DALLAS – With opening night just weeks away, the staff and singers of The Dallas Opera are making the most of their impressive time management skills. Six-hour rehearsals, costume and wig fittings, staging and sound checks seem to happen simultaneously, requiring everyone to be on top of their datebooks.
The company took the stage at 7:30 p.m. last Friday for a technical rehearsal. The News-Telegram was there at the invitation of tenor James Valenti, who is making his third appearance at TDO in Guiseppe Verdi’s classic “La Traviata,” opening April 13.
“It’s our first time on stage and on set,” said the 6-foot 5-inch New Jersey native as he welcomed Sarah Smith and me into his dressing room. “We’ll be doing blocking and learning traffic patterns. Yesterday, we had a big orchestra rehearsal for six hours and we’re all tired, but I’ll probably sing a little bit for you.”
And sing he did, not in full voice, but in the Winspear, where even a whisper can be heard in the fourth tier, we heard every glorious note. It was as if the world-class tenor was performing a private concert just for us.
Valenti has spent quite a bit of time in Dallas this past year.
“I haven’t officially moved here, but I’m here a lot these days,” Valenti said. “I met my girlfriend, Mina [Chang] during ‘Rigoletto’ last year. We just celebrated our one year anniversay last week. I still have a condo in Palm Beach, but I can live anywhere that has an airport.”
Chang, who was once a rock star in Korea and spent some time on the runway as a model, is involved in non-profit work in Dallas.
Valenti has racked up a lot of frequent flier miles since December.
“I was in Russia for New Year’s Eve, then on to Chicago, Minnesota, Munich, Vienna and now here,” he said of his recent schedule.
He has May and June free. Then it’s off to New York City to study and then on to Sydney, Australia, to sing the lead in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
“I haven’t sung that role since I was 27, so I have to work it up again.”
When he was making his mark in the operatic world, Valenti once asked his manager if he’d be getting work if he were short and chubby.
His looks may have opened doors in the beginning, but he’s happy to be receiving recognition for other things these days.
“I just did a production of ‘Werther,’ and got a great review in Opera News,” he explained. “They talked about my diction, my stamina, my style and bravura, but didn’t mention my looks. That was nice.”
During Friday’s rehearsal, Valenti’s first act arias and romantic moments with lovely Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu were touching, perfectly sung and acted by both, and were overflowing with the first blush of love and passion.
Valenti’s stage presence has blossomed since he first appeared in Dallas’ 2009 production of “La Bohéme.”
The 34-year-old has learned how to command attention by simply standing still, a rare quality. It’s always been hard to take your eyes off him when he’s onstage, singing or silent, but with successful debuts at the Metropolitan opera, among others, he has gained a new mesaure of confidence. While we didn’t hear him in full voice, he seems to have added more depth, color and shading with his singing, too.
Although this opera really belongs to the soprano, Violetta, Valenti understands what it takes to play Alfredo, the worldly woman’s young lover, besides simply putting forth strong vocals.
“I don’t have to carry the entire weight on my shoulders, but I have to know how to act,” he explained. “I have to go from boyish naiveté to the strong, jealous, fiery Italian thing. There’s a good mixture of emotions [in this opera].”
Having plenty of rehearsal time is another strength of the current production.
“It’s nice here in Dallas because we’ll have a lot of time together to figure out how to best compliment each other,” he said. “In the German production, we only had three days, so you hardly get to know the [other] person.”
Friday’s rehearsal began with a piano, a beautiful woman on stage and a conductor who seemed to feel every single note of Verdi’s beautiful score.
Italian maestro Marco Guidarini, in his first appearance at the Dallas Opera in more than a decade, uses his baton in a most graceful manner, conveying his wishes to the musicians and singers with swoops, deep dips and balletic curly-cues.
“The conductor is the one who interprets the singer’s rubato [expressiveness] for the orchestra,” said Smith, who is a member of the North East Texas Symphony. “So, the instrumentalists have to be riveted to the baton.”
Smith appreciated the opportunity to get an upclose and personal look at a world-class opera company.
“Who gets to see the bare bones of a professional opera production?” she mused. “Being there for rehearsal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As an orchestra musician, I have been on the edges of opera and musical productions since I was in high school, but if you are in the pit, you don’t even get to look on stage.”
“La Traviata” tells the tragic love story of party-girl Violetta and Alfredo, the young nobleman who falls in love with her. As the opera begins, Violetta’s household is being prepared for a night of fine wine, food and dancing. She’s been out of circulation for a while due to illness, but she believes she’s recovered. Alfredo attends the party and falls immediately in love with Violetta. Their story can only end in tragedy, of course, because this is opera in its most romantic glory.
Prior to the beginning of Friday’s rehearsal, Papatanasiu spent several minutes trying to find the best way to “rest” against a statue for the opening of the first act.
“A lot of opera is purely visual,” noted Smith. “Like when Violetta sets the mood by walking so slowly across the stage during the overture. She lets us know she is truly ill without saying a word.”
Athough she was initially disappointed that the rehearsal didn’t include a full orchestra, Smith said she found it “easier to focus on the other elements that have to come together.
“I kinda of knew, but was astounded by how many things have to happen right to make a performance come off. The motions and positions of everyone including the conductor are thought out so they draw the audience into what is happening. I didn’t realize how the cast’s movements are choreographed almost like a ballet even though they aren’t dancing.”
If you’ve considered attending an opera, but have never taken the plunge, now would be the time to test the waters – and it’s not like you’ve never heard the music. Verdi’s lush romantic score was used as the soundtrack for the 1990 Julia Roberts movie, “Pretty Woman.”
“‘La Traviata’ is the opera Richard Gere takes her to see in the movie,” Valenti said. “This would be a great first-time opera. It has great music, a great cast, and it’s a beautiful production. It’s very user friendly, with melodies that sit on your ear nicely.”
“La Traviata” opens Friday, April 13, at the Winspear Opera House, with additional performances on April 15 (matinee) 18, 21, 27 and 29 (matinee). Single tickets start at $25 apiece. For more information, contact the staff at The Dallas Opera Ticket Services Office at 214-443-1000 or visit them online at www.dallasopera.org.
Editor’s note: Many thanks to The Dallas Opera for making our rehearsal visit possible. Special thanks to Associate Director of Marketing/Media and Public Relations Suzanne Calvin for her continuous cooperation with us and for making all the pre-rehearsal arrangements. A heartfelt thank you to Communications Manager Megan Meister, who gave up a perfectly good Friday night with her husband to play hostess to Sarah and me. And, of course, to James Valenti for always having time for a small market newspaper.
Brava to all!
Click here to listen to Mina and James sing "The Prayer."
Click here to hear James during his Metropolitan Opera debut in "La Traviata."
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