This is always a tricky question for me: I’m an Air Force Brat! Oddly enough, that itinerant childhood prepared me for the life of a professional opera singer in many ways: I can be instantly at home anywhere and with anyone, I love travel but am also a homebody, and I learned German at an early age. I have lived in Utah, Washington, New York, Georgia, Illinois, and Maine – to name a few!
What was the first opera you saw or experienced?
My first experience with opera was probably the recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors that my father played around Christmas time. We were more of a folk music family than classical, but quotes from Amahl were always part of our daily life. First opera I saw live: something dark and gloomy at the Atlanta Opera circa 1993; clearly I wasn’t ready to discover opera. First opera the made me fall in love with opera: the Zeffirelli film of La traviata with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo.
How did you know you loved performing/opera/classical music?
When I was 10, I played the Maud, the no-nonsense cleaning lady, in a performance of The Capricious Pearls with the Loring Air Force Base Children’s Theater. At one point, something I said made the audience laugh – and I was hooked! After being part of the theater and music crowd in high school, I truly discovered opera in college when I realized that opera combines all the arts that I love – music, dance, theater, visual art, storytelling. It’s an incredible art form, truly boundless in its scope and reach.
What were your favorite roles / performing experiences?
Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro is hands-down my favorite role (See next question!). As for experiences: sharing the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with Anna Netrebko in Manon and L’elisir d’amore and with Bryn Terfel for his final Figaro; premiering John Musto’s Inspector at Wolf Trap; and working with director RB Schlather on David Lang’s Little Match Girl
Passion. Meeting David Bowie after a performance of Golijov’s La pasion segun san Marcos was also a highlight! For the past several years, I have enjoyed learning the role of supporting and creating opera from the other side of the stage. I look forward to building on everything I’ve learned and experienced in my career to help UrbanArias grow into its next decade – and beyond.
Tell us about your family!
I met my husband, Matt Burns, when we were singing Figaro and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro at Grand Rapids Opera in 2007 – and we were married within the year! In non-pandemic times, he is on the road performing about 60% of the year. In addition to his operatic talents, Matt discovered a passion and penchant for the finer points of the wine business several years ago, and when not performing he works at Total Wine and is the founder of Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts. We have two precocious children: Henry, age 10, and Gloria, age 5. Henry loves dinosaurs, dragons, music, magic, and being silly with his dad. Gloria (aka GG) loves sparkles and frills and unicorns, getting dirty, being in kindergarten, and snuggling with her mom.
What song do you have on repeat right now?
It is an eclectic mix at our house! We love piano-based songwriters, so lots of Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Regina Spektor; also early 00’s pop like The Shins, New Pornographers, Feist, Sufjan Stevens. Of course, the Beatles! The soundtracks to a dozen animated films, and my guilty secret: Harry Styles.
It’s a special time for soprano Sharin Apostolou and her husband, rockstar development director and tenor Ryan MacPherson, and UrbanArias is thrilled to get to be part of their joy. They chatted with us about making art and having a life in the pandemic.
Your special circumstances make you ideal for this project. How did we get so lucky?
Sharin: John De Los Santos and I were chatting months ago and he brought it to me. He and Bob Wood are two of my absolute favorite collaborators so I jumped at the idea (after I warned him that I might look quite different when we’d be filming.) Also, getting to perform with my husband is always such a treat!
How has the pandemic been for you guys?
Ryan: As I’m somewhat “retired” as a performer, and now working in Arts administration as the Director of Development for the Charlottesville Symphony, it was a welcome return to singing and performing. It was also wonderful to work with a lovely small group – one that included many friends that I have known over the years.
Sharin: I won’t sugar coat it- it’s been HARD. Many of us are afraid. Months of work and income vanished overnight and it keeps coming in waves. And that’s only the practical part. We prep for months for our engagements and we want to create something amazing for the audience. That’s all gone, too. Everything has been so uncertain. It still is, really. It’s exciting to be a part of projects like this that are thinking outside the box!
You play a married couple, expecting their first child. Obviously, you relate!
Ryan: While based within a pandemic, I felt a wonderful connected honesty with regard to the relationships. Many of the struggles and comforts found with Ricky and Kat are reflected in my everyday life within our marriage.
We all are experiencing this frustration of being locked in one environment that is limiting, but never changes – like the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray. It just takes one person to help you change your perspective and make it all ok.
