A conversation with Stephanie Sundine, director of Opera Boston's Ernani

- by Richard M. Dyer

This season Stephanie Sundine has entered the second decade of her second distinguished career in opera. In 1995 she made her final appearance as a leading soprano, appearing as the Foreign Princess in Dvorak's Rusalka opposite Renee Fleming at the San Francisco Opera. Three years later she directed her first professional operatic production at Sarasota Opera, Cilea's L'Arlesiana, and she's been busy on the American regional opera circuit ever since.

Her first local production is Verdi's Ernani for Opera Boston which opens May 2 in the Cutler Majestic Theatre (with repeat performances May 4 and May 6). Recently Ms. Sundine took a break from rehearsal to talk about her unusual double life - and about Ernani. Sundine is articulate and intelligent, and her eyes, hands and gestures tell stories; she is still tall, erect and as willowy as she was back in the days when she shimmered through the Dance of the Seven Veils in Strauss's Salome.

"No, no," she said, responding to an obvious question, "I never sang in Ernani," and I only saw it once, many years ago. I never liked to sing lots of little notes, and coloratura was never my thing."

Sundine began her career as a lyric mezzo, but her husband, conductor Victor DeRenzi, convinced her she was a latent dramatic soprano, and Sundine made her career in operas by Verdi, Strauss, Wagner, Janacek and Puccini and in great diva parts like Tosca and Salome. She sang with opera companies all over America and Canada, and in Europe and Australia as well.

"I loved taking over a huge role and exploring it," she says. "I didn't have any formal training in acting, but my husband helped me to know and understand my own body language, and of course I worked with some really good [and highly diverse] stage directors like Lotfi Mansouri, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Carsen and Tito Capobianco. I learned how to use my entire being to reflect what was in the character and to control my body - singers get nervous and the energy sometimes comes out in odd ways or in meaningless movements; I had to learn how to channel that energy so that everything went into the singing and into the characters."

Sundine says there is no difference between directing an opera she sang in like Tosca, Aida, or La Fanciulla del West and a piece she never performed. She prepares everything the way she prepared a role she was scheduled to sing. "I work with the libretto and the music and the background and source materials - if it is an opera I don't already know I listen to the music and read the libretto a million times."

"During my singing career," she adds, "I was always interested in all the characters, not just in mine. It is crucial to know what everyone else is saying so that you know how to react and respond to it. My stage experience does help me in direction, of course. I would never ask someone else to do my Tosca, and I don't demonstrate how to do something, but I help the singers to inhabit their own bodies, to develop the look of the characters; I try to enable them to create their own version. I am always open to their suggestions."

Sundine doesn't believe in adding physical problems for artists who already have enough to worry about just to sing roles as difficult as the principal parts in Ernani are. "It is very easy to look glassy-eyed once you are not singing, but it is important to be an active listener to the others. If everyone onstage is involved, the audience will be too."

That goes for the chorus as well. The chorus is very active in Ernani - they play diverse roles as bandits, servants, courtiers, conspirators. "They contribute a lot to the emotional atmosphere," Sundine says. "They are not just wallpaper; I want to get them actively involved and listening too."

Direction came as an unexpected gift to Sundine at a time of crisis. "For years, I was singing over chronic laryngitis," she explains. "It was triggered by hormonal imbalances at the time of my daughter's birth. I tried everything traditional and alternative medicine had to offer, but nothing really worked. I was not happy singing badly, and during that Rusalka I finally said to my family, ‘This is it.' At that point, I had no plans to direct, but my husband kept urging me to try it, so I began with some scenes with students. I was worried about all the things I didn't know about technical matters, like lighting, but Victor asked me, ‘What don't you know? Can't you describe the lighting you want to see and tell the designer what you want? You can learn the technical language later.' I did, and so here I am, 10 years later, still directing operas."

The main job of a director, she believes, "is to challenge the singers while making them as comfortable as they can be, to help them make whatever opera they are singing as real as it can be. Opera isn't ‘real life' of course; expression is formalized through music, but that doesn't mean that the heightened emotional states don't register as something true. ‘Ernani involami' is not just an aria about a fabulous voice and brilliant coloratura - it has to convey how much in love with Ernani she is, how much longing for him she feels, how much she wants to be with him, how much she wants him to carry her away from the situation she is in. In opera, singers constantly repeat themselves, saying the same thing over and over again, but that happens in real life too - only we never say anything twice in exactly the same way! The singer needs to find different dimensions of urgency every time."

Early Verdi operas, like Ernani, are "hard to direct," Sundine admits. "They have the reputation of being stand-and-sing operas, and they are not easy to stand and sing. But there is more to them than that, and my job is to help bring out the passions and the personalities. I don't do ‘concept' productions and prefer to work in a traditional style. The public doesn't have to like the characters, but the audience does need to care about them." Sundine doesn't tiptoe around the dramatically implausible moments in Ernani. "You have to be careful not to make people scratch their heads or laugh out loud. But you don't want to apologize for the situations either. I wouldn't do an opera in which I couldn't find something to relate to, that I couldn't bring something to. What matters in Ernani are not the situations but that emotions the situations unleash, and those emotions are strong and real. This is what makes it such a vibrant opera - and a piece that doesn't need updating! And while the characters in Ernani are to some extent stock figures, each of them does develop, each of them traces an arc, undertakes a journey."

The character in Ernani who changes the most is Don Carlo, the King who in the course of the action is elected Holy Roman Emperor. With that elevation, he changes from being as self-absorbed as the others, as rash and as violent, into a noble and magnanimous public figure. Hugo's original play pictures him as witty and he's involved in some door-slamming physical comedy as well - parts of the first act of Hugo's Hernani play like a French sex farce. But Verdi doesn't use any of the first act, and verbal wit is not part of the libretto. So Sundine says, "What we are working on is finding Carlo's points of vulnerability earlier in the opera, discovering the passages that show his longing, that reveal the gentler side of him, so that his change of heart doesn't come out of absolutely nowhere. He is more than one-dimensional, and he doesn't always have the orchestra raging under him."

Sundine says there is supplementary information in Hugo's play about all of the other characters as well as often overlooked dimensions of the text and the music. "The dramaturgy is interesting - the cast and I were just talking about how there is a specific atmosphere in each scene and how someone then breaks into each scene and changes everything. And each of them has made some kind of vow that he or she has to live by; the vows eliminate their free will. This is something that lives very deeply in the Spanish culture of the time; these people must follow through on their vows. Sundine repeatedly and spontaneously praises the qualities of her cast and of the production team. Cristina Todesco's scenery is a unit set. "This isn't just a budget decision; it is also about making the action swift and eliminating long pauses for scene changes," Sundine says. "Each scene in her set has some new element in it that helps take us to a different place. The costumes are by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, with whom I have often worked at Sarasota Opera; they are in a Renaissance style. His gift is to dress people in a way that makes them feel good about themselves and about how they look."

As Sundine prepares to return to rehearsal, she sums up her story and says she has no regrets about not singing anymore - she's not the kind of aging singer who closes the drapes to shut out the light and listens to her own performances over and over again. "Of course I miss singing, but I do not miss singing with sick vocal cords; to give it up was my only choice. I had to retire pretty young, but there's no point in being angry about it: that's just the way it was for me. I'll always have the memories of what I was able to accomplish; I feel blessed to have had the career that I did. Fortunately I always enjoyed listening to other singers, and I still do. I am not green with envy because I am as passionate about enjoying their work as I used to be about mine. Now I am able to share my experience and support a new generation; I can try to help them arrive at the very best they can do."