Wolf Trap Opera’s The Barber of Seville: Watching Stars Being Born

On a rare cool, clear summer evening in August at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, when the stars overhead could shine, there were ones on the stage being made in an ensemble cast from one of Wolf Trap Opera’s most exciting contingents of young artists who come each summer to hone their craft.  Remember these names – Taylor Raven, Johnathan McCullough, Christopher Bozeka, Calvin Griffith, and Patrick Guetti, each of whom had standout moments on stage.  Such uniform excellence in the main players in a cast of this size is remarkable and quite a treat for the audience.  In all, including some refined orchestral playing and a novel staging, this was as fine a Barber as you are likely to encounter. 

l to r on the grande piano: Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Christopher Bozeka as Almavira, Taylor Raven as Rosina, Niru Liu as Berta, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

l to r on the grande piano: Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Christopher Bozeka as Almavira, Taylor Raven as Rosina, Niru Liu as Berta, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Let us start with mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Rosina with a dazzling stage presence and sang impressively with a beautiful, powerful mezzo voice; I quickly stopped analyzing and just enjoyed her.  If you did not attend this performance or WTO’s earlier L’Heure Espagnole in which she also starred, fret not.  I have no doubt she will be appearing on the stages of the major opera houses in the near future, but thanks to Wolf Trap Opera, I can claim that I saw her at the beginning!  In composer Gioachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini’s plot for this opera buffa, Rosina is a young maid being vied for by Count Almavira and Dr. Bartolo.  Figaro, a barber/fixer and arranger of all things in 18th century Spain undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina while maintaining the secrecy of his wealth.  She is the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the unashamedly mercenary music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and comedic plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  The characters are straight out of commedia dell’arte and the young players dish it up with their own flair and touches that kept the laughter flowing. 

l to r: Johnathan McCullough alone as Figaro. Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartilo and Taylor Raven as Rosina. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Shall we move on to baritone Johnathan McCullough who played Figaro, one of the most recognizable roles in all of opera (remember Mozart’s The Marraige of Figaro, also with Count Almavira?).  Mr. McCullough (notice the spelling of Johnathan for future reference) not only has an extraordinary voice, he is one of those people you can’t help but like the minute they smile, which he seems to almost always be doing, and his stage presence is imbued with the capable, yet fun, good-naturedness that is perfect for Figaro.  His client Count Almavira, played by Christopher Bozeka, goes through several disguises to gain access to Rosina.  Mr. Bozeka manages the appropriate balance of passion and campiness in the different disguises, and his tenor voice seems made for bel canto singing.  Not to be outdone, bass-baritone Calvin Griffin who played Dr. Bartolo made his presence felt each time he was upon the stage, once singing falsetto for comic effect to everyone’s surprise and delight; I felt this was a break out performance for Mr. Griffin.  Rounding out this team was bass Patrick Guetti who at first seemed more scary than funny (Barber as a vampire movie, hmmm…think about it), but he soon began to collect his share of laughs as well as display some excellent singing.  Rounding out this overall excellent cast was baritone Justin Burgess as Fiorello, mezzo-soprano Niri Liu as Berta, and bass Jeremy Harr as Officer, all adding to the performance; this cast was supported by a team of active supernumeraries.

l to r: Christopher Bozeka as Almavira disguised as a soldier and Taylor Raven as Rosina. Taylor Raven as Rosina and Christopher Bozeka disguised as a music teacher. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Great music and bel canto singing are anticipated highlights of Rossini operas, but adding to the fun in Barber are the patter arias where for comedic or dramatic effect the singers must sing a great many words in a short amount of time – think if auctioneers sang their what am I bids in rapid fire fashion.  Also quite fun in Rossini operas and Barber, in particular, are the ensemble arias.  All the players and the chorus did this pleasingly well, and they were supported by one of the finest orchestral performances I have heard at an opera.  Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya gave the beauty of Rossini’s music full measure while keeping volume supportive of the singers and the pacing laid back enough to let the music speak for itself.  I’m not expert enough to say it was flawless, but to an opera fan’s ear, it was perfect.

Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Jeremy Harr as the Officer, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Jeremy Harr as the Officer, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

The staging of WTO’s Barber used Houston Grand Opera’s creative production of 2011 with direction by Joan Font and set and costume design by Joan Guillén; kudos to them.  The effectiveness of the lighting by Albert Faura and Mark Stanley also deserves mention for adding to the production. One could spend an entire report discussing the innovations of this production, from an oversized pink piano to a servant riding the chandelier to the puppet character make-up to the señora who sat on either side of the stage the entire performance. I’m not sure this was the right Barber of Seville for a newbie’s first opera or first Barber, which is a goal of Wolf Trap Opera for operas at the Filene Center.  And I sort of missed the classic staging in the first act, which takes place on a deserted street and cove in 19th century Spain.  Mostly in the beginning Count Almavira and Figaro are conversing over the situation and plan; it almost inevitably drags a bit, but a good classic set can help by communicating the loniliness and romantic charm of such a place.  The angular sets with see through walls were interesting, but didn’t help the first act much, and as good as the staging was overall, there was a lot going on in this traditional/non-traditional staging.  It had an odd Ariadne auf Naxos character as though two performances were occurring at the same time.  Mostly it worked as the supernumeraries acted out various sketches in the background while the main action was occurring.  The sketches were intended to support the themes occurring, but my attention often shifted between the two; throw in reading subtitles, and it was too much to take in in one sitting, and I wound up missing parts of the opera.  That’s just a commentary: an overabundance can be viewed positively as well as negatively, and the bottom line is that I liked it overall.  Maybe a more modern telling of The Barber of Seville (1816) is just what will attract new fans to opera, and frankly, as a fan who has seen other versions, something new was appreciated, especially something new that works.

I wish I could tell you more performances are scheduled, but I can’t; the Filene Center opera is always one off.  I wish I could tell you what Wolf Trap Opera will offer next summer, but I can’t.  For now they begin a several months long process of screening over a thousand applicants and auditioning hundreds of singers across the county to select next years contingent of Filene Artists, singers already with advanced degrees and some performance experience who desire additional training, and of Studio Artists, singers who have completed bachelors degrees and are still in the training process.  About 20 young singers for each program will make it to the Wolf Trap Farm for the Performing Arts next year.  Only once the singers have been selected will operas be chosen for performance, and they will be chosen to fit the singers who have been recruited. Wolf Trap Opera is unique in this approach.  I just know that I heard Taylor Raven at the beginning.

The Fan Experience: Attending events at the Filene Center is always fun and are a great way to sample opera for the first time, but it is a different experience from being in the opera house.  For such a large capacity theater, the singers must be miked, just fine in musicals, but a no-no in opera, and with its open-air nature, acoustics are not ideal.  Also in the summer, the weather can choose to be hot and sticky if it wants to, making wearing heavy costumes on stage a strain.  This production compensated as well as possible for those problems, including managing the weather. I just accepted the limitations and had a great evening of opera. 

There are two screens on either side of the stage that display the English subtitles for operas sung in foreign languages (Barber is in Italian).  The top screen on each side is quite large and provides a live stream of the performance on stage enabling close ups.  That can be a neat addition and I’m generally in favor of using technology to enhance the theater experience, but for Barber it was distracting to see the heavy puppet-like make-up on the cast for the commedia dell’arte effect.  I also had the feeling that the close ups could have been better chosen. This concern coupled with the fact that so much was already going on on stage made the streaming’s effect mainly one of distraction for me.

Finally, the pre-opera talk was held on the farm lawn close to the arrival center, and mercifully, they kept bringing out folding chairs to accommodate the growing crowd, and the crowd was in for a treat of a pre-opera talk.  Morgan Brophy, the WTO Assistant Director for Artistic Administration, gave a talk imbued with humor and sparkle, not only reporting on but foreshadowing the opera.  I always sit in on the pre-opera talks to gain insights about the opera. Ms. Brophy’s talk covering background on the composer and opera, the opera itself, and the WTO production was filled with informative and often funny insights.  One of her interesting points was the role of the overture in operas of that day – lacking modern technology to call the patrons to their seats, the overture was a signal to take your seat, and while The Barber of Seville is now one of the most famous overtures in opera, it was not new; Rossini reused an overture from an earlier opera of his, Aureliano in Palmira, for Barber, actually the second time he had recycled the overture.  It sort of makes you wonder why today we hold the classics to be inviolate. In their day, in large measure, they were just putting on a show and making money.


Opera Philadelphia’s Season 2019-2020: And Yes, Festival O19!

Logo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Logo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I first notice splashes of color and art when I look at the web page for Opera Philadelphia’s 2019-2020 Season (just take a look at their new logo to the left).  Then I notice the variety in the schedule, classical works and hip new offerings.  The wealth of creative, artistic expression gushes forth all the way from today’s internet back to the Roman gods.  I have become a huge fan of Opera Philadelphia’s annual September festival, now up to Festival O19, and immediately examine its features.  O19, cutting-edge and engaging once again, as was O17 and O18, will again fill stages around the city with art, which is to say, life.  For an opera fan, it is the place to be, not only to be entertained, but by opera fan response to these innovative offerings, to help determine what opera can be. Each September, Philadelphia becomes the arts capital of the world. 

For the third year in a row, Opera Philadelphia has programmed two seasons, its innovative festival in September and a program of classical works in the new year.

l to r: Composers Philip Venables (photo by Dominic M. Mercier, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia); George Frideric Handel (photo of painting by Balthasar Denner, Wikipedia); and Sergei Prokofiev ( image in US Library of Congress, Wikipedia).

Festival O19 (September 18-29)

Denis and Katya (Venables, World Premiere) – Sept 18, 21 (2), 22, 23, 25, 28, 29

Semele (Handel, 1744) – Sept 19, 21, 24, 26, 28

The Love for Three Oranges (Prokofiev, 1921) – Sept 20, 22, 27, 29

Let Me Die (Keckler, World Premiere) – Sept 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28

“Curtis in Concert” – Sept 21, 22, 28, 29

Winter/Spring 2020 Season

Verdi’s Requiem (Verdi, 18740) – January 31, February 2

Madame Butterfly (Puccini, 1904) – April 24, 26, 29, May 1, 3

l to r: Creator Joseph Keckler (photo by Frans Franciscus; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia); composer Giuseppe Verdi (photo of portrait by Giovanni Boldini, Wikipedia); composer Giacomo Puccini (studio photograph, Wikipedia).

My personal favorites have changed as a result of reading more about the individual offerings in the O19 Festival.  Originally my favored order was Semele, The Love of Three Oranges, and Denis&Katya, but after reading more about them, the order has reversed for me.  I am also intrigued by Let Me Die, and hearing the emerging talent from Curtis Institute of Music is always of interest.  I offer a few comments on why I find each production appealing.

Denis and Katya (World Premiere) - This is now the opera I am most interested in seeing; I am quite sure it won’t be like anything else I have seen to date.  Composer Philip Venables makes operas that “engage with politics, sexuality, gender, and violence”.  The librettist is opera director Ted Huffman, a long-time collaborator of Venables; this is the first libretto that Mr. Huffman has written.  Together they have created a “documentary opera” to examine the tragic and bizarre deaths of two Russian teenagers played out over the internet; the two runaways streamed live their stand-off with police.  While the focus is the lives of the two young people, the underlying theme is how we interact with each other in the age of the internet.  Scored for two voices and four cellos, the opera has won an international award for best opera in development, the Fedora - Generali Prize for Opera 2019; this opera is a co-commission with partners Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier.  Venables/Huffman previously collaborated on the award-winning opera, 4.48 Psychosis. (Performed in English and Russian with English subtitles; 70 minutes, no intermission)

Scene from  Semelee . Photo by James Darrah; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from Semelee. Photo by James Darrah; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Semele (1744) –To earn a living, composer George Frideric Handel had to reinvent himself several times in his career as times and tastes changed.  After the popularity of his Italian operas in London faded, he turned to writing English oratorios which were in favor, such as his Messiah (1742).  In Semele, a lyric soprano showpiece, Handel created scenarios for singers to portray Roman gods and sing beautiful arias in English “to be performed in the manner of an oratorio”, trying, I suppose, to have his operatic English cake and eat it too.  OP’s version is said to be “an energetic makeover by visionary director James Darrah”. When I first became interested in opera, I bought a CD recording of Semele because it starred my favorite soprano at the time, Kathleen Battle, and found it delightful – “The Morning Lark”, Endless Pleasure”, and “Myself I Shall Adore” still ring in my ears.  It is a special treat now to get to see the opera staged; my thanks to OP for validating my interest.  O19’s Semele has Amanda Forsythe as Semele; I listened to a clip of her singing and greatly look forward to hearing her performance.  (Performed in English with English subtitles; three hours with a 20 min intermission).

Scene from  The Love of Three Oranges . Photo by Michele Borzoni; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from The Love of Three Oranges. Photo by Michele Borzoni; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Love for Three Oranges (1921, first performance by Opera Philadelphia) – Sergei Prokofiev is that Russian composer you know is famous for some reason, a ballet (“Romeo and Juliet”), right, a classical work for children (“Peter and the Wolf”)?  This opera is now #2 on my want to see list; the more I read about it the more it intrigues me.  It is based on a commedia dell’arte play based on a fairytale by the 18th century author, Carlo Gozzi, and Prokofiev’s version is a satirical parody of nineteenth century opera, ala Wagner and Verdi.  The music has been praised for its inventiveness and includes a famous march. The original libretto was written in French while Prokofiev was living in the US; he was not well versed in English and believed Americans would not accept Russian; in another twist, it is often performed in English.  On the Opera Philadelphia website, the OP advertising staff shamelessly says Oranges is a “zesty” love story of a prince searching for oranges containing princesses, and the staff poses the question, “…will he run out of juice or can he concentrate...”, and in another spot “Orange you glad tickets are still available?”   Perhaps a seed of an idea there, but that kind of writing is just the pits.  It sounds a little wacky, but an opera that inspires such puns has to be seen. (Performed in English with English subtitles; a little over two hours including a 20 min intermission)

Let Me Die – OP says this is from the mind of bass-baritone and performance artist Joseph Keckler.  What is it?  It’s called an “aria-logue”, a weaving of death scenes from classic operas into Mr. Keckler’s narrative about life.  So, is it a story embellished by great arias? Or is it great arias embellished by a story?  And what does it say about death and dying?  And about opera?  This original production will be performed by Mr. Keckler and a small ensemble (soprano, mezzo-soprano, countertenor, and a Dancer/Actor) accompanied by piano.  This work was developed as part of Keckler’s residency at University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and is presented in partnership with Fringe Arts as part of the Fringe Arts Festival.  A quote from an interview with Mr. Keckler, “Let Me Die is titled after Monteverdi's “Lasciatemi Morire,” also known as “The Lament of Arianna.” It was among the first arias I sang when I started to study voice. It's a longing for death, an appeal to the gods, after she (Arianna, or Ariadne) has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. And it's the only part of the opera that has survived. So, I like the way in which she is doubly stranded, the way this is a singing fragment. I also like that this is one of the first pieces you learn in classical voice, implying that to learn to sing is to learn to die.”  (Still being finalized but expected to be around 90 minutes with no intermission)

“Curtis in Concert” – Young singers, emerging artists from Curtis Institute of Music, including recent graduates, strut their stuff on successive weekends. 

The early 2020 season is somewhat abbreviated from previous years.  Only two additional works will be produced for the remainder of the season.  The past few seasons have included co-sponsored productions between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Institute of Music.  Recent changes in leadership at Curtis have caused that arrangement to be paused.  Curtis plans to publish its 2019-2020 season this summer, and OP will help promote those events. Another imbalance worth noting at this point is the gender imbalance in the composer/creator, conductor, and director roles in the coming season. In that regard, let us note that Ksenia Ravvina is the co-Creator and Dramaturg for Denis&Katya and Emily Senturia is its Music Director. Elizabeth Gimbel is the Director and Dramaturg for Let Me Die. OP also reports that three new works by women composers are in development.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris. Photo by Gabello Studios; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris. Photo by Gabello Studios; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Verdi’s RequiemRequiem by Giuseppe Verdi was written to honor author Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian nationalist icon revered by Verdi, thus a religious mass to honor a hero and support a cause.  The conductor is Corrado Rovaris and the soloists are also outstanding, soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson, and bass In-sung Sim, plus over 100 choristers and 80 instrumentalists.  You might hear this monumental requiem called a choral work; it’s more complicated than that.  It is highly dramatic; the Dies Irae section is a barn burner.  The drama is unsurprising given that it’s Verdi, but it is a Verdi unlike what you have heard before.  Here are comments of mine about a performance of the Requiem this past season in DC (also with Ms. Crocetto as a soloist), “You can say what Verdi’s Requiem is, but you can’t say what it’s not.  It is a requiem.  It is also a beautiful piece of music with equally beautiful choral and soloist parts. It is a religious work and experience. It is dramatic and can be considered an opera or an oratorio.” Regardless, it is a magnificent work of art.

Scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Toni Suter; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Toni Suter; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Madame Butterfly – Giacomo Puccini wrote this opera especially for me.  At least, I like to believe that.  It is my favorite opera.  Do you like tragedy?  There is none more gut-ripping than this one.  In 1904 Japan, a callous US naval Lt. Pinkerton marries a 15 year-old Geisha, Cio-Cio San, with no intent on remaining married, rather hoping to someday wed a “real-American bride”, while Cio-Cio San believes she has married for life.  He returns alone to the US not knowing a child has been conceived.  It doesn’t end well, but we are compensated with gorgeous music and beautiful arias by Puccini.  Join in the booing of tenor Bryan Hymel who dares to play Pinkerton, the cad; I’m kidding of course, but I have heard Pinkertons booed who gave excellent performances. Rising star soprano Eri Nakamura, herself born in a small village in Japan, will perform in the role of Cio-Cio San. In addition to the personal drama, there are issues of cultural clashes, First World and white privilege, and sex with a minor.  OP states, “Director Ted Huffman eloquently unravels Puccini's 115-year-old musical masterpiece for today's audiences, elevating what was once considered a period piece into a modern-day commentary on power dynamics and western exploitation…”.  We will have to wait to see what that means, but reviews of Mr. Huffman’s previous productions have praised his “traditionalist approach” for its authenticity in effectively conveying the world’s cruelty, but also the beauty of this extraordinary opera.

As I stated earlier, Festival O19 is the place to be for opera fans, but I’d also like to add that OP’s September festival is a beacon of hope for new opera composers. The classic works to be performed in early 2020 have their enduring appeal.

The Fan Experience: Subscriptions and single tickets are still available for all performances, but my experience has been that tickets, especially for the best seats and smaller venues, can become hard to come by closer to the performance dates. Click on the ‘What’s On’ tab at the top of Opera Philadelphia’s web site for links to each event; the event web sites have information and links to purchase tickets online.  On the Festival O19 web page is a grid with all events and dates. A ‘Chat with Guest Services’ link and phone number is at the bottom of each web page, as is a sign up link to get OP email, a good idea if you are a regular opera goer.  There is also an Opera Philadelphia app available with much of the same information. 

When purchasing tickets, I most often call guest services at 215-732-8400; they are extremely helpful with selecting tickets and getting the best deals when tickets are discounted; they can even help with hotels and restaurant recommendations.  Note performances of Denis&Katya are split between two separate casts; make sure your tickets are for the cast you wish to hear.  A wide array of venues are used for O19 events; be sure to check the venue for the event you plan to attend.


Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos: From Chaos Emerges Love

Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos on Saturday left me with two primary impressions: Strauss’ music is exceptional and WTO’s young performers are terrific.  The opera bursts onto the stage with raucous vaudevillian humor worthy of the Marx brothers and ends with a fade to true love worthy of Frank Capra.  Kudos to composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl for allowing true love to develop amid a clash of two cultures without anyone dying from swordplay or committing suicide and to the WTO players and creative team for bringing such a funny and charming story so compellingly to life. 

l to r : Lindsay Kate Brown (Composer), Ian Koziara (Tenor), Alexandria Shiner (Prima Donna), Joshua Conyers (Music Master), Wilford Kelly (Wigmaker), Jeremy Harr (Lackey), Conor McDonald (Major-Domo), Seiyoung Kim (Brighella), Victor Cardamone (Scaramuccio), Ian McEuen (Dancing Master) and Ron Dukes (Truffaldin) in the Prologue. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Lindsay Kate Brown (Composer), Ian Koziara (Tenor), Alexandria Shiner (Prima Donna), Joshua Conyers (Music Master), Wilford Kelly (Wigmaker), Jeremy Harr (Lackey), Conor McDonald (Major-Domo), Seiyoung Kim (Brighella), Victor Cardamone (Scaramuccio), Ian McEuen (Dancing Master) and Ron Dukes (Truffaldin) in the Prologue. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Ariadne auf Naxos is one of a string of opera hits by the Strauss/Hofmannstahl team, but the opera has a convoluted history.  It was originally intended to be an innovative combination of a play by Hofmannsthal and an opera by Strauss, now known as Ariadne I (1912).  Ariadne I became cumbersome and drawn-out (play and opera combined at about 6 hours), and expensive to produce, requiring two separate troupes of performers.  Hofmannsthal went back to the drawing board, wrote a Prologue in which the characters set the stage for the Opera that follows.  Strauss made the needed changes to the music, and Ariadne II (1916) is what is most often performed today, coming in at a little over two hours. That sounds easier than it was.  There was considerable tugging back and forth between the two, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, though played out very politely:  At one point, Strauss wrote Hofmannsthal to the effect that the libretto was wonderful, but if he couldn’t understand it what hope might there be for the average fan.  Fortunately, they worked it out.

l to r: Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, and Lindsay Kate Brown as Composer. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The opera begins on a set that is the backstage with an opening onto the performance hall, which is being used for dinner and music.  We meet the characters by their titles, not their names, Composer, Tenor, Prima Donna, etc.  The Major-Domo explains to the Music Master that the opera is to be followed by a commedia dell’arte performance of “Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers”, and then fireworks 9 pm sharp.  The Music Master and Composer are highly upset at this juxtaposition of this low art with their high art.  The comedy players believe they will bring blessed relief to a bored audience.  It gets worse – the Major-Domo returns to state the opera and the play must be performed together to make certain that they can start the fireworks on time.  Cuts must be made; egos must be attended to.  Meanwhile, the irate Composer finds himself warming to Zerbinetta who herself becomes enchanted by the Composer’s commitment to presenting his vision of true love; her view is that if God wanted women to be faithful to one man, he would not have produced them in so many varieties.  Next, the backstage set has become the performing stage with small off-stage views on both the right and left. The Opera mashup begins, interweaving the stories of Ariadne and Zerbinetta to comedic and heartwarming effect.  Director Tara Faircloth did an excellent job in presenting the story, especially in choreographing the moves of a large number of players on a small stage and bringing each character to life.  The set designs by Laura Fine Hawkes and the costumes by Rooth Varland are marvelous, further drawing us into the drama.

The orchestra is on stage behind the set for this performance to allow all the musicians, a chamber orchestra of thirty-something players, to fit in one spot.  The music caught my attention right away because it has to move back and forth between the styles of opera seria and commedia dell’arte, as it helps flesh out each of the characters.  It also switches between small groupings of instruments for characterizations and the entire ensemble that sounds full and rich.  Whether Wagnerian in nature or comedic in nature, Strauss’ music is both pleasing and fitting, and always his own.  Conductor Emily Senturia and the Wolf Trap Orchestra gave a marvelous performance, especially considering that only tv screens afforded views of the conductor to the singers, and Ms. Senturia had to fly blind without a view of the singers. 

l to r .:Victor Cardamone as Scaramuccio, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, Ron Dukes as Truffaldin, and  (bottom)  Michael Pandolfo as Harlekin taking their turn in the Opera/comedy mashup. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r.:Victor Cardamone as Scaramuccio, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, Ron Dukes as Truffaldin, and (bottom) Michael Pandolfo as Harlekin taking their turn in the Opera/comedy mashup. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

My son expressed the opinion that the Opera section of Ariadne was a parody of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Once he said that I began to see parallels myself – Ariadne believes her depression over lost love could only be assuaged by death, ala Isolde, and when Bacchus arrived causing her transformation and salvation, the horns sounded very Siegfried-leitmotif-like.  Moreover, the opera within the opera is heroic in style and Strauss was a fan of Wagner’s music; might this be a tip of the hat to Wagner? 

Ariadne auf Naxos provides WTO the opportunity to use 17, by my count, of its Filene and Studio Artists.  The professionalism of this early-career crew is impressive; opening night went off without an apparent hitch.  The stand-out opportunities in Ariadne are the roles of Ariadne and Zerbinetta played in WTO’s production by soprano Alexandria Shiner and soprano Alexandra Nowakowski.  Both of these two WTO Filene Artists delivered stand out performances.  Ms. Shiner as Ariadne (Isolde?) sang with such power and compelling gravitas that I began to buy into the opera’s opera much as Zerbinetta did.  Ms. Nowakowski as Zerbinetta proved to be both a talented singer and a delightful actress. Her trills and roulades were used effectively, and she exuded a natural charm, nailing the coquettish nature of the role completely.  Both sopranos received enthusiastic rounds of applause.  Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown also delivered a strong performance; her vibrant, lovely voice was thoroughly engaging in a pants role as the Composer.  

left photo: (top row L-R) - Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade and Meagan Rao as Najade. (front row L-R): Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. right photo: Ian Koziara as Bacchus and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

There were many fine supporting performances, and I will mention a few.  Baritone Conor McDonald who played the speaking-only role as Major-Domo was perfect in appearance and in spewing his messages with a ringing German accent.  The operatic Dyads – soprano Meagan Rao as Najade, mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade, and soprano Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo – had a beautiful sound together and a deft comic touch that reminded me of the Rhine Maidens (Wagner again).  In a performance that might be too easily brushed aside in the midst of so much action, tenor Ian Koziara was excellent, looking nothing like Ian Koziara in sight or sound; he was dressed and moved about for comedic effect and gave us a heroic heldentenor that was certainly respectable.  Fully engaging, singing and acting performances were also given by baritone Joshua Conyers as Music Master, bass Jeremy Harr as Lackey, and tenor Ian McEuen as Dancing Master. 

Ariadne can be enjoyed just for its take down of high art pretensions by commedia dell’arte styled comic antics; yet, I felt I went home having had an experience far richer than just having a few laughs.  Somehow an opening to the transformative power of love had been tapped. Opera can do that, and Wolf Trap Opera and it’s young ensemble consistently delivers on opera’s promise. 

The Fan Experience: There two more opportunities to see Ariadne, July 24 and 27; tickets can be found at this link.  The opera is in German with English supertitles.  Also recommended is the informative pre-opera talk by pianist Joseph Li that begins in The Barns one hour prior to the performance.

I have written many times about the benefits of opera in The Barns – a cozy venue for opera putting the singers and audience close together, casual dress and atmosphere, food and refreshments available, drinks can be taken to your seat, air-conditioning, free parking, and easy in/easy out access.  There are seats on the main floor that do not allow viewing of the supertitles and a few in the balcony where structure posts can split your view; if this is the first time to attend opera there, I’d advise talking with the box office in selecting your tickets.




Met Opera’s “In Cinemas” 2019-2020 Season: Tickets Available, Wednesday, July 17

Actually, tickets for live in HD “In Cinemas” broadcasts have already been on sale to Metropolitan Opera members, but they will be made available to the general public starting Wednesday, July 17.  These Saturday live-streamed transmissions of Met operas have become quite popular; the Met replays the video recording of the Saturday broadcast the following Wednesday in most locations; dubbed “encore” presentations, many of these are later added to the Met Opera “On Demand” video service, and some are broadcast again in the summer between seasons.  My experience is that seat availability varies depending on the popularity of the opera and the popularity of the series in the location closest to you.  In my area, the best seats go early, and even weeks before the broadcast, the only seats remaining are in the neck-straining first few rows.  So, my advice is to get your tickets early for the operas you most want to see live; seats for encore performances are not that often a problem.  Wednesday, July 17 is not too early for performances in 2019; some seats will have already been sold to Met Opera members.

Met live HD in Cinemas lineup for the 2019-2020 season

Oct 12 (live); 16 (encore) ------- Turandot (Giacomo Puccini)

Oct 26 (live); 30 (encore) ----- Manon (Jules Massenet)

Nov 9 (live); 13 (encore)  ------ Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini)

Nov 23 (live);27 (encore) ------ Akhnaten (Philip Glass)

Jan 11 (live); 15 (encore) ------ Wozzeck (Alban Berg)

Feb 1 (live);  5 (encore)    ------   Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin)

Feb 29 (live); May 3 (encore) – Agrippina (George Frideric Handel)

Mar 14 (live); 18 (encore) ——- Der Fliegende Holländer (Richard Wagner)

Apr 11 (live); 15 (encore) —---- Tosca (Giacomo Puccini)

May 9 (live); 13 (encore) —–-- Maria Stuarda – (Gaetano Donizetti)

Reasons to go: Everyone will have their own reasons, but here are some of mine beyond liking movie popcorn and soda.  I mostly want to see the ones I haven’t seen before, but let’s look just a little deeper. Note for each listing, the title is hyperlinked to the Met webpage for that opera and the synopses links are to the Met’s own summaries:

Scene from  Turandot . Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Scene from Turandot. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Turandot (synopsis)– I saw this Zeffirelli production live a couple of years ago at the Met, also with soprano Christine Goerke in the lead role.  Goerke was outstanding and Puccini’s music is always gorgeous, but what really blew me away were the costumes, sets, and staging as only the Met can do; I felt that I was experiencing high art in just this aspect of the performance. If you can’t see it in person, then yes, see it live on the really big screen, the biggest one you can find.

l to r: Scenes from Manon (photo by Karen Almond), Madama Butterfly (photo by Marty Sohl), and Akhnaten (photo by Richard Hubert Smith). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Manon (synopsis)– Massenet’s Manon is performed often enough that I am embarrassed to admit I have not seen it before, so it’s definitely on my list.  The added attraction is that soprano Lisette Oropesa and tenor Michael Fabiano play the leads.  I saw Ms. Oropesa recently in Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale and she was fabulous; she had just won the Richard Tucker Award.  She will be in DC on November 24 to perform in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet.

Madama Butterfly (synopsis)– Ok, it’s my favorite opera and has the great tenor, now baritone, Placido Domingo, in his role debut as Sharpless.  This opera is so popular you might be the 1,000,000,000 customer.  It looks like a very colorful production.

Akhnaten (synopsis)– The story is about the rise and fall of the 14th century, BC pharaoh.  Other than that, I am clueless on this one but won’t miss it because it is Philip Glass and this opera doesn’t get performed that often.  I do know that it has the currently hot, star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the lead role.  It also includes the very fine, young mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.                                                     

l to r: Peter Mattei in Wozzeck, Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess, and Joyce DiDonato in Agrippina. Photos by Karen Kudacki; courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Wozzeck (synopsis) – I saw Berg’s Lulu on video and I’m not sure I enjoyed it; it was more like a car wreck I could not keep from looking at.  The music was a mix of melody and atonality.  I did read the synopsis for Wozzeck.  It seems to also be a bleak uncompromising look at poverty and adultery, so I guess I’ll go.  It does have one of my favorite baritones, Peter Mattei, playing Wozzeck.

Porgy and Bess (synopsis)– I love Gershwin’s music, and this production has an amazing cast headed by Eric Owens and Angel Blue, but I will pass because I plan to see the Washington National Opera production next May.

Agrippina (synopsis) – Think Joyce DiDonato, Kate Lindsey, and Brenda Rae.  That’s all you really need to know; anyone of those sopranos could headline an opera.  Plus, there seems to be a Handel revival going on. When I read the synopsis, I was thinking tragedy, but it is in fact a satirical comedy where the characters use plotting, deception, and murder to get what they want.  Sounds like fun.

l to r: Scenes from Der Fliegende Holländer (photo by Paola Kudacki), Tosca (photo by Ken Howard), and Maria Stuarda (photo by Ken Howard). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Der Fliegende Holländer (synopsis)– Or in English (with no umlauts), The Flying Dutchman, who is cursed to sail the seas until he finds true love and is given a chance once every seven years.  I have viewed the Dutchman as introductory Wagner, but I attended this opera in concert (Baltimore Concert Opera) this past year and came away thinking this is truly a great opera.  Sir Bryn Terfel will sing the Dutchman and German soprano Anja Kampe, famous for singing works by Wagner, will sing Senta. I am currently lobbying my wife for us to drive up to the Met to see this one in person.

Tosca (synopsis) – No, no, and no; I cannot stand to see one more Tosca.  It’s starring Anna Netrebko?  Well, of course I will attend.  I always feel I don’t want to attend yet another performance of Tosca, but when performed nearby, I always go, and I’m always charmed again; Tosca is pretty much the perfect opera.  For Ms. Netrebko, I am willing to travel. It and she are among the great ones.

Maria Stuarda (synopsis)– Met favorites Diana Damrau and Jamie Barton lock heads as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I in a famous historical drama and an opera that gives it stars a chance to show what they can make of it.  The Met says, “the opera’s drama is true to history in a way the facts are not.”  Hmmm.  In the current climate, that might benefit from some explaining.   

I think the Met has done an excellent job this year of setting the opera table for fans of “In Cinemas” broadcasts, with an array that should appeal to all tastes in opera.  While not the equal of attending the opera in person at the Met, these broadcasts offer less travel and cheaper prices to witness a Met performance, casual dress and taking refreshments to your seat, the possibility of close ups of the singers, and cast interviews in intermission. Looking over the season, I have my favorites; what’s yours?  See you at the concession stand. 

The Fan Experience: Showtimes for live performances are Saturdays at 12:55 pm, but always check when you buy your ticket.  The re-broadcast (termed an “encore”) of each opera typically takes place on the following Wednesday, often more than one showing.  The encores are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays though what you see on screen is exactly the same, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of.  Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater.  Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area (note: I have found that entering your zipcode does not work).  Wikipedia provides a history of this program. Tickets are in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors.  To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.

Note that Intermissions can be a little tricky. When intermission begins don’t head for the restrooms just yet; the performer and staff interviews come next. After the interviews, there is a 15-20 minute intermission when you can leave for the restrooms and refill your soda without missing anything.


Two Engaging Opera Movies (Not Videos): “Tosca” (1976) and “Don Giovanni” (1979)

Watching movie versions of operas and videos of operas performed on stage can be both enjoyable entertainment and worthwhile arts experiences.  Opera purists should stop reading at this point or take more anti-hypertensive medication.  Seeing Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts streaming on the big screen in a movie theater as I eat popcorn while wearing jeans and a sport shirt is fun.  Also true for watching movie and video recordings of operas on my big screen TV while I have lunch or dinner and can hit the pause button for bathroom breaks or hit the rewind button when I realize I missed something.  Besides, who can afford to go to the Met in NYC more than a couple of times per year or wants to wait a month between operas for local company productions?  And of course, movies and videos are cheaper than live performances. However, if you replace hearing opera live, local or at the Met, with only screen experiences, I’d insist that you are missing out on the best opera experiences, what the purists contend is true opera, hearing trained human voices without electronic transformation and experiencing the emotional impact those live voices carry, plus the deeply humanizing effect of live, shared arts experiences.  

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

Perhaps the biggest difference in producing staged and filmed/video versions is the acting demands on the singers.  Acting on stage requires broad dramatic gestures to be seen throughout the opera house.  Acting must be more nuanced for the close-ups of film and videos.  Now, let’s clearly make the distinction between movie versions of operas and videos that are recordings or streamed showings of live operas being performed on a stage; these are two very different formats that tend to get clumped together, especially when you are ordering DVDs from vendors.  They share certain advantages and disadvantages.  Videos and movies both offer close-up shots during the performance; if you want to see a close-up in the opera house you need opera glasses or binoculars. Both formats control the focus of what you see, not true in the opera house.  Both can also offer additional viewing material.  I especially like the performer interviews during intermissions of Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts, pretty cool actually.  Video directors have some creative options not available to stage directors, movie directors even more so.  Movie versions are not restrained by time or space.  Nothing can make a story that takes place in the 1800s look like you are viewing it taking place in the 1800s in real time like a movie, and movement in time or place is more easily made in films since you don’t have to wait for sets and costume changes. A currently underappreciated advantage of movies and videos is that they capture performances of great singers and productions that can be viewed on demand forever more.  I often watch videos of operas, but I am just venturing into movie versions, mainly at the urging of my son who also loves opera.  I recently watched engaging movie versions of Tosca and Don Giovanni recorded on DVDs that were recommended to me by knowledgeable opera folks, and wish to report on these.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

The 1976 movie based on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, tenor Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi, and baritone Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia, is an excellent, classical production of Tosca and an excellent film that is a made for TV version.  Puccini and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote Tosca as taking place in three stunning locales in Rome, the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III.  A major advantage of this movie is that it was shot on location, so those three venues are where the movie was filmed, and they are sumptuous; you see what the staged versions are trying to emulate.  In fact, the movie is worth seeing just to compare the actual venues with various stage sets you may have seen.  One can certainly argue that the realism of movies is not as effective for enhancing mood or emotionalism central to the artistic experience as theatrical staging, but in this movie, the real thing certainly works.  Another aspect of film-making that works is the ability of movies to move the action to different places easily and rapidly, i.e., the escaped Angelotti is hurriedly moving along a path to enter the church, not so easily shown on stage due to the distance covered.  This also works for movements required in filming the excellent execution of the “Te Deum” scene. 

For me, the best reason to view this film is the singers, all in the prime of their opera careers when the film was made.  I had not heard Ms. Kabaivanska before and am delighted to report she is a wonderful Tosca with a beautiful tone to her voice; she gives an emotional “Vissi d’arte”, and an overall fine acting performance; in Europe she was known at the time for her Tosca.  Seeing renown tenor Placido Domingo in his prime is a particular treat, and he made a convincing Cavaradossi.  However, the highlight of this film is baritone Sherrill Milnes, whose singing and acting in the role of the villainous Scarpia are superb.  The sound track is excellent; Conductor Bruno Bartoletti gives us a fine recording of the music.  One could take issue with a few features of the film, such as lacking the candelabra placement ritual on Scarpia’s demise, and Ms. Kabaivanska’s acting early in the movie is more suitable for the staged version, but overall, everything works.  Tosca is perhaps one of the better operas for making film versions due to its story and pacing, and the fact that it comes in at a little under two hours, which is short even by today’s movie standards.  This one is even worth watching again for the pleasure of it.

The 1979 movie of Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni takes liberty with the setting as Director Joseph Losey attempts to adapt the theatrical version to a movie format.  The film opens in Venice with principal characters visiting a glass factory and using gondolas for transport and is filmed in a palazzo in Vicenza, Italy, though Mozart’s opera takes place in Spain.  It is an intriguing and promising operning and the change in locale allows use of very dramatic Venetian carnival costumes.  Otherwise, Mr. Losey stuck carefully to the Mozart’s score and Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, probably to the detriment of the movie, as I explain below.  The movie is beautifully filmed in beautiful locales.