Sharin: Kat and her partner Ricky have both lost their jobs and are staying at her parent’s house. She and her mother happen to also be on opposite sides of the political ideological spectrum. It’s also the dead of summer and the A/C is broken. And she’s pregnant. She’s very frustrated with her set of circumstances, to say the least. How do I relate? While my husband has stayed employed (thank goodness!) and we stayed in our own apartment, I tick the rest of the boxes- preggers and all! I think many of us are going through this pandemic with loved ones who feel or think differently about it. I’m sure there will be many moments that you can relate to.
Was this your first opera-on-film? What was it like to make The Roost?
Ryan: I’ve recorded quite a few albums, and have been in a couple of movies – but the way that we put this together was completely different. We recorded the music in our own home, without rehearsal, and in a very short amount of time. There is an incredible amount of trust that allows all of us to do this. They trust we will learn it and do our best, and we blindly give tracks that are dry, without music in the background, and completely out of context to the action that we would be shooting later. As we submit those tracks, we put our trust in the music staff and audio personnel to make us sound great!
And lip-syncing to your own voice and cadence is another completely bizarre challenge. At the end of the few days that we had to shoot, we were utterly exhausted. It felt like we exercised a muscle that had never been used.
Sharin: I mean, I’ve done recorded auditions and self tapes but this was TOTALLY different and unlike anything I’ve ever done. It was incredibly eye-opening and MUCH harder than I was expecting. I’ve been performing on stage professionally for over 15 years and I felt like such a neophyte. I feel SO fortunate that I knew and loved everyone involved in this project because they all received at least one text or email that started with “this may be a stupid question but…” There was a steep learning curve, to say the least!
It’s pretty unusual to have so many companies working together on one project. Your careers are so wide-ranging – have you worked with any of the other Decameron artists in other settings?
Ryan: I met Bob Wood at the Santa Fe Opera when I was a young artist in 2003. Bob was our chorus master for some incredibly difficult pieces – I was so impressed with his professionalism and musicality. His vision and talent have not only grown but provide a true gift to the DC community through Urban Arias.
I’ve known Emily Pulley for about 17 years, and have had the pleasure to share the stage with her about as many times. From Opera Omaha to Central City Opera, to Virginia Opera – working with her is like coming home to a cherished family.
Sharin and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary the day after we wrapped shooting. We met on the job eleven years ago and love every chance we have to sing together. To have the gift of a piece that reflects our time and celebrates the real-life joy of expecting our first child is a gift that we will always treasure.
Sharin: Yes! Emily Pulley, who plays my mom, and I have known each other since my first professional job. I was lucky enough to do Florida at Urban Arias with Bob a few years ago and this is my fourth project with John De Los Santos (Le Comte Ory at LoftOpera and South Pacific and Camelot at Charlottesville Opera.) And, Ryan and I have been together for 11 years and married for 7. I hadn’t worked with Marc Migó but I LOVE singing his music.
As for other companies, yep! Michael Ching, who wrote Dinner 4 3 for Fargo Moorhead Opera, conducted me early in my career and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi and I met when I was still in grad school and I performed a piece of theirs and, thanks to social media, stayed friends through the years. As for the other singers, we’re a small community and like a family. For purely selfish reasons, I hope we get to do these in person just so I can see Jorell Williams, Briana Elyse Hunter, Kate Jackman, Josh Kohl, and Katie Henly. It’s going to be one heck of a party!
And a special word from Ryan:
I’m now a development director so I want to make sure that everyone out there knows that we can’t do this without their support. Great cities have great art and we have a duty to keep them going. Fill your life with music and support your local arts organization!
Director and libretist John de los Santos and composer Marc Migó collaborated to create The Roost. John’s steady vision and Marc’s gorgeous music really gives buoyancy to the inner worlds of the characters while clearly propelling a taut and sexy storyline. The two discuss collaboration, working with old friends and staying inspired in quarantine.
How did you two come to write The Roost? What spoke to you about the project?
John: Bob Wood first contacted me about writing a piece for the Decameron Opera Coalition in May. He had produced another piece of mine called Service Provider in 2017, and wanted to see if I could write and direct another operatic comedy about the difficulties of modern quarantining. I had worked with composer Marc Migó at Juilliard the previous year, and thought he would be an excellent partner in this new collaboration. I’m happy to say that despite the difficult times we are in, working on The Roost has been a career highlight that I will never forget.
Marc: My good friend and librettist John de los Santos suggested the idea to me, and I found it really appealing! Not only did it present a rare opportunity of working on a commission during the pandemic, but the subject of the Decameron that John chose was irresistible. I don’t know what I would do if I could not create, especially in the context we are living in. Working on The Roost allowed me to channel a much-needed optimism, a message of enduring love and understanding. Writing this work and collaborating with the librettist, conductor, singers, etc., was truly a therapeutic and unforgettable experience.
