Peek behind the curtain: What goes into producing an Anchorage Opera classic

Apr. 25—The story opens with a confession in Italian at a Parisian party: "I love you with the kind of love that propels the universe," Alfredo Germont says to Violetta Valéry in Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata."

Violetta's health becomes an increasing concern as the tale unfolds. But in its delivery, Anchorage Opera hopes to demonstrate that the opera art form itself is alive and well.

The run-up to presenting this weekend's three performances of "La Traviata" involves melding the talents of professional singers and music leaders with dozens of standout local performers and artists, on the stage as well as behind and below it. The Anchorage Daily News took a closer look at the work that goes into the soaring sound of Alaska's singular professional opera company. We talked to five people passionate about continuing the efforts that began more than 60 years ago.

The opera, presented with English supertitles, runs Friday through Sunday in the Discovery Theatre of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Anchorage.

The soprano: Andrea Baker

Violetta presents challenges. The ill-fated lead character in "La Traviata" demands not only vocal mastery but also sweeping emotional range. And because it's one of the most regularly performed operas in the world — a true classic — audience expectations are high.

Whatever the demands, soprano Andrea Baker, from Chicago, said she felt fortunate to face them as she walked to rehearsal at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts nine days before opening night.

"Singing is my life. I don't know what I would do without it," she said.

This opera's veteran stage director, Laura Alley, called Baker "sensational." Ben Robinson, Anchorage Opera's general director, chose Baker with confidence. Baker won a singing competition that Robinson helped judge in Ithaca, New York.

"I think that she really could be a huge star," Robinson said. "I think she's one of those people who's right on the cusp."

Whatever her future holds, the current path for the traveling professional opera singer is winding, sometimes bumpy. Baker said her goal is to support herself solely through music. But about 10 years into her professional career, there hasn't yet been a time when she made her entire living with her show-stopping voice.

Baker, 35, patches it together. She bartends. She teaches piano. She interviews job candidates for an employee recruiting company. Most opera singers work multiple jobs to cover the costs of coaches and lessons, to travel for auditions and to make ends meet.

"I think I was kind of naive," said Baker, thinking back to what she thought her career would be like as an emerging professional a decade ago.

"I think like most singers, you're just not sure what to expect. It's such a hard career in that it's so insecure. It's just you never know if you're going to work or not."

The profession presents its own unique challenges on top of the economic reality.

"It's hard because life happens and your voice changes. And you have to sing through if something happens in your life, like grief or anything like that. It's kind of unforgiving in that way," Baker said. "Your voice is constantly, constantly changing, and so you have to adjust."

There have been times optimism has waned and she has been close to leaving the lifestyle behind. Baker said most of her colleagues in the relatively small network of professional opera singers can relate. But so far, her love of singing has always won out. It's addicting, she said, to sing onstage, to shatter expectations, and to perform for as many people as she can.

Baker's interest in singing, which began at age 3, was a full-blown passion by the time she was a high school choir singer in Olean, New York. She has been auditioning and networking for professional gigs since she graduated with a master's degree from DePaul University in Chicago. And though the pandemic halted her momentum for two years, things now are trending in the right direction.

"I've been lucky to be working pretty consistently for the past year," Baker said.

Soprano Andrea Baker rehearses the aria "Sempre Libera" during Anchorage Opera's production of "La Traviata" on April 24. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Baker will have spent about three weeks in Anchorage by the time "La Traviata" concludes. However unpredictable, the high notes of her career are irreplaceable both onstage and off. It brings her to places, like Anchorage, she had never been before. Family-like bonds develop among performers during an opera's production.

Moments before the first dress rehearsal began, she radiated excitement heading to her dressing room. She expected the days to come would prove to be the biggest challenge of her career so far. Performing Violetta Valéry is her longest and biggest role yet.

"This is one of the pinnacle roles in the soprano repertoire," she said.

When it closes, she expects to feel exhausted but thrilled. After that, Baker said her goals will remain simple.

"If I keep getting hired, I'm going to keep working," Baker said.

"If you don't love it, there's no other reason to do it," she said.

