Pittsburgh Festival Opera 2019: Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, and Mr. 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 27.  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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 hous 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”; f 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 “Mr. Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

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

Ahhh, you didn’t think I was going to end the report without saying anything about Mr. 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, “Mr. 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 Mr. Rogers and composed with his show’s musical director, Johnny Costa.  Mr. Rogers had a friend in college, John Reardon, a baritone who later became a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera.  The process Mr. 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.  Mr. 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 Mr. 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.




Maryland Opera - Granddaughter of the Baltimore Opera Company: Second Event

Opera Event, April 7:

 You may not have heard of Maryland Opera; in fact, it’s new to me, but then, this is its inaugural season.  On Sunday, April 7, the newly formed company will offer its second opera event of its season: “Puccini at the Pendry” will take place on April 7 at the Sagamore Ballroom of the Pendry Hotel in Fells Point on Baltimore’s waterfront.  MO’s premiere performance took place at Stevenson College on February 3 and was called “Verdi in the Valley”.  These themed events, sort of a composer’s greatest hits live, can be excellent entertainment and artistic experiences (see my review of “An Evening of Mozart” performed in Bethesda by the Maryland Lyric Opera).

James Harp, the Artistic Director of Maryland Opera, says the second opera event will provide arias by composer Giacomo Puccini (my personal favorite), who composed four of the world’s most popular operas - La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.  However, “Puccini at the Pendry” will not simply offer arias, it will provide staged and costumed excerpts from Puccini’s operas.  Mr. Harp on piano and a string quintet will provide the musical accompaniment.  An impressive cast of seasoned professionals have played many of these roles at major opera houses across the U.S. drawing rave reviews; the cast includes Cuban-American lyric soprano Elizabeth Caballero; Maryland native soprano Colleen Daly; verismo tenor Kirk Dougherty; emerging artist, baritone John Allen Nelson; and dramatic soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra. 

Program for “Puccini at the Pendry” –

La Boheme:  Act I Finale; complete Act III…

Cast - Elizabeth Caballero as Mimi, Kirk Dougherty as Rodolfo, Colleen Daly as Musetta, and John Allen Nelson as Marcello

Tosca:  Act I aria “Recondita armonia” and duet “Mario, Mario”; Act II aria “Vissi d’arte”; Act III Finale…

Cast - Amy Shoremount-Obra as Tosca, Kirk Dougherty as Cavaradossi, and John Allen Nelson as Angelotti

Edgar:  aria “Questo amor”…

Cast: John Allen Nelson as Frank

Turandot: aria “In questa reggia; aria “Nessun dorma”…

Cast: Amy Shoremount-Obra as Turandot and John Allen Nelson as Calaf

James Harp, Artistic Director of the Maryland Opera. Photo courtesy of Maryland Opera.

James Harp, Artistic Director of the Maryland Opera. Photo courtesy of Maryland Opera.

The Birth of Maryland Opera:

I first became aware of James Harp from his work with the Baltimore Concert Opera, most recently their excellent production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.  Mr. Harp has worked with BCO throughout its ten-year history as pianist and chorus master, but his involvement in opera in Baltimore goes back thirty years.  He worked for twenty years as Arts Administrator and Chorus Master for the late, great Baltimore Opera Company before its demise in 2009, a company that once held a respected place for Baltimore on the world’s opera map.  The Lyric Foundation of the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center sought to rebound fully-staged opera in Baltimore by establishing Lyric Opera Baltimore whose inaugural season was in 2011.  Dwindling audiences and financial resources led to the closing of LOB in 2017.  To recap, Baltimore Opera Company spawned Lyric Opera Baltimore which has now led to the birth of the completely independent Maryland Opera.  The continuing presence in these efforts was Mr. Harp who still maintains a strong drive to give Baltimore access to fully-staged opera.  Maryland Opera also continues an impressive program of educational and outreach activities inherited from Lyric Opera Baltimore.

Mr. Harp says audiences and the opera scene have changed in Baltimore and for opera in general.  He is planning to hold opera events, including fully-staged operas, in smaller venues that may change for each event and to do so statewide in order to reach new audiences for opera.  A significant part of MO’s mission is to provide training and job opportunities for regional opera talent - singers, choruses, and orchestras - that he believes are plentiful in the mid-Atlantic.  He plans on building Maryland Opera slowly to the point of fully-staged opera performances within a year or two.  Starting a new opera company means starting small and building on success.  He reports that MO’s initial event, “Verdi in the Valley” was a success.  Ultimately, whether Maryland Opera can rise out of the ashes of Baltimore Opera Company and Lyric Opera Baltimore will depend on the public’s and supporter’s responses to these initial events.  Mr. Harp is not only committed to opera in Baltimore, he is a romantic.  One of the last things he said to me was that he was determined that “we will always have Boheme.” Bogart couldn’t have said it better.

