Sydney Brakeley’s stepmother really is quite the witch.
The 12-year-old is a gingerbread child in the chorus of the LA Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through this weekend.
Her stepmother, Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, portrays The Witch.
“It’s really fun!” Sydney said. “We get to throw gingerbread cookies and run and dance!”
Sydney is in her fifth year with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and has sung Orff’s “Carmina Burana” at the Hollywood Bowl and Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
“She has sung with (Gustavo) Dudamel. I have not sung with Dudamel, but she has,” Graham said, referring to performances of Puccini’s “La Boheme” two years ago led by the acclaimed conductor.
Graham, now 58, grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, and met Clay Brakeley at Texas Tech in 1983. He was separated when they reconnected in 2010. They got married two years ago and bought a house in Burbank, California. She became artistic adviser to the LA Opera’s young artist program starting with the 2017-18 season.
“I was joking around one day with some of the administrative staff and I said, ‘OK, you guys, I live out here, I have a job with the young artists program, would you please just hire me to sing something? And preferably something that has a kids’ chorus because I have kids?'”
Graham is known for her Mozart, Strauss and Handel, for world premiere roles in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy.” She sang at George W. Bush’s second inauguration and Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral.
Graham had performed with Sydney in the Los Angeles Children’s Choir but had never before sung The Witch. Sam Gelber, then the LA Opera’s artistic administrator, cast her in the role.
“It’s a little bit out of my comfort zone,” she said.
Rehearsals began in October. Sydney’s twin brother, Finn, dropped chorus this year.
When they see each other in the corridors, Sydney and Susan giggle.
“Normally the children’s chorus members, they’re told to really not interface with the solo artists unless the solo artists initiate,” Graham said. “But because of Sydney I’m always down in their little dressing rooms and I bring them candy. I guess I’m sort of the fairy stepmother of all of them.”
James Conlon, the LA Opera’s music director, leads the performances.
“He’s very nice, and what I’m very proud of is that he knows me by name,” Sydney said.
Conlon recalled singing in the chorus of “Hansel” when he was 12.
“It brings me all the way back there, and it’s astounding how deeply you make a connection to a piece that is part of your childhood,” he said.
Sydney doesn’t appear onstage until following The Witch’s demise.
“After she’s pushed in the oven,” Sydney said with excitement.
Graham watches from the wings.
“At then at end they do a big dance to celebrate The Witch’s death,” Graham said, “which I tend to take personally.”
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