Hershey Felder in Hershey Felder, PUCCINI
Virtuoso pianist, actor and writer Hershey Felder certainly knows how to handle any curveballs life throws him. Stuck in Florence, Italy (poor guy!) for the duration of Covid, he is using his Tuscan surroundings to enrich his new show about native son Giacomo Puccini. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Opera San José are coming together to offer viewers the world premiere livestream of Hershey Felder, PUCCINI, written by and starring Felder, along with guest stars from the opera world – baritone Nathan Gunn, sopranos Gianna Corbisiero and Ekaterina Siurina, and tenor Charles Castronovo. Presented by Hershey Felder Presents Live from Florence, Hershey Felder, PUCCINI tells the story of a young musician captivated by the world of opera, particularly by Puccini’s eternally popular works La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Sumptuously filmed and performed on location in Lucca, Italy in the very home where Giacomo Puccini was born, Hershey Felder, PUCCINI combines theatre, music and film to create a uniquely moving experience for audiences. The show will be streamed live at 5pm PST on Sunday, March 14, 2021 (with streaming on-demand access through March 21). To buy tickets or find more information, visit TheatreWorks.org or Operasj.org. Ticket sales directly benefit the arts organization through which they are purchased.
I spoke with Felder earlier this week from his home in Florence while he was in the midst of making final tweaks to the show. He is super fascinating and just plain fun to talk to. His knowledge of, and love for, the arts runs so deep that that I always come away from any conversation with him having learned something, having been entertained and having been moved. Much like the experience of seeing one of his shows, in fact. Underscoring everything is his irrepressible sense of humor and musical way with words. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’re about to do another livestream in a few days. How are you doing?
I’m alive and kicking and continuing to do my thing. But all is well. The weather is getting quite nice, and other than that I’m continually working. Which is a good thing.
Here in San Francisco, with vaccines becoming more readily available, it feels like there’s a new sense of optimism. Are you feeling any of that in Florence?
Well, yes and no. I mean people are getting vaccines, but I think people are still concerned. Here things seem to be a little bit delayed so it’s not as free and open maybe as it is in the States. I think the other important thing is that here people never really challenged the government the way things seem to have happened in the United States, and because of that we don’t have this sort of “oh, we’re gonna do whatever we want” thing. People really are concerned, and they follow rules as best as possible. Which is amazing for Italy to be so well-behaved. [laughs]
That’s certainly not the reputation that Italians have. [laughs] So let’s talk about Puccini. I believe you were filming in Lucca last week?
Last week Tuesday and Wednesday we were in Lucca, Thursday we were in Pisa.
Lucca is such a lovely town ringed by early 16th-century stone walls. Where exactly where did you film?
At Puccini’s house, where he was born, which is now the Puccini Museum, in the center of town, right by [the 12th-century church] San Michele in Foro and around the corner from San Martino [Cathedral] where he grew up being a conductor of choir, where all his family grew up being choir conductors, his family there going back 200 years. It was very moving to be among his things, to play his piano that he composed Turandot on.
I knew Puccini was from Lucca, but I didn’t realize how deeply Lucchese he was.
Very much so. They lost the house as he got older, I think because of a money situation. He vowed to buy it back, and he did.
With each livestream, you seem to keep upping the ante. This time you’re working with some very well-known opera singers.
I’ve known Gianna my entire life. Nathan I’ve been very close with for many years now. We’ve done a few shows together, Nathan and I. Charles and Ekaterina are new friends. So it was a very personal way to do this kind of thing, especially in these times.
I’ve interviewed several opera singers recently, and they all talked about what a difficult time this is because what they do for a living produces the dreaded aerosols. How did you manage working with singers in terms of Covid protocols?
Well, the protocols are very specific, especially here. It’s no secret, but Charles was threatened not to be able to take part because he was singing in Vienna and he came down with a very serious case of Covid. He got very sick and was hospitalized, and he was able to recuperate just in time, but it was quite heavy going for him for a bit. So we were highly aware that he was full of antibodies. His wife [Ekaterina] never got sick, and everybody else had to be tested, and you know radically tested, so to speak.
