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Vireo: Q&A with Contralto Kirsten Sollek

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Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org.

Contralto Kirsten Sollek has been named "an appealingly rich alto" by the New York Times and praised for her “elemental tone quality” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has performed at top festivals and venues around the world, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Glyndebourne Festival, Eastman Opera Theatre and recently played Beauty in Hannah Lash's Naumburg prize-winning opera "Blood Rose," a part composed for Sollek.
 
In "Vireo," Sollek plays the role of The Cow, singing an aria about her own death in Episode 5 before ending up in the 21st century as a hamburger, then as a cow-ghost and finally as a cow dressed as a lion. She recently spoke with us about the very peculiar role and her experience during the production.

Kirsten Sollek as The Cow in Episode 5. Photo by Christine Säng
Kirsten Sollek as The Cow in Episode 5. | Christine Säng

Can you talk about your initial reaction to hearing about the role of The Cow and being asked to play it?
 
My first reaction to the idea of playing this role was one of sheer delight. It is so incredibly absurd. The text is beyond strange and yet colorful and rich. The possibilities of how one might interpret this kind of character seemed limitless, and I think any version of them could have been the right choice. The Cow is both humorous and tragic, both earthly and otherworldly. It is, frankly, a role with more depth and layers than most other characters I would likely play in standard opera, and I took it on with much enthusiasm.
 
What was your reaction to first hearing and performing the music as the dying cow? Was it in line with your expectations, given the very peculiar and somewhat satirical subject matter? 
 
When I first heard the music that Lisa wrote for The Cow, I was again delighted. She knows my voice so well and writes in a way that makes good use of my particular voice type. The music reflected the absurdity of the role — I believe the tempo indication at the beginning of the aria in Episode 5 was "lumbering." The use of low winds and my lower register evoked mooing, and even while it had a tinge of silliness to it, the melody she wrote for me was very moving. 

Your career includes extensive experience performing many roles at esteemed venues and festivals across the world. Can you talk about how performing in "Vireo," a made-for-broadcast opera, was different than more traditional settings? Was there anything you personally had to adjust?
 
Everything about this process has been different from my experiences in more traditional opera settings. One particular example I can give is the changeability of venue — the standard opera productions I've done have always occurred in one locale, usually on a stage of some kind. For Vireo, the venues not only changed from episode to episode but were also not typical performing spaces. As a singer, I find this very interesting because the space becomes yet another character in the work with whom I can interact. Alcatraz had a role, as did the abandoned train station in Oakland, and also the farm in Burbank where The Cow makes her first appearance. 

Director Charles Otte on the set of "Vireo"
Director Charles Otte on the set of "Vireo." | Bernie Wire

What was it like working with director Charles Otte? What kind of directions did he give you throughout the production?
 
I thoroughly enjoyed working with Charlie. I had never done anything for film or television before, and at first, I felt a bit unsure of how I might need to adapt my performing style to work with this medium. Charlie gave me a framework of staging that supported the mood of each episode, as well as some great advice to make sure I didn't look at the camera, and then showed great trust in me to be able to carry it off. Without micromanaging me, he helped me understand how to be effective on camera, and I'm very grateful for the enlightenment.
 
In what ways, if any, has being involved in "Vireo" changed your outlook on the opera scene?
 
How has this changed my outlook on the opera scene? Well, I'm ruined. Any other experience I have in the future is likely to pale in comparison ... What an incredible pleasure and luxury it was to be involved in this project. I will miss it and will look forward to seeing how its life in the world continues.

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