Ariadne auf Naxos: An Opera that Makes Fun of Opera and 3 Larger Than Life Sopranos

The three sopranos: Susan Graham, Christine Goerke and Laura Claycomb
The three sopranos: Susan Graham, Christine Goerke and Laura Claycomb
Margaret Downing

As they spill into the room, it's easy to understand why these three sopranos don't need mikes to throw their voices out over an audience during a performance. They project all the time and they're really kind of, actually a lot of, funny as they talk about why they're doing an opera - Ariadne auf Naxos - that makes fun of opera.

"I love this role. I was doing Rigoletto in Dallas. I had to come down between shows to be able do the rehearsals," says Laura Claycomb who plays Zerbinetta. Claycomb, who lives in Italy with her Italian husband (but she has Texas bonafides - she grew up in Dallas and went to SMU) carries out an amazing 12-13 minute aria in the middle of the second act. At the same time, she dances, she moves. Multi-tasking to the max.

Christine Goerke, who's a standup comedian in an alternate universe and who originates from South Ozone Park in Long Island, proclaims herself a soccer mom - well once her children ages 2 and 4 get old enough. Her husband is ready to coach now, she says. She plays the Prima Donna and Ariadne.

"It is so much fun and the fun translates over the footlights. It's an opera that makes fun of opera," she says. "It's fun to be stereotypical prima donna ... to be the center of your own universe. And the character has to transform into this amazingly regal and tragic figure who has been dumped on an island by her would-be husband and the pain that comes with this, the suffering that comes with that. But in the end she realizes that it's not death she's longing for it's a new start, a new beginning."

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Susan Graham, who gets the boy's part - Composer - and proclaims dual citizenship in Roswell, New Mexico and Midland says this is an opera that explores "the mechanics of what makes art." Her character is a young composer. He's writing a very serious opera about what turns someone into a god and what elevates humanity and then his ideal is threatened by this troupe headed up by this cute little red head and even he is transformed if only for a brief moment when he sees she is not what she might seem to be on the outside. She's a deeper person with suffering and more substance than what she lets on."

Composer Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos premiered in 1916 and is rarely performed today. The sopranos say those reasons are two-fold. "A ga-billion" players in the first act, according to Claycomb and the fact that The Tenor part is very hard to cast, Graham says.

"This requires a rare type of voice," Goerke says. "It requires power and insanely sturdy high notes. Usually you have a tenor whose head is going to pop off." But she says the tenor in this production, Alexy Dolgov, handles the high notes with ease. "He pops off that last B like it's nothing," Goerke says, before going on to add that in the last rehearsal, "He made up a couple words at the thing yesterday but cheers, I did too."

All three were asked why they became opera singers instead of taking another route in music.

Graham: "It seemed impossible. I thought nobody could do this. I thought I was going into the challenge."

Goerke: "I was a clarinet payer who was going to be a band leader." Asked by her college to prove she could sight read music, she sang for them - something she'd never really done. "They were more impressed with my voice than my clarinet," she says. So other than a lasting overbite from years of playing the clarinet, she left that behind and went into voice.

Claycomb: "I've been singing since I was 4 in choirs." She wanted to be a vet, but fainted when a vet gave her dog a shot. In high school she entered singing competitions and kept winning.

All three say this is the opera to see if you're scared of opera. "Come in jeans. We don't care," Goerke says. "This was the musical theater in the 1700s and 1800s." And even though the opera is performed in German, "We have subtitles. You'll know what's going on!" Graham says.

Ariadne auf Naxos, a production of the Houston Grand Opera, has performances on April 29, May 4, 7 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. and on May 1 at 2 p.m. at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, Texas Avenue at Smith Street. For tickets and information go to www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737.

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