Opera Moves: Priscilla Nathan-Murphy on HGO

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades

Photo by Felix Sanchez

Choreographer/Instructor Priscilla Nathan-Murphy is most known as principal of the lower school at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. In addition, she also directs the modern program there. Recently, Nathan-Murphy has contributed her movement expertise to the Houston Grand Opera productions of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Handel’s Xerxes. Nathan-Murphy gives us a glimpse of her opera life.

Dance Source Houston: Give us a little history of your time at HGO.

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy: I started about as a dancer in Turandot several years ago. I served as the Dance captain for Aida and even had a little solo. Other productions include Don Giovanni, Rigoletto , La Traviata and Jenufa. During this time, I also taught movement for the HGO studio members. These were all during the David Gockley years. From time to time, I would be called in to work with principals and chorus members. Over the years, I’ve worked with Renee Fleming, Patricia Racett, Samuel Ramey and Laura Claycomb.

DSH: How did you get involved this time around? You must be thrilled to be working with Claycomb again in Xerxes.

PNM: Yes, I am. It’s so great to see her again after all these years. She was a big star back then and she’s an even bigger one now. And she has this amazing voice. She has a particular aria that has very specific hand period gestures. It’s more body movement than dance. I was working with the English translation and when I got there I saw that they were working with Italian translation so I had to do some thinking on my feet but it all worked out. As for my participation, Mark Lear, Associate Artistic Administrator at HGO, suggested my name.

I am also working with the wardens in Xerxes who are dotted throughout the opera. Michael Walling, the director, wanted a certain style in the way they present themselves, their timing and posture.

DSH: Is there a lot of give and take in the process?

PNM: Yes, especially when working with a principal; nothing can interfere with their voice. If they don’t feel comfortable moving you have to acknowledge that and find a better position of the body.

DSH: Tell us about your work in Queen of Spades. It looks visually stunning from the photos.

PNM: Yes, it will be. There is role for an actor in one scene that I am choreographing. It takes place in a gambling den full of men. It has been done by a dancer in the past, but the director, Roy Rallo, thought it looked too polished and slick. It needs to be more raw, more natural. Matthew Redden is doing the part. He’s originally from Houston. He has to dance with a scarf and high heels, so that’s been a challenge, but he’s getting used to it. It’s something between dancing and acting. Matthew was a joy to work with. I really like how it’s turned out, he’s really making it his own now.

DSH: What do you like about working with opera singers?

PNM: More and more, I find they are so open to movement ideas, it shows how much they care about the whole production. It’s also such a growing experience for me. I like working one-on-one with an artist. It’s been amazing to work with two new directors as well. I have to open myself up to what they want and make that happen. It’s been quite an experience.

DSH: On another subject, you must be excited about the new Center for Dance, which will really expand the work you can do at Houston Ballet.

NPM: For me, it’s a realization of a dream. The national and global attention that this new and prestigious building is bringing goes beyond what I had ever imagined. Yes it will expand the work I will be able to do. It is an expression of how far we have have come. The connection to the Wortham is going to be great too.

DSH: It’s closer to HGO.

NPM: Exactly!

Houston Grand Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades from April 16-May 1 and Handel’s Xerxes from April 30-May 2 at Wortham Center. www.houstongrandopera.org

Reprinted from DSH.


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