second home for both us, so to speak. Arriving back here and connecting with our friends and collaborators here feels so great.

We are hoping to branch out to Vancouver and Toronto in the future!

4-Talk about your values as artists, what Stu & Jess seek to do when you produce an opera.

STU: As artists, Jess and I are rather similar. We both believe that art should be something that when you leave one of our shows, that you feel like you have experienced something special. We believe that opera was created to be entertaining; it is an art form that people don’t necessarily realize is accessible. This doesn’t mean taking opera and putting shtick after shtick in (unless it involves shoving people in clocks like Ravel has asked), but making opera a balanced force of music and drama. Our goal is to make audience members excited from the moment they purchase their ticket to well after the opera. The idea behind Stu&Jess Productions is that you are going to an event, not just a show to have an expensive nap in. We choose venues that are not traditional in the sense of a theatre, because people feel special when they climb these 3 flights of stairs, open this heavy wooden door and see this loft, as an example. The excitement in the room in tangible and people really get into the opera. We want people to feel comfortable. This extends from the rehearsal room to the audiences in performances. With everything Jess and I do, we try to do with the utmost respect of the artists and people who are paying us to see a show. As a company this isn’t about walking over people, or trying to get on top, this is about creating art, sharing it with the public, and collaborating with a group of artists. We specifically gather people around us that we know want to the same vision of exciting and memorable art. I think one reason we have people still willing to work with us, is that they feel like they really get to explore, and be creative with Jess and I. So often there is a feeling in rehearsal halls that you are told what to do and you move on. With us, we know our vision, but we are not opposed to exploring an idea when it pops up. Two examples in relation to “L’Heure,” are:  In a coaching, our Conception, just for fun, spoke a very important line, and it worked so well that I told Jess that she was in for a surprise at rehearsal the net day. Jess, and the whole room, loved it and now it’s in the opera. Another involves Dimitri Katotakis, who plays Ramiro. He was just kidding around about playing tambourine in this production, and guess what, everyone is now playing an instrument at some point- Dimitri got the tambourine. I hope that if in 10 years Stu&Jess Productions is still around, we will have the reputation of putting on shows that encompass a high quality of music, fantastic drama on the stage, and making it look effortless.

5-Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

STU: I have many people I admire. Firstly my piano teacher Dr. Terance Dawson who shoved me into conducting class when he found out I was going to take an acting class. This is where I met Dr. Robert Taylor who is one of the most dedicated teachers I have ever gotten to work with. The reason I run rehearsals the way I do is directly tied into how Dr. Taylor does. There is a sense of freedom in the rehearsal hall that you feel like you can still be an artist, but you need to be part of a larger group. Next person on the list is Gordon Gerrard. He has been a friend and mentor for the past 2 years, and last year I assisted him on a production of Candide. Gordon is beyond supportive, and he is always right there when I have a question. I also admire Kim Mattice-Wanat, who is a force of passion. Kim’s program of Opera NUOVA is where Jess and I met, and this year we are going back to conduct and direct their production of Ned Rorem’s Our Town. Lastly, our patron Harvey Lev, who didn’t know us, and gave us his living room for our first opera. Since then we has been nothing but supportive and his arts organizing, Main & Station, has allowed us to get the Dandy Andy award for Performance Arts. He has also now given us a residency grant to work on a new opera we are writing.

JESS: Having had the privilege to sit in a number of rehearsal halls with great directors, I have been influenced by all of them in one way or another. My favourite part of assisting is watching how directors approach their first rehearsal, either the table read or diving into staging. It sets the tone of how the rest of rehearsals will go and establishes the mood in the rehearsal hall. This past year I had the amazing opportunity to assist Rob Herriot on two productions for the Calgary Opera. His approach to directing is the one I am now most trying to emulate. He is incredibly smart and quick-witted. Listening to him talk about his ideas at the production table and then watching how he translates that into a staging rehearsal is fascinating. His mind works in a wonderful way. He is also a fantastic teacher.

On a company level, I have had the opportunity to sit and chat with the Opera5 gang about what we do a number of times over the last few years. Aria Umezawa and Rachel Krehm are two ladies are that I admire very much in this industry. They have built a solid company that is putting on, what I believe to be some of the most creative work in Toronto. They back up a great company mantra with talent and passion; their most recent performance of “Modern Family Opera” is the perfect example of that.

Also, every production of Robert Carsen’s I have ever seen or researched has me drooling and thinking “I would have never thought of that.” His creative brain is one I would love to have a small swim in.

*******

“L’Heure Espagnole” goes up May 7-9 in Griffintown, Montreal. Tickets and more information can be found at www.universe.com/stuandjess

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