One of the problems with Don Giovanni as a movie is that even as an opera it meanders a bit in the middle in order to offer up beautiful music and great arias, and the sequence of events gets confusing.  If this is to be your first Don Giovanni, read a good synopsis of the plot first, or better, see a staged version.  Some of the scenes in the movie are spirited and enjoyable from that perspective, but all of the roaming about in the opera becomes a bit puzzling even in staged versions, which presumably covers a 24-hour period and yet has a statue to the deceased appear by the end.  This doesn’t play well in Mr. Losey’s version which mixes day and night scenes and thereby loses the mood and momentum of Giovanni spiraling towards hell.  The finale could definitely benefit from today’s CGI effects.  This film is fascinating to watch as an attempt to make a great movie based on Don Giovanni, though in the end, it misses the mark. A NYTimes review hit the nail on the head with the comment that the film fails to evoke “a movie world in which we believed”.

A fantastic cast does a credible job of acting and a marvelous job of singing.  Famed baritone Ruggero Raimondo plays an impressively baleful, privileged nobleman in Giovanni, but does less well in projecting his charm or lust.  Raimondi is known for his portrayal of Giovanni and listening to his vocals one can understand why.  Baritone Jose Van Dam is very good as Leporello, as is soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina.  Soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna and Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira are fabulous.  The conductor for the opera is Lorin Maazel, leading the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the music is also fabulous.  The voices and vocals of the extraordinary singers are a compelling reason to watch the film in themselves.

Movie versions of operas were mostly made in the last half of the last century and many were made for TV versions with limited budgets, and thus lack today’s media and sound refinements.  Nonetheless, I recommend these two. I also think there is an opportunity being missed here by today’s movie directors.  I’d be happy to see Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu jumping into the field: Movie directors, accept the creative challenge of using today’s film-making possibilities to give us a great opera-based film.  Can you create a world we can believe in, even a fantasy world, around a great opera or, for a bigger challenge, overcome the deficiencies of a flawed one that prevents its great music from being oft performed today? 

The Fan Experience: Both of these films are currently unavailable for streaming from any of the usual sources, such as Amazon or Apple.  You should be able to find DVD copies in the $20-30 range, but a little effort in checking options can prove worthwhile in that prices can vary considerably depending on source and type of DVD – regular or blue ray. I called Amazon to ask that they add these operas to their streaming service, but don’t expect them anytime soon. If you’d like to look further into movie versions of operas, a good starting point is Cinema Dailies list of the top 25.


Wolf Trap Opera’s “The World Turned Upside Down”: a Funny Merlin, a Brilliant Emperor

Wolf Trap Opera’s opening salvo of opera at The Barns this summer is a twin bill combining Gluck’s Merlin’s Island and Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis.  I enjoyed Merlin’s Island.  It’s a fine farce providing social commentary that is still valid today.  As done by WTO’s young artists, it is a piece of puff pastry to be relished.  However, The Emperor of Atlantis is the one not to miss; I thought it brilliant.  Sometimes, something special happens.  Stage directors are always trying to achieve that thing, but it’s illusive.  First, they have to have a good play or opera to work with; then they have to be talented, and then, they have to be lucky; somehow it all works.  It’s like the heavens, maybe as a tease, occasionally allow us a glimpse of the truth of our lives through such works.

l to r : Two sailors from Paris, Scapin (Daniel Noyola) and Pierrot (Ben Edquist) approach Atlantis as Merlin (Conor McDonald) tracks them overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Two sailors from Paris, Scapin (Daniel Noyola) and Pierrot (Ben Edquist) approach Atlantis as Merlin (Conor McDonald) tracks them overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Merlin’s Island (1758) is essentially Gluck does French vaudeville, a surprise to me; the libretto, written by Louis Anseasume, is in French.  But speaking of surprises, in my preview blog report, I labelled WTO’s new season as “Here Comes the Judge” and as if by fate, early on in this opera the Judge appears.  Maybe I should say that Gluck does “Laugh In”.  Though he wrote quite a few operas, Composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck is today popularly known for his opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, and for having a major impact on the opera genre by flipping the script, giving the drama precedence over the music, rather serious stuff.  Merlin’s Island is an opéra comique, a genre that evolved from French vaudeville productions of the time and consisted primarily of arias and spoken dialog; if a comedy, the humor derived from its social commentary.  In this Gluck commentary on French Society, two sailors are shipwrecked on an island where there is no crime; philosophers recommend laughter; being rich is frowned upon, and husbands and wives are always faithful. The sailors’ world has been turned upside down.  WTO’s production is modified, somewhat shorter I think, and a few touches added to make it more Parisian, such as adding an accordion to the ensemble and performing the opera in a cabaret style.  The result is disarmingly funny from the very beginning until the end.  The music is pleasant and for the most part sounds very traditional of the mid eighteenth century, though varied in style for the different scenes.  The focus of this opera is the scenes not the continuum.  The Filene Artists and their younger siblings in the Studio Artist program showed remarkable acting ability in a comedy staged to veer sharply from classical opera.  Believe me, you will laugh.  All of the artists acquitted themselves well in their vocals.  Highlights for me included the remarkably strong, clear voice of bass Daniel Noyola who played sailor Scapin and baritone Conor McDonald’s campy and engaging Merlin.  I thought that soprano Shannon Jennings and mezzo-soprano Niru Liu who played Merlin’s nieces, Argentine and Diamantine, sounded especially good together in a duet where they were singing on opposite sides of the stage, and finally, mezzo-soprano Megan Ester Grey demonstrated remarkable calm while projecting power as the island’s doctor; her voice caused me to take notice, and she showed some good moves coming down the slide.  For me, the storyline fizzles a bit with Merlin needing to deliver a deux ex machina ending, but perhaps there is meaning there that Merlin had to convert the sailors to the ways of Atlantis.  Clearly Merlin’s Island is as relevant for today’s society as its original audience.  Gluck’s opera is not just an historical curiosity; otherwise, it wouldn’t be funny.

l to r : Merlin’s nieces, the rich, young bachelorettes, Argentine (Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (Niru Liu) arrive to court the sailors. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Merlin’s nieces, the rich, young bachelorettes, Argentine (Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (Niru Liu) arrive to court the sailors. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I came expecting two comedies, one light and one dark.  However, while The Emperor of Atlantis (or Der Kaiser von Atlantis in German) has some laughter-generating scenes, they were over shadowed by the darkness.  And the back story to the opera casts its own shadow.  But as the libretto notes, it is human to laugh, even as we hold back tears, and we need to keep laughing.  The opera was written in 1943 when composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist and poet Peter Kien were held in Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto” that the Germans used to show the world how well the inhabitants were treated as a means to deflect attention from the gas chambers.  While opportunity there existed for creating works of art, the German authorities would not allow this work to be performed, correctly viewing it as anti-Hitler.  The underlying story line is that Death, wearied of human folly, finally gets fed up by Emperor Overall’s call for total war, everyone against everyone, and Death goes on strike.  The Emperor at first claims not dying is a gift to his supporters but soon the absence of death undermines his authority, and Death requires as a condition of returning to work that the Emperor be his first customer.  Both Ullmann and Kien were transferred to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers there.  For them, their message of tolerance for all humanity ended horrifically.  The opera finally premiered in 1975 in the Salzburg Festival.  Somehow, I feel honored to have witnessed it.

l to r : Hippocratine (Megan Ester Grey) arrives while Merlin (Conor McDonald) observes overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Hippocratine (Megan Ester Grey) arrives while Merlin (Conor McDonald) observes overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

At first the mix of characters seemed weird - Loudspeaker, Harlekin, Death, Drummer, Emperor Overall, Soldier, and Girl with the Bobbed Hair, and there were times in some of the scenes when I did not know what was going on.  The character Harlekin danced and sang and laughed and asked Death to kill him; Death refused.  A drummer spreads the news of Emperor Overall’s decrees.  Loudspeaker would not lie but would not reveal the truth.  A man and woman try to kill each other and fall in love.  I don’t know that I will ever get the image out of my mind of Emperor Overall prancing around in his office while admiring himself in a handheld mirror.  What made me love this opera was the slow realization that something was stirring inside me, that somehow the opera was communicating with me in spite of the apparent lack of coherence. That is why I call it brilliant.  I also think Kien’s poetry is brilliant, making me want to read the libretto.  By the end, my laughter had been replaced by tears.  As I have thought more about this opera, it is likely brilliant for another reason.  Ullman and Kien could not have told their story straight up; it needed the cover of a zany fantasy to survive in their world at the time.  In the end, I found the opera unsettling.  Given the divisiveness in our country and the world today, might it happen again?  Kudos to Director Richard Gammon, and as he alludes in his program notes, this encounter with Death causes one to embrace life even more strongly, and I will add for Viktor and Peter - for everyone.

Emperor Overall (Ben Edquist) isolated and ruling from his office. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Emperor Overall (Ben Edquist) isolated and ruling from his office. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I was so absorbed in the drama that I am hard pressed to speak to the music.  Gluck would have been proud.  Ullman’s music is varied in style and was scored for the limited number of instruments likely available in Thieresienstadt.  It certainly supported the story and contributed to moods and was enjoyably melodic.  Ullman was a student of Schoenberg, but the score was not disconcertingly dissonant, though it reflected the tension in the drama.  In fact, kudos are due Conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the WTO orchestra for both performances.  Again, the young artists acquitted themselves well, in some cases smashingly so, with some holdovers from Merlin’s Island who had to sing in both French and German that night.  Anthony Robin Schneider gave a tour-de-force performance as the moody and depressed Death; with his stature and rich baritone voice he dominated the stage.  Baritone Ben Edquist gave an excellent performance in Merlin’s Island, but an even better one as Emperor Overall; I am sorry to report, Mr. Edquist, that you were an amazingly effective loathsome dictator.  Tenor Joshua Blue was both funny and touchingly sad at the same time as Harlekin, and Daniel Noyola returned to make an outstanding, if duplicitous, Loudspeaker. 

l to r: Harlekin (Joshua Blue) engages Death (Anthony Robin Schneider) in a macabre dance; Soldier (Victor Cardamone) embraces Girl with the Bobbed Hair (Shannon Jennings) after they try to kill each other. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I liked the pairing of these two operas.  Two light pairings might test our endurance and two dark pairings might send us in for therapy.  Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera for again giving us the opportunity to hear such talented performers and for bringing us less well-known operas so high in both entertainment and artistic value. 

And don’t miss The Emperor of Atlantis.

The Fan Experience: “The World Turned Upside Down” has additional performances on June 28 and 30.  The Barns continues to be one of my favorite venues for attending opera, and it’s coziness works especially well for the intimate cabaret styling of this double bill.

Pianist Joseph Li, who accompanied Steven Blier in his 25th anniversary concert, gave one of the best pre-opera talks that I have heard, providing substantive background and insights into these operas.  The pre-opera talk begins one hour before the performance.


Wolf Trap Opera and the NOI+Festival’s Engaging L’Heure Espagnole

A lot had to come together for the semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s opera, L’heure Espagnole on Saturday night, a lot more than you might realize.  The National Orchestral Institute had to bring about eighty (by my guess) of the most promising young musicians in the country to University of Maryland, College Park for a month of training and performances at the Clarice under the aegis of the National Orchestral Institute + Festival program.  Wolf Trap Opera had to bring in a new class of the most promising operatic emerging artists for their Filene Artists summer program at Wolf Trap.  Wolf Trap Opera does not select the operas to be presented until they know the voices and talent that will be available for that year.  Then finally, the opera and program to be presented had to be chosen and the myriad logistics of presenting a collaborative opera production worked out.  The end result was a delightful evening of opera by Ravel and suites from operas by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss.  I love it when a plan comes together, especially if it involves opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The NOI + Festival orchestra opened the program with “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (1945) by composer Benjamin Britten.  The orchestra was led by Conductor Ward Stare, Musical Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who was assisted by Joel Ayau, a frequent contributor to Washington National Opera.  Peter Grimes, perhaps Britten’s most popular opera, is a psychological drama of vigilante justice in a small fishing village.  This is a musically diverse piece, modern in containing elements of dissonance, raucous in places as the music is tossed around from section to section of the orchestra, much like the sea can toss boats about.  The four interludes are titled Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm, with the titles being somewhat descriptive of the music, especially Storm.  I suspect this would be a challenging piece for even a seasoned orchestra of professionals, and NOI+Festival’s young performers displayed impressive artistry and came together beautifully, with an especially impressive orchestra-wide flourish to end the Storm interlude. 

While a bit of shuffling about was taking place to rearrange some instruments and players for the next piece, Conductor Ward Stare gave insightful comments about the different sections of the evening’s program.  The second offering of the night was “Suites from Der Rosenkavalier”.  The suite was assembled by Strauss himself combining different excerpts from the opera. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is one of Strauss’ most popular operas.  The story revolves around Marschallin, a middle-aged married woman having an affair with a young man, Octavian.  As the story progresses, she has to face the realization that she must give up Octavian who has fallen in love with the young Sophie, fiancé of Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs.  The opera is amusing and sentimental, and the music by Strauss is lush and beautiful, complete with waltzes, what you might expect if you were attending an important concert in 19th century Vienna.  It was quite a contrast with the opening interludes by Britten, and surely, gave the youthful players a chance to master a different area of their repertoire.  To those of us in the audience, it was sheer pleasure.  As applause was given for each section of the program, conductor Ware charmingly recognized first the solo players in the piece and then each section of the orchestra by having them stand.  The applause was both appreciative and heartfelt.

left: Gonsalve hidden inside a clock and played by Joshua Lovell is carted off by Ramiro played by Joshua Conyers. What? You don’t see the clock? right: Torquemada played by Ian Koziara tries to sell Don Iñigo the clock he is stuck in. Sometimes suspending disbelief involves seeing things that aren’t there. It’s fun; remember when you were little. Photos by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Each of the opening works were about twenty-five minutes.  The forty-five minute L’heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1911) constituted the second half of the program after intermission.  To be honest, I did not know that Ravel composed operas until I saw the WTO season announcement.  And in fact, he only composed two; he also composed a fifty-minute opera titled “L’enfant et les sortiléges (The Child and the Sorceries) which tells the tale of a mischievous child who after a tantrum of breaking items in his room must face the things as they come to life to confront him.  L’heure espagnole is a more adult tale.  In fact, though the opera score was completed by 1907, the director of the Opéra-Comique delayed it’s production until 1911 due to his concerns about the risqué storyline, though tame by today’s standards and totally in keeping with what we have come to expect of the French, but then…the story is set in Spain.  For the libretto, Ravel used an eponymous play by Franc-Nohain, making only a few changes to the drawing room comedy.  The story takes place in a clock repair shop.  The muleteer Ramiro arrives to have his watch repaired by the clockmaker Torquemada.  Torquemada’s wife Concepcion reminds her husband that the hour approaches that he must leave each week to service the clocks in the town, a time when she has regular male visitors unbeknownst to her husband; Torquemada leaves them both to await his return.  First, her current lover, the poet Gonsalve, arrives followed soon by another suitor, the banker Don Iñigo Gomez.  To keep them separate and on point, Concepcion has the muleteer Ramiro cart clocks hiding her suitors to her bedroom, offstage.  While Concepcion wants to get down to business of making the most of the hour, Gonsalve becomes self-absorbed creating poetic lines, and Don Iñigo gets stuck in a clock, leaving only the muleteer, who has sudden appeal to the practical-minded Concepcion.  You can see the comedic potential, and the opera ends with everybody happy, except perhaps for the Parisian censors (in case you are wondering, Torquemada was happy from the sale of two clocks).  It was pointed out in the pre-opera discussion that Ravel composed the rare opera where female sexuality is accepted, and the heroine does not get killed off.  Who knew this was once frowned on in France?

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

L’heure espagnole does not have big show-stopping arias and much of the singing is recitative.  The vocals are mainly intended to carry the plot, not delve deeply into the emotional life of its characters.  Wolf Trap Opera’s Filene Artists had the right voice types and did a fine job making this semi-staged version work. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Concepcion had the only challenging role, to exude sexuality carefully while maneuvering the players around to achieve her aim; she sang beautifully and did a credible job of acting for a young performer.  The other characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that serve to frustrate and finally satisfy Concepcion as she struggles to find the release she seeks.  Joshua Conyers, winner of the recent Annapolis Opera vocal competition, played Ramiro and shone with his warm baritone; he gave us a simple, happy Ramiro.  The fine young tenor Ian Koziara, who starred to rave reviews in last year’s Idomeneo, presented Torquemada as a presence as functional as his clocks.  The comedic foil and primary source of Concepcion’s exasperation was Gonzalve played by tenor Joshua Lovell.  He possesses a striking tenor worth hearing more of and appeared amusingly self-absorbed in his poetic creations.  Bass-baritone Calvin Griffin took a bit to warm up, but soon settled in to display his deep voice and give us the officious, self-important Don Iñigo.  The opera ends with an ensemble of all the characters that was a highlight of the performance and cemented the happy ending.  Director Emily Cuk did a fine job of staging the action through and around the orchestra.  Lighting was effectively handled by Christopher Brusberg. Kristen Ahern designed the costumes and a special thanks to production designer C. Murdock Lucas for the giant stack of clocks forming the portal to the off-stage bedroom.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The sixth major character in this story is the orchestra and Ravel’s music, which joins in propelling the farce forward.  Every action and emotion is painted with musical color, sometimes to the point of causing me to want to pause the characters and focus on the music.  The sound of clocks and metronomes added to the coloring.  Sometimes the music added to the drama, and sometimes it performed as a comedic foil generating musical slapstick in the background.  I’d also like to hear this score as a suite.  Conductor Stare led the NOI+Festival orchestra through a marvelous performance.  The opera is written for a chamber-sized orchestra, but NOI gave us a full orchestra, and the semi-staging of the opera allowed the orchestra to also be on the stage instead of being in a pit; this aspect enhanced the emotional impact of the performance which led to thunderous applause at the end.

The  L’heure espagnole  creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The L’heure espagnole creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera and the National Orchestra Institute for providing us with such an engaging and enjoyable evening of classical music and opera performed by some of the best young talent in the US.  These two organizations complement each other beautifully and their collaboration is to be encouraged, and then enjoyed.

The Fan Experience: L’heure espagnole was a single performance, but part of a triple bill for Wolf Trap Opera.  On the same night the Filene Artists back at The Barns in Wolf Trap were staging Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis.  The twin bill at The Barns continues on June 26, 28, 30.  The National Orchestral Institute + Festival orchestra concludes its season on June 29 with a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  The Dekelboum Concert Hall in the Clarice is a fine venue; the clarity of the sound is very good, and I love the free parking after hours and weekends at the Clarice.

Getting to the Clarice from Tyson’s Corner is often problematic due to traffic on the beltway, even on the weekend.  Traffic issues early Saturday evening made me fifteen minutes late to the pre-opera talk.  A trip that should have taken 35 minutes took a little over an hour.  The pre-opera talk was a discussion panel that included Amanda Consol from the UMD’s Maryland Opera Studio, Morgan Brophy from Wolf Trap Opera, and Emily Cuk who directed L’heure Espagnole.  I enjoyed the comments I heard on how the program came to be, interactions between WTO and NOI, and challenges encountered.



Pittsburgh Festival Opera 2019: Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, and Mister Rogers

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s annual summer season begins on July 12 and runs through July 28.  With an array of seven operas and three concerts over 17 days, PFO is focused on attracting as wide an audience as possible to the world of opera.  PFO is not associated with Pittsburgh Opera whose new season begins in the Fall.  Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s mission is to bring “the power of world-class performances to humanize, energize and re-define opera as an experience that is up-close and personal, approachable, and relevant to today’s audiences.”  How do they do it?  Check the variety of listings, but first, check the title of this report. It sounds like a Sesame Street game of ‘which one of these doesn’t belong’ – Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, or Fred Rogers.  Yet, all four names are associated with operas that are being performed, and who doesn’t like Mister Rogers?

