An op­er­atic ed­u­ca­tion

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

Singers come and singers go, but as Santa Fe Opera wends through its densely sched­uled sea­sons, oper­a­go­ers have come to wel­come one voice as a con­stant pres­ence. It be­longs to De­sirée Mays, the much-loved lec­turer who is now be­gin­ning her 15th sea­son of ex­pli­cat­ing the com­pany’s of­fer­ings be­fore nearly ev­ery per­for­mance. Her lilt­ing voice is am­pli­fied to rise above the clat­ter of sil­ver­ware as pre-opera buf­fet din­ners move into the dessert course each evening (ex­cept for the open­ing week­end) at the Cantina on the Opera’s cam­pus.

Born in Dublin, Mays was trained not as a singer but as a dancer. “I went to school in an Ir­ish con­vent,” she said in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion, “and the nuns would tie my leg to the desk to make me keep still, be­cause I was al­ways lis­ten­ing to mu­sic in my head.” She ended up danc­ing with the Sadler’s Well Opera Bal­let. She mar­ried and came to Amer­ica with her fam­ily — first to Washington, D.C., and then to Salt Lake City, where she be­came im­mersed in the arts com­mu­nity. She re­lo­cated to Santa Fe, and about a year af­ter she ar­rived, Santa Fe Opera had an open­ing for a pre-per­for­mance lec­turer. “It was syn­chronic­ity, re­ally,” she re­called. “I started lec­tur­ing in 1996, in my sec­ond sum­mer here, and ever since then it has been the base for my ca­reer as a lec­turer.”

That has be­come a busy ca­reer that now in­volves about 75 lec­tures each year, of which half are in Santa Fe; “I’m grounded for two months,” she said. She re­cently re­turned from Los An­ge­les Opera, where she spoke about Wag­ner’s Ring cy­cle (a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion of hers), and this fall, she is headed to the Verdi Fes­ti­val in Parma and Bologna and to the Wex­ford Fes­ti­val in Ire­land, serv­ing as res­i­dent ex­pert and tour leader for groups or­ga­nized by Act 1 Tours, a New York-based com­pany that spe­cial­izes in cul­tural travel. She is also a reg­u­lar lec­turer for the Metropoli­tan Opera Guild, for whom she will of­fer lec­tures on four op­eras dur­ing the up­com­ing sea­son.

Tem­per­a­men­tally, Mays seems per­fectly matched to her work. “If I fall in love with some­thing I want to share it with peo­ple,” she in­sisted. “And, as a dancer, I’m used to re­peat­ing my ma­te­rial over and over. The out­line for my talks is pretty well set, but when I give a lec­ture I’m aware of my au­di­ence, of where they’re com­ing from, of whether I’m go­ing too fast or too slow for that group. You can sense the shared feel­ing, the con­spir­acy of ev­ery­one there.”

Does she ever worry about giv­ing away se­crets of an opera’s plot be­fore the per­for­mance? “It de­pends on the piece,” she ex­plained. “Last sum­mer when Santa Fe Opera gave The Let­ter, I didn’t tell the end of the story — and, in fact, I be­lieve they kept chang­ing the stag­ing of the end, so I was glad I hadn’t pro­vided de­tails about it. But most peo­ple at­tend­ing an opera know what the end­ing is. They know But­ter­fly’s go­ing to die.” In any case, she be­lieves that the ex­pe­ri­ence of the opera it­self is the most im­por­tant thing: “I can tell peo­ple what to look for, but they have to look for them­selves.”

Many mu­sic lovers also know Mays through her se­ries of books ti­tled Opera Un­veiled. Pre­pared as an an­nual guide to Santa Fe Opera’s five of­fer­ings, the se­ries is now in its 12th in­stall­ment, of­fer­ing brief but in­sight­ful es­says that elu­ci­date the plot of each opera and sit­u­ate the work in a larger con­text. “Peo­ple kept ask­ing for copies of the notes from my talks,” she said, “and these books grew out of that. They’re short books, and nor­mally each es­say ex­pands the dis­cus­sion to a dif­fer­ent area of in­ter­est: the com­poser, the so­cial pe­riod in which the piece is set — there are many pos­si­bil­i­ties. Opera will ed­u­cate you in all sorts of dif­fer­ent sur­pris­ing ways. That’s been part of the on­go­ing ap­peal. For me, each one is an ed­u­ca­tion.”

Her live lec­tures use these pub­lished es­says as jump­ing-off points and are of­ten spe­cific to the pro­duc­tion it­self. She watches in­tently at the dress re­hearsals of each opera in Santa Fe, and she ab­sorbs what di­rec­tors have to say at the pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tions they de­liver. Some­times she in­ter­views singers in ad­vance. “This sum­mer,” she said, “it will be great with Life Is a Dream, be­cause I can talk to the com­poser, the li­bret­tist, and the di­rec­tor. I sup­pose that’s the opera I’m par­tic­u­larly look­ing for­ward to speak­ing about, be­cause peo­ple will not know much about it. I didn’t know the Calderón play on which it’s based un­til I read it for this opera. So that’s one that peo­ple will need a help­ing hand with; that’s what I see my job to be.

“And then, The Tales of Hoff­mann is fas­ci­nat­ing to talk about,” she con­tin­ued. “It comes straight out of the brain of E.T.A. Hoff­mann, which is bizarre to be­gin with. The opera uses the de­vice of hav­ing the great opera singer Stella as a char­ac­ter and also hav­ing three other fe­male char­ac­ters, set as stereo­types, who are three as­pects of Stella. That is an in­ter­est­ing idea and a rather dif­fi­cult one to get across. I think it’s cru­cial that one so­prano sing all four roles, even though the Met did it with three dif­fer­ent singers. It’s a chal­lenge, be­cause these parts have quite dif­fer­ent voice types — col­oratura, lyric, and dra­matic so­pra­nos — and a sin­gle singer would have to be good to do all that. At Santa Fe, they will all be sung by one singer. It’s an in­trigu­ing piece, but it’s one for which peo­ple need a lit­tle back­ground be­fore see­ing it. You need to know that these three loves are all as­pects of one woman, who hap­pens to be an opera singer. But then, maybe this opera is re­ally about Hoff­mann and his muse. Maybe that’s what re­ally is go­ing on in this opera, in which case we should fo­cus on their di­a­logue and in­ter­ac­tions, and the un­suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ships with these three women can just be cast off.”

Mays’ au­di­ences at the Santa Fe Opera’s Cantina can be di­verse. “They range from 17-year-olds to peo­ple who were raised on the old Met, and that’s a chal­lenge,” she ad­mit­ted. But her job is clear. “I want to get the es­sen­tial story across — it’s all about sto­ry­telling, re­ally — and then some anec­do­tal ma­te­rial and com­ments from the di­rec­tor. That’s a lot to get into 25 min­utes. An­other chal­lenge is the mon­soons. There can be thun­der and light­ning, and some­times we have water­falls crash­ing off the side of the tent that serves as a roof for the Cantina. But peo­ple love the ad­ven­ture. They al­ways rise to the oc­ca­sion. They clus­ter in, they wait if it’s too noisy, and I just get on with it.”

De­sirée Mays

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