Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In 'Romeo et Juliette,' love is colorblind

Casting decisions in two productions at this year's Spoleto Festival USA might put a smile on the faces of some Parisian theater students.

Young actors who attend opera director Jean-Philippe Clarac's talks on the influence of politics on European theater often ask why more actors of color aren't chosen for theatrical roles traditionally played by white actors.

The French students wonder if it is possible for a thespian who is not white to be believed in a European drama set in the Middle Ages, Clarac said.
In theater, where the audience is asked to suspend reality to accept the unbelievable, the answer is usually yes. But with some roles, reality is vital to understanding the part.

The answer was yes Friday as the curtain rose on "Romeo et Juliette" at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

Nicole Cabell, an emerging opera diva who describes herself as multiracial, sings the role of Juliette, which has traditionally been played by a Caucasian. Juliette's cousin, Tybalt, is played by Victor Ryan Robertson, who is black.

And for the second consecutive year, baritone Nmon Ford, who is black, will play the title role in "Don Giovanni" when the Italian opera based on Spanish lover Don Juan opens Thursday on an elaborate set at Memminger Auditorium.
Two decades ago, eyebrows were raised as colorblind casting emerged in American theater. It is still rare to see a black actor in a role written for a white character, but the trend is becoming more widely accepted, said Clarac, who along with Olivier Deloeuil co-directs "Romeo et Juliette."
The stage directors said they didn't make the opera's casting decisions. But they are happy to have Cabell, a soprano, because of the quality of her voice. Her ethnicity fits their updated version of Shakespeare's classic set in America.

While Charles Gounod's score will carry the drama, Cabell's mix of African-American, Korean and European ancestry helps her embody the role of a modern-day Juliette, Clarac said.

"The fact that she is black is not a problem because that is America today. It is a multicultural society," Deloeuil said. "Opera has to speak to the society who attends it. Most of the time, the period setting and period costumes keeps it far away from you. If you see something that looks like your neighborhood, it speaks to you directly, and I think that is most important."

In an operatic performance, Cabell said, the performer's voice is more important than the singer's ethnicity or race. Society, she said, has relaxed the rules that reserve classical roles for whites.

For example, she said, operatic stars Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson "have paved the way to make it possible for people like me to come onto the scene." But the number of black opera performers is still small, she said, making their appearance rare.

Emanuel Villaume, Spoleto's artistic director for orchestral music, said a literal interpretation that the actor who plays Julius Caesar, for example, must look like Caesar, has been "an excuse for discrimination." He added: "Fortunately, this is changing."

Villaume selected Cabell after she won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest last year in Wales.

"People are accepting more and more the idea of an African-American singer for a role that is not originally an African-American role," he said. "After all, Otello was always played by great white tenors who were putting black faces on themselves. People accepted that. So why couldn't they accept it the other way around?"

Unlike their Parisian counterparts, young actors at the College of Charleston have seen colorblind casting in campus productions. For more than a decade, Todd McNerney, chairman of the college's theater department, has put the idea of colorblind casting before new students. Few have been surprised, he said.

Although McNerney said the best available actor should be cast in a role, regardless of race, that comes with one condition. McNerney said colorblind casting should be ignored if the race of a character is important to convey a specific political or sociological message. Colorblind casting fits better with classical pieces that tend to be mythical, unlike a contemporary play that is more realistic.

Art Gilliard, artistic director for Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, agrees.

Gilliard is directing Javon Johnson's play "Hambone," a Piccolo Spoleto production that opened Friday at the Footlight Players Theatre on Queen Street. "Hambone," in part, is the story of a black family's struggle to hide the secret that the lead character, Bishop, was fathered by a white man.
In this play, Delvin Williams, a black man, plays Bishop. It is important that a black actor portrays Bishop, Gilliard said. If not, the play loses its meaning, he said. Colorblind casting "is fine as long as it does not stop the story from being told."

Herb Frazier
Post and Courier

Photo Credit: Devon Cass

Roméo et Juliette at Spoleto: Reviews

Creamy Coloratura

This was the Carolinas’ first look at Chicago-based soprano Nicole Cabell after her 2005 triumph as BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. The soprano displayed creamy coloratura and a warm dramatic tone, plus stamina enough to deliver the long Act IV monologue and Act V duet with firm control. She’s an expressive actress, with a long, high-cheekboned face that would have interested Modigliani, and she supplied the action with the sense of doom directors Clarac and Deloeil wanted from the start.

Lawrence Toppman,

Opera News,
August 2006

Palmetto Pleasures
Spoleto Festival operas challenge and illuminate

Charleston’s yearly Spoleto Festival USA is a heady whirlwind of the arts is a lovely setting, with history, cuisine, and leisure opportunities almost too numerous to explore. And yes, there’s a gay vibe afloat if you look.