Come on Baltimore!  I’m rooting for Maryland Opera.  I live in the DC suburbs in northern Virginia and have a number of terrific options for opera, but I would love to have an option for fully-staged opera in Baltimore.  I frequent Baltimore Concert Opera as it is, and occasionally I drive to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to attend fully-staged opera performances; those cities have terrific operas.  I’d love putting Baltimore on that list and have Maryland become known as ‘the new hot spot’ for opera. 

The Fan Experience: Tickets for “Puccini at the Pendry” are $50.  In addition to metered on-street parking, the Sagamore Pendry Hotel is offering a special event price of $15 for valet parking.  The performances will be in Italian, but projected English subtitles will be used.  It’s been a couple of years since I visited Fells Point, but I remember it as a fun locale with lots of good restaurants.  I trust that hasn’t changed.


WNO’s Faust: The Devil Made Me Like It

Yeah, I have a few criticisms, but the bottom line is that Washington National Opera production of Faust (1859) is a good show and in total a better than average opera.  If you love traditional opera, it might just be what you have been waiting for.  The selling point for the opera is composer Charles Gounod’s pleasing music and the individual scenes, and the selling point for this production of Faust is the staging, including some fabulous sets.  If you read my blog report on Eugene Onegin, WNO’s other ongoing production, you know I was unhappy with the sets and staging.  Faust’s staging swings in the other direction, bolstering the performance.

Bass Raymond Aceto as Satan - you’re gonna love him…until the charm wears off. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Bass Raymond Aceto as Satan - you’re gonna love him…until the charm wears off. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Basic premise of Faust – an old man sells his soul to Satan to restore his youth, but in the opera that is just the beginning.  The term “Faustian bargain” is often used in discussions of politics and finance, and as WNO dramaturg Kelly O’Rourke alludes to in her program notes, it fits our approach today to the environment and climate change.  Indeed, the universality of the theme of sacrificing long-term gain for short-term profit is a staple of plays, movies, and life.  The librettists for Faust, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based the opera, with changes, on Part I of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s monumental two-part play by the same name.  – Spoiler Alert - In the opera’s case, the bargain Faust makes is to regain his youth and the devil’s services on earth by agreeing that later he will do the devil’s bidding in Hell.  (FDA warning label – this is a bad bargain; I repeat, a bad, bad bargain!)  What Faust wants most are the pleasures that the world can afford, especially young women, and Satan closes the deal by showing him a vision of the beautiful young maiden Marguerite, who is also innocent and pure, and thus, a delicious target for the devil himself.  If Faust can make her his conquest, he will unwittingly also be making her Satan’s conquest.  Faust succeeds in seducing her only to abandon her, carrying his child, causing  Marguerite to become a social outcast.  Her brother Valentin who had adored her, returns from war, and outraged, challenges Faust to a duel that he loses due to the devil’s intervention; before dying he curses his sister.  Marguerite, realizing Satan’s involvement, kills her child and is cast into prison.  Faust visits her in prison, but she rejects him and prays for forgiveness; she is taken into heaven.  Satan, angry about losing Marguerite, takes Faust to hell.  When the opera began, I thought Faust was to be the central character, but at the end it seemed more about Marguerite; it was almost bait and switch, and left me wondering what the librettists were trying to convey.  German opera companies tend to give their productions the title of Margarethe for that reason and to distance the opera from their beloved Goethe.  Gounod made several changes to the opera over time such as replacing speaking sections with recitative.  The WNO production is sans the ballet that Gounod later added to the beginning of Act V; the WNO production still runs over three hours.

Soprano Erin Wall as Marguerite and tenor Marcelo Puente as the young Faust in one of the fairytale sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Soprano Erin Wall as Marguerite and tenor Marcelo Puente as the young Faust in one of the fairytale sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Satan, sung by bass Raymond Aceto, who was also in WNO’s Ring, carried the momentum forward.  Mr. Aceto has a fine bass voice and acquitted himself well.  He does an aria where he literally “prays” that nothing goes wrong with his plans that is remarkable.  Throughout the evening, he effectively switches from being charming and then quickly diabolical; I liked him and then felt a quick chill that reminded me he was the devil and not an anti-hero.  The movies and television have conditioned us to like the bad guys (the anti-hero, a bad guy who takes on bad guys who are even worse) because they carry the action forward, and we love the action.  Faust is the weak link in the story, and unfortunately on Saturday night, as sung by tenor Marcello Puente, he was the least impressive singer; I anticipated more from Mr. Puente; maybe it was an off night, though his transformation from old man to young stud was neat.  Marguerite represents the challenge, both for Faust and Satan, and as played by soprano Erin Wall, she was up to the challenge; she sang and acted beautifully, especially in the Jewel Song where the devil made the right call to sweeten her path to destruction.  The singers in the supporting roles turned in admirable performances, especially mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, now a WNO regular, who sang with power and emotion playing Marguerite’s secret admirer Siébel with touching effectiveness.   Baritone Joshua Hopkins surprised me with the strength of his voice and portrayal - kudos.  Probably the singer with the most compelling stage presence was Deborah Nansteel who has an attractive, powerful mezzo-soprano voice.  She played a neighbor who unwittingly aided Marguerite’s seduction but failed in her own comic attempt to seduce the devil.