Artwork for  The Valkyrie ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for The Valkyrie; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera places their productions under the banner of “Intimate Opera Theater”, meant to convey their intent to more fully immerse the audience in the opera experience.  They make it as easy as possible for you to attend performances in several ways – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, and modest prices.  To further increase accessibility, almost all operas are sung in English with projected English subtitles.  The festival is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form (I can almost hear PFO whispering Mister Rogers’ refrain saying “We like you just the way you are”).  For those whose love of opera is a pre-existing condition, it offers the chance to get a new perspective on works you are familiar with already; I am not sure where else you might hear Wagner’s The Valkyrie sung in English.  And for the average Joe or Josephine, it is also a really fun way to enjoy the last two weeks of July and help make it to October when Pittsburgh Opera starts up again.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s program of operas:

The Love of Danae (Richard Strauss) - July 12, 7:30pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Enchanted Forest (Children’s opera by Anna Young) - July 13, 27; sensory friendly, July 20; all performances at 11 am at Winchester Thurston School, Hilda Willis Room

“Mister Rogers' Operas” - July 13, 20, 25, 7:30pm; July 14, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Valkyrie (Richard Wagner)- July 19, 27 at 7:30pm; July 21, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Gianni Schicchi at Snuggery (Giacomo Puccini)- July 20 at 6:00 pm, picnic and performance at Snuggery Farm 

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl (Music That Matters Series) - July 24 at 7:30 pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

 “Scandals and Schicchi” - July 26, 7:30pm, July 28, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Concerts and events:

“Master Class Series”, July 13- Jane Eaglen; July 20- Danielle Pastin; July 27- Mark Trawka;all performances at 2:00pm at the Cabaret Lounge at Winchester Thurston School. 

“Wagner and the Mastersingers”, Act I - July 14; Act II - July 18; all performances at 7:30pm at First Unitarian Church. 

“Lenya in the Light: Daphne Sings Weill”: July 17, 7:30 at First Unitarian Church. 

“Degenerate Art Concert” - July 23, 7:30pm. First Unitarian Church

Artwork for  Love of Danae ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Love of Danae; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

I can’t resist commenting on just a few of the offerings.  PFO has a long-standing commitment to producing works of the great composer Richard Strauss and Love of Danae (1944) sounds like a pleasing one for the human spirit.  The librettist is Hugo von Hofsmannsthal who worked with Strauss on his more famous operas as well, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos.  The plot is a little complicated with the god Jupiter on the make again, this time for Danae, and he creates a Midas touch for his accomplice in wooing her.  It backfires of course, and the god is taught a lesson by the humans.  Strauss is said to have intended this to be a light, operetta-like creation, but grew more sympathetic to the Jupiter character in its development.  Danae was composed during WWII and the war prevented its full performance during Strauss’ lifetime. It was finally presented at the Salzburg Festival in 1952.  Though the opera is little performed, the music draws great praise.  This one is sung in German with English suoertitles.

The Valkyrie, known in German as Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner’s series, The Ring of the Nibelung (Ring des Nibelungen), among the most famous and highly regarded operas in the repertoire.  The first opera in the series, Rhinegold, was presented by PFO last year to very positive reviews.  The story focuses on the Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s struggle with her father Wotan, the head of the gods. The Valkyries are maidens who speed through the sky to take fallen heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act III is one of the more famous and dramatic musical themes you are likely to hear; it was the theme used in the movie Apocalypse Now in the helicopter scene.  PFO’s production will be sung in English with English supertitles and shortened from the four-hour original to two hours and 45 minutes.  Though The Valkyrie is the most popular opera of the group, If it whets your appetite for Wagner, the entire 18 hours of the four Ring operas is well worth your time.

Artwork for  Gianni Schicchi;  courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Gianni Schicchi; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Gianni Schicchi by composer Giacomo Puccini is one of the better opera comedies in the repertoire if well played.  Family members are shocked when a relative leaves his entire fortune to the church. To acquire the inheritance instead of the church, they employ the low-bred lawyer Gianni Schicchi to come up with a plan.  The plan works, but for whom? The opera includes one of the most popular arias of all time, “O mio babbino caro”; if you don’t know what the aria is about, you will likely be surprised to find out.  PFO serves up Schicchi in a couple of different ways.  One includes a play called “Scandal and Schicchi” performed prior to the opera itself. The play sets up a judgment of Puccini based on Dante’s response to the opera.  Once you see Gianni Schicchi it all makes sense. If you prefer your Schicchi straight up, you can attend a performance at the Snuggery Farm instead and couple it with a gourmet picnic prior to the performance.

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl by composer Guang Yang and librettist Paula Ciznet is the third in a series begun in 2015 called “Music That Matters”, new opera commissions that focus on contemporary issues. Owl presents views of three young girls longing for the educations out of reach for them. Last year’s A Gathering of Sons in this series won an international award for excellence in productions dealing with society and societal issues.

I want to make special mention of Anna Young’s children’s opera, “The Enchanted Forest” which adapts music from Bizet, Mozart, and Sullivan.  I am impressed and pleased by the inclusion of a special sensory friendly performance for children who might be especially sensitive to light and sound.  When my son was young, sounds my wife and I considered normal would cause him to put his fingers in his ears.  PFO says this performance will “feature less stage lighting and lower sound levels. We invite families to bring familiar, comforting objects to the performance and to feel free to move around the theater as necessary.”

There are many other delightful offerings in the festival, including more operas, concerts, and even master classes with distinguished artists.  The PFO website provides interesting and helpful information on each activity, easily accessed through the “What’s On” button at the top.  There is little specific information on the website about performers, singers or orchestra; however, the roles will mainly be played by PFO Resident Artist Singers who are here for summer training.  Based on reviews of last year’s performances, which can be found on this blog’s Seasonal Lists page in the 2017-2018 Season listing, one can feel comfortable that casting and orchestration will be well handled.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Ahhh, you didn’t think I was going to end the report without saying anything about Mister Rogers’ operas, did you?  PFO will present two, Windstorm in Bubbleland and Spoon Mountain.  For a discussion of the truly extraordinary life and contributions of Fred McFeely Rogers, I refer you to PFO’s web page about this program.  While most famous for his gentle and engaging children’s program on public broadcasting, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” which ran nationally from 1968 until 2001, it is little known, I suspect, that he was the composer and lyricist of over 200 songs during his lifetime; he died in 2003 at the age of 74.  PFO will present two short operas developed and written by Mister Rogers and composed with his show’s musical director, Johnny Costa.  Fred Rogers had a friend in college, John Reardon, a baritone who later became a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera.  The process Mister Rogers used for developing his operas was to have Mr. Reardon show up on Monday and be directed by King Friday on the show to create an opera by Friday, and over the week, the characters would do so.  Mister Rogers told the kids that “An opera is just a story for which you sing the words instead of saying them.”  Adults make it a little more complicated, and these performances will be sung by young opera artists, but Mister Rogers’ operas are certainly accessible and fun, and those are principal themes of this entire festival.  Check ‘em out.

 The Fan Experience: Tickets range in price from $15 to $65 and are available online, by phone, or at the box office. My experience is that buying tickets at the box office can save you a few dollars in fees. A student discount of 20% is available. For questions, call the box office at 412-326-9687.




Maryland Lyric Opera’s “An Evening of Puccini”: An Opera Uprising in Suburban Maryland

As I sat in the audience Friday night enjoying the excerpts of Giacomo Puccini’s great operas being performed by the graduates of the Maryland Lyric Opera’s Young Artist Institute, I felt like I was home playing selections from my favorite operas being sung by great artists I have grown to love.  But this was live, and more than live, the talent and professional quality were there.  With MDLO’s emerging artists and some with more established careers, I didn’t have to lower my expectations.  All I had to do was to enjoy, and two hours flew by like it was twenty minutes.

Yongxi Chen as Rodolfo and Youna Hartgraves as Mimi. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

Yongxi Chen as Rodolfo and Youna Hartgraves as Mimi. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

MDLO gave us excerpts from La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and an orchestral “Intermezzo” from Manon Lescaut.  The concert began very strong with the Act I scene from La Boheme where Mimi arrives and she and Rodolfo fall in love.  Conductor Louis Salemno introduced each group of excerpts preparing the audience with background commentary.  Yongxi Chen played Rodolfo and Youna Hartgraves sang the role of Mimi.  They are excellent choices for these roles.  Mr. Chen has that gorgeous, steely clear tenor voice that we all love, and Dr. Hartgraves possesses a voice with both a velvety timbre and impressive power.  They were supported by the superb Maryland Lyric Opera Orchestra led by Maestro Salemno.  Together, they filled the concert hall with beautiful sound and emotion, as Mr. Puccini intended.  Stage lighting, including colorful projections on the screen behind the orchestra were handled by Lighting Designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe.

SeungHyeon Baek as Sharpless and Marco Cammarota as Pinkerton. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

SeungHyeon Baek as Sharpless and Marco Cammarota as Pinkerton. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

The next excerpts were the opening scene from Madama Butterfly, followed by the Act three scene where Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive early to give Suzuki the news before Cio-Cio San awakens. Tenor Marco Cammarota sang Pinkerton.  He has a strong pedigree as a recent graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts and has a distinctive voice; there were a couple of spots where he was difficult to hear over the orchestra.  He was also featured in the excerpt that closed Part I of the program singing “E lucevan le stelle” with feeling as Cavaradosi laments his fate.  Veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin made a fine Suzuki.  I had forgotten she was one of the Rhine maidens in the DC Ring that I enjoyed so much.  Mauricio Miranda gave us a pleasing Goro with a bright tenor voice in his brief appearance that made me interested in hearing more.  For me, the standout in this crew was SeungHyeon Baek who played Sharpless; he possesses a strong, clear baritone voice.  His voice is also powerful, and he sings with an ease enabled by an impressive legato, though that ease sometimes leads him to momentarily lose the tension in the character he is portraying.  I have been similarly impressed with his previous performances with Maryland Lyric Opera. 

Conductor Louis Salemno leading the MDLO Orchestra. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

Conductor Louis Salemno leading the MDLO Orchestra. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

To begin Part 2 of the “Evening”, Conductor Salemno led the MDLO Orchestra in playing the beautiful “Intermezzo” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.  I find it impressive that a small company can assemble a concert orchestra of this caliber and size.  The rich sound from this 56-piece ensemble is very worthy of being enjoyed all on its own; I find the string section to be especially impressive.  During the entire evening, Maestro Salemno was on point at leading the orchestra in supporting and not over powering the singers while at the same time providing a sound level sufficient to enjoy and be moved by Puccini’s music as well as the vocals; kudos also to Concertmaster José Miquel Cueto.

The final excerpt was again from La Boheme, from Act III, when Mimi seeks out Marcello for word about Rodolfo after they have separated.  The lovely pairing of Hartgraves and Chen returned and was supplemented with Baek as Marcello and soprano Nayoung Ban as Musetta.  I thought the ensemble section with all four singers in full voice was a highlight of the evening, and could, I suspect, have been heard in the stadium across the street.  I add that I am also impressed that Ms. Hartgraves can provide such a strong portrayal of consumption with deep coughing and still manage to hit the high notes in the aria.  This excerpt also included an amusing note at the beginning when Mimi wanders across the stage coughing and finding her way; as she passes Conductor Salemno, she sings to ask him the direction of the tavern, and he points the way to his right with gruff voice.  These sort of unexpected moments that include the audience in the joke heighten interest and enjoyment. 

Curtain call:  l to r , SeungHyeon Baek, Yongxi Chen, Mauricio Miranda, Conductor Louis Salemno, Marco Cammarota, Catherine Martin, Nayoung Ban, and Youna Hartgraves. Photo by Dhanesh Mahtani; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

Curtain call: l to r, SeungHyeon Baek, Yongxi Chen, Mauricio Miranda, Conductor Louis Salemno, Marco Cammarota, Catherine Martin, Nayoung Ban, and Youna Hartgraves. Photo by Dhanesh Mahtani; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..

The first time I attended a Maryland Lyric Opera concert, it featured their young artists accompanied by only a piano, and I found it to be excellent Just a year or so later, they have added an impressive orchestra, led by a renown conductor, and have established a stable of former trainees to help stock their productions, which have very quickly expanded to include concert and fully-staged opera, as well as concerts and recitals.  With the success of the Baltimore Concert Opera in Baltimore and the arrival of the fledgling Maryland Opera in Baltimore, opera appears to be a Phoenix rising in Maryland.  Keep an eye on MDLO; if you are in suburban Maryland and want to have first-rate opera available locally, supporting Maryland Lyric Opera is an opportunity to be welcomed. I await their next season with anticipation.

The Fan Experience:  The performance I saw was on Friday, 7:30 pm, June 7; a second performance was given on Sunday, 2 pm, June 9. The Kay Theater in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland is an excellent theater for opera viewing and hearing for fans.  The small size may restrict what opera companies can do on stage, but the sound is great in every seat and so is the view.  I sat in the middle of the orchestra seats for Part 1 and moved to the back of the balcony section for Part 2 as an experiment.  Sitting in the orchestra section up close to the performers is a treat and there is some loss of stereophonic effect in the back of the balcony, but the volume in the balcony is great and the view of the orchestra, on stage for this performance, was better.  The lighting on the stage was very well handled; however, the size of the surtitles providing the English translations of the lyrics did not serve the audience well from the orchestra section or the balcony.

Views of the MDLO Orchestra from the orchestra section (left) and the Balcony (right). Photos by author.

One downside for the beautiful Kay Theatre is getting there anywhere near rush hour, especially if you have to deal with the Beltway.  It took me one hour and ten minutes on Friday to make the commute from Tysons Corner, about twice the non-rush hour time.  If possible, I would move weekday start times back to 8 pm.  When you do attend a performance, check the parking description on the Kay Theatre website, plenty of free parking in lots 1B and Z after 4 pm on weekdays and on Saturdays and Sundays, except during some sporting and other events.

I have a suggestion for MDLO to consider.  There are many parts of Puccini operas that would be enjoyable to hear in a concert of excerpts. Give the audience a chance to influence what will be presented.  Let us vote ahead of time among possible selections.  I have no complaints with the great excerpts selected, but it would be fun to vote and might generate even more interest.

Steven Blier: 25th Anniversary Concert - A Body of Thought and a Festival of Song

Steven Blier has served as accompanist, arranger, and artistic director of song recitals at Wolf Trap for the past 25 years.  On Saturday and Sunday, Wolf Trap Opera celebrated this record with an anniversary concert.  Mr. Blier is also the Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song, a Juilliard faculty member, and a Grammy award winner who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including playing vocal recitals with Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Jessye Norman, and Samuel Ramey.  For my wife, I will add that he is also an English Literature major who graduated summa cum laude from Yale. 

As he walked us through the concert with background comments, he also displayed a keen sense of humor, remarking early on that he didn’t know how many songs he had programmed for Wolf Trap Opera over his 25 years, but it was somewhere around 713.  Each song selected for the concert meant something special to him and had survived fierce late-night battles within his psyche to be included, hundreds of Sophie’s choices.  He rode to the piano on an electric wheelchair and required assistance to be seated at the bench; he has FSH Muscular Dystrophy that limits his mobility, which he talked about.  His fellow player and co-arranger for the concert was Joseph Li, pianist and vocal coach, who has worked with WTO for several summers himself.  The piano duo were accompanied on percussion by Joe Connell; the stage direction was handled by Katherine Carter and the stage manager was Alycia Martin.  Soloists were current WTO Filene Artists mezzo-soprano Lindsey Kate Brown, tenor Ian Koziara, baritone Johnathan McCullough, and soprano Alexandria Shiner; they were joined by former WTO artists, tenor Frederick Ballentine, bass Matt Boehler, soprano Amy Owens, and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen. 

For the singers, it was not the typical recital arrangement of singer by the piano on the stage and sing your song.  The Barns stage was not used. The center of the orchestra section on the floor of The Barns was cleared to create a performance area with seats in a U-shape around the performance area, which was capped by. two grand pianos sitting on the orchestra floor in front of the stage.  There was frequent movement in the performance area as soloists sometimes joined in ensemble pieces and sometimes served as supernumeraries for each other; there was even some dancing.  Hearing these singers live and that close is an experience, a thrilling experience.  It was also fun to hear them sing songs in genres outside of opera and their comfort zones.

What do you like: opera arias, art songs, jazz pieces, show tunes, songs for drag queens?  Mr. Blier’s concert had them all, nineteen by my count, in a program that reflected the eclecticism of his career, which he claimed had been more of a problem for him than being gay, a timely reflection given that it is Gay Pride Month.  For Mr. Blier, any combination of music and poetry has a chance with him, and certainly those he chose for Sunday’s performance worked for his audience.  My wife had accompanied me to the concert willingly, but for my sake, I think.  I enjoyed seeing her come alive and say as she left that it was a great concert; I even heard her cheering the performers a few times as they were getting applause. 

I will single out only a few, but I enjoyed all of the numbers, even the lieder, “Ich sehe wie in einem Spiegel (I see myself as if in a mirror)” by Richard Strauss, sung by Alexandria Shiner, maybe because it was sung by Ms. Shiner, who has the lead soprano role in WTO’s upcoming Ariadne auf Naxos.  Most of the numbers were prefaced with comments from Mr. Blier on their back story and their meaning for him.  I found out that Mr. Blier and I share a lack of passion for lieder; he humorously claimed he had been scarred by a lieder when he was still pursuing a singing career, but still admires their beauty and importance.  Lindsay Kate Brown sang the emotionally packed “Farruca” by Joaquín Turina, which includes a lover’s cry, “when I gaze into the mirror/ Instead of seeing myself I see you!”  Basses are usually the heavies in opera, so it was immensely fun to hear Matt Boehler sing “Bruce” by John Wallowitch, an ode to a cross dresser’s bad taste.  Annie Rosen showed a different side of herself, a cabaret flair, singing “Le Soleil et la lune (The Sun and the Moon)”.  As a preface to Amy Owen’s first number, Mr. Blier stated his love for showy coloratura arias, but it was her second act performance of Enrique Granados’ “Elegia eterna” that most adoringly showed the beauty of her voice.  Ian Koziara sang the ballad “The Rose Song” by Marc Blitzstein in a casual Sinatra style.  The showstopper of the afternoon might have been Frederick Ballentine singing Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” in five-inch heels. 

A couple of the ensemble pieces deserve highlighting.  Johnathan McCullough with Lindsay Kate Brown, Ian Koziara, and Matt Boehler sang a funny and poignant doo wop piece called “Through the Wall” by Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene, charting a young man’s love affair with a neighbor that he lacks the courage to meet.  The entire cast participated in closing numbers for each act.  To end Act 1, the troupe gave a boisterous rendition of a scene from Arizona Lady by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán, played as it might have been if the American west had been populated by Germans imitating American settlers; it was a hoot!  All numbers were accompanied beautifully by Messrs. Blier, Li, and Connell.

Mr. Blier and Mr. Li also played piano numbers together to begin each act.  As I listened to them play Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y misterio” to open Act 2, I realized our current repertoire of good music is based on a body of thought, not just a body of work.  The melodies of this jazzy, freewheeling fugue were interwoven to the delight of the audience.  That work involved more than musical talent; it required intellectual analysis, and not just by the composer, but also by the people before him who worked out music theory and its applications to various genres.  To the musicians who read this comment and think, “Duh”, bear with me.  Music fans, like myself, think of scientists and philosophers as geniuses because of their depth of thought, not just their experimental and compositional talents.  I suspect many fans, like I have at times, think of musicians as talented people who can come up with a song out of thin air and write it down using their special language, and that may happen in some cases, but even then there is arranging and when to present.  I doubt musicians get the respect they deserve for the intellectual side of what they do because the effect of what they do involves mainly a feeling response.  Music also involves a body of thought, and Mr. Blier told us throughout the concert of the tremendous thought that went into selecting the songs and arranging this anniversary concert, all to our benefit. 