The other thing is we’re very much in a bubble here. Once someone is tested and proven to be negative and in quarantine, there’s no opportunity to see [other] people who could make them sick. We just don’t see anybody, we don’t dine out. Anybody who comes is regularly tested, the movie crew are obligated to wear masks at all times, and meals are kept separately, that kind of thing. The protocols are very strict, and then at the end before anybody goes on their way, everybody’s tested again. And everybody’s been negative, so we’re in good shape here. I mean you have to manage it, and the most important thing is when you find out that everyone is negative in your circle, that’s the circle. [You don’t expand it to include others.]
One of the things I love about your shows is how personal they feel, how emotionally connected you seem to be to the composers and their music. What is your own history with the music of Puccini? How were you introduced to it?
I loved opera since I was a little boy. Even though I was a pianist, I always wanted to sing. I got stuck singing at the piano because the voice to sing in an opera house just was not there. So – when I was 13 years old, just after my mother died, an aunt thought it would be such a wonderful thing for me and my spirits to see an opera, and the opera was Puccini’s “Butterfly.” I’m not sure anybody made the connection that taking a young boy who’s just lost his mother to see the story about a young mother who kills herself wasn’t such a good idea. [laughs] But I demanded to get the score and studied every note as a 13-year-old. I still have that score, it’s 40 years old now, well a little less. And so began my journey with Puccini.
So that was your gateway drug, as it were.
Yeah, I mean, once you hear that stuff, and if you’re a musician and if you like this kind of stuff, I don’t know how you turn away. So that was my entrance and then I was busy with piano music and I started developing relationships with singers and had an opportunity to play in master classes for a number of singers who were singing Puccini. It just opened a world, and I began to study more and more and more. So it was part of my formation as much as a sonata by Beethoven would be. And this is not the case with many pianists.
I didn’t realize that you wanted to be a singer as a child.
Oh, I always wanted to be a singer. I thought it was the most personal and direct expression of music because it comes from inside you, and the color of sound is so expressive. As Chopin said, the real way to learn how to “sing” at an instrument is to listen to great singers; that’s the only way you’ll really understand how to play the piano. And if you listen to anybody giving a lesson, [they’ll say] “Sing!” You’ll hear a conductor say to the strings, “Sing the melody!” Singing is really the prime form of musical expression. So I always wanted to be able to sing, and I can, but I can’t sing at the level that I know one needs to. Being self-aware about stuff like that is important. [laughs] Cause I could really do a wonderful Mrs. Miller or a wonderful – what’s her name? – Florence Foster Jenkins. If you haven’t listened to Mrs. Miller, listen to her. She’s a total scream!
So maybe you’ll do a show about her at some point?
I would be very funny as Mrs. Miller, that much I promise you! [laughs]
And you’ve already played some female roles in your Sholem Aleichem show.
Oh, yeah, I’m not afraid of anything, man! [laughs]
And I will add by the way, since you mentioned it, that there was a history of men playing women in the Yiddish theatre; that’s not odd. However, our original plan was that a Yiddish actress from New York was going to come to play those parts. At the last minute, her doctor wouldn’t let her get on the plane for risk purposes, because she’s of a certain age, so I had to cover both those roles. You know it’s just in pandemic times, this is what happens.Hershey Felder in Hershey Felder, PUCCINI
All over the world, Puccini operas continue to be enormously popular, and let’s face it, “Nessun Dorma” at this point is ubiquitous. What do you think it is about his music that still speaks so directly to us?
Hmmm… that’s a hard question to answer. You can analyze why it’s good, but at the end of the day why is it that a work of art actually touches us? I think a work of art touches us because it’s human and there’s something that we can relate to, the story that’s being told and the musical way that it’s being told. We tend to react emotionally to melody, and I think melodies with the harmonies that Puccini chose are very deeply affecting. Though you have people like Benjamin Britten who said it made him sick to the pit of his stomach and he couldn’t listen to such junk. [laughs] So who knows?! But the truth is it just moves me, and it moves a lot of people. And that’s what the magic is. If I had a set of rules as to why these things work, you know, I’d be a great composer, so… [laughs]
I remember seeing La Boheme once with a friend, and afterwards he said, “Yeah, that opera, it just plays.” Like it always gives the audience pleasure.