The townspeople celebration scene; another of the charming sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The townspeople celebration scene; another of the charming sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The sets and staging were impressive in color and design, adding as advertised, a fairytale flavor. Kudos to Earle V. Staley for the set and costume design.  This production was originated by the Houston Grand Opera.  See if you can find the faces in the curtain as you maneuver to your seat.  The opening act was very well done, ending with a theatrical flash of light and the appearance of the young Faust.  There were more theatrics – the devil made wine flow from a fountain, and he broke Valentin’s sword.  These generally worked effectively.  Act IV with Valentin’s return and death seemed the most effective as serious dramatic opera; his death scene with the crowd urging his forgiveness of Marguerite was gripping.  The last set was breathtaking.  Director Garnett Bruce does a fine job, though the staging misfires in a couple of ways.  The play within in a play going on at the country celebration can’t compete with the devil’s antics and is mostly wasted, though the irony isn’t.  I also admit I had difficulty following what was transpiring at in Act IV’s church scene where Marguerite goes to repent and is confronted by a demonic choir and Satan.  Finally, we learned of the baby’s death from Faust when he visited her in prison; that’s a pretty powerful event to just say, oh and by the way, how could you have killed your kid?  In all, the plot fails to develop a central theme sufficiently to fully engage us in the drama, especially in passing over too quickly the personal tragedy of Faust’s decision.  The focus is its impact on others which divides attention.  Each scene has its own interest and the combination works overall, but to me, it comes across as a variety show, though a good variety show.

left: Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Valentin. right: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as Dame Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbor, and bass Raymond Aceto as Satan. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Gounod’s music is beautiful and worth attending the opera to hear.  Even if you haven’t heard it before, I suspect some of the melodies will be familiar to you.  The orchestra under Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson played well I thought.  While fully supporting the action on stage, the music nevertheless drew my attention because of its beauty on several occasions.  At the first intermission, my wife said to me, “I am grooving on the conductor’s long, bouncing ponytail. Hope we see more females.”  Though I was pleased that there was a female conductor when I first saw Faust announced, I had not thought about it to that point in the performance.  Though Maestro Wilson got the job due to her qualifications and is rightfully judged by her performances, the paucity of opportunities given to female conductors is well known.  It was gratifying to see some gender-neutral hiring being done; kudos to WNO, and yes, that did make me feel more warmly toward this production.  The WNO chorus as usual under Steven Gathman’s direction performed beautifully.

The Fan ExperienceWashington National Opera has three more performances of Faust scheduled, March 22, 24, and 27. Unless you have a strict rule about not wanting to know the story ahead of time, I strongly recommend reading a detailed synopsis of Faust before attending to really stay up with the drama in the last Act.  Pick one online before the performance; the one in the Program handed out at the performance is too brief. 

I took the subway to Saturday’s performance and should have checked Metro’s status and alerts page.  They were doing single tracking from Ballston to Rosslyn.  I had to change from the Silver to the Orange Line in Ballston, causing a 25-minute delay that resulted in me missing the first half of the pre-opera talk, which was given by the amiable Ken Weiss, Principal Coach of the Domingo-Caftitz Young Artists, and was focused on the opera’s musical elements in the half of the talk that I heard.

Maryland Lyric Opera’s “An Evening of Mozart”: How Opera Might Have Been

Magically, you are transported back to December 5, 1801.  Mayor of Vienna Josef Georg Hörl has invited you to a church concert in honor of the tenth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  You are grateful for the opportunity to attend a concert.  You are weary from local political battles and the wars plaguing Europe, and there is a new threat from the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris.  You need this respite, a chance to enjoy the glorious music of this great composer.  Excerpts from three of his operas, all written in the last five years of his life, with librettos by that rascal Lorenzo Da Ponte are to be performed by seven rising opera stars, accompanied by a small orchestra of Vienna’s best players.  And importantly, it’s a chance for everyone to come together and be of one mind for this one evening when civility will reign as Mr. Mozart and Mr. Da Ponte provide lessons on the nature of love. 