Mr. Blier chose to make the concert’s encore a personal moment and play a piece meaningful to and representative of him.  He said it was a difficult choice because he does not favor performing alone, but I doubt anyone disagreed that it was both befitting and a touching way to end this wonderful concert.  The Rob Schwimmer piece he selected is titled “Holding You in My Arms”.  Mr. Blier may have difficulty rising to hug you with his arms, but he has the power to embrace you with his music.

The Fan Experience: Going to The Barns to see performances is such a pleasure - easy in, easy out, food and drink available, ok to carry drinks to your seat without the special cup, casual attire, a cozy, intimate setting.  It helps make attending WTO performances a fun experience.

I like to point out on occasion that you can save significant dollars on fees by purchasing tickets at the box office instead of online; true for most venues.

I am impressed by WTO’s willingness to limit the size of their audience in order to achieve the staging used; this included blocking off the balcony.  I also like that the lyrics for each song, with English translations as needed, were included in the concert program; it was too dark to read them during the performances, perhaps on purpose, but I can now read and reflect upon them.  Finally, I note that it was a special treat to get to hear the previous Filene Artists once more.  I encourage WTO to do more of that.


Wolf Trap Opera’s 2019 Summer Season: Here Comes the Judge!

Logo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Logo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Remember Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” and its oft repeated comedic line, “Here comes the judge!”, made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr.; great fun, right?  Like trips to the pool and backyard barbecues, Wolf Trap Opera’s summer season rolls around every June lasting to August.  While the large opera houses are in between seasons, WTO is making a splash and cooking up a storm.  It’s more like a festival really, than a season, and my oft repeated line is that “Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun!”.  The WTO Filene Artists, a competitive selection of emerging artists from around the country, are readying their roles and will be supported by a team of young Studio Artists; these folks are all here for the summer to get as much performance experience and opera learnin’ as they can.  It is a chance for us to hear some of the best new talent in the US bring their energy and enthusiasm and fresh voices to the air-conditioned Barns and the open-air Filene Center.  For the best seats get your tickets now (Special warning: only a few seats remain for “Aria Jukebox” on July 28 (see below), my favorite Wolf Trap fun event of each year).

WTO’s 2019 Summer Season:

Operas -

June 22, 26, 28, 30 – Merlin’s Island by Gluck/The Emperor of Atlantis by Ullman

June 22 – L’heure Espagnole by Ravel

July 19, 21, 24, 27 – Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss

August 9 – The Barber of Seville by Rossini 

Opera events: June 1, 2, “Steven Blier: 25th Anniversary Concert”; June 1, “Porgy and Bess: A Concert of Songs”; June 13 and July 11, “Vocal Colors”; July 23, “Master Class with Lawrence Brownlee”; July 28, “Aria Jukebox”; Aug 1, 2, “Studio Spotlight”.

Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis - ever heard of them?  Me neither, I regret to say,…but hold on.  Both of these are fantasies, one light, one dark.  One of the things I love about Wolf Trap Opera and other smaller companies is that they can take chances on pulling forward lesser known, sometimes shorter works, for production, and this team is expert at finding the gems among the lesser known works.  It is also worth noting that WTO selects its operas to match the singers who have come to Wolf Trap for three months of intensive training.  And of course, we get to hear something new and different.  After reading the story lines, I’m thinking these two are not to be missed.

So, what are these two smaller pieces all about?  WTO bills them as “The World Turned Upside Down”.   In some sources, the name of Gluck’s opera is listed as Merlin’s Island, or The World Turned Upside Down (1758).  Speaking of Gluck, Mr. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) that is, started a movement in opera to focus the music in operas on serving the poetry and not the singer’s vanity.  Best known perhaps for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), his influence was so great he is considered a father figure for Mozart.  The librettist for Merlin is Louis Anseaume, and the poetry in Merlin is satirical and amusing.  Two guys land on an island of plenty with all the food, drink, and young ladies they might want.  Further, the girls are rich and have to marry poor men, and they are always faithful.  Even more further, fighting is forbidden, and the lawyers are all honest.  See, the world is turned upside down.  If the music must serve the poetry for Gluck, it will be light hearted and enjoyable.

We cannot expect the same for Ullmann’s Emperor where a much darker world is turned upside down, though it includes a love story and some humor.  The opera’s full name is The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal to Die (1975).  The opera was written in 1943 when composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien were held in the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, but the German authorities would not allow the work to be performed, viewing it as anti-Hitler.  The underlying story line is that Death in a feud with the Kaiser of Atlantis goes on strike.  As you can imagine, things do not go well, the Kaiser’s authority is undermined, and Death has a stringent demand for returning to work.  Important philosophical questions are posed.  Both Ullmann and Kien were later transferred to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers there.  Since its (re)discovery and later premiere in 1975, the opera has drawn praise for both its poetry and its music and has regularly been performed worldwide.  There are 20 musical sections that mix genres somewhat and 14 instruments, including a banjo, that may represent what was available in the ghetto.

Now with composer Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), we are back on familiar ground with one of his most popular operas, although this will be a new production.  This is one of seven operas Strauss composed with librettist Hugo von Hofmannthal, including his famous Elekra and Der RosenkavalierAriadne is a comedic opera within an opera: a wealthy employer requires two companies to perform at the same time in his home so that the evening’s fireworks can begin on time; one companies is to perform an opera seria and another a commedia dell’arte play. We can expect there will be fireworks before the fireworks.  The role of Ariadne is coveted by many sopranos, and the music is beautiful Strauss music.  I note that soprano Alexandria Shiner will sing in the role of Ariadne; if you heard her perform recently with The Chorale Society of Washington, you would not want to miss this performance.

Each year WTO performs one of the more popular operas in its Filene Center which pulls in an audience that might not be opera regulars, including a much younger crowd; maybe a few will be recruited over to our side.  This year it will be Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; I think at any given time day or night this opera is playing somewhere in the world, and when you attend you will see and hear why.  Barber is a light-hearted comedy of love and deception, another comedic work based on commedia dell’arte.  Figaro, a barber/fixer undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  You might remember that in Marraige of Figaro, the Count and Figaro meet again with the Count chasing Figaro’s fiance. Barber has tunes you will go home singing.  For opera nerds, the Filene Center is not the ideal venue for opera.  Because of its size and open-air construction, the singers have to be miked, a no-no for the opera purist, but the performances I have attended have sounded good and WTO has provided some spectacular sets and costumes, plus you get that great, young talent bringing it.

It might appear there are conflicts in the schedule.  Last year Wolf Trap Opera started a program called “Untrapped”, a play on words to cover events where WTO singers are performing at other venues.  Active collaborations have developed between WTO and the National Orchestral Institute, part of the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland, and The Philips Collection in DC.  On June 1, WTO and NOI will present Porgy and Bess: A Concert of Songs at the Clarice Center, and on June 22, WTO and NOI will present a semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole at the Clarice Center, along with other program offerings.  These performances overlap with WTO performances at The Barns, but The Barns performances have alternate dates as well; so you can see both if you wish.  On June 11 and July 13, you can attend a popular program, Visual Colors, pairing visual art and music by WTO at The Philips Collection.

Among the many excellent opera events the WTO performers are doing this summer is one I will point out as my favorite, “Aria Jukebox” on July 28.  Essentially all the Filene Artists perform an aria for this event, and the audience gets to pick which one.  A party before the performances let’s attendees mingle with the singers and vote for which of several arias a singer has prepared will be performed.  Wow.  Act now; the last time I checked, there were very few seats remaining.  WTO should consider doing this event twice during the summer!

As always, the most compelling reason to attend WTO performances is the opportunity to hear the power house emerging talent that has successfully competed to spend a summer at Wolf Trap.  Former Wolf Trap Opera Filene Artists include Christine Goerke and Lawrence Brownlee, two regulars at the Met Opera.  See the next generation of Met stars now (and at bargain prices!).

Wolf Trap Opera’s new season – here comes the fun!  You be the judge.

The Fan Experience: Wolf Trap has a program I am excited about called Young at Arts.  For selected performances this summer, including WTO’s three fully-staged productions, adults who purchase a ticket can receive a youth ticket for free that allows them to bring someone with them who is 17 or under.  What a great way to introduce your youngsters and teens to concerts, especially opera.

The Barns deserves mention for its atmosphere and accessibility.  Indeed, I find it to be a significant factor in WTO’s making opera fun.  Opera in The Barns has a dinner theater vibe; there is good food and drinks available in a separate room and you can take your drinks to your seat in the auditorium, which is indeed rustic and barn-like on the inside.  You won’t find many suits and ties in The Barns, but you will find an enthusiastic crowd ready to enjoy an evening’s entertainment.  It’s relatively small and cozy, putting the audience and singers in close proximity, a great way to experience opera singing.  Another great thing about The Barns is the easy in/easy out (free) parking.  Going to the opera could hardly be less stressful.


I Love Opera: Five Why Nots and Over 15 Crazy Ideas

A poster for the Warner Brothers animated musical short of the same name.  Fun, isn’t it? Maybe opera could use some more of that?

A poster for the Warner Brothers animated musical short of the same name. Fun, isn’t it? Maybe opera could use some more of that?

I have been seriously into opera for about eight years now, and I have been writing this blog for four.  Those are the only credentials I can put forward in making these suggestions – I am led by a strong love of the genre.  I also have an innately curious mind and an inquisitive nature.  Even as an opera outsider looking in, I wonder about opera almost as much as I enjoy it.  What makes it tick?  Why is this done and not that?  Endlessly.  So, let’s get on with it.

One of the first observations I made when I started following opera is that opera professionals have a mostly pessimistic outlook about the survival of opera.  There was and is very little solid data available that I could find, but a general fear pervades the community that the public doesn’t want opera anymore.  Over several years, I have come to wonder why.  Sometimes attendance is disappointing, and companies sometimes fail, but there is also lots of creative activity occurring; premieres of new operas and start-ups of niche, small companies seem to be happening with regularity, and innovations popping up every now and then, such as Opera Philadelphia’s season-opening month-long festival and Wolf Trap Opera’s outside the barns performances.  For the field at large, I personally feel very optimistic about the future of opera. 

I do think opera attendance suffers from competition from the greatly expanded, good-quality entertainment options available now, especially via streaming; this is also true for movies and sports as well as classical music options.  The competition for time and entertainment dollars is massive in the US.  There is also a clear demographic issue.  When I look around the audience at any opera, I see a preponderance of attendees having the same hair color as mine, gray.  I wonder why but will save those thoughts for a different report.  I will point out that every year Wolf Trap Opera offers one of the more popular operas in its open-air Filene Center where picnic grounds and lawn seats, casual dress, cheaper tickets, and free parking abound.  It always draws a much younger crowd than typically seen in the opera houses.  I think the wrappings and logistics of attending opera matter even more to the younger crowd.  Opera companies are working hard to attract that younger, more diversified audience.  I hope they are successful.  But even if they are not successful, the US population is getting older, which augurs well for opera (tongue in cheek).

Here is my first why not?  Opera companies should advertise each other’s performances.

Why aren’t opera companies more supportive of each other?  Contrast that with the way opera performers are supportive of each other – just take a look at tweets of opera companies versus opera performers.  Washington Concert Opera and Opera Lafayette have recently recommended each other’s performances. Opera Philadelphia seems to have a special relationship with the Curtis Institute, as does Baltimore Concert Opera with Opera Delaware, but that is about all that I see in the mid-Atlantic in the way of opera companies advertising each other’s offerings.  I guess opera suffers the same downside of free market capitalism as medicine and news media.  High-minded goals, and the need to earn a living conflict in the real world.  The good of the provider influences what is recommended to the patient.  Opera companies feel they must focus on the good of their own company with some attention to the good of opera, but not directly to the good of other opera companies.  They approach opera fan recruitment as a zero-sum game.  An opposing view is that a rising tide lifts all boats.

It seems to me that it would cost opera companies very little to include in their mailings, or give mention on their website, a plug for a performance of another company, especially a non-conflicting performance.  For example, would it harm Washington National Opera to advertise Wolf Trap Opera’s summer season or advertise the Annapolis Opera’s annual vocal competition?  Here is where I, as an opera fan and the companies, as entrepreneurial entities, disagree.  I don’t think it would hurt their attendance to advertise other opera companies’ performances in low cost ways, and it would grow the audience for opera overall.  Interest generates interest.  Opera needs to make the effort to increase interest in opera for all opportunities.  I think it will increase the attendance overall for opera, which will feedback to benefit supportive companies. 

Here is my second why not, clearly related to the first?  The Metropolitan Opera Company should accept responsibility for being the leader of opera in the US.

Why doesn’t the Metropolitan Opera accept its role as the lead opera company in America?  De facto, they are.  They should be the leader in setting standards for equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment free workplaces,… and assume some responsibility for the well-being of other opera companies?  How you say?  Met Opera has clearly invaded the territory of local opera companies with its Met HD In Cinemas broadcasts, ten live broadcasts during their season with encores presented in the summer.  They offer local companies nothing as compensation for this.  The Met presented some early data suggesting attendance at local opera was not affected by the broadcasts.  I am skeptical.  These broadcasts are very popular in DC and are an easy way to enjoy opera without having to make the trek to the Kennedy Center or other downtown locations, not as good as live, but a palatable substitute for many.  Have you seen what happens to small town businesses when Walmart moves in?  Suppose the Met tried being supportive of local companies.  Perhaps they could offer a discount to their In Cinema broadcasts to those who hold season tickets to local opera companies.  At least they could advertise local opera company showings on the movie screens prior to their broadcasts.  They could even make a stronger effort where it is needed.  Suppose they scheduled a performance at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore to help generate interest there in opera and thereby improve the chances of a staged opera company being successful there.  Perhaps, Opera America could set up a committee to work with the Met to find ways to help other companies be successful.  I think such efforts would feedback positively on the Met.

Here is my third why not?  Opera critics should also accept responsibility for growing the enterprise.

I am reluctant to criticize any journalist given the pressure that newspapers are under these days, and critics’ plates are already overflowing, but this suggestion is in their best interest; their success is linked to opera’s.  I don’t mean they should stop being critical in their reviews or become advertising arms for opera companies, nor start dumbing it down, but I think they should give a greater priority to generating interest in the genre at large.  One recent attempt along these lines is Anne Midgette’s articles on how musicians approach a piece of music.  Anything that stimulates curiosity adds interest, which helps and education works.  When I heard that NSO will play all nine Beethoven symphonies next spring, I thought that’s nice for Beethoven aficionados.  Then I heard conductor Gianandrea Noseda talk about how one Beethoven symphony leads to the other and the impact on the field of music these works have had, and my thinking changed to I might just attend these.  Opera critics need to find and write about interest hooks that might bring people in.  Publish some must see lists.  Hold a live online discussion with attendees of a performance before posting the review.  List some good sources for opera news, entertainment, and reference materials?  Which music streaming service is best for opera? Criticize Apple Music’s opera offerings (somebody needs to)?  Who does the critic most often read other than themselves and journalists on the same paper?  Who are the favorite critics of a critic?  Best reference sources? Have an online debate among critics from different news sources over an opera production – remember Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs up or down?  Have Midgette, Dobrin, and Tommasini go toe to toe on a Met performance.  It takes a lot to get folks off the sofa and into the opera house.  One thing is not going to be the cure.  It will require everything.

Here is my fourth why not? Try some way-out ideas; add an element of fun.

It’s time for opera to back away from its deification just a bit…cue Bugs Bunny.  Going to opera now is just like going to church – dress up, sit still, and be quiet, even reverent.  How can some fun be interjected every now and then? Pittsburgh Opera’s recent Don Pasquale asked for an audience response when the scene called for an encore and the place erupted; I think there was a message there.  Opera Philadelphia’s beginning its seasons with a festival might have been thought of as far out.  Pittsburgh Opera in the Fall will start offering online content during performances for audience members to access via their cell phones, with a view to appealing to younger fans; that’s at least a willingness to take a risk (I plan to attend their first performance in the Fall to check this out).  Opera has a great product, but you have to get people into the opera house.  People want great arts experiences, but they also want fun and feeling involved and connected to the proceedings.  Opera folks like to say opera is for everybody, but it still has for most people the aura of elitism – the rich who want to be seen and the intellectuals who want to feel superior attend opera.  I was surprised when I started pursuing my interest in opera at the hostility I found in some people’s reactions to my new interest; it was like I had joined the snob demographic.  And frankly, opera needs to offer something new to generate some added excitement, and if it is fun, all the better.  Opera companies aren’t just selling opera; they are selling an opera experience (Baltimore Concert Opera’s Thirsty Thursdays are a hit).  Here are some crazy ideas for fun:

  • ·Have local celebs and high-profile individuals from different walks of life open performances with five minutes speaking on their top opera experiences. Start with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and have one by Big Bird and one by a sports figure and a rock star. 

  • Have the opera director come out and spend five minutes explaining her vision for the opera, or the conductor give us five minutes on musical features to be look for.  I was impressed at a recent performance of The Choral Arts Society of Washington that the artistic director spoke in detail about the performance at the beginning.

  • Offer one performance of American Opera Initiative premieres at each of the Wolf Trap Barns and Strathmore venues in addition to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater – engage a more diverse audience; the venues are close to each other, and the operas have light staging to move around.    

  • My favorite – have pizza and beer Tuesdays with casual dress for a couple of the performances each year and make the intermissions long enough to consume the pizza.  Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona does this with Iberian ham and cheese subs at their performances.

  • Hold some chamber opera performances in the round.

  • Have dress-up Saturdays where, during intermissions, a spot light and camera will show best dressed couples on a screen.  Maybe pick a winner and invite them backstage.

  • Experiment with opera two-packs where a single ticket gets you into a concert performance of an opera by young artists and then into the fully-stage version with established stars, or lead off a production run with such a concert performance.

  • In a season of opera performances, for one of the well-known operas, give one performance with a surprise ending (i.e., we find out Mimi is pregnant and dies in childbirth as Musetta vows to raise her child)

  • Have characters from the opera appear on stage during intermissions, and in character, defend their actions.

  • Find a company that will sponsor a free glass-of-champagne-night.

  • Draw seat numbers for prizes, like Francesca Zambello’s least favorite earrings.

  • Borrow from baseball – have bobbleheads and t-shirt giveaway nights.  Make Ruth Bader Ginsburg the first bobblehead.  I want the Renee Fleming bobblehead.

  • Sponsor vocal competitions and show the judges final scores like they do in Olympic competitions.  Give me some opera judges to boo.

  • Opera companies should do online surveys of attendees immediately after reviews are out to see if patrons agree with specific points in the professional reviews or to rate the reviews and reviewers, maybe offer rebuttals themselves.  Risky? Perhaps, but people will appreciate the risk taking. 

  • Send buses to major shopping centers offering round trip transportation to downtown opera houses (especially from Tyson’s Corner for me).  Have an attendant teach the riders a chorus from the opera on the way.

  • Have opera stars do autograph signings of programs and tickets for a few minutes before or after performances.

  • Sell reusable sippy cups with bugs bunny on them at cost in the gift shop that can be used at concession stands to hold drinks that can be taken into the theater. 

  • Offer signed opera star photos to the people who buy the cheapest seats in the house, meant as an inducement to show folks that even the worst seats at live opera are good enough.

  • Elect a president just on the basis of whether they like opera. Again, I offer Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  • Here is my fifth why not?  Somebody, please start a cable opera channel.

Opera fans need an opera channel like MTV for pop music, with opera news, quizzes, interviews, educational materials, and films (This is what Met Opera should have done).

