On Saturday evening, Feb. 25, the Academy of Vocal Arts presents a fully staged production of Claude Debussy’s only opera, Pelleas et Melisande, featuring a cast of singers who are the future stars of the opera world.
Performances continue through March 3 at AVA’s theater at 1920 Spruce St.
The restigious Center City conservatory accepts only the most gifted singers. All receive full scholarships and vocal training in a four-year program preparing them for professional operatic careers. Many go on to achieve national, and even international, status.
Chloe Moore of Fishtown is one of those gifted singers and already has won her share of prestigious awards. Now in her second year at AVA, the lyric soprano has one of the leading roles as Melisande.
“I love Debussy’s music and I’ve sung many of his songs,” she says. “But this was his only opera — and it’s beautiful!”
Moore plays the role of a young woman who is lost in a forest until a prince finds her, marries her and brings her to a castle. But she becomes attached to the prince’s younger half-brother Pelleas. This stirs the prince’s jealousy and creates the drama.
The role is a demanding one, both vocally and dramatically. “The music is somewhat lower than a typical soprano role, so it can be vocally tiring,” she says.
Then, too, there are several scenes with tricky stage actions.
For example, there’s a scene in which her jealous husband is very angry. So he pulls her hair — “and it’s quite violent,” she says. She’s wearing a wig, so the hair-pulling isn’t a painful moment. But it had to be practiced and staged very carefully.
The opera is sung in French — and that comes easily to Moore. She grew up in Toronto, which is the English-speaking part of Canada, but her family is French.
At home, everyone spoke French, and Moore attended an international French school. “So I learned English as my second language,” says the bilingual singer, who speaks English fluently. “I love the French language, and whenever possible, I like to sing French repertoire.”
She has sung operas in other languages besides French. AVA students are required to take foreign-language courses because many operas, like this one, are sung in the original language. Besides French, Moore has sung operas in Italian and German, and she’s sung arias in Russian, Spanish, and even Czech.
She’ll sing in two of the five AVA performances, on Feb. 25 and March 1, alternating with two other sopranos who also take on the role for other performances.
All of them practiced diligently. For Moore, the process began in August, when she got the score and also read the play on which the opera is based.
“I started learning the notes and I also listened to recordings of the full opera from beginning to end,” she said.
She listened to performances by several opera companies — but she listened to each just once.
ldquo;If I listen to a singer too often, I’ll start to copy her almost automatically,” she explained. “But it’s very important to make my own choices and give it my own interpretation.”
Once the school year began, the cast members had one-on-one coaching. This was followed by rehearsals that involved only singing but no stage actions. The cast worked with Luke Housner, the music director and pianist for the opera.
ldquo;He’s very good about collaborating. He wants us to make our own choices,” says Moore, who has worked with him twice before.
Next there were staging rehearsals with AVA’s artistic director, K. James McDowell. That’s when Moore and the others practiced their stage actions as well as their musical roles. He too encourages collaboration.
“He really wants us to bring our ideas to the table,” she said.
Staging rehearsals were in the morning. Afternoons involved music rehearsals. On a typical day, the singers were in rehearsals from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., with brief breaks for lunch and dinner.
“It’s a very long day, but it’s wonderful,” says Moore. “We’re here to learn, and working with these professionals is the best way I can learn.”
By the first day of performance, the practicing is over. Moore has a familiar routine on performance days. First, she exercises at the gym. She also does lots of stretching and eats well — “to give my body energy,” sheexplains, noting that singing a major role in an opera is a strenuous endeavor.
She’ll stretch again a few hours before performing, and do a brief warm-up to get her voice ready. “But I don’t want to do too much,” she says. “I want to save my voice for the performance.”
Then she’s off to AVA to put on her makeup, wig and costume. When it’s time to perform, she’s ready and eager.
“I love it!” she said. “It’s always exciting. The audience adds a different energy. They’re all going on this journey with you.”
One loyal audience member for all her performances is her husband, Jason Moore. He, too, has a performing-arts career: He’s music director at Philadelphia University and at the Newtown Presbyterian Church.
“We’re both doing what we love, so we’re very happy and very lucky,” says Moore.
So she’s eagerly looking forward to Saturday — and to bringing to life the character of Melisande.
“She’s a rather complicated character, and as the performer, I have to figure out how to portray her,” Moore said. “She’s fascinating, and for me, that makes the experience even more exciting.” ••
If you go …
The Academy of Vocal Arts presents “Pelleas et Melisande” by Debussy for five performances — Feb. 25, 26, 28, March 1 and 3 — at AVA Theater, 1920 Spruce St. Tickets range from $60 for adults to $10 for students, with discounts for seniors and those under 30). Visit www.avaopera.org or call 215-735-1685.