That could have been you on Friday night or on Saturday night, in spirit if not in fact, at the Maryland Lyric Opera Institute’s concert, “An Evening of Mozart” performed at Bethesda United Methodist Church - except for that part about the mayor of Vienna.  If you imagine that the performers were in 18th century garb, this is how opera might have been in Vienna two-hundred years ago.  That is how I experienced it from the moment that Maestro Louis Salemno, with short white hair and beard, dressed in black shirt and trousers, strode to the podium and with gravelly voice began to set the stage for the audience as to what was taking place in the scenes from The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte that we were to witness. 

left: Soprano Mary Feminear. right: Soprano Youna Hartgraves. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Individually, in pairs, and in groups, seven singers stepped up to demonstrate new mastery of their craft gained through recent intensive training with the MDLO Institute.  These singers are already accomplished artists with degrees, honors in competitions, and a performance record under their belts, but intent on rising to yet a higher level of competence in what I call the struggle for beauty.  Entertaining us and sharing the beauty of their voices and singing were bass-baritone Adam Cioffari, soprano Mary Feminear, tenor Joseph Michael Brent, soprano Nanyoung Song, mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt, baritone José Sacin, and soprano Youna Hartgraves.  I am a lover of voices, and I can tell you now - all of these are keepers.

left: Soprano Nanyoung Song and bass-baritone Adam Cioffari. right: Baritone José Sacin. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

First up were excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro beginning with Adam Cioffari as Figaro.  With his  shining baritone laced with anger, he delivered the message that the Count has picked the wrong man’s wife to dally with.  Next, mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt sang Cherubino’s love aria, simply and beautifully, perhaps only needing a little more confidence to bring Cherubino’s character more to the front.  One of the dramatic highlights of the evening was soprano Youna Hartgraves as the Countess singing the aria mourning the loss of sweetness and pleasure once provided by her unfaithful husband, expressing both pain and jealousy.  Let me amend that; it was sung by Assistant Professor, Dr. Youna J. Hartgraves – I told you these singers were already accomplished.  José Sacin, a singer in mid-career, who has performed with Washington National Opera and houses across Europe sang as the Count of his unrequited passion for Susanna with a clear, strong baritone voice.  A thrilling dramatic moment for the audience was a duet by Ms. Hartgraves as the Countess and soprano Mary Feminear as Susanna, singing “Che soave zeffiretto”.  If you saw the Shawshank Redemption, this was the aria played over the prison loudspeakers that caused all the prisoners to pause and listen, while Morgan Freeman added in voiceover that those ladies were singing something too beautiful to be expressed in words.  Indeed, their voices were beautiful individually, but entwined, they were rapturous.  Not only that – they strolled partway down the center aisle while singing to within a few feet of me; being so close to the singers will definitely immerse you in the experience!

left: Mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt and soprano Youna Hartgraves. right: tenor Joseph Michael Brent. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Tenor Joseph Michael Brent (who also holds a doctoral degree) and soprano Nanyoung Song made their appearances in the Don Giovanni excerpts.  Mr. Brent delivered Don Ottavio’s aria of adoration of Donna Anna with sonorous brilliance.  I though Mr. Brent was good when first I heard him a year ago.  He is now even better, a career worth following.  Kudos to him and to the MDLO team. Ms. Song was featured as Zerlina in a delightful duet with Mr. Ciofarri as Giovanni in what might be called the seduction aria. This section ended with a stirring singing of Mozart’s brilliant Giovanni sextet, “sola sola in buio loco” that clearly was an audience favorite.  As well as excellent singing, the group hammed it up a bit with the excerpts from Cosi fan tutte, and they were fun.  In all, I am unable to name one aria or performance during the evening that I did not really enjoy, due both to the selection of excerpts and these amazing artists.

A comedic moment of  Cosi fan tutte ; soprano Nanyoung Song as Despina in disguise holds the magic cure for the passed out boys and, Conductor Louis Salemno holds the baton in the background. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

A comedic moment of Cosi fan tutte; soprano Nanyoung Song as Despina in disguise holds the magic cure for the passed out boys and, Conductor Louis Salemno holds the baton in the background. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Well, what about the music?  From the opening chords of the overture of Figaro, I wanted to take the MDLO Orchestra home with me.  The overture was thrilling, and Maestro Salemno taught me another lesson; see my comments on MDLO’s La Fanciulla del West for the first.  I have wailed about how opera houses need larger orchestras and need to get them out of the pit so we get the full impact of the music.  There is another option – put the orchestra you have in a smaller concert hall.  The twenty-five players dressed in white jackets under Salemno’s direction provided plenty of sound.  Playing your stereo at home this loud would result in visits from irate neighbors.  Honestly, a seventy-piece orchestra in the pit of the large opera houses provides no better quality sound.  But, it wasn’t just the wonderful volume – the playing was wonderful and the sound was simply beautiful.  Kudos to Conductor Salemno and the MDLO orchestra. I could imagine Mozart smiling down from heaven, tapping his fingers.  What a marvelous opportunity for the MDLO Institute artists to perform with such great support.

I often muse about how it might have been to hear Mozart’s or Rosssini’s or Verdi’s music in their day when there were no recordings, videos, or music streaming services.  Attending an MDLO Institute concert is as close as it comes to experiencing opera as it might have been, close enough that I will add this one to my list of transcendent experiences.  In Mozart’s day, all music was live.  Folks, there still is live music today, at least for the present, and the future if we support it.  Come, join your neighbors; leave the world’s troubles behind and experience an evening of beauty and civility.

“Culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – can bind us together as one world.”  Yo Yo Ma   

The Fan Experience:  “An Evening of Mozart” was only performed twice, Friday and Saturday evenings.  A reception was held following the performances with pastries, coffee, and tea provided and the chance to mingle with the singers, orchestra members, and MDLO staff.

Want to be transported to nineteenth century Italy? You can do so in College Park. MDLO has scheduled two more “Evening” events this season to feature MDLO Institute artists: “An Evening of Verdi:, May 18 and 19; and “An Evening of Puccini” on June 7 and 9.  The “Evening” events on May 19 and June 9 will be matinees. Both will be held at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center  Tickets are not yet available.


WNO’s Eugene Onegin: Opera in a Box

I’ve got a problem with this one.  I wanted drama; I feel like I got theater. The set threw me off at the very beginning.  I liked the new stagings of Aida, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata that Washington National Opera has brought to DC in recent years.  However, the part of me that likes innovative stagings of classic operas and the part of me that likes traditional stagings of classic operas agree on the staging for WNO’s production of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugne Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin, 1879): We don’t like it, the staging that is, primarily the set…but then, as the saying goes, who are we to disagree with millions of others.  I can point you to a number of reviews of this production over the years and of Saturday night’s performance (see the side bar) that praise the staging. 

Two views of the letter-writing scene with Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I love the opera itself; I like the individual performances, the music, the singing, the acting (mostly), the perfect mid-nineteenth century costumes.  I like that the Russian headliners live up to advance notice and that there are some other standout performances.  However, the scenes are mostly centered in a large box, three blank walls - two sides and a back, lavishly painted with colored light and sometimes seen through a scrim.  The staging is creative and artsy, and what happens in the each scene is well directed, presenting the story in a straightforward manner.  The intended effect is to focus attention on the unfolding relationships. Putting the scene in a box will do that for puppet shows at home, but we have different expectations of a stage.  Video directors use close ups to focus attention.  However, with closeups you only see the closeup.  In the Opera House what you see is a small grouping in the middle of a very large box, bathed in light.  The box is pretty, but it is still a box. One can make the argument that the lights add to the romantic lyricism, but only if you can avoid thinking about it. The minimalist staging intends an intimacy that I feel is lost beyond perhaps the first few rows, and most importantly, the staging itself draws attention away from the drama.  For example, the new staging I liked best was using a scrim for the duel scene imparting a hazy blue, early morning appearance to the scene; however, my attention was split between marveling at the novel appearance and being drawn into the emotional tension unfolding.  This production was created by the Canadian Opera Company and has been used by the Metropolitan Opera, beginning in 1997.  One famous Met opera using this production was in 2007, starring Renée Fleming and Dimitri Hvorostovsky.  It drew glowing reviews, but hey, it starred Fleming and Hvorostovsky.  (You can compare the two stagings at home.  Take a look at the 2007 video, available for streaming from Met Opera On Demand for about $15, and notice the use of close ups.  Also take a look at the 2017 Met Onegin, a production with different staging, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecień.  Which do you prefer?  They are no substitute for a live performance, but they will give you the idea). 

The duel scene in  Eugene Onegin . Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The duel scene in Eugene Onegin. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I love the story of Eugene Onegin.  Unlike a lot of the classical repetoire, I can connect with its emotionality. The opera is taken, sometimes verbatim, from Alexander Pushkin’s novel of the same name written in verse and published in serial form between 1825 and 1832.  In its time it was the most beloved work of literature by the Russian people and is still treasured; Pushkin is considered the Russian Shakespeare.  Tchaikovsky showed courage in using this novel for his opera, a lot to live up to. -Spoiler alert- A young Russian country girl, Tatiana, falls in love with an aristocratic neighbor, Onegin, introduced to her by her sister Olga’s fiancé, Lensky.  Overcome by her passion, Tatiana sends a letter to Onegin declaring her feelings.  Onegin rejects her advance, keeping with his nature by acting honorably but also in a condescending manner; Tatiana is crushed.  At a party, Onegin starts paying attention to Olga and she responds to his flirtation.  He only wants to distance himself from Tatiana and to irk Lensky, but he takes it too far.  Lensky, inflamed by jealousy, challenges him to a duel and is killed.  Onegin is distraught and wanders aimlessly for five years until he accidentally encounters Tatiana at a ball in St. Petersburg; she is now a sophisticate married to a Prince.  Onegin realizes he is in love with her and pleads his case.  She questions whether his interest is due to her new status. She finally admits she still loves him, but she declares that she will remain faithful to her husband, leaving Onegin alone and disconsolate. 