Simply, the family of opera needs to work together to support each other and look for ways to heighten interest for all opera. I’m not suggesting that opera abandoned its refinement, nor lower its standards.  And, it’s ok if all you want to see is classic operas done as they were intended to be by quality performers, and if a company wants to be that company they should and should announce it.  But maybe add a new wrinkle every now and then - look what Opera Lafayette did recently: they collaborated on La Susanna with Heartbeat Opera.  A company highly focused on authentic 18th century opera collaborated with a company with a mission to alter performances to make them more relevant to modern audiences.  It generated interest.  Some new things, helping audiences feel connected to the event and to the opera tribe, loosening up a bit by adding some fun, and make it more comfortable.  I think audiences respond to that.  Maybe such gateway experiences will bring more folks into the totally serious, strait-laced, attempts-at-the-highest-art performances which we all love.


The Choral Arts Society of Washington Saves the Best for Last

Funny that my first trip down to the Kennedy Center to hear The Choral Arts Society of Washington turned out to be the most exciting musical experience of an excellent 2018-2019 season, and perhaps even more remarkable that it was not the piece I went to hear, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, that made it so.  I looked back at all the musical events I attended this past season and yep, Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 (1906), the last item on Sunday’s program, is my number one in terms of excitement, and easily among my favorite performances of the year.  Psalm 47 had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.

Conductor Scott Tucker facing the orchestra and chorus. Photo by Shannon Finney Photography; courtesy of The Choral Arts Society of Washington.

Conductor Scott Tucker facing the orchestra and chorus. Photo by Shannon Finney Photography; courtesy of The Choral Arts Society of Washington.

It turns out that Scott Tucker, Artistic Director for Choral Arts, used the famous Requiem to lure us into the Concert Hall to present Psalm 47 to us, a piece he recently discovered while listening to music on Spotify.  Well, when a plan works, it works.  Kudos to Mr. Tucker.  He also wound the remainder of the program around student-mentor relationships, pointing out how the best mentors inspire their students to pursue their own directions.  Third in the program was an orchestral piece, Sarabande (1892) by Fauré’s mentor, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Psalm 24 (1916) by Lili Boulanger was the initial offering.  Ms. Boulanger and Mr. Schmitt were both students of Fauré.  The musical selections were indeed quite different from one another.

Lili Boulanger was the younger sister of the famous composer, conductor, and teacher Nadine Boulanger.  According to Mr. Tucker the younger Boulanger sister is held in higher regard as a composer than her senior sibling.  Though she only lived to the age of 24, Lili was awarded the Prix de Rome, which Nadia coveted, but never won.  Nadia Boulanger is famous as arguably the most influential teacher of the twentieth century.  Psalm 24 is a piece for chorus, organ, and the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra.  This first piece was conducted by Brandon Straub, Associate Conductor and Pianist of the Choral Arts; the remaining parts of the program were conducted by Mr. Tucker.  The piece is gentle early in praising the Lord but concludes with the organ and chorus going full blast with the exhortation to open the doors and let the King of Glory come in.  My secular response to this short piece was okay, that’s good, but what else have you got.  Obviously, I will be spending some time on Apple Music searching on the Boulanger name.

Two views of the chorus. Photos by Shannon Finney Photography; courtesy of The Choral Arts Society of Washington.

I knew the Requiem mass by Gabriel Fauré was a highly regarded work, in fact in most people’s top five lists for requiems, and was anxious to hear it.  I heard my first Requiem last season, Verdi’s performed as a collaboration of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Chorus, and Choral Arts, and was enthralled.  Requiems, meant to be performed to honor someone who has died, have a set structure, that composers take some liberty with.  In Fauré’s case, he removed the Dies irae, a poem about the last judgment, that is so striking in the Verdi Requiem, and added the In Paradisum, a section usually not played in church but played as part of the processional moving the casket to the grave site.  Fauré did this because his view of death was more a restful slumber and less fire and brimstone.  His Requiem has been called ‘a lullaby of death’.  Choral Arts presented the final 1900 version that includes the chorus and full orchestra.  Baritone Trevor Scheunemann and soprano Laura Choi Stuart sang as soloists in sections of the Requiem.  Mr. Scheunemann with a gorgeous baritone voice sang in the Offertoire and Libera me.  Ms. Stuart added her colorful soprano voice to the Pie Jesu.  The choir and orchestra worked beautifully together.  Impressively, the chorus performed this piece by heart; no synchronized page-flipping in this performance.  The work was a kinder, gentler requiem than Verdi’s, which is more of a show piece.  Very melodic and pretty, Fauré’s Requiem is a piece you can push back and let the waves of pleasant warmth wash over you, sort of a lullaby. 

Third in the program was Sarabande by Saint-Saens.  The sarabande is a early dance form, one of many that become popular bases for orchestral dance suites.  It gave Concertmaster Karen Johnson a chance to shine as violin soloist.  She and the orchestra played this charming piece beautifully.

Which brings us to the focal point of the evening, the piece by Fauré’s prize student Florent Schmitt, Psalm 47.  Not familiar with the composer or the work, I had no expectations of this piece for chorus, organ, and orchestra which follows a psalm that basically repeats over and over, praise the Lord.  It is quite possible that I don’t get the undercurrents in such a psalm.  The music provided a great deal of drama, peaceful interludes, and triumphant crescendos.  I felt I was witnessing the unfolding of a dramatic story.  The middle section included a solo that was sung by soprano Alexandria Shiner, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist.  For most of the piece she sat motionless, looking both beautiful and rather regal, but when she sang her powerful voice became majestic in a difficult role.  The music was complex with atonal shifts heightening the tension.  The chorus, organ, and orchestra each had their moments and conversations among them often included unexpected shifts.  Yet, it all worked to be interesting, even spellbinding.  Overall, it is a thrilling work with a big finish that was performed to the max by Choral Arts.  It came across to me as something new, not turn of the twentieth century.  Kudos to Conductor Tucker, the chorus, and the orchestra. 

Like a lot of people, I developed a love of choral music growing up by hearing it performed in church.  You can hear these great works on recordings, but a lot is lost in the translation.  I am so glad that I got to hear this performance live.  Not only is the sound far superior within the Concert Hall, but the majesty of hearing over 200 hundred performers on stage combining their talents to touch you with their music can only really be experienced fully by being there.  I came away impressed with The Choral Arts Society of Washington and looking forward to hearing more of their work. 

The Fan Experience: This was the final event for the season for the Choral Arts Society of Washington, but they will return in October to begin their 2019-2020 season, to be found at this link.

Washington National Opera’s Tosca: It’s Tosca And We Will Be Expecting You.

If Tosca is playing and you are an opera fan, you go.  It’s like your mother wants you to come for Sunday dinner. You feel guilty if you don’t go; you would be letting the family down.  You may be tired of Sundays with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy (I grew up in the South), but you go, and in the end, you enjoy the damn fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and you are glad you did what you had to do.  At least with Tosca, it will likely be a different set of relatives each time.  Now if you are a new invitee to mom’s Sunday dinner, you will love it and wonder why anyone would want to skip it, even occasionally.

left to right: Keri Alkema as Tosca; Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi; and Alan Held as Scarpia. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Tosca (1900), with its Hollywood storyline and melodramatic music, is a good opera for new invitees, so I won’t give away the ending or plot twists.  Let’s just say that Tosca, a singer, and her sweetie, the painter Cavaradossi, are in love, but a mean old Roman consul, Scarpia, has his lecherous eye on Tosca and his political eye on her lover.  The story takes place in 1800 in Rome, a tumultuous period before Italy was a unified country.  Over the course of just two days, there is lots of political intrigue and deception, threats, both sudden and planned violence, and beautiful arias.  Tosca is currently number five on the most performed opera list.  The composer Giacomo Puccini has two other familiar best sellers to his credit, La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, that also feature Tosca’s librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacoasa.  The opera is condensed from a play by Victorien Sardou that is a good deal longer, so some significant details may sail past you if are not familiar with the play, especially the historical context.  In particular, it is helpful to know that at the time the story takes place, Rome was under despotic Neapolitan rule, managed by a group of powerful consuls.  Napoleon had departed Rome as a republic a few years earlier but then the King of Naples added Rome to his holdings.  As the events of the opera unfold, Napoleon was fighting for control of Rome again.  During the opera, news arrives that he has been defeated, but later we learn that the earlier news was premature, and Napoleon has been victorious, significant because Scarpia is on the side of the monarchy, and Cavaradossi and his friend, the escaped, political prisoner Angelotti, are on the side of the great liberator.

Wei Wu as Sancristan and the Children’s Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Wei Wu as Sancristan and the Children’s Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

This Tosca has a fine cast, starting with soprano Keri Alkema who plays Tosca and Riccardo Massi who plays Cavaradossi; both have strong, colorful voices.  Ms. Alkema, who returns to the Kennedy Center after having been a member of the original group of Domingo Cafritz Young Artists, sings beautifully and makes a compelling Tosca.  One of the treats of attending yet another opera family dinner is getting to see another soprano’s portrayal of the remarkable transformation that Tosca undergoes in Act II, sort of like seeing another soprano’s mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.  She rendered a compelling “Vissi d’arte”, a truly stunning aria in both melody and lyrics at the end of Act II; she received a well-deserved enthusiastic round of applause.  Mr. Massi plays Tosca’s beau with a youthful vigor and Italian charm (he seems to be in the Italian version and everyone else is Anglophile) and delivers the goods with his big, Act III aria, “E lucevan le stelle“; he received a well-deserved enthusiastic round of applause.  A couple of times earlier he held his final notes so long he seemed to be saying look at me and what I can do.  At first, he reaffirmed my prejudice about tenors (pretty boy show-offs who always get the girl), but then it seemed to come to him so naturally he won me over.  The lover’s embraces seemed pro forma, lacking passion, but the banter back and forth to deal with Tosca’s jealousy was amusing and charming.

Michael Hewitt as Angelotti and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Michael Hewitt as Angelotti and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Alan Held’s Scarpia was a mix for me.  He has the stature to be imposing and threatening, but at other times, as my son commented to me, he appeared more Scrooge-like than monster-like in a one-dimensional role.  He has a good voice and sings impressively.  I seem to remember liking him better in WNO’s 2011 Tosca than this one (though I loved him as Wotan in the DC Ring).  His awaited sacrilegious exclamation about his passion for Tosca and his joining in the Te Deum procession got rained on a bit by the early rise in volume by the orchestra on Saturday night (May 11).  Hopefully that will be adjusted in future performances.  The staging which was really quite good overall was startling to no good effect in having the back of the church lift away and the processional move towards the audience.  On the other hand, the ending we all await was handled very effectively.  Kudos to Director Ethan McSweeney.  The supporting performers sang well and added credibility to the story, especially baritone Michael Hewitt as Angelotti, bass Wei Wu as Sancristan, and tenor David Cangelosi as Spoletta.  The brief appearance of the Children’s Chorus in Act I directed by Steve Gathman was enjoyable.

Alan Held as Scarpia, Samson McCrady as Sciarrone, and David Cangelosi as Spoletta. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Alan Held as Scarpia, Samson McCrady as Sciarrone, and David Cangelosi as Spoletta. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I read that the music in Tosca is through-composed, trying to make the case to musicologists that this opera is more than simply a good melodrama.  Operas originally tended to be a series of arias held together by recitatives.  OK, whatever; this is great music and there are certainly some show stopping arias along the way.   A fun aspect is the use of musical motifs for the characters; most noticeably, you will hear an identifying musical phrase each time Scarpia appears or is mentioned, and his motif actually begins the overture.  The orchestra under conductor Speranza Scappucci did a good job of bringing Puccini’s beautiful music to life.  I liked their playing better though in Acts II and III.  I realized after a while in Act I that I had not noticed the music after the well-done overture, and then later, it seemed to overpower Mr. Held a bit near the end of Act I.  As an aside, in WNO’s recent Faust, I noticed the pony tail bobbing up and down at the head of the pit.  This time it was a French braid, meaning I feel good seeing evidence that decisions being made as to whom will lead the WNO orchestra are not gender-influenced.

The sets for this production of Tosca, which came from the Seattle Opera production, are beautiful and a perfect backdrop for the opera.   The costumes by Lena Rivkina are stunning and add to the romantic atmosphere. The church interior in Act I and the rather large statue of an angel in Act III are uncannily realistic.  The sets convey very well the grandeur and beauty of the actual sites in Rome.  Very well done and a production highlight.

Riccardo Massi and Keri Alkema as Cavaradossi and Tosca. Let’s remember them as lovers. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Riccardo Massi and Keri Alkema as Cavaradossi and Tosca. Let’s remember them as lovers. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I have no data, but I’d certainly guess that there were a lot of new attendees for this Tosca, judging by the unusually youthful appearance of the audience, and the younger groups seemed to be having a ball.  So, go; maybe you will meet somebody nice.  Besides, WNO serves up a mighty satisfying plate of Tosca that will be available for another week and a half.  Go, support the family.  Is that so much to ask?

The Fan Experience: There are six more performances - May 14, 17, 19, 20, 22, 25; note that the performance on May 19 (as did the one on May 12) will feature different singers for Tosca (Latonia Moore) and Cavaradossi (Robert Watson).  See the Downey Review of the second cast at this link. Also, heed the warnings about road construction affecting some routes getting to the Kennedy Center and allow plenty of extra time for your commute. In fact, get there early enough to have your supper (I told you I was from the South) at the Kennedy Center; I think the salad bar at the KC Café is a bargain.  The pre-opera talk by Robert Ainsley, Director of the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist program, given an hour before the performance, provides insights about the opera that will enhance your enjoyment.



Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale: One part Donizetti, one part Oropesa…Stir

How do you brew a great opera experience?  Mixing Donizetti and Oropesa is a great start.  Operas are not a one-person show, ever.  They are the result of many talented, dedicated contributors.  So, I feel guilty raving about one team member in particular, but I am going to rave about Lisette Oropesa, right now, right up front for everybody to see.  She is already a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and has spent the last couple of years perfecting her craft working in Europe. I previously saw her perform live in 2016 at the Kennedy Center and was impressed.  She recently won the Richard Tucker Award, the top opera award.  When she appeared for the first time Saturday night in Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale, the impact was even greater than the change from black/white scenery to color suggested; like a light bulb, the life in the performance came on, Donizetti meets star power.  There were other excellent performances and other important good stuff to talk about, but let’s get the ‘why you must not miss this performance’ out of the way up front.  Pittsburgh, go see and hear Lisette Oropesa while you can.

Javier Abreu as Ernesto, Lisette Oropesa as Norina, Kevin Glavin as Pasquale, and Joshua Hopkins as Dr. Malatesta. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Javier Abreu as Ernesto, Lisette Oropesa as Norina, Kevin Glavin as Pasquale, and Joshua Hopkins as Dr. Malatesta. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Now, I return you to your regularly scheduled blog report.  In a relatively short life, composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote about sixty operas that include several firmly seated in the currently produced repertoire, including Lucia di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, The Girl in Algiers, the Tudor Queen triology.  He is famous for how little time he needed to compose his operas; the estimates for his comedy Don Pasquale (1842) are between 11 days to three weeks according to Pittsburgh Opera’s Kristin Gatch who gave the pre-opera talk; I assume that was the amount of time after librettist Giovanni Ruffini had provided the script, although Donizetti made so many changes that Ruffini refused to have his name published with it.  It appears the main driving force for Donizetti was not producing masterpieces.  He was turning out entertaining bel canto operas to meet the demands of an adoring public.  He wanted his operas to be entertaining.  He, along with Rossini and Bellini, were the masters of the bel canto style of opera, and the music in Don Pasquale is masterful and melodic, perhaps his best; in fact listening to some recordings just for the music is now on my to-do list.  Kudos to Conductor Garry Thor Wedow and the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra for bringing it so fully to life.  Yes, the arias were delicious, but the music is worth a listen all on its own.  The excellent chorus which only gets to shine near the end of the opera also deserves high entertainment marks.

Top: Pasquale (Kevin Glavin) uses a movie director’s megaphone to make his point to Ernesto (Javier Abreu). Bottom: Majordomo Max (Ian Christiansen) stands by Pasquale (Kevin Glavin) buried in bills run up by his new bride. Photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

This version of Don Pasquale must be associated with its Director’s name, Chuck Hudson.  It is distinctively his as well as Donizetti’s and Ruffini’s.   This production is updated to the fifties Hollywood.  Don Pasquale is a has-been, but still wealthy, movie star from the silent film era.  He is upset that his nephew, Ernesto, is unwilling to marry the woman of Pasquale’s choice, even with the offer of an allowance and sole inheritance rights to Pasquale’s fortune. Instead, Ernesto insists he will marry a poor widow named Norina for love.  A frustrated Pasquale strikes back by throwing his nephew out and announcing his intention to marry and create a new heir.  He calls on his friend Dr. Malatesta to help him find a bride.  Malatesta sets up a scheme whereby Pasquale marries Norina thinking she is Malatesta’s meek sister.  Norina is beautiful and acts docile, and soon Pasquale is all in.  After a fake wedding ceremony, she becomes the shrew from hell, and Pasquale soon wants out.  All ends well with Pasquale reinstating Ernesto and agreeing to his marriage to Norina to rid himself of her, graciously accepting the lesson he has learned.

Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) and Norina (Lisette Oropesa) firm up their scheme. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) and Norina (Lisette Oropesa) firm up their scheme. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Director Hudson’s staging includes added physical humor, sight gags, and amusing early-style Hollywood-film clips.  The first film clip is shown while Donizetti’s excellent overture plays, a slight disconnect to the opera, but a genuinely funny addition.  Additional clips shown at the beginning of each subsequent act or scene; the later ones are accompanied by piano music.  According to PO’s Head of Music, Glenn Lewis, “The piano music used as film underscores are adaptations of instrumental pieces by the same composer, Donizetti, as the opera. The first excerpt, for example, is adapted from a Flute sonata.  (This) instrumental music is seldom if ever performed.” It fits very well with the old-time film clips.  The classical production of the opera is amusing, but Mr. Hudson’s is laugh-out-loud funny in quite a few places.  The secondary players were used to great comedic effect – bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman in a singing role as the notary, Ian Christiansen as Max, Kristy Dalbo as the maid, Mary Catherine Malek as the cook, and JR Graff as houseboy.  How Director Hudson managed to have all these comedic players and effects and still keep pace with the score, I do not know, but it works, and it makes for a very entertaining evening. 

One of the best moments in the performance was one that I was worried about prior to attending, the scene where Norina slaps Pasquale.  It gave the production a touch of pathos that bolsters good comedy and does so without making Pasquale too sympathetic, which would not be funny.  Ms. Oropesa manages such a contrite face after the slap, which Norina felt was necessary to bring Pasquale around, that I felt sympathy for both characters.  Nicely done.  Comedy is tricky to pull off, and this team managed it well.

The supernumerary chorus as A-listers at the party at Pasquale’s house. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The supernumerary chorus as A-listers at the party at Pasquale’s house. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

I said there were other excellent performances and indeed there were.  Another reason to see this Don Pasquale is to see and hear baritone Joshua Hopkins.  His strong baritone voice, which can be authoritative or caressing, was put to good use as Dr. Malatesta which he played with camp and flair. I saw him previously opposite Ms. Oropesa in Washington National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro mentioned earlier and recently in WNO’s Faust.  In Figaro, I reported that his voice seemed under-powered; in Faust I remarked on how surprised I was at how powerful his voice is.  Go figure.  I had no concerns Saturday night.  He is clearly a rising star I would love to hear again.  This performance was anchored by veteran basso buffo Kevin Glavin who was a perfect Hollywood Pasquale, singing with power and clarity, and acting the role of Pasquale with comedic flair, frustration, anger, or making himself a sympathetic figure as required.  The squirrely role of Ernesto offers little chance to stand out; it focuses the audience on the tenor’s voice and singing and comic runnings about.  I was looking forward to seeing tenor Javier Abreu in the role, but for the most part he did not distinguish himself.  He sang too light for this role, though with a lovely display of emotion; he was often over-powered by the orchestra.  He shone better in Act III when his duet with Ms. Oropesa was quite beautiful.  He scampered about as a young boy for comedic effect, but it added to the opera’s disconnect for me – what in the world does this savvy, powerful Norina see in Ernesto?  I can only conclude he must be good in bed.  Perhaps Mr. Hudson should add a hint of that.  One additional comment about Ms. Oropesa.  This is now the polished Lisette Oropesa, in her prime.  Her voice has truly impressive clarity, pitch perfection, flexibility, and a very pleasing timbre!  My wife said to me during the performance, “The girl is good.”  Yeah, the girl is good!