[My] quarry was operatic—“Roméo et Juliette,” suddenly and deservedly popular again. [The opera] featured outstanding ensemble work from soloists and chorus alike—sometimes hampered, sometimes aided by aggressively activist directors. Gounod’s Shakespearean tragedy was successful largely due to the stylistic conviction and lavish vocal gifts of its highly attractive leading couple. 2005 “Singer of the World” Nicole Cabell showed herself a finely detailed tragic actress, with truly a lovely sound and presence. Consonants could occasionally have been more distinct but she phrased with utmost musicality and feeling; the difficult potion aria was absolutely thrilling.

Take notice—the next major francophone tenor may be young Québecois Frédéric Antoun, who enacted Roméo with disarming sincerity as a dreamy loner. His darkish lyric voice offered admirable dynamic variety and beautifully forward diction. Despite occasional flatting in the tricky transitional “passagio,” high notes above it were secure and exciting. Both Cabell and Antoun have the goods for major careers.

The production by Opéra Français de New York’s Jean-Philippe Clarac/Olivier Deloueil drew some audience puzzlement—the action took place in a corporate funeral home, seemingly protected by a Mafia boss Duke (the veteran Malcolm Smith, very creditable). The Capulets were soulless technocrats and the Montagues a loose bunch of “retro hip” slackers; any sense of rival houses vanished.

Some touches misfired—flashlights in the audience’s eyes, a tired pseudo-Brechtian device which need never, ever be used again, and a gratuitous drag scene for Mercutio during his “Mab” narration, serving only to obscure the notably excellent style and voice of Paris-trained Kevin Greenlaw. However, certain scenes showed unusual flair and psychological insight, like a playfully sexy “Ange adorable” that really seemed like two adolescents meeting and an affecting, improvised-seeming wedding scene—in a lab room!

As Capulet, Brian Mulligan—so far only given crumbs at the Met—exhibited a fine, strong leading baritone. Despite iffy French, Rosendo Flores made a sonorous Laurent, here a mortuary priest and doctor. Christine Abraham and Victor Ryan Robertson brought fiery personality and good sound to Stéphano and Tybalt. Tomasso Placidi led with Romantic sweep but supported the singers’ phrasing, never neglecting Gounod’s coloristic detail.

By David Shengold
Gay City News
June 15 - 21, 2006

[Frédéric Antoun's] Juliette is Chicago-based soprano Nicole Cabell. She was the 2005 winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, the top prize for emerging opera talent. Cabell is tall and beautiful with a distinctive voice. Hers is a bright sound with bite. She also has the all-important middle and low notes that extend her repertoire possibilities beyond the chirper status. Her voice is gilded with a dusky overcoat that adds sensuality and gives sophisticated colour to her freshness. Her formidable coloratura placement is pitch perfect. Cabell's connection with text is also an actor's dream.

Paula Citron

Nicole Cabell sang her heart out in “Romeo et Juliette.” We just wish she had even more to sing.

Jeffrey Day
The State
11 June 2006

Ovation continues for 'Romeo et Juliette'

As part of Spoleto Festival USA, a new production of Charles Francois Gounod's grand opera "Romeo et Juliette" opened Friday night at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium to a packed house which [...] offered at the end a standing ovation that might have run on without end if the stage lights had not been dimmed.

[Maestro Tommaso] Placidi was lucky to have an exquisite Juliette in soprano Nicole Cabell, who portrayed one of the star-crossed lovers with genuine feeling and a rich imagination. Her voice is powerful and beautiful in style and color. She delivered, with grace and ease, some intensely moving and stratospheric vocal pyrotechnics, literally breath-taking. In addition to looking the part, her lyric-coloratura voice was second to none.

Tenor Frédéric Antoun as Romeo mirrored the high-caliber style of Cabell, with an impressive and fiery creation.

The Post and Courier
May 27, 2006

And, ah, the soloists. The title roles are beautifully filled. Nicole Cabell’s buttery, gleaming soprano caresses the ear nonstop, and she shows a true diva’s instincts onstage. She manages the transition from giddy young girl to fate-stricken woman very credibly. Her delivery of the harrowing “potion aria” — with its own mini-“mad scene” — is potent, vocally spectacular, and utterly convincing. She’s a true star in the making.

Frédéric Antoun is the perfect moonstruck adolescent. His rich tenor is smooth and even from top to bottom, despite a slight airy quality to some of his highest notes. His soft pianissimo passages are to die for. This young man was born to sing the French repertoire — he handles the language better than anybody (no surprise from a French Canadian).