This is powerful stuff and deserving of a focus on the feelings.  The letter writing scene, Tatiana’s humiliation by Onegin, Lensky’s reflections before the duel, and Onegin’s final pleas are some of the most emotionally charged scenes in all of opera.  There is a back story here as well.  While working on the opera, Tchaikovsky got a letter from a fan declaring her love for him.  He married the fan, but the marriage quickly fell apart, probably because Tchaikovsky was gay and had married her to dispel talk about his sexuality.  He went abroad and finished the opera.  The opera was a new style for Russian opera at the time, transitioning from romanticism to realism.  I have read that Pushkin wanted to emphasize the cultural clash between country provincials and city sophisticates, whereas Tchaikovsky wanted to focus on the emotional devastation caused by this class conflict, perhaps spurred on by the abuse he suffered from being gay.  Tchaikovsky feared that opera houses would make the performances too theatrical, obscuring his focus on feelings.  In fact, he called the work “lyrical scenes”, not opera, and tried out an early version using students rather than professional opera singers.  It is to this production’s credit that its goal was to support the composer’s vision; I just think it misses the mark.

left: Lindsay Ammann as Olga and Alexy Dolgov as Lensky. middle: Victoria Livengood as Filippyevna and Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina. right: Igor Golovatenko as Onegin and Eric Halfvarson as Gremin. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Okay – what did I like?  Just about everything else, and if you like or don’t mind the staging, I think you will find this one quite satisfying overall.  WNO brought in two singers from the Bolshoi for this production, known in Europe, but making their debut in the U.S.  Let’s start with Anna Nechaeva, the Russian soprano who plays Tatiana; she has a lovely, strong soprano voice, and sings and acts marvelously.  Her letter scene was touching, as it should be.  I know someone who will only go to Eugene Onegin performances when the main roles are sung by Russians because of the language challenges.  I have no doubt he is pleased with Ms. Nechaeva; I was.  WNO should get her name on another contract quickly.  Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko was also excellent as Onegin.  His acting early on is a little too stoic, but the man has a voice – wow!  He first came alive with his acting at the party where he regretted having pushed Lensky too far.  Tenor Alexy Dolgov, also from Russia though performing in the U.S. for many years, gave me the surprise of the night.  At first, I thought his voice and singing were just okay, but when he sang the aria asking where his youth had gone just before the duel, I was enraptured, a perfect combination of voice and emotion, maybe the best single aria of the night.  Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann, who has appeared in other WNO productions, gave us a light and flirtatious Olga.

The supporting cast was also excellent; four I will mention.  Mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba who played the girls’ mother, Madame Larina and mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood who played Tatiana’s nurse were both pleasures; Ms. Livengood especially stood out.  Tenor Joshua Blue, a Domingo-Cafritz young artist, gave us an amusing Monsieur Triquet who composed and sang couplets at Tatiana’s party.  Base Eric Halfvarson who previously appeared in WNO’s Ring played Prince Gremin.  His aria about Tatiana and love later in life was touching and could have been the basis for the sequel if Tchaikovsky had been so inclined.

The closing scene of Eugene Onegin as Tatiana played by Anna Nechaeva refuses Onegin as played by Igor Golovatenko. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The closing scene of Eugene Onegin as Tatiana played by Anna Nechaeva refuses Onegin as played by Igor Golovatenko. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Tchaikovsky’s music is melodic, lush, and glorius.  I have had Tatiana’s theme stuck in my head since first I heard it years ago.  The orchestra under Conductor Robert Trevino brings the score to life in able support of the singers and drama, only a little uneven at times.  The chorus under Chorus Master Steven Gathman sounded fine.  I will say though that for the first time at an opera I thought the chorus and supernumeraries might have been excessive in number.  As an aside, I don’t usually hear music in one work that reminds me of another composer, but I thought I detected Mozart in Olga and Tatiana’s opening duet and detected Verdi in the opening of the last act.

Let me add one more comment in closing.  The productions of this opera seems to be driven by star power. I’d love to see a performance by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists (unfortunately one is not scheduled), but in a smaller venue and do away with the box, just surround the scene at play with darkness.  I think a more intimate setting, maybe the Terrace Theater, might be a better venue to get the full emotional impact of Pushkin/Tchaikovsky’s work.  I wish Tchaikovsky could speak.

The Billington Rose I received as an audience member at the opening performance of WNO’s  Eugene   Onegin . Photo by author.

The Billington Rose I received as an audience member at the opening performance of WNO’s Eugene Onegin. Photo by author.

The Fan Experience: Adding to the romanticism of the evening was a rose given to each audience member of the opening performance by the Billington family as we departed in honor of the legacy of Dr. James Billington who was the Librarian of Congress from 1987-2015.  The Billington Rose is the National Flower.  I especially appreciated the acknowledgement on the tag for Dr. and Mrs. Billington, supporters of WNO, that speaks of their “commitment to the beauty of greater cultural understanding.” Let us all be committed to that.