In truth, I started watching the performance with some concerns whether the comedy would be funny and whether I would like what Pittsburgh Opera had done to a Donizetti classic with updated trappings, but also in truth, I must admit that I left with a happy smile on my face, only regretting that I could not remain in Pittsburgh to see Ms. Oropesa in another performance. There is so much packed into this production, it might be even funnier the second time.

The Fan Experience: Don Pasquale has only three more performances - April 30, May 3, and May 5 - but tickets are available in all price ranges.  I also recommend the informative pre-opera talk by Kristin Gatch, Assistant to the General Director/Board Liaison for Pittsburgh Opera, given in the opera house one hour prior to the performance. 

Author’s Soapbox and a Spoiler Alert – I’m about to reveal a surprise in the opera.  Not having seen Don Pasquale before, I was caught completely off guard by the follow-on to the patter duet in the last act as Maletesta and Pasquale sing of how to deal with Norina’s secret meeting with a paramour (Ernesto);  in patter song, the singers sing very fast, sort of like an auctioneer making a quick sale; it is an amusing feat.  This redux is part of the opera, though it is handled differently in this version.  The supertitle screen read “Would you like an encore?” as they finished the scene.  The audience roared its approval and one was provided; it was great fun!  I think opera folks should consider the lesson here, which I think is that audiences want to be connected to performances, perhaps like they used to be for opera when the stories were new and going to the opera was a social event, when rowdy audience members might shout to a singer and encores were not all that unusual.  Just a thought.  This Don Pasquale provided that connection through its updating, modern comedy effects, and that engaging encore.  It’s not your father’s Don Pasquale, but then, you are not your father.

Once more, my wife and I had a great visit to Pittsburgh for opera – Hotel Monaco (my wife got us a free night with points), dinner from Nicky’s Thai, and Sunday brunch at Union Standard, and miracle upon miracle, no traffic jams on the Pennsylvania Turnpike – well, one brief slowdown due to fog on the way home.  Great city, great opera company!

Opera Lafayette/Heartbeat Opera’s La Susanna: Opera's Back to the Future

With Opera Lafayette, it is never just an opera or a concert; it is always an extraordinary experience.  Their collaborative effort with Heartbeat Opera to give us La Susanna is no exception.  From beginning to end, I sat immersed in what was unfolding.  It was old made new both by resurrecting a work from the 17th century by Opera Lafayette and by creation of a modernized framing of the story of Susanna and the Elders by Heartbeat Opera.  It could have been a meeting of an irresistible force with an immovable object, HO’s penchant for updating classical works to better connect with audiences of today clashing with OL’s commitment to musical authenticity of works from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It actually became a synergistic blending of cultures.  Kudos to both for an outstanding collaboration.

Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride as the judges, Lucia Martín Cardòn as Susanna, and Sarah Couden as Testo. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride as the judges, Lucia Martín Cardòn as Susanna, and Sarah Couden as Testo. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Susanna’s story derives from the 13th chapter of the Book of Daniel.  Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella and librettist Giovanni Battista Giardini followed the biblical story closely in this work, written as an 1682 oratorio to be performed in concert; the story lends itself to staging, and it is also classified as an opera.  Susanna is a victim of sexual coercion and retribution.  Her crime was being the lust-object of two elders (judges) who spot this chaste, young married woman bathing alone.  They approach her.  When their attempts at coercing her to have sex with them are rebuffed, they turn vengeful, accusing her in public of adultery with another man and eventually sentencing her to death.  She is saved from stoning by the young prophet Daniel whose questioning exposes the judges as liars.  All is set right in the biblical tale, but not in this modern telling, though both end with her being set free.  Many disturbing issues are exposed or in the terms of Director Ethan Head of Heartbeat Opera – problemalized with the casting of two male roles, Testo, the narrator, and Daniel, with women singers, forcing us to look at this story from a different, feminine perspective.  In the pre-opera discussion  with OL’s Artistic Director Ryan Brown, HO Director Ethan Heard, and HO dramaturg Peregrine Heard, one line of the libretto became a focal point; the judges sing “Great goodness and great beauty justify the desire to possess,” a societal theme that women through their sexual appeal are complicit in the sexual violence visited upon them.  Thus, a tale written primarily to praise the righteousness of God is viewed through a #MeToo lense presenting a different view of society, past and present. Susanna was saved from death, but mankind was not changed.

Susanna (Lucia Martín Cartòn Martin) enjoying the privacy of her bath. The judges (Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride) pressure Susanna (Lucia Martín Cartón) to have sex with them. Photos by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

In this new production, contralto Sara Couden playing Testo, initiates the drama by announcing she is a professor of women’s studies who will be presenting a lecture on female empowerment. Her young female student, Daniel, played by Ariana Douglas, is seated by her side, recording notes.  Her lecture is acted out by the three principals, tenor Patrick Kilbride and baritone Paul Max Tipton as the judges and soprano Lucia Martín Cartòn as Susanna.  The intermittent movements of the actors lead to a series of still poses framing the recitatives and arias of each scene, pauses that both add emphasis and give time for the chamber ensemble to keep pace with an oratorio being performed as an opera.  The poses are effective at portraying the depravity of the judges in the bathing scene as the judges take poses groping at Susanna.  As Susanna is sentenced, Daniel rises up and can no longer endure the miscarriage of justice, the reality of the present breaking into the reality of the past, shattered by a woman’s rage (I was reminded of The Purple Rose of Cairo when Jeff Daniels steps out of the movie on a screen into the audience).  Soprano Ariana Douglas was effective as an outraged Daniel, her vocals somewhat overshadowed by her emotion.  The staging is largely a grouping of statues around a circular marble bath, that are symbolic and moved around for effect.  For me, the least effective part of the staging was the prison scene; somehow, I lost emotional connection and was just an observer.  Daniel’s outrage drew me back in.

Daniel (Ariana Douglas) comes to Susanna’s (Lucia Martín Cardón) defense. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Daniel (Ariana Douglas) comes to Susanna’s (Lucia Martín Cardón) defense. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

For me, the highlight of the opera are the vocals due both to the libretto’s insights and to the singing, especially the recitatives and arias by Lucia Martín Cartón as Susanna.  The simple beauty of Ms. Cartón’s voice singing baroque arias is not to be missed.  I hope she returns to the DC area in the future after having spent a few more years mastering her craft.  With her voice, she has the potential to become a premier soloist.  The libretto as well as the singing is notable in expressing the views of the different characters.  Mr. McBride and Mr. Tipton have pleasant, strong voices and delivered their vocals effectively, revealing their character traits as well as the appeal of their voices and singing, some of which we as men must own and confront.  Ms. Couden is also singled out for praise for her clear, expressive contralto voice.  The music is supplied, as the original score requires, by two violins, a cello, a bass, a harpsichord, and a theorbo (sort of two lutes made into one stretching three times the size). The music was pleasant and an effective accompaniment for the drama for the most part, though my attention mainly was drawn to the vocals and the drama.  At the very beginning, I found the violins to be a little shrill and a bit annoying; sorry but that was my honest response. One of the violinists was Ryan Brown, who is a master of this type of music; so maybe it was just a bit of undigested potato I was experiencing.  I would have to listen more to the music to determine whether I think the music fits an opera of aspiration as adapted to this version of the story as well as one of inspiration for which it was written.

La Susanna ’s cast and musician ensemble. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

La Susanna’s cast and musician ensemble. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette/Heartbeat Opera’s La Susanna is the sort of arts experience that stays with you for a while, raising questions, provoking discussion.  I think this is probably a case where doing the bathing scene as a nude scene would be justified to impart just how exposed and vulnerable Susanna was, similarly to Breaking the Waves.  As done, her innocence and allure is conveyed, but also her power as though in a swimsuit competition.  The funny thing is that I feel uncomfortable raising this issue because it increases the element of voyeurism (not to mention the logistical issues of finding a soprano willing).  The performance led me to read chapter 13 of Daniel.  I was struck by the fact that Susanna disappears from the biblical story when Daniel enters and the chapter’s last line proclaims: “From that day onwards, Daniel’s reputation stood high with the people.”  It says nothing about Susanna’s reputation.  Especially, her opinion of herself…and her changed view of the world in which she lived.  As Susanna exited the stage at the end, I didn’t have the feeling she was the same anymore. 

The timeliness of this ancient story hits you squarely in the face.  Suppose for a moment that Susanna had had a chariot that could travel in time.  I can imagine she would have made her escape, hopped into her chariot and headed to the future.  Now, suppose she stopped by random chance in the present day.  The first thing she sees when she bolts 2500 years into the future are news headlines about Harvey Weinstein.  I like to think she would have jumped back into her chariot and headed even farther into the future, though I fear worse; she might have given up.  What do you think she would have done?

The Fan Experience: La Susanna played on April 21 and 22 in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center.  Several of Opera Lafayette’s recent productions have been sell outs or close to.  I hope the two performance format giving more fans a chance to see their productions will continue.  As usual their production will move to New York, though this time in Brooklyn on May 2-5.  Having attended Opera Lafayette productions for a couple of years now, I feel comfortable in saying that for an alive, pulsating opera experience, Opera Lafayette is the most reliable ticket in town.


31st Annapolis Opera Vocal Competition: Awesome, Winners All!

Logo courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Logo courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

It was an awesome experience.  My family was looking to get away for the weekend of April 13-14, so I suggested Annapolis where we love to go, and oh by the way, Annapolis Opera is having its 31st Annual Voice Competition  that weekend.  Mason’s famous lobster rolls and Vin 909’s holistic cuisine and well-curated wine by the glass list is enough to make the Annapolis junket worthwhile anytime, but throw in soaking up opera arias sung live by talented young artists, and you are hitting my awesome button.  Frankly, I was amazed at the quality of the competition.  It is now on my permanent to do list.

To begin the overall competition, some 70 applicants sent CDs and recordings to Annapolis Opera that were evaluated by three judges (Terry N. Eberhardt, Coordinator of Music in Howard County Public Schools; JoAnn Kulesza, Director of the Opera Program at the Peabody Conservatory; baritone Grant Youngblood, winner of the AO’s first vocal competition.  The judgers had no information about the singers except their voice type; the applicants were evaluated only  on the quality of their voices and singing.  The semi-finalists selected almost always had a BS and a Masters degree in an area of music or voice and had several performance experiences already in recitals and operas; they were already accomplished performers.  Thirty semi-finalists were selected from the applicant group, and twenty-seven competed on Saturday – by my count, ten sopranos, six mezzo-sopranos, one countertenor, five tenors, three baritones, one bass-baritone, and one bass.

left to right : pianist Eileen Cornett; finalists: Anastasiia Sidorova, Dana McIntosh, Joshua Conyers, Rebecca Achtenberg, Mandy Brown, Kelsey Roberston, Min Kim Sang, and Rachel Blaustein. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

left to right: pianist Eileen Cornett; finalists: Anastasiia Sidorova, Dana McIntosh, Joshua Conyers, Rebecca Achtenberg, Mandy Brown, Kelsey Roberston, Min Kim Sang, and Rachel Blaustein. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Saturday was the semi-final competition, lasting from 10 am until 4:30 pm.  The three judges were already seated in the middle of the orchestra section of the 725-seat auditorium when I arrived.  Spectators were not allowed to sit in front of the judges.  I sat in the center, a few rows behind the judges.  At any given time of the day, there were no more than 30 people in the audience; some of them I suspect were family members rotating in and out.  The singers came prepared to sing five arias they had selected.  At the competition, they chose the first aria to sing, and then, the judges selected one and sometimes two more arias from their list for them to perform.  They were all accompanied by the same pianist, more on her later.  After each singer was dismissed by the judges, there was appreciative applause from the small audience that always drew a smile from the performers.  I have been conditioned for hearing opera with only piano accompaniment by attending performances of the Baltimore Concert Opera, but again I remarked to myself how beautiful these opera arias are with just piano.  Part of me wondered why if you love opera, you weren’t in the audience; the other part said enjoy it - this is as close to a private concert with opera stars as you are going to get.

Third Prize winner, mezzo-soprano, Kelsey Roberston. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Third Prize winner, mezzo-soprano, Kelsey Roberston. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

I would be totally remiss if I did not point out the phenomenal job done by the pianist, Eileen Cornett.  Ms. Cornett established the graduate Vocal Accompanying Program in Collaborative Piano at the Peabody Conservatory and serves as principal coach with Peabody’s Opera Theatre Program; she also has a distinguished performance history.  She played piano accompaniment for twenty-seven different singers singing about fifty different arias and sounded great for all of them.  Her page turner was Ms. Sophia Dutton.  Kudos to both!!!

Ok, I have to give the judges credit too, though I’m going to disagree with them some.  I’m just an opera fan, while they have impressive opera credentials.  The distinguished semi-final judges were soprano Phyllis Bryn-Johnson, who recently retired after 31 years as chair of the Voice Department at the Peabody Conservatory, solo pianist Dr. Lester Green, Artistic Director for the the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts; soprano Arianna Zukerman, who I saw perform recently at the Kennedy Center in Opera Lafayette’s Cerere Placata; enough said.  But having said that, I could not resist making my own evaluations as the singers performed.  While the judges used criteria of Voice, Music, Muscianship, Technique, Interpretation, Stage Presence/Personality, and Potential for Career in Opera.  I on the other hand used the more demanding criterion of how much I enjoyed the performance; enough said.  Hey, when you are watching the Olympics gymnastics competitions do you always agree with the judges, or how about those baseball umpires calling balls and strikes?

Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and Second Prize winner, soprano Rebecca Achtenberg. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and Second Prize winner, soprano Rebecca Achtenberg. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Again, the judges were not given any biographical info on the contestants, only their names and list of arias.  The judges picked eight singers and two alternates to move forward to the finals; the finalists were soprano Rebecca Achtenberg, soprano Rachel Blaustein, soprano Mandy Brown, baritone Joshua Conyers, countertenor Min Sang Kim, soprano Dana McIntosh, mezzo-soprano Kelsey Roberston, and mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova; the alternates were baritone Nate Buttram and tenor Christopher Wolf. 

I myself had rated about two-thirds of the semi-finalists as finalist-worthy and of those I chose eight as my favorites.  Of my favorites, three were the judges’ finalists (Conyers, Kim, and Roberston) and one (Wolf) was an alternate.  Among my eight favorites, Kelsey Roberston was my top choice.  When Ms. Roberston first started to sing her Mozart aria, I was looking at her bio listing in my lap.  My head involuntarily snapped up as though called to attention and for the next several minutes all I could think was ‘please keep singing’.  My four favorites who didn’t make the judges’ list of finalists or alternates were tenor Hyunho Cho (who came in 2nd last year), soprano Yihan Duan, soprano Nina Mutalifu, and baritone Daniel Rich.  I’m telling you; keep an eye on this Rich fellow. All touched me with their beautiful sound, and I hope to hear them perform again.  I liked all the singers. You know, for me the competition was just fun, but for them, it must have been really stressful.  I admired their courage to do this as well as their talent.

Pianist Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and First Prize winner, baritone Joshua Conyers. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Pianist Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and First Prize winner, baritone Joshua Conyers. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

The audience was larger for the finals on Sunday. With a smaller area roped off for the judges, I’d guess the concert hall was a little over half full. The judges for the finals were also accomplished and distinguished: soprano Carmen Balthrop, Professor and Chair of the Department of Voice/Opera Division at the School of Music, University of Maryland Baltimore County; Joan Dorneman, Assistant Conductor at Met Opera, famous opera coach, and generally regarded as opera royalty; Ronald J. Gretz, Artistic Director and Conductor, Annapolis Opera, also Organist and Choir Conductor, University Baptist Church in Baltimore.  One aspect of the finals was that each singer’s choice of their aria to sing was the same on both days, but the judges choices were different in six of the eight cases from day to day.  My responses to the singers changed somewhat on hearing them on day two, especially when their second aria was different.  The overall winner was baritone Joshua Conyers, a member of the Kennedy Center’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and a Wolf Trap Filene Artist.  I had heard Mr. Conyers sing several times before and definitely was prejudiced in his favor; he has a big, emotionally-laced baritone voice and excellent diction.  The audience voted on their favorite performer and he won that award as well. I admit I had under-estimated soprano Rebecca Achtenberg on Saturday and had to agree with the judges awarding her second prize on Sunday.  Then, my personal favorite came in third – yes!!!  I thought all the finalists gave excellent performances and would love to hear them sing again. 

The judges final results:

FIRST PRIZE ($3,500): baritone Joshua Conyers

SECOND PRIZE ($2,000): soprano Rebecca Achtenberg

THIRD PRIZE ($1,500): mezzo-soprano Kelsey Roberston

ENCOURAGEMENT AWARDS ($1,000): soprano Rachel Blaustein; soprano Mandy Brown; countertenor Min Sang Kim; soprano Dana MacIntosh; mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova

AUDIENCE CHOICE AWARD ($1,500): baritone Joshua Conyers

During the 2016 Olympics, I wrote a blog report titled, “Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event”.  I ended by saying why I thought it would not actually become an Olympic event: “Opera’s ultimate purpose is different from athletics.   First, the higher purpose of neither the Olympics nor Opera is to entertain us.  I think that the Olympics’ purpose is to inspire us with human achievement and its potential.  Opera’s is to touch our hearts, minds, and souls by re-connecting us to our humanity.”  I still agree with myself, but I was certainly entertained on Saturday and Sunday.

I honestly did not care that much who won the top spot in the finalists competition on Sunday.  I felt everyone who participated won by taking another step towards realizing their dream of becoming a professional opera singer.  The audience was also a winner for getting to hear such wonderful performances, and for the finals, I just wanted to hear the singing!  So, thank you Annapolis Opera, and to all the singers, please keep singing! 

The Fan Experience: This event was open to the public and free thanks to a grant from the Helena Foundation, Jim and Silvia Earl.  The acoustics in the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts was quite good and parking was free.  The next event there by Annapolis Opera will be the Grand Finale: Denyce Graves in Concert, May 5 at 3 pm.  

Washington Concert Opera’s Zelmira: A Bel Canto Showpiece for Concert Opera

How many times have you seen Gioachino Rossini’a Zelmira (1822)?  Unless you were in the audience at Lisner Auditorium last Friday night, your answer is almost assuredly never; it was last performed in the United States in 1835.  Rossini is considered one of three bel canto masters in Italian opera along with Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini.  Rossini wrote 34 operas in total; roughly ten of these are still performed, and one, The Barber of Seville, is among the most often performed operas in the world.  Why bring this one back?  It’s rather bold to do so, but Washington Concert Opera under Conductor and Artistic Director Antony Walker’s direction has a solid record of unearthing forgotten treasures to enjoy once more…but still, there is the question why this one.  There is an interesting history to this opera, though ultimately the answer to the question lies in the impact of the performance.  I went home happy…though not completely fulfilled.