The stage manager: Helen Muller

Helen Muller's work on "La Traviata" began before visiting artists and musical leaders came to town. Then, she helps convene and schedule about 30 cast members, 40 musicians and 15 backstage crew members. In the weeks before the show opens, she sets the daily plan, attends rehearsals and distributes reports to make sure important decisions are communicated.

In the Discovery Theatre, her work is paramount. From her station, Muller calls performers to the stage through an intercom. With a headset, she can call cues to the lighting operator. And with a handheld radio she can communicate with the house staff.

For the most part, a stage manager's job is invisible to the audience, seamlessly woven into the storytelling in a way that complements the performers onstage. In other words, if things are going well for Muller — the lighting and curtain cues land just right with the music, the singers are called into position on time — no one in the seats should know she's there.

"It often can be a kind of thankless job that is a lot of work, but I'm used to it," she said.

Muller, 32, was raised in Anchorage and drawn to theater work as a student at West High School. Even back then she preferred the behind-the-scenes work.

"I have zero interest to be onstage whatsoever," she said. "That's not really where I shine. But I like being with the people."

Performing arts drew her away from a pre-med major as an undergrad. Eventually, she earned a master's degree in stage management from the School of Drama at Yale. That helped launch a career in New York City until the pandemic turned the performing arts world upside down. That's when she returned to Anchorage.

"I didn't think I would be able to continue my career in the performing arts here, just because there are about two people who stage manage for a living in Alaska," she said.

At Anchorage Opera, she's making it work with a little professional creativity. Muller is the organization's office manager also, handling accounting and a payroll that can swell to 30 when a production is in full swing. As one of just four full-time, year-round employees of the company, she helps where needed, sometimes tending to the Anchorage Opera's staff cat, Pamina.

"I'm very grateful that it worked out. I get to keep doing what I've studied to do and also can make a living," said Muller.

Before a dress rehearsal this week, stage director Laura Alley explained why a good stage manager is so important and why her confidence in Muller is high.

"They have to be able to do all sorts of things. They have to be extremely organized, which Helen is. They have to be calm under pressure, which she is. And they have to have a good relationship with the crew," Alley said.

"Come Wednesday night, when we have our final dress rehearsal, it's not my show anymore," Alley said. "It's hers."

The chorus master: Richard Gordon

Some of Anchorage's finest singers stood in a semicircle around Richard Gordon in a dim hallway of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts before a rehearsal began. The chorus followed his instructions, first with light stretching to loosen necks and diaphragms, then with a series of huffs and trills to warm up their voices.

Then an immersive, impressive sound echoed through the corridors, even before actual singing got underway.

Gordon, who worked with Anchorage Opera first in the 1990s and regularly for the last decade or so, said Anchorage singers seem to get better all the time.

"As a matter of fact, I think this is probably the best chorus we've ever had, not only for the sound but in the cohesion from the group itself," said Gordon.

Gordon, 76, travels from his home in New York to work with several opera companies around the country, spending five or six weeks on each production. A lifelong singer, his involvement in opera began more than 30 years ago.

Chorus master Richard Gordon leads warmup exercises in a hallway of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts before a rehearsal for Anchorage Opera's "La Traviata" on April 24. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Once plugged in, he begins by leading a read-through of the lyrics and translation with the chorus, he said. He usually has about seven rehearsals to prepare them for the stage, dialing in the emotional impact of the music and making sure the singers understand what's taking place.

"And then we're ready. Supposedly," he said with a laugh.

Language can add a challenge when singers don't know the one in which the opera is written, which is frequently the case. "La Traviata" is in Italian. The work of memorization begins right away.

"I'm pretty demanding now and make them start closing their books on the first day, actually," he said. "'OK, you've just sung this twice. Close your book. Do you remember anything that you just did?'"

In addition to leading the chorus, Gordon plays piano during rehearsals for the principal cast members. During a performance, Gordon can be called on to conduct or play keys from backstage.

Gordon's not sure how many operas he's been part of. Perhaps 40 or 50. Coming to Anchorage is comfortable, he said, because it recalls his roots in Wyoming, but each involves a slightly different recipe leading to a different result. That's what keeps it interesting and fun.

"I think this is my fifth 'Traviata,' I believe. But it's never the same," he said. "Never."