WNO has five more performances of Eugene Onegin scheduled, March 17, 20, 23, 25, and 29.  I enjoyed the informative pre-opera talk by Administrator in Artistic Planning Colin Brush and recommend it. Also note that performances of Faust begin on Saturday, March 16.

Baltimore Concert Opera’s The Flying Dutchman: Hale and Hearty, Mates!

Depiction of the last scene of  The Flying Dutchma n (1843); artist unknown. Public domain; from  Wikipedia .

Depiction of the last scene of The Flying Dutchman (1843); artist unknown. Public domain; from Wikipedia.

Baltimore Concert Opera gave a stirring performance of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Höllander in german,1843) on Sunday afternoon, maybe the best in terms of impact of their productions I have seen.  However, there is an important point to be made before I give you the remainder of my report.  Word has gotten around about Baltimore Concert Opera.  I am pleased to have been introduced to this opera company when you could get a ticket last minute, but that is increasingly not the case.  The Dutchman was sold out; their next production, Scalia/Ginsburg and Trial by Jury, is also sold out (I suggest a possible work around in The Fan Experience section below if you really, really want to see Scalia/Ginsburg).  Even BCO’s “Thirsty Thursdays” events are starting to sell out.  There are reasons for this: their performances and events are engaging and fun and performed in a lavish and cozy setting, and they are a bargain.  You have been warned – plan ahead and get your tickets early; in fact, it may be time to seriously consider getting a season subscription for next season. 

Let’s begin with a short synopsis of this opera which is based on a myth from the 17th century that composer Richard Wagner adapted for his purposes – the Dutchman is the captain of a ghost ship who must sail the seven seas until he finds a true love that will remain faithful forever.  Once every seven years he is allowed to go ashore to search for the woman who will be faithful to him for eternity.  A storm drives his ship into a port where he encounters another captain, Daland, who has a daughter, Senta, that he is willing to betroth to the Dutchman for the great wealth he will gain.  Senta who is obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman is more than willing to accept the proposal.  Unfortunately, the Dutchman later sees her with another pursuer, Erik, and thinks she has reneged and starts out to sea without her despite her protestations.  She proves her faithfulness by leaping off a cliff into the sea.  The ship disappears, and the Dutchman and Senta ascend to heaven in embrace.  Only opera can turn leaping to your death into a happy ending.

The Baltimore Concert Opera Chorus with Conductor and Pianist James Harp at the piano and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani seated. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The Baltimore Concert Opera Chorus with Conductor and Pianist James Harp at the piano and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani seated. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The Flying Dutchman is probably the gentlest opera of Wagner’s for newbies to get indoctrinated into his music.  I have to admit, though, I was wondering what the effect of hearing Wagner without an orchestra would be.  BCO performances are with only piano providing accompaniment to the singers.  At first, I missed the orchestra; the overture to the Dutchman is one of Wagner’s best.  And in truth, as good as it was, Conductor and Pianist James Harp’s short overture on the piano was no match for a 60-piece orchestra going on for another ten minutes, but I must also add that he provided fine accompaniment throughout the performance portraying both a roaring storm and gentle ballads with a deft touch.  A very enjoyable feature of this opera is Wagner’s extensive use of choruses, and BCO gave us three, a real treat, especially in the cozy setting of the Engineer’s club.  The male members of the BCO Chorus kicked off the opera singing the strong-voiced Norwegian crew chorus.  The female members added to the pleasure at the beginning of the second act as young women singing the delightful and popular spinning song.  The Maryland State Boychoir entered in Act III to sing the role of the Ghost Chorus, the Dutchman’s crew, capping the afternoon’s surfeit of excellent singing by the choruses. Kudos to Maestro Harp and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani for their work with these crews.

Todd Thomas as the Dutchman. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Todd Thomas as the Dutchman. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

It’s amazing how, on rare occasion, a single performer will cause me to relax and have confidence that I am really going to enjoy the proceedings.  Sunday afternoon, baritone Todd Thomas was that performer.  On his entrance, his demeanor, voice, and singing said “I am the Dutchman” (well, all right then), and he anchored this production from thereon with a voice well suited to the part and with his ability to transmit both weary hopelessness at his unhappy fate and cautious relief that his suffering might not be in vain.  Senta was played by soprano Alexandra LoBianco whose voice I really enjoyed.  Senta is a fascinating character to me.  I’m never sure whether she exists in some altruistic metaphysical realm or has simply gone bonkers.  Ms. LoBianco sang Senta with less power than most Senta’s I’ve heard (though she certainly turned it on a couple of times), choosing to spend her time in the high registers with a soft, at times eery, yet beautiful sound suggesting madness. Her portrayal was of an obsessed and resolute Senta, an effective and distinguished characterization. 