We love that sense of optimism, especially since the performing arts are taking such a beating. What’s it been like being an artist during a pandemic?
Marc: Technically speaking, quite the same; being a composer is quite a reclusive occupation per se. However, emotionally it has been very different, for obvious reasons.
John: It’s been disappointing in many areas, but has also presented challenges that have resulted in tremendous artistic growth. While many jobs have been lost or postponed, there have been several new connections made with other artists who are all dealing with the same uncertain situation. All of this unforeseen networking will undoubtedly yield a number of unique pieces to premiere once it’s safe to perform live again.
Describe your work on The Roost (without giving away too much!). What do you want the audience to gain from your choices or perspective?
John: When I began to write the libretto for The Roost, I set three goals. First, I had to find a story within the one hundred contained in the Decameron that would translate to a modern audience in a digital format. Next, I needed to create comic potential in not just the narrative, but equally in the capacity for the music. And finally, I wanted to touch on the interesting relationships COVID has forged within our politically divided country. Whichever side we are on, we must ultimately rely on and work with each other to beat this pandemic and rebuild.
Marc: In this very unusual and troubling time, I wanted to provide the chance for the audience to laugh, to feel accompanied by some very relatable characters, and to experience the terribly missed “being outside” feeling. I think of The Roost as a nurturing experience, a chance to cleanse our distress through the beauty of music, along with the wit and warmth of the story.
We’re grateful the two of you had worked together previously! Do you know any artists in either The Roost or the other nine Decameron Opera Coalition companies?
Marc: I know very well John de los Santos, the wonderful librettist for the Roost! I have been very lucky to get to know him during my first year of Doctorate at Juilliard. I feel we immediately connected, and I hope this will be the first of a series of fertile collaborations!
John: I had directed Sharin Apostolou in three productions prior to The Roost, and was friends with her husband, Ryan MacPherson. The most interesting thing was staging intimate scenes for a husband and wife team, while we were all masked and trying to remain as distanced as possible. I’ve also directed Katie Henley (The Sky Where You Are, An Opera Theatre) and Briana Elyse Hunter (The Late Walk, Bare Opera), and worked with conductor Eiki Isomura (Seven Spells, Opera in the Heights.)
Was this your first opera-as-film project? What was it like?
Marc: It definitely was! However, the only way it has been different from other operatic projects I have undertaken is in having to work with a very visual libretto, which in the end is quite a subtle difference. I believe the score must incorporate all essential stage directions, so that music and image really go hand by hand.
John: This was the first time I had written and directed an opera for film. The turnaround for the entire project was very quick, so we all had to learn as we went and trust that our expertise in performing and producing opera would carry the process. Our amazing team of sound engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith and film editor Tom Rubeck was essential in navigating the learning curve. The trickiest parts were synching the recording with the singers’ lips and filming outdoors in the cold without shivering on camera. The best parts were laughing with the cast and crew at all the bloopers and getting to film for a week in beautiful Charlottesville.
We love having soprano Emily Pulley at UrbanArias. She’s a great actress who sings her face off, and she’s a seriously funny lady. She also speaks with eloquence about the art form – watch the video below! Emily brings depth and nuance to every role she sings, whether it’s deranged Alice in Part 2 of Daniel Felsenfeld’s She, After or a frustrated daughter in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.
How did you become involved in The Roost? What spoke to you about the project?
I received an email from Bob Wood this summer and was delighted to have the opportunity to work with him again. I thought the idea of connecting our present situation to a 14th-century work written during the time of a plague was intriguing, and I loved the idea of collaborating with so many different companies to create streaming content.
What’s it been like being an artist during a pandemic?
You play Jaclyn, Kat’s mother, in The Roost. Tell us about her.
As I told our fearless director, everyone knows at least one “Jaclyn!” We can all relate to her frustration with the restrictions we’re facing during these times, but she is so wrapped up in her own feelings that she can’t find it in herself to think about what may be best for others as well. My goal was to make her sympathetic by revealing her vulnerability and fear – not to justify her behavior, but perhaps to shed some light on her motives and show that she has the potential to change if she can find inspiration and purpose outside her own version of reality.
Was this your first opera-as-film project?
This was my fourth tech-based opera project, but it had the most complicated degree of production, with multiple locations, day and evening shoots, drones(!), etc. We’re all gaining expertise and seeing new possibilities, and, as much as I’m longing to get back on to a stage with an in-person audience, it’s interesting to be a part of that experiment.