Lindsay Koob
Charleston City Paper

And now to the main event? the new production of Charles Gounod's 1867 opera "Romeo et Juliette." [...] presented a modernized telling of the story, set in New Jersey of the 1960s or '70s, judging by appearances... [...] In this contemporary incarnation, the famous tale seemed more vital than ever? an extraordinary achievement, considering it's a plot that everyone knows. [...] In fact, there was not a single dull stretch. Much of the credit for this goes to the young stars, Frédéric Antoun (Romeo) and Nicole Cabell (Juliette), who seemed like two impulsive, love-struck kids, coincidentally possessed of superbly trained singing voices. Despite the lofty musical standards of the performance (and it sounded gorgeous), Antoun and Cabell - and indeed, the entire cast - were first and foremost dramatically credible. This is a challenge in a piece where, 10 minutes after meeting Romeo for the first time, Juliette has to say, "If I cannot be his, let my grave be my bridal bed." Cabell sang it and meant it.

The Post and Courier

May 29-30, 2006

Monday, May 29, 2006

Spoleto's Juliet is a joy to behold

Heroine in festival's operatic production has voice that justifies hype

CHARLESTON - It sounds at first like typical marketing hype: The British Broadcasting Corp. calls its vocal contest Singer of the World. Next thing you know, somebody will dream up a competition that declares its winner an idol.

But Nicole Cabell, who won the BBC's prize in 2005, makes the contest's name sound a lot more reasonable. When she's on stage at Spoleto Festival USA as the heroine of Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, it's hard to imagine who in the world could make Juliet more compelling.

Cabell's Juliet exudes the passion of young love. Her voices sparkles and glows. No matter how high Gounod's rapturous melodies soar, Cabell exults in them. No matter how fierily she opens up in the music's big moments, her voice's shine is undimmed.

Even an operatic Juliet needs more than voice, of course. Cabell, youthful and svelte, is instantly believable as a girl swept up in romance.

Her broad smile must gleam all the way to the back row of Charleston's Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, where the production opened Friday night. Her lustrous eyes capture a wealth of feelings -- especially the darker ones that Spoleto's staging, big on death wish, plays up.

Frederic Antoun, just as youthful in sound and appearance, cuts an ardent figure as Romeo. His voice doesn't sail aloft as easily as Cabell's, but it rings. After Juliet leaves Romeo at the end of the balcony scene, his tender tones give her one last caress.

There and in the other two duets at the opera's heart -- the duo's meeting and the climactic tomb scene -- Cabell and Antoun have a magnetism that practically tells the story. That's lucky for Gounod, because they're surrounded by a staging that doesn't necessarily make sense.

This is the second time in recent years that Spoleto has shifted the immortal love story into the present. In 2004, for Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi Spoleto turned the clans into warring crime families. Now, directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil have cast Juliet's family as the owners of an ultramodern mortuary and mausoleum. Carol Bailey's sets give the production shape through Spartan but imposing panels.

That yields one moment of visual magic: During the balcony scene, the light that from yonder window breaks is coming from Juliet, lighting a bank of candles in a chapel.

But there's no hint as to what Romeo's family does or why they're at odds with Juliet's. Is the funeral business so cut-throat? Why does a funeral home need a phalanx of guards wielding billy clubs? Why does the mortuary let Friar Laurence -- decked out in clerical collar, lab coat and surgical gloves -- hang around with a corpse?

But the cast follows the leading duo's model, surmounting the questions through their energy, commitment and secure voices. Baritone Kevin Greenlaw's Mercutio is especially lively -- and unintimidated by the directors' gambit of having him sing about Queen Mab by turning into her in improvised drag, complete with bare breasts.

The festival orchestra, led by Tommaso Placidi, plays not only with power, but with a sleekness that suits Gounod's French elegance. The chorus mirrors that. Shakespeare's romance prevails.

Steven Brown
Charlotte Observer

Monday, May 22, 2006

Moving Fast

"Young soprano on the fast track" was how Anne Midgette, New York Times critic, described Nicole Cabell in a recent article.

Nicole to sing Gounod's Juliette at Spoleto, SC

CHARLESTON — Sitting in a hotel courtyard near a gurgling fountain, Nicole Cabell would draw anyone’s attention. She is tall and slim, her glowing skin framed by a cascade of dark curls falling onto her shoulders. She wears a flowing black skirt belted by a splash of rhinestones and a snug top.

She reaches down to rummage in her purse, pulls out a tissue, turns her head and blows.
“Very attractive,” she says with a smile. “I’m allergic to Charleston.”

Cabell, a 28-year-old California native, will make her debut at the Spoleto Festival USA this week as Juliette in the 1867 opera “Romeo et Juliette” by French romantic composer Charles Gounod.
The festival is one of many callers Cabell has received since last summer, when she was named the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in what is considered a top vocal competition. Cabell, who now lives in Chicago, was one of 24 finalists.

She knows how important the prize is, but she can joke about it.“It sounds kind of like a wrestling title,” she says with a laugh.“You should get a big belt if you win it.”

