The excitement of creating a role in a world premiere production with San Francisco Opera is electrifying. For me it began the instant I got the invitation to join the cast (though I must admit it was also a little daunting). After all, how could I not think about the legacy of amazing works that were commissioned or premiered by SFO—Dead Man Walking
, Doctor Atomic
and so many others—and about filling the shoes of the distinguished performers who have sung and created roles here?
Maybe I'm biased, but after singing through the piece with my accomplished colleagues, I think I can say that Nolan Gasser and Carey Harrison have written the kind of score that the opera world needs right now—The Secret Garden
is a work with a vibrant, contagious energy that will reach out and embrace audiences of all ages whether they have a lot of exposure to modern music or not. I'm very proud to be a part of it!
I always approach a new score from many angles. First, if I can, I look at the source (in this case reading Francis Hodgson Burnett's thoughtful book) and even read something about the creators to understand what world they are coming from. I was so excited to read about Gasser's interest in all music, from medieval to jazz, rock, pop and world music. And I was equally interested in Harrison's background writing for radio, television, cinema and the stage, in addition to literature. Before I even got a score I was already looking forward to what I would find on the pages.
[Joiner performing at the Asheville Symphony. Photo courtesy of scottjoinertenor.com.]
Next, I read through the text of the opera looking at the rhythms that the composer gave to the words. With the Secret Garden, I was immediately aware of how natural and conversational everything felt. I loved my character, Dickon. He seemed to embody a pure spirit of youthful adventure that reminded me of my own childhood. I was also struck by the honesty of each character. Even the ones who have a lot of growing to do in the story are poetic and very sympathetic in Harrison's libretto.
Then, it's time to sit at the piano. I always prefer to see what is going on musically underneath the singers before hearing any of the vocal lines—that way, when I look at my character's notes later on, I understand their harmonic, rhythmic, textural context. This makes it so much easier to learn my part. I have to say that playing through the Secret Garden, I had so much fun with the rhythmic patterns and layered harmonies that I actually played through quite a bit of the piano part before looking seriously at Dickon's notes.
[Joiner with wife Colette Boudreaux at the Harrisburg Choral Society. Photo courtesy of coletteboudreaux.com.]
Finally, I started to learn the vocal part and work the character's music into my voice. I sang a lot of the music (especially Dickon's aria) for my wife, Colette Boudreaux, a wonderful singer and a very experienced performer. She helped make me aware of technical things I could adjust, and she really helped me find the bold, carefree character of Dickon. After I had the role learned, I sang through it twice with a gifted pianist at my alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music.
Before I knew it, it was time to jump on a plane and head to San Francisco from our home on the East coast. Although I was a bit nervous singing the part for the conductor, Sara Jobin, and the SFO music staff (I wanted to assure them they'd picked the right singer), everyone was extremely supportive and we got right to work. Director Jose Maria Condemi is a blast—he masters the fine balancing act of giving the performers a lot to work with (great blocking and stimulating ideas about our characters) and trusting us to explore and make discoveries during the rehearsal process. I can tell that a lot of imagination went into creating the world of the story. The first day we had a design presentation by Naomi Kremer and I was blown away by the breathtaking, shifting projections that will take the audience half way around the world from India to Yorkshire during the show.
[Director Jose Maria Condemi. Photo by Kristen Loken.]
Jose Maria reminded the cast in the first rehearsal that it takes more than magic to grow a successful garden—it takes hard work. I am grateful for companies like SFO that work to keep this wonderful art form growing. It's what working in the performing arts is all about!