Month: November 2015

Ten Questions with Eleni Calenos

Ten Questions With…

Eleni Calenos, soprano
Mimì in La Bohème




1.  Where were you born / raised? 
I was born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece.

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?
I would be either an instrumentalist or a music teacher.  I can’t imagine myself away from music.

3.  The first opera I was ever in was…
Hansel and Gretel (as the Mother in a college production), but my first substantial role was Mimì in La Bohème.

4.  My favorite opera is…
Madama Butterfly.

5.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is…
Before the show I try to have a meal that can sustain me for the performance and is relatively easy for digestion, which is usually some meat and salad.  Post-show favorites include warm soups, salads, and tea.

6.  People would be surprised to know that…
I have a degree / diploma in cello performance.

7.  A few of my favorite books are…
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Mastery by Robert Greene, Spiritual Exercises and Captain Michalis by Nikos Kazantzakis, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

8.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists / songs would we see on you recently-played list?
Estrella Morente:  Volver
Maria Callas:  “Ecco l’orrido campo” from A Masked Ball
Amy Winehouse:  Love is a Losing Game
Debussy:  Clair de lune
The Beatles:  Black Bird.

9.  What is the worst costume you’ve ever worn?
Thankfully, I have never had to wear a bad costume.  However, I had to be dressed in winter attire (pants, sweater, boots, coat, and scarf) for a contemporary version of La Bohème in an outdoor performance in a New York park in the middle of July!

10.  Everyone should see La Bohème because….
The music is gorgeous and genius, and the story is universal and always current.  I believe there won’t be a dry eye in the house.  Good enough reasons?

Bonus:  One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer):
Q:  Do you have a favorite quote?
A:  One of my favorite quotes is “The heart that gives, gathers” from Lau Tzu, Tao Te Ching. 


Don’t miss the chance to see Eleni in La Bohème, one of the greatest operas of all time!  Performances are November 13 and 15 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.

Ten Questions with Mackenzie Whitney

Ten Questions With…

Mackenzie Whitney, tenor
Rodolfo in La Bohème












1.  Where were you born / raised?
I was born and raised in Janesville, Iowa. 

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?
Well, my dad runs a small construction company, so maybe I would do that.  I enjoyed working in restaurants when I was in college, so maybe I would try opening my own place called “Karla’s Kitchen,” a restaurant filled with delicious food made from the recipes of my mother Karla. 🙂  Then again, maybe I would just move out to the mountains and live off the land; that could be exciting.

3.  The first opera I was ever in was… 
My first opera experience occurred at the University of Northern Iowa during the sophomore year of my undergraduate degree.  I was so green at that time, I didn’t even have an aria to audition with.  I ended up singing the role of the scribe, Ezekiel Cheever, in The Crucible.  Word has it I sang a killer “hear ye!  hear ye!”

4.  My favorite opera is…
Oddly enough, I would have to say my favorite opera is La Bohème.  It’s very easy for me to relate to the good and bad times of being a struggling artist, and Puccini makes that so accessible for all to see and feel.  And the tragic love story doesn’t hurt either.

5.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is…
I’ve done a lot of experimenting with pre-show meals, and I’ve found that a nice piece of chicken with some rice and broccoli or something like that (bland and boring) is best.  That usually gives me enough energy without affecting my voice negatively.  I’ll usually have an apple in between acts, and then once the show’s over, bring on the hot wings!  Or pizza, I love pizza too… or some ribs maybe, or a big juicy burger!  Actually, I just love all food.

6.  People would be surprised to know that…

I alluded to it earlier, but I was a little late to the opera party.  It wasn’t until college that I started taking an interest in it.  I’ve always been involved with music, but when I was in high school, sports actually took up most of my free time.  I was an all-conference point guard on my basketball team and at one point I could dunk a basketball!  Sadly, that small window of time where I could slam dunk a basketball has long been closed….

7.  A few of my favorite books are…
I think anyone my age has to include the Harry Potter books as some of their favorites.  I remember making my mom take me to Walmart the day of the release of the new book so I could stay up all night reading it.  Nowadays I enjoy reading crime fiction novels.