The hair and makeup designer: Elle Janecek

The spotlight never falls on one of Anchorage Opera's most veteran talents. Elle Janecek works below the stage.

Janecek has been working with the company in some capacity for more than 25 years. She's the hair and makeup designer, tending to lead performers and chorus members for hours before each show and overseeing the work of several assistants.

"I've done every opera for the last 15 years," Janecek said. "And then before that, most of the operas."

Her role is vital to the storytelling, she said, even if it's not always obvious to the audience. Her purposes range from artistic to practical.

"For one thing, it helps people tell people apart, so you know who the characters are," she said.

"We want people to be able to see people's faces, so we try to make the eyes big and the eyebrows noticeable and nose and chin chiseled out, just so the people in the back row can still see a face."

Janecek is involved in the earliest design meetings for each production. Her first step is to read the libretto, if she's not already familiar with the opera.

"The major popular operas I know pretty well," she said. "It's always exciting to get an opera that I'm completely unfamiliar with. Ah, it's like being a little kid again."

Janecek has been involved in music and theater since her childhood in Wasilla. She was steeped in the arts by a family of strong supporters. Largely self-taught, she was introduced to scenic painting for theatrical sets in college. That led to working with makeup artists.

"A painter is a painter. I don't think it matters if it's on a canvas the size of a stage or a face," she said.

Two hours before the curtain opened Tuesday evening, Janecek dabbed foundation and delicately brushed dark shadows onto the eyelids of Chicago-based tenor Peter Scott Drackley, who portrays Alfredo in "La Traviata." Her technique has evolved over the years, in part to lean into the personal style of the stage performers. For instance, nowadays balding men tend to shave their heads clean. That's one reason she enjoyed working with Drackley.

"Our tenor, oh my God, he's so handsome and charismatic and he is shiny as an egg ...," she said. "And onstage, it's like magic."

While the dress rehearsal was underway Tuesday, Janecek said she was keeping track in her head of all the things she wanted to improve before the next show. Though she moved to Vancouver, Washington, a few years ago, she returns to Anchorage for each opera production, drawn by the satisfaction of her contribution to the cast.

"It's my job to feel like they're expressing their vision of their character," she said.

The new company director: Ben Robinson

Wooden steps creaked as Ben Robinson walked up to the prop storage loft in Anchorage Opera's voluminous Ship Creek headquarters. The stacked wooden furniture is evidence of something generations in the making, he said.

"This company has a lot of history," he said, surrounded by wooden furniture. "This is its 61st season. That puts it in the ranks of the oldest companies in the country."

Robinson, 39, first worked with Anchorage Opera as a singer in "South Pacific" in 2011. He returned four times in the years that followed. Since becoming general director last year, he's now cast in a new role, guiding Anchorage Opera's artistic trajectory while seeing to its financial needs.

"It's like 6,000 spinning plates," he said.

Audience cultivation is his highest priority. He must communicate what opera is and what it can be, he said. That can involve countering preconceived notions.

"What we're trying to do is to make it so that opera, just in general, always sells itself," he said. "Opera is a bit of a four-letter word sometimes for people."

Robinson said a line can be drawn from opera to the best modern-day dramas on streaming television. The stories often share the same themes — classism, fraught love or a race against time. Both deliver to the viewer emotion through music. It might be cliche to say opera defies expectations, he said, but it's true.

"You don't see it coming, but then all of a sudden it wheels around and reaches right into your soul and makes you feel something," he said.

Outside of his work in Anchorage, Robinson is the managing director of Lyric Fest, a concert series in Philadelphia, and also works as a freelance stage director. After he got the job as Anchorage Opera's general director, he said he got a flood of messages from performers nationwide who wanted the chance to work here. That's partly because Alaska draws adventure-seekers, but also because the company has earned a reputation for excellence.

Anchorage is full of talented people too, he said. "La Traviata" showcases several.

"La Traviata" is the last of the three operas in the company's 2023-24 season. While Tuesday's dress rehearsal was underway, he said it felt like his first season at the helm was concluding with something magnificent, something that speaks to the potential for where Anchorage Opera can go.

"Are we reaching people? Are people enthusiastic about what's next? Are we making people more inquisitive about what it is that we do?" he said. "By and large, yeah, we are."