September 23, 2010
Shul roots sprout into grand arias
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, soprano Shira Renee Thomas was drawn to the music played during services at Northridge’s Reform Temple Ahavat Shalom, where her father, Rabbi Jerry Brown, presided. She especially loved Kol Nidrei, and when she finally got to sing that touching piece in a recital for Center Stage Opera, she fulfilled part of a larger dream that includes one day singing at The Metropolitan Opera and London’s Covent Garden.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about being part of an opera company that your husband is artistic director of,” she said. “If I want to sing something, I’ll say, ‘Honey, can I sing this?’ ”
Thomas was referring to Dylan F. Thomas, who, with the help of his wife and Brian Onderdonk, the company’s music director, co-founded Center Stage in 2005. The company’s first performances took place in the social hall of Ahavat Shalom, but by 2006, Center Stage had settled into the intimate 440-seat Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park, where ticket prices still top out at $36.
In college, the soprano briefly considered pursuing a more practical career teaching English, which likely pleased her opera-hating father. “I grew up with music in my life, but not opera,” Thomas said. “My dad always thought he hated opera. Now he’s one of the converted and says, ‘I hated opera, but it turns out I just hated bad opera. Good opera is glorious.’ ”
Thomas, 32, said she learned how to be comfortable as a public figure by watching her father conduct services. And that skill set no doubt helped last July in her well-received East Coast debut with the Opera Company of the Highlands in Newburgh, N.Y., where she appeared as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
In October, Center Stage begins its sixth season, with Thomas playing Violetta in a semi-staged version of Verdi’s “La Traviata” on Oct. 7 and 10.
For this intense, eternally fresh operatic character to come alive, Thomas said, acting is just as important as singing. “Violetta offers so much emotional range,” she said. “She’s energetic and flirty, with vocal fireworks to match her internal conflict. Then her world falls apart. It’s tempting to get caught up in the emotion of the character, but somehow you have to keep your wits so you can still sing.”
Indeed, high-definition broadcasts have brought super-close scrutiny to opera in recent years, making acting skills more important to a singer’s career than ever before. “It’s a much bigger deal than it has ever been,” Thomas said, “and so is appearance. You can’t be an overweight Violetta anymore. You’re just not going to be hired. It’s a whole new world.”
Thomas said she leaves the administrative side of the company to her husband and Onderdonk, though she does consult on choosing singers, who are drawn from the Los Angeles area. For her, creating opportunities for local talent just out of college is invaluable.
“You don’t get your degrees and immediately start your career,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way. You have to find or create opportunities for yourself. That’s why it’s so important we perform in the original language with orchestra and full sets, costumes and staging. Those are experiences and skills that singers – including myself – can then use as part of their marketability in the larger world of opera.”
The company generally mounts two fully staged productions each season, as well as one concert version of an opera or a “greatest hits” program of beloved arias, duets and ensembles. In addition to “La Traviata,” this season’s audiences will see Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” in February, and a highlight of the upcoming 2011 season will be the world premiere in June of “Marie’s Orchard,” based on Willa Cather’s novel “O Pioneers!” With a libretto by her husband and music by Philip Westin, the leading role was written for Thomas. In 2008, she sang the role of Marie when segments from a previous version of the work, then titled “Heartland,” were presented to an invited audience that included music industry heavyweights Stephen Schwartz and Eric Whitacre. Schwartz is still following the project, Thomas said.
“It’s patterned after ‘Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto,’ ” she said. “We wanted it to be beautiful and lyrical and have melodies that the audience can walk out humming.”
Thomas has performed widely in Southern California, including with Orange County’s Opera Pacifica and the Pacific Symphony, and she recently made her Northern California debut with Fremont Opera. In January, she will be performing the role of Juliette in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” with Townsend Opera in Modesto.
A graduate of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), Thomas hopes to follow in the footsteps of a fellow alumna, Carol Vaness, also a soprano, who went on to become one of the unforgettable Toscas of her generation. As Vaness’ major international career began to take off, a CSUN teacher warned her “to be prepared to live like a nun, sacrificing all, at times” to keep her career on track.
Judith Scott, Thomas’ voice teacher at CSUN, speaks highly of Thomas’ ambition and talent: “She’s a passionate singer with fine coloratura and musical sensitivity, who started out as a choral mezzo and ended up discovering that she had a very strong area with quality from high C and above. We worked out the rest of her voice and she ran with it.”
For Thomas, there was no option. “You don’t go into opera for the money,” she said. “You go into it because there is nothing else you can possibly do with your life. It is just who you are. Once opera gets inside you, that’s it.”
“La Traviata” will be performed Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 10 at 3 p.m. at the Madrid Theatre. Tickets: (818) 517-4102 or visit centerstageopera.org.