8.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list?  
I would have to guess that you would find the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Luciano Pavarotti, and maybe Neil Young.  My girlfriend and I recently listened to a Neil Young concert and discovered that Neil and I have very similar speaking voices….  It’s made me think about adding “Harvest Moon” to my audition rep. 🙂

9.  What is the worst costume you’ve ever worn? Or if no such costume, what was the best costume? 
I’m going to take the Fifth on the worst costume, but the best costume I’ve ever worn would have to be the two costumes I wore in our production of Così fan tutte at the Academy of Vocal Arts.  It was an updated production set in the 1960s.  We were Marines in the beginning and returned later in the show disguised as hippies.  It was amazing to have such a great contrast and for both of them to be so striking!  We had very legitimate Marine uniforms and the hippy costumes were just amazing, fully-equipped with wigs, beards, tattered jeans, leather sandals, pink glasses, and Dashiki shirts.

10.  Everyone should see La Bohème because….
It’s so easy to find a little bit of yourself in all of the characters.  We’ve all had moments in life where we are struggling to get by.  It’s very important in those times to have great friends to help you find a way through.  Some of my best memories are when I had almost nothing to my name.  I think many people will remember those times when they see this opera.  And they’ll remember their first loves and the passion both in love and hate that fuel those relationships.  The music gives such a clear vision to the stories of these characters.  It will greatly affect you if you give it a chance.

Bonus:  One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer):
Q:  What are you watching on Netflix?
A:  The best thing I’ve recently finished was Lost, but currently I’m slowly making my way through Lawrence of Arabia.



Don’t miss the chance to see Mack in La Bohème, one of the greatest operas of all time!  Performances are November 13 and 15 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.

Ten Questions with Alan Dunbar

Ten Questions With…

Alan Dunbar, baritone
Schaunard, La Bohème







1.  Where were you born / raised? 
Born in Jefferson, NC, raised in Beaufort, SC.

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?
Woodworking / instrument-making.

3.  The first opera I was ever in was…
Candide (if you consider that an opera, which I do.  If not, then singing Alcindoro in La Bohème would be my first.)


4.  My favorite opera is…
Whichever one I’m currently performing.  Along with a few others – I can’t pick just one.  Eugene Onegin, Dead Man Walking, Wozzeck, Bluebeard’s Castle, and Le Nozze di Figaro would probably be my top five.  Although I do love Britten – maybe Peter Grimes and Midsummer Night’s Dream, too.

5.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is…
Pre-show, something filling but not too rich or heavy.  Post-show, something salty and a good beer.

6.  People would be surprised to know that…
I never finished high school.  I have two advanced degrees, but no high school diploma or equivalency.

7.  A few of my favorite books are…
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, The Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima, Language Older Than Words by Derrik Jensen, A Place of My Own by Michael Pollen, Mein Jahrhundert by Günter Grass.

8.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list?   
Paul Simon, Die Fantastischen Vier, Chris Thile, Max Raabe und sein Palast Orchester, and Chet Baker.

9.  What is the worst costume you’ve ever worn?   Or if not such costume, what was the best costume?
I had some fairly “blah” costumes, but none that were really horrible.  One of my favorites was my first Leporello – it was a new production, so everything was tailored for me.  They even spent exorbitant sums on custom-made shoes for my feet – but, sadly, I didn’t get to keep them.

10.  Everyone should see La Bohème because….
The music is spectacular, especially the parts with that musician character, whatever his name is.  (Ed. note: It’s Schaunard.)  

Don’t miss the chance to see Alan in La Bohème, one of the greatest operas of all time!  Performances are November 13 and 15 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.

Ten Questions with Emily Birsan

Ten Questions With…

Emily Birsan, soprano
Musetta in La Bohème









1.  Where were you born / raised? 
I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and moved around quite a big as a child to North Carolina, South Carolina, Iowa, and a few cities in Wisconsin.  I ended up in Neenah, Wisconsin, for middle school and high school, so I feel most connected to Fox Cities in Wisconsin.

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?
I think I would be in a profession involving working with people – a social worker, realtor, or development in a non-profit.

3.  The first opera I was ever in was…
The Magic Flute (in college!!  I was Pamina… totally memorable experience.)

4.  My favorite opera is…
Whatever I’m working on.  When you deem something your favorite, you want to look at it from all angles and figure out why it’s so great…  It’s a good challenge for whatever I’m working on.

5.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is…
Pre-show I like chicken and broccoli – something with protein (usually MEAT).  I like a good-size meal to sing on.  After a show, I crave popcorn and dark chocolate while I’m coming down from my adrenaline high.

6.  People would be surprised to know that…
I played the trombone in the band, jazz band, and marching band.

7.  A few of my favorite books are…
Mostly biographies – lately one about Egon Shiele, and anything by Thich Nhat Hanh.

8.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list?   
The Pandora radio station “Positive Hip Hop” for my workout, some Joni Mitchell, Nancy Wilson, Monteverdi madrigals, and usually a recording of whatever I’m working on.