Alexandra LoBianco as Senta. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Alexandra LoBianco as Senta. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Another major role in the Dutchman is Senta’s father, Daland who was played credibly by bass-baritone Justin Hopkins who has a rich, warm sound.  Senta’s father is also an interesting character: Is he a somewhat comedic figure whose eyes get large when he sees a chance to grab some gold and sees no problem with picking a rich suitor for his daughter, or is he a more sinister character willing to sell his daughter for his own profit?  BCO and Mr. Hopkins chose the former characterization which drew some laughs, perhaps offering some comedic relief for an intense drama.  Personally, my preference runs toward maintaining the intensity of the drama.  Myths and stories from long ago can have the suspension of disbelief broken if the audience finds something funny that shouldn’t be funny.  BCO largely avoided this.

left: Todd Thomas as the Dutchman, Alexandra LoBianco as Senta, and Justin Hopkins as Daland. right: Alexandra LoBianco as Senta and Dane Suarez as Erik. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The role of Senta’s would-be beau, Erik, was played by tenor Dane Suarez.  Mr. Suarez’s singing was another highlight of the performance, though he looked rather suave to be a provincial, hunter type.  He and Senta have a stirring duet where he reveals a dream he had of Senta going away with a sea captain dressed in black, which disturbs Erik but inflames Senta’s passion, well done by both singers, though the audience did find comedy in the contrast between their reactions.  Other performers who ably supported the drama were tenor Orin Strunk who sang the role of the Steersman and mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar who sang the role of Senta’s Nurse who vainly sought to move Senta away from her obsession with the ghost captain.  Mr. Strunk had a lovely, well delivered aria of longing for his sweetheart, though there was some uncertainty in his mid-range early on. 

Overall, this cast brought this story home, hale and hearty fare, and I’ve been chewing on it quite a bit since then.  I decided to listen once more to a recording of the Dutchman.  Yes, hearing the overture delivered by an orchestra was again marvelous, but I also discovered to my surprise that my appreciation for this opera had grown significantly.  Somehow, attending the BCO concert version has opened me up even more to the fully-staged opera.  With the BCO version under my belt, I am enjoying and appreciating even the orchestral music more.  In fact, I now realize that this is a much better opera than I thought before and would like to see it again.  Hmmm; how did that happen?

The Fan Experience: As noted in the above report, Baltimore Concert Opera’s last opera production of the year, Scalia/Ginsberg and Trial by Jury, coming up on April 5 and 7, is sold out.    You can get on a waiting list, but here is something you may not know.  BCO often collaborates with Opera Delaware to co-sponsor a production – a concert version by BCO, then a fully-staged version by Opera Delaware with the same cast for both.  Guess what?  This is the case for Scalia/Ginsburg and Trial by JuryOpera Delaware’s performances are coming up April 28 and May 3, and of this writing, tickets are still available.  These performances are part of their 2019 Festival which also features Jake Hegge’s opera, Dead Man Walking.  Opera Delaware performs in The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, less than 70 miles up I-95 from Baltimore.  Tempting, isn’t it?

Getting It Off My Chest: The Superbowl Commercial Mercedes Should Have Made

I had a mama hen moment watching the Super Bowl a few weeks ago (that would be “mother hen” for you folks that didn’t grow up in the South); a mama hen is overly protective of her biddies (“baby chicks” for you folks that didn’t grow up in the South).  At any rate, if you will allow me one overreaction, I am annoyed, to put it mildly, by the Mercedes Superbowl commercial that features pop singer Ludacris in what I view as a put down of opera to help sell their cars (I like Ludacris’ music by the way and Mercedes cars).  The one-minute commercial is available on YouTube.  This ode to instant gratification features an attractive, hip young guy who goes through several fast-paced scenes giving brief verbal commands that makes the scene more to his liking – at a traffic light, he says “change light” and it changes to green;  he says “make it rain” and it rains money; he sees a parking ticket being placed on a car, says “tear up ticket”, and the ticket is instantly shredded; and so forth.  It ends with him getting into his new Mercedes and giving it verbal commands to make it change the lights color, make it cooler in the car, and play his music.  I feel sure that Mercedes is wanting to appeal to the young, upwardly mobile generation to sell them their luxury car, at least a sporty version of their car, with a tribal message to the young demographic that says inside a Mercedes you can have it your way on demand.  Ok, they are selling a car.

There is a scene where the young man is in the audience with his date at an opera performance with Ludacris in costume singing opera on stage; the obviously bored young man says “change music”, and Ludacris breaks into an up tempo hip-hop number, much more to his liking.  Bam, opera put-down.  I also note that in changing the music, Ludacris’ face changes from a lighter shade to his natural skin tone.  Not really sure what to make of that , but is the message that opera is for old white people? Admittedly, opera audiences are dominated by older, white people, but not exclusively so.  I think it is fair to say that increasing minority participation in all aspects of opera is a goal of the opera community.  