Silvia Tro Santafé as Zelmira and Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Ilo. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Silvia Tro Santafé as Zelmira and Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Ilo. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

If you go searching for information on Zelmira, you won’t find a lot; at least I couldn’t.  Fortunately, Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC, provided helpful insights in the program notes and his pre-opera talk.  One message is that composers must be evaluated in the context of  economic and social fabric of the composer’s day.  Rossini was a great composer, but he was to some degree a laborer.  He was required by the Teatro San Carlo company in Naples to write an opera per year as terms of a lucrative ten-year contract with one of the premier opera houses of its time. (I wonder if there is a composer who would accept those terms today; turn out an opera every year?). These became known as Rossini’s Neopolitan Operas and Zelmira was the last he wrote before heading to be feted in Vienna, then to London and finally to Paris, where he settled down for the rest of his life.  Another tidbit to know was that early composers often wrote, even rewrote, music and arias for specific performers – as Mr. Russell noted, the success of the composer was wed to the success of the singer.  Mr. Rossini’s sweetie at the time was a soprano whose voice was moving into the latter stages of its career, and who did little to enhance the appeal of Zelmira as the production moved around Europe.  But I think Mr. Russell’s key point was that at that time opera was already starting to move away from bel canto singing, and thus, there soon were few singers with the training to do justice to Zelmira’s music and provide for its performance into the next century.

Enter Lawrence Brownlee, one of today’s few leading bel canto tenors.  Bel canto singing and operas made a resurgence in the 1960s, Maestro Walker had worked before with Mr. Brownlee and a star mezzo-soprano who performs bel canto, Silvia Tro Santafé.  So ,there was motive (Rossini’s music), means (bel canto singers), and opportunity (concert opera format).  The concert opera format was important because it turns out that the greatest deterrent to Zelmira’s appeal is the story and libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, based on the play “Zelmire” by Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy.  Excellent music coupled to a flawed story line and/or libretto is fertile territory for concert opera as WCO has proven many times; see my reports on WCO’s La Straniera or Maria di Rohan

Singers left to right are Vivica Genaux, Silvia Tro Santafé, Lawrence Brownlee, Matthew Scolin, and Julius Ahn. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Singers left to right are Vivica Genaux, Silvia Tro Santafé, Lawrence Brownlee, Matthew Scolin, and Julius Ahn. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Zelmira is a princess on Lesbos who gets falsely accused of murdering her father King Polidoro and a neighboring king named Azor.  Antenore who wants to become king of both islands himself is aided in this deception by his follower, Leucippo; together they rile the people with the lies against Zelmira and even convince her husband Ilo of her guilt.  Zelmira is aided in protecting her son and Polidoro, who is still alive, by her confidante Emma.  The opera begins confusingly in the middle of the story and never provides compelling motivations for the characters, especially why Ilo believes the lies about Zelmira, and ends with a rather convenient happy ending: Ilo realizes Zelmira is innocent; he rescues the family and has Antenore and Leucippo hauled off to prison.  I think there is a good story there, but Tottola failed to find it.  Nonetheless, the arias within the context of the story are more effective than if they stood alone, but the story as told doesn’t work for audiences today and strained the credulity of audiences of its time.  It seems an enigma that a great composer would agree to compose for such a contrivance.  I puzzled for a while and posed the question to Mr. Russell who responded that there is little in the historical record that explains Rossini’s choice.  He further states “Truthfully, lots of plays (in this case, a French source) that were relatively popular at the time and seemed adaptable in terms of numbers/types of roles to available personnel wound up becoming operas, and the motivation may have been that simple. Sometimes, simply churning out the product to satisfy a contract guesstimating what will find favor with an opera audience based on what sold theater tickets seems to have been the modus operandi.”  Fair enough.  When I was a boy, I remember going, what seems like weekly, to the movies to see the latest western.  I enjoyed them all, and some were actually good movies.  I get the feeling that opera-goers in nineteenth century Italy were like that, and the composers churned out operas to meet the demand.

The greatest enigma with Rossini is why he stopped composing opera so early in his life.  He died at the age of 76, but he retired from composing opera at age 37 when he was still near the top of his game and seemed to be evolving into a new era of composition for him.  I have puzzled along with many others about what caused him to stop writing operas.  The NY Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote an informative article on this question, but was unable to resolve the riddle.  Maybe it’s not a riddle at all.  You might ask why I retired from a career in science in which I had training and experience and started writing an opera blog where I had neither.  I retired because I was ready to and was in a position to, and I started the blog because I wanted to; I cannot tell you why I wanted to.  I imagine Rossini was the same.  He retired from composing because he was ready and could, and did what he wanted to do.  I can only tell you I am having the time of my life, and I suspect Rossini did as well, at least I am choosing to believe that version.

Back to Mr. Brownlee – he added a new experience for me with WCO.  I can’t remember Conductor Walker previously having to pause the performance for several minutes while the audience poured forth with applause like they did for Lawrence Brownlee at the end of his first aria, admittedly a barn burner.  If you came for bel canto singing, this is what you came for, and it went on with shorter periods of applause until the end.  Ms. Tro Santafé was also excellent, though somewhat more reserved in manner; I enjoyed her performance very much and realized I had heard her sing previously in Barcelona.  For an expert critique of the singers in Zelmira, I refer you to Charles Downey’s excellent review.  As an opera fan, I thought the entire cast and chorus were pretty great.  Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Emma displayed a lovely voice and extraordinary emotion and artistry.  The other guys, Patrick Carfizzi as Polidoro, Julius Ahn as Antenore, and Matthew Scolin as Leucippo displayed powerful and attractive voices.  On the amusing side, I thought Mr. Carfizzi sometimes sounded like he was singing a love song rather than a lament ; Mr. Ahn sometimes seemed bemused at what a powerful leader he was, and Mr. Scolin’s Leucippo clearly had anger issues.  I had seen Mr. Ahn the previous week in Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly.  

Maestro Walker was again part of the show with his bouncy, animated style of conducting and the orchestra played well.  I enjoyed the music greatly.  Rossini’s music had the elements we enjoy with Rossini, the melodies, harmonies, and crescendos.  As a fan though, I must admit I found this Rossini slightly less satisfying overall than other works of his; for me it had great Rossini moments, but was not an overall cohesive work.  Frankly, I missed having an overture; omitting the overture is a device that has drawn praise for being able to thrust the audience directly into the drama.  Well, Verdi seemed able to write overtures that enhanced a dramatic opera, and with Rossini I especially look forward to his overtures.  I also found the music to be more thrust and parry than developing flowing melodic themes.  I have criticized new operas for lacking melodies one goes home whistling, but the same is true of this opera.  I also found his heavy use of pizzicato to become noticeable and thus distracting; in general the opera’s structural elements began to feel repetitive.  That sounds more critical than I mean to be.  Keep in mind I would gladly attend this performance again with this cast and orchestra.  Also keep in mind that it is a treat to get to hear something that good for the first time; this was another gift of that kind from WCO to DC audiences.  I would not give up The Barber, but it is thrilling to have some variety and an average Rossini is pretty darn good, and a fine opportunity to show off some bel canto talent. 

The Fan Experience: As mentioned above, this was one opera where Peter Russell’s program notes and pre-opera talk an hour before the opera should have been required.  Zelmira was held on a Friday night; I’m guessing to get the singers desired.  WCO performances move back to Sunday with the new season.  I find Sundays much better for commuting and parking. Of note, Lisette Oropesa who will appear in next season’s program just won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. 

Poster for WCO’s 2019-2020 season; photo by author.

Poster for WCO’s 2019-2020 season; photo by author.

Bel Canto, the Short Course – Exam on Friday

Ok, I got scooped.  I was working on a blog report to help newbies and myself get a better understanding of what the term “bel canto” means when I am checking the internet on Friday morning, and there is a great piece on the topic from the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, reference below.  So, I decided to move in a different direction and develop a short guide for folks to brush-up on bel canto quickly AND to help spread the word on an excellent chance coming up Friday to hear bel canto in real life.  I can’t claim to have my head completely around the topic, but I hope this helps.  Here are seven lessons, the last being the most important:  

left: Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835); middle: Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848); right: Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). All portraits as a young man. All images in the public domain, copied from Wikipedia. Somehow, I “feel” Donizetti’s seems more bel canto; would you agree?

1.     The Italian term “bel canto” means “beautiful singing” or “beautiful song”.  It could hardly be more confusing to new fans of opera – all operas have some beautiful singing.  I now find it more useful to think of the term as an active statement: “emphasize the voice and singing”.  The bel canto era flourished in the eighteenth century and lasted into the early nineteenth, though the term itself was not used until the latter part of the nineteenth.  The style remains very popular today – Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts holds the Giagiari Bel Canto Competition each Fall. 

2.     Bel canto refers to both a style of singing and a genre of opera, though they go together.  Bel canto singing places an emphasis on rules for singing beautifully and on great expressivity in singing. Bel canto opera places an emphasis on the singing within an opera as opposed to the music or the plot.

3.     In the popular opera canon, it is safest to think of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini as bel canto operas and the arias within them as bel canto arias, though there are examples of bel canto arias in operas by other composers.

4.     Though nuanced and complicated, the important elements of bel canto singing are legato (moving smoothly between notes, aided by the open vowels of Italian) and using singing ornamentations such as trills in the higher registers, that demand skill and flexibility in the singer’s voice. Technically, this need for moving facilely and quickly pushes singers to use a lighter sound that they attain mainly by using their head voice, sometimes falsetto, as opposed to pushing more strongly from the bottom of their diaphragm to get more power. Extraordinary singers like Pavarotti could do both.

5.     Bel canto operas have distinctive structures of arias and music that places more emphasis on melodies, in particular long melodic lines that allow the singers to improvise and be as musically expressive as they can.  Directors of bel canto operas often have to pause the action for several minutes while the singer expresses an emotion in song.

6.     There is bel canto music and singing in operas of other periods, but the difference is where the composer places the emphasis overall.  So, for example, compare a Wagner opera where words and diction are emphasized in a heavier, more serious style, pushing the story and ideas forward, with a Bellini opera where focus is on conveying individual feelings through beautiful song causing you respond to the emotion and drama even if you don’t know the words.

7.     Finally, you don’t have to know any of this to enjoy bel canto singing and opera, but you do have to attend them, and on Friday, April 5 at 7 pm in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University, Washington Concert Opera will present Gioachino Rossini’s bel canto opera, Zelmira (1822), in concert, and among the cast will be Lawrence Brownlee who is considered one of the leading bel canto tenors today.    

So, go, listen, and enjoy – work on your understanding of bel canto, or not.  The distinguishing feature of opera is the human voice, and bel canto opera makes the voice paramount.  As operatic styles changed, the bel canto style was characterized by detractors as “empty virtuosity and mere sensual pleasure”; I can agree with that if we remove “empty” and “mere”.  Maybe what bel canto really means is this – enjoy the beautiful singing!

For a slightly deeper dive, a few references that go into bel canto in more detail:

“Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is it? Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, November 28, 2008. Excellent overview, especially of historical placement and structure of bel canto libretto and singing.

Chapter 2: “The Beautiful Song of Italian Opera”; A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer, Basic Books, New York, 2018.  An easy read opera book for newbies, includes history and helpful definitions of common terms used in describing bel canto, such as cantabile and cabaletta; it has a good index.

Just appeared - “What exactly is bel canto? It’s a way of singing, and for some, an addiction”, Ann Midgette, Washington Post, March 29, 2019.   A beautifully written piece laced with nostalgia and containing links to helpful videos demonstrating key points.  Also check out the comments to the article for additional tidbits of information.

Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly: Why We Love Opera

What happens when a long line of talented, creative, and dedicated people put their heads and hearts and talents together to help us understand why we humans act the way we do?  Today’s answer is Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly.  You want a love story? It’s got a love story.  You want a bad guy?  It’s got a bad guy.  You want a great set and staging?  It’s got that.  You want music of transcendent beauty?  It’s got Puccini.  You want to be touched at your very core?  Virginia Opera’s production of this opera will do that.  There is a reason why Madama Butterfly is still one of the most popular operas in the world after over a hundred years, more popular than the play it is based on and the short story that gave rise to the play.  That profound reason is the incorporation of incredibly beautiful music and human voices that bypass your defenses and speak directly to your heart, making a connection that the author’s and the playwright’s words cannot achieve alone.  That is opera’s power, and this is the opera production that I recommend to you if you want to understand why so many of us love opera.

left: Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton and Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San. right: Levi Hernandez as Sharpless, Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, and Julius Ahn as Goro. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

First in the line of creative people responsible for this production of Madama Butterfly (1904) is the incredibly talented composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Just a word about teamwork – Illica and Giacosa were also the librettists for Puccini’s La Boheme and Tosca.  Illica layed out the plots and Giacosa largely wrote and refined the lyrics; then the three men argued until it was just right with the composer having the final say. The story and words are also important.  Next in line of key creative people is the artistic director of the opera company who must, working with other members of the company, select among all the operatic works which to bring to his audience, then pick a director and recruit singers for each production.  The directors select the format for the production and work not only with the conductor, the singers, but lighting and sound staff, the costume designer, and many, many people whose names don’t appear in the program but whose contributions are essential.  We may choose to focus credit on the composer, the conductor, or the singers who give special performances, but most of this work is highly interactive and collaborative and, in the end, it is a team effort in the truest sense, with everyone doing their best to get it right.  The entertainment and arts experience you have and take away with you is the result of a team of fellow humans reaching out to you.

Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, Joseph Hubbard as the Imperial Commissioner performing the ceremony, Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San, and Julius Ahn as Goro, the marraige broker. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, Joseph Hubbard as the Imperial Commissioner performing the ceremony, Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San, and Julius Ahn as Goro, the marraige broker. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

In Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a fifteen year-old Geisha from a dishonored family in Nagasaki in the early 1900s.  Through a marriage broker, Goro, she enters into a marriage with B. F. Pinkerton, an American Navy lieutenant stationed in Japan; by Japanese law this contract is for 999 years but can be cancelled with a month’s notice.  Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly, places all her hopes in this marriage, even changing to her husband’s religion, but for Pinkerton, despite being warned by his friend, U.S. Consul Sharpless, it is a month to month dalliance before going home.  – spoiler alert – Pinkerton is recalled to the U.S. but tells Butterfly he will return but without any conviction to return to her; he leaves unaware she is carrying his child.  Now an outcast in her society, she waits for him against the advice of Goro, Sharpless, and Suzuki, her maid, who doubt his return and urge her to engage in another marraige.  After three years, Pinkerton returns with his new American wife and learning of the child, plan to take custody of the boy.  Butterfly only learns of the wife and their plans on Pinkerton’s arrival.  She is devastated but agrees to give up the boy if Pinkerton will come himself to claim him.  As he arrives, Butterfly commits suicide. 

left: Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) is denounced by the Bonze (Hidenori Inoue) for changing her religion, as Pinkerton (Matthew Vickers) rushes to her aid. right: Cio-Cio-San is consoled by Pinkerton (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Act I of Virginia Opera’s production is simply stunning, beginning with the set, the costumes, and the lighting.  A Japanese house set on a hill with a path leading up to it in the back and a view of the distant countryside as background provides an ambiance of beauty in balance.  The house serves as the set for both Acts of Butterfly, Act I outside the house and Act II inside.  The scene fills out with arrival of the major characters and then the townspeople in colorful costumes, accompanied by Puccini’s gorgeous music that utilizes Japanese folk melodies for this opera and a few bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner”; I was overwhelmed with sensations, as though it was the first time I had seen this opera.  Kudo’s to all involved, especially Director Richard Gammon, Lighting Designer Kaitlyn Breen, Scenic Designer Wally Coberg, Wig and Make-up Designer James P. McGough, and Costume Designer Candice Donnelly.

Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) and her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi) listen as Consul Sharpless (Levi Hernandez) tries to warn Cio-Cio-San while Goro (Julius Ahn) listens in the background. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) and her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi) listen as Consul Sharpless (Levi Hernandez) tries to warn Cio-Cio-San while Goro (Julius Ahn) listens in the background. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The story telling is traditional and straightforward, no shifts in era or abstractions to muse over.  The focus is maintained on the conflicts generating the tensions and the emotions, both expressed and remaining hidden, resulting from both personal struggles and the clash of cultures - Butterfly’s tenderness, vulnerability, and desperation, her family’s and society’s disapproval, Pinkerton’s fun-loving, but callous attitude followed by the pain of his actions, Sharpless’s and Suzuki’s stuggle to manage being both protective and honest with Butterfly. 

The singers, beginning with soprano Danielle Pastin who played Cio-Cio-San are excellent at conveying the story.  I heard Ms. Pastin a couple of years ago when she played Liu in VA Opera’s Turandot and remarked that she was a singer to watch.  Her voice is lovely and she sings Butterfly wonderfully.  The pace of the opera was slow, to allow the audience to fully experience the emotions being transmitted.  Ms. Pastin showed remarkable poise and control sitting motionless through long musical interludes.  Tenor Matthew Vickers makes a fitting Pinkerton who drew boos as well as applause in his bows at the end, the boos of course directed at the character he played, the applause at him.  I thought at the end he was more convincing at accepting responsibility for his actions and being remorseful than many of the Pinkertons I have witnessed.  Several of the supporting cast had moments in the performance that made me take notice.  Baritone Levi Hernandez as Sharpless sang beautifully in an eye-opening performance; Julius Ahn as Goro showed a strong, clear baritone voice that made Goro a stronger participant in this production than I have seen in others, and Kristen Choi as Suzuki had standout arias filled with both power and emotion.  I expected this of Ms. Choi, but Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Ahn caught me by surprise; kudos to all three.  The other supporting players and chorus added immensely to the drama.  The Virginia Opera Orchestra, under Conductor Adam Turner’s sure hand played Puccini’s music in a manner that fully conveyed its beauty and magnificence, sometimes in breath taking fashion.

Suzuki (Kristen Choi) and Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) confronting the truth. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Suzuki (Kristen Choi) and Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) confronting the truth. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I cannot report that this was a perfect production.  Ms. Pastin’s mature demeanor did not convey a fifteen year-old’s vulnerability, but she did convey the subservience, desperation, and pain of her position.  Her vocals might have been a bit soft in a couple of spots.  Mr. Vickers competed with the orchestra to be heard on occassion, especially early on.  Maybe more of a fault of the opera itself, the long wait for Pinkerton to arrive began to seem like it really might last all night. And to be really picky, I thought, whereas Butterfly and Suzuki shaking plants to get falling flower petals was a neat effect, then having the flower petals flow from ceiling was an unnecessary concession to theatrics, a singular lapse for this production.  These are all minor concerns that can be overlooked for such an overall excellent performance.

For a soapbox minute - I loved this approach to storytelling with its emphasis on the story and not how to add effects.  I have seen other productions of Madama Butterfly that used different approaches intended to enhance the drama, with lighting or artistic coloration…in one case using a puppet as Butterfly’s son. (I forgot to give kudos to Brayden Livengood for a fine performance as the child in VA Opera’s production).  Audiences sometimes like and sometimes not these other approaches to story telling; same for me.  They can help enliven interest for an opera that folks have seen many times over like Madama Butterfly.  However, when the story is told successfully in a straightforward, classical way, without new theatrical trappings as enhancements, it can have powerful impact and be as gripping as the first time you saw it.  VA Opera made that happen Saturday night.

This opera gives us a valuable perspective on love, honor, respecting others, and sacrifice to think about.  Madama Butterfly does lack one thing.  It lacks a hero and thereby, it lacks a happy ending.  Or does it?  You came to hear this story and you cared.  Maybe you are the hero and the happy ending.

The Fan Experience: The final two performances of Madama Butterfly are coming up in Richmond on Friday evening, March 29, and Sunday afternoon, March 31.  

As always, I recommend the pre-opera talk 45 minutes before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Community Outreach and Musical Director, and note that it can be standing room only; so get there early.  I also recommend his blog reports on VA Opera’s next production typically issued just prior to the beginning of performances  This time, I will also add that the blog reports on Madama Butterfly are among the best that I have read of his, and I urge you to read for them for their insights into Japanese culture of the period, enhanced by his interactions with his sister who lived virtually all her life in Japan and his visits to her there.