I hear Bob and I aren’t your only UrbanArias friends…
I was thrilled to hear that Sharin (Apostolou) and Ryan (MacPherson) were going to be my daughter and son-in-law in this project! I had worked with them both individually (Sharin was at Central City with me back in 2006, and Ryan was Remendado to my Micaela in Opera Omaha’s Carmen in 2003 and Alfredo to my Rosalinda in Virginia Opera’s Die Fledermaus in 2012). This was my first time to collaborate with them as a couple, and it was beautiful to watch them respond to each other, both on and off camera.
From UrbanArias Executive and Artistic Director Robert Wood:
Last May, Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi approached me with a crazy idea – put together a coalition of opera companies to create a multi-part online opera, with each part based on a story from Boccaccio’s “Decameron.”
Each company would commission a new opera that would be a “chapter” of the larger piece, and Peter and Matt would write a framework that tied the whole thing together with one character from each short opera – like Boccaccio’s group of friends quarantining together outside Florence. Of course, I trust Peter and Matt, and we were dying to commission again at UrbanArias. This felt like a really manageable way to put together something high-quality and inventive that was also original and current.
Since 90-minute live opera was out, I thought, 13-minute online opera can be in. So I called up John de los Santos, whose short opera Service Provider our audiences had enjoyed so much back in 2017, and he was eager to write the libretto and direct. Then he recommended the wonderful young composer Marc Migó Cortes, who was just finishing his studies at Juilliard. Marc’s music was great, and his score for our new opera, The Roost, is fantastic – really well-crafted and beautiful.
I’m so grateful to all of my colleagues at other “indie” opera companies across the country for coming together to form the Decameron Opera Coalition – I think we’ve put together a really interesting array of modern storytelling through song. And now we’re filmmakers, which is also a lot of fun, if an entirely different skill set from the ones we already had.
There’s no shortage of conventional wisdom that the arts generally, and opera specifically, must be “relevant” in order to survive. UrbanArias is a testament to this – on a basic level, we strive to appeal to new audiences by removing barriers of length and language which might impede people from embracing the art form. But we also intentionally program many works which deal with issues of today or the recent past, and which are set in our own recognizable, contemporary American world.
Our whole 2017-18 season deals with modern subjects – from a strange neurological disease in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, to cross-fostering experiments between species in Lucy, to our very current struggles with race relations in this country in Independence Eve. In each of these pieces, though, my primary attraction was to the storytelling and the score. I feel very strongly that opera is nothing without a good story. Conceptual pieces can be really cool from time to time, but I want something I can sink my teeth into, something that will move me. Independence Eve‘s invention of three “everyman” Black/White duos presents us three compelling tales of racial tension and injustice. It’s not a pandering “issue opera”, although it deals with a timely and sadly timeless issue; like good verismo, it takes three “slices of life” and shows us three interactions between a Caucasian tenor and an African-American baritone which illustrate the difficulties we’ve had as Americans recovering from the less savory parts of our history and finding common ground.
It would be easy, for instance, to write a generic indictment of white reactionary behavior during the civil rights era, but Daniel Neer’s libretto instead tells us a story – a story about a black boy, Louis, who sneaked into a store in the segregated South to catch an up-close glimpse of a baseball player he admired. He also eyed a large barrel of candy. He didn’t take anything, but the white shopkeeper sure thought he was up to no good – and threw him out so violently onto nearby railroad tracks that he landed on his head and never regained hearing in one ear.
That’s the story a grownup Louis tells us, and it’s immediately gripping. Why do people treat each other so badly? And why does skin color play such a huge role in that poor treatment? And why does the white man he tells it to automatically assume that Louis’ true intention was to steal the candy?
Another scene in the opera tells a story with even more direct relevance to our time: the story of an African-American stockbroker strip-searched in the lobby of his own condo building by police who thought he looked suspicious because he was wearing sweats. That scene, originally titled “Stop and Frisk”, is plenty current. But it’s not that currency alone that drew me to it – it’s the way the characters are drawn, the sympathy with which both the lawyer and his clueless white friend are portrayed.
Great art should make us have conversations, and there is a lot to unpack in Independence Eve. But it’s the human quality of the narrative, not just the issue, that fosters those conversations. And it’s the music, not just the situation, which moves us. Composer Sidney Boquiren is also telling us a story with the score – he augments the feelings engendered by the text in each scene. He heightens the emotional impact of the boy being thrown out of the store with the eloquent beauty of his musical phrasing, and the tender turn of melody; similarly, he magnifies our tension when the African-American stockbroker tells us what the cops did to him, through the use of driving rhythm and spiky harmony.
All of this is to say that relevance is important to convince more people that opera is meaningful to them – but that relevance has to come through good, well-crafted work. I was beguiled and moved, saddened and uplifted by this opera when I first encountered it in workshop, and I hope you will be too.