It’s very fresh and any time you listen to it, it feels contemporary. The characters feel real and alive and there’s something very Puccini-esque about that. It didn’t work for all of his operas. A lot of them have beautiful music, but there’s some that don’t quite work, in terms of appeal for the public. La Boheme seems to be one that always works. The critics have never really liked Tosca, they’ve always whined about it. So – I don’t know. It’s hard to explain what is it that works so well.
I’m curious about who Puccini was as a person. In Lucca, there’s a statue of him looking kind of relaxed and debonair –
What was he like? Was he able to enjoy his success?
Yes, but I think he got himself into trouble a lot with the ladies and so on. He was a complicated sort. He was very gregarious, very modern, he was into new gadgets. He was debonair and elegant, but he was not a sophisticated person, which I find a little surprising. He apparently was a very nice man. He was tough on his librettists, but nobody fought with him. He was very well-spoken, and I like that about him. But at the same time, he had lots of women, he did lots of cheating. I don’t know that you’d call him a rogue or whatever, but he was I think a little bit lost.
But who knows? I mean if you put ten people in a room to comment on one person, you’ll have twelve opinions. [laughs]Hershey Felder & Nathan Gunn in
Hershey Felder, PUCCINI
Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, is a particular favorite of mine, but he died before it was completed. Do you know how much was left unfinished?
Yes, because Toscanini stopped conducting at the premiere where it was finished, after the words “Liù, poesia.” That’s where it ended, in the last act, like a little bit more than halfway through. There’s a whole lot that was left to be done. There was an argument who was going to finish it and the son wanted this one and the other wanted that one, and the son won. So it was finished and, interestingly, never quite resonated for me in its finished version. Had Puccini lived, I’m not sure it would have ended the same way. But we do know he played for Toscanini before went to see the doctor. He played for him the sketches so that Toscanini would make sure it kind of ended the way he wanted.
But I think he was also facing quite a significant problem. The star story there is Liù, in terms of the emotional drive. The most honest character is Liù, who kills herself to protect the man she loves from getting beheaded. So once her story is over, he had trouble getting to the end because where does the drama go once the woman kills herself for the guy to protect him? And in the case of the [completed] show, it plays out they [Calaf & Turandot] get married and live happily ever through god knows what – with rather a cheap recount of “Nessun Dorma” at the end. I cannot imagine Puccini would have done that. Anyway, I think he got stuck with that story a little bit cause once Liù dies, the central drama of the piece kind of dissipates.
And that also explains why Liù has better music to sing than Princess Turandot does.
Well, Princess Turandot likes to yell a lot, you know. She’s not an easy customer. But the situation with Liù was very close to his heart because of the story with the maid that I tell in this play. And if you don’t know it, I’m not going to give it away. [laughs]
I won’t ask you to reveal it here, and will just look forward to finding out when I watch the livestream on Sunday. Speaking of which, in the last few days before you do a livestream, what are you still working on? Or are you just kind of kicking back now and waiting for Sunday to come?
No, no, no – there’s so much pre-shooting and filming and elements that need to be done before I do any of the live acting. So it’s constant panic, constant rewriting to make sure things work. And it doesn’t stop. It’s more stress than if you go to the theater, I swear! [laughs]
I noticed you gave your wife, Kim, a cameo in your recent Sholem Aleichem show. Any chance she’s now angling for a bigger role in the Puccini?
God, no! She doesn’t appear in the Puccini at all. But the thing is, it’s not that I gave my wife a role, it’s that we are limited to how many people we can include in our bubble. Kim had to take a role because the person who was going to do it suddenly had a contact concern and we couldn’t have her on the set. Literally the night before she said, “I have a contact situation and I can’t take the risk.” Meaning she had come in contact with somebody [with Covid].
So I came into the bedroom and I said, “Kim, guess what? Go into the costume area and get yourself measured for a costume.” And she was game because she understands what the stakes are here, that we have to get things done and just don’t have the luxury that – you know you think of them as “luxuries,” like actually getting the cast that you hired – that we had in regular times. It’s just ya gotta do what ya gotta do. You know?
(All photos by Marco Badiani for the Florentine)