Landing at the top of the operatic heap isn’t something Cabell ever expected; she didn’t even know she could sing until she was 15. As a child, she was most interested in writing, pursing it with a passion even at a young age. Her mother encouraged her to take music lessons to be well-rounded, so she started studying flute at 12.

“It was opposite of writing —going from something that you do alone to being a performer,” Cabell says.

And she didn’t take to the performance part: “I’d shake — my whole body would shake.”

Still, she kept at it, until prompted by her mother again.

“I was singing around the house and my mother said I sounded good,” Cabell recalls. “She encouraged me to look around for a choir to sing in.”

Turns out a local chamber choir was holding auditions the next day, so she tried out and became part of the group. At 15, she started doing musical theater, mostly musical revues. A big fan of pop music, Cabell grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s sounds, thanks to her mom, “a former hippie.” She was a fan of ’80s music by The Police and Sade, and ’90s grunge.

“I love Pearl Jam,” Cabell said.

Deciding that she should continue singing, she went to a vocal teacher. “After a few weeks, she said, ‘I think you should study with my teachers,’” Cabell says. For the next two years, Cabell studied opera, a form she’d had no exposure to or experience with. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 2001 and was accepted into the graduate program at the Juilliard School.

“I was there for three days — well, actually two days,” Cabell says.

As soon as she started, the Lyric Opera of Chicago offered her a three-year residency at its center for young singers.

“When Nicole first got up to sing in my class, after three notes I knew she had it,” Lyric Opera center director Richard Pearlman told The Chicago Tribune last year. “The sound of her voice was so distinctive, the musicianship was at such an Olympian level, you couldn’t keep your eyes off her.”

Others sing her praises, but Cabell is very un-diva-like. She notes that she selected works to perform at the Singer of the World competition that “weren’t too taxing.”

Opera seemed to her to be an “unattainable, complicated thing.”

She mentions more than once that she was “afraid of forgetting the words.”

She was shocked she won the competition.

“At first I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” she said.

The heady praise she has received hasn’t gone to her head.

“I’m being very cautious in investing too much in reviews,” Cabell says. “You can’t take it too seriously.”
The closest she comes to bragging is talking about her first day in Charleston.

”I thought the first rehearsal was May 2, but it was May 1,” she says. “As soon as I got here, we had to sing the whole opera. If I can get off a plane, deal with allergies and sing that, I can do this.”

By Jeffrey Day
The State
Photo Credit: Renee Ittner McManus

Talent gets spotted at Spoleto

The next bright young thing often shines first at festival.

One of the strongest legacies of the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the discovery of new talent.

This tradition started in 1958, when composer Gian Carlo Menotti began the festival in Italy, and it continued when the American festival started in 1977.

Early Spoleto discoveries were soprano Kathleen Battle, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and opera sensation Jessye Norman.

The new singer all eyes are on this year is Nicole Cabell, in the role of Juliet.

Kansas City Star

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Santa Fe Opera's 2007 Season

The Santa Fe Opera season opens on June 29 with La bohème, by Puccini, The opera will be conducted by Corrado Rovaris and staged by Paul Curran. Kevin Knight makes his company debut as set and costume designer; Nicole Cabell makes her company debut as Musetta.

More details of Nicole's performance schedule can be seen here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nicole Cabell interviewed in Chicago Sun-Times

Excerpts from an article entitled In competitive field, young voices heard from The Chicago Sun-Times:

"If you're fortunate," [Gianna] Rolandi, [director of vocal studies at Lyric's Center for American Artists] said, "you'll get with a good manager who can help guide you into the kind of roles you should be doing. We do that in the kind of guidance at the center, and it has to continue. Young singers have a hard time saying no."

After the Cardiff win "catapulted" Cabell's career, a part-time job at Starbucks was no longer part of the equation. Opera companies plan their seasons years in advance, and while Cabell is looking at roles at Lyric and the Metropolitan Opera in a few years hence, she sang Pamina in The Magic Flute in Madison, Wis., this spring and Musetta in La boheme last fall at Michigan Opera Theater.

"I'm so thankful and still in disbelief about the competition," Cabell said, "but I'm actually at a point where I have to work to get time off. The business is fickle, and if you win a competition like Cardiff or you have an amazing opening night like Erin [Wall], people knock on your door. You take roles and pay your dues by working really, really hard for a couple of years."

But Cabell is aware that too much work or inappropriately heavy roles can tear a young voice to shreds.
"I have these great people in my life," she said, mentioning Rolandi and her manager at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. "They help me stay away from the dangerous stuff and pick the healthy things. We're trying to take light repertoire now. It's tricky. Age 28 is not super-young, but also you can't just do anything you want."

By Wynne Delacoma
The Chicago Sun-Times
April 30, 2006