9.  What is the worst costume you’ve ever worn?  Or if no such costume, what was the best costume?
I would say the answer to this was the best because it was the worst!!  I was the trainbearer in Strauss’s Elektra in a new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I had painted white skin, a leather corset, and a bald head with a little tuft of hair (a comb-over!) on top.

10.  Everyone should see La Bohème because….
It has stood the test of time for a good reason, combining amazing music with such a relatable story line about youth, love, and our hopes and dreams.

Bonus:  One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer):
Q:  What new hobby did you just pick up?

A:  Major league baseball – learning about the ins and outs of the game, and picking out rookie players that shine.  AND painting!  I’ve been learning how to paint with acrylic and watercolor paints – it is quite fun!



Don’t miss the chance to see Emily in La Bohème, one of the greatest operas of all time!  Performances are November 13 and 15 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.

Ten Questions with Dan Kempson

Ten Questions With…

Dan Kempson, baritone
Marcello in La Bohème












1.  Where were you born / raised? 
I was born in Washington, D.C., and lived in Arlington, VA until I was 8, when my family moved to Wilton, CT.

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?
I have a dozen other lives I want to live.  I want to be a business / box office analyst for film, high school English teacher, management consultant, historical novelist, lawyer, political activities, journalist, restaurant manager, opera agent, film director….

3.  The first opera I was ever in was…
I sang Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors when I was 12, in a production that my church did.  The stage director told me I wasn’t allowed to hit puberty until after closing night.


4.  My favorite opera is…
Tosca!  I know that Joseph Kerman called it a “shabby little shocker,” but it’s so much more than that.  Political strife, love, betrayal – and Act 2!  The cat-and-mouse game of Scarpia and Tosca is all about control vs. freedom, sex vs. love, the many shades of loyalty and courage, and how dirty we all get when fighting for what we believe in.

5.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is…
Before a show, I prefer something simple, like a sandwich.  After a show, I’m badly behaved, and will have a glass of wine (or two) and ice cream.

6.  People would be surprised to know that…
I have a twin sister, Emily – she’s ten minutes older than I am, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a picture of me under the age of 5 that she isn’t also in.  She’s getting a Doctorate in Theology at Cambridge University right now.  We lead very different lives, as I like to tell people.

7.  A few of my favorite books are…
These days I’m concentrated on reading a lot of long-form journalism and current events.  I’d rather spend my reading time eating up the entire New York Times than read a novel.  I lead my whole life playing characters!  So weirdly, newspapers are my escape.  Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World was a very important novel for me growing up, however. 

8.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list?
A little bit of everything.
1) Pink, “Just Give Me a Reason”
2) Queen, “Fat Bottomed Girls”
3) a This American Life podcast
4) Patti LuPone, “With One Look” from Sunset Boulevard
5) My little sister Abigail singing “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Bellini’s Semiramide – she’s a soprano in the grad program at Westminster Choir College.

9.  What is the worst costume you’ve ever worn?
Not worst, but how about complicated?  When I sang Papageno in The Magic Flute at Seagle Music Colony in 2008, I had a 4-foot feathered tail that was connected to me with an elaborate system of clips, belts, and harnesses.  I couldn’t easily sit down backstage, so I spent my time leaning on tables.  The whole thing took about 12 minutes to get in or out of.  Intermission was 25 minutes long, so after Act One, I would walk offstage, a costume assistant would unfasten me, and I’d get a bathroom break of 60 seconds.  Then we’d put the whole thing back on and I’d walk onstage just in time for the downbeat! 

10.  Everyone should see La Bohème because…
The music is among the most beautiful ever written, but what pulls me back again and again is the fact that the characters are young people discovering themselves, the world, and who they are in that world.  Bohème is about the fight between “what’s right” and your gut feelings – Rodolfo and Mimi love each other, but they also know that they aren’t always their best selves with each other.  It’s also about being an artist and struggling to be a person outside of your art – each of the four friends finds a different way to do that. 

Bonus:  One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer):
Just the important things:  My favorite candy is Reese’s peanut butter cups and my favorite ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream.  I kid.  People always ask, “Where do you live?”  I technically live in New York City, but I’ve only slept in my apartment for about four weeks since 2013.  I’m looking forward to my home and my bed after this production of Bohème!!

P.S.  And I feel like I should mention my third sibling, since the other two got shout-outs – hey, Peter! 

Don’t miss the chance to see Dan in La Bohème, one of the greatest operas of all time!  Performances are November 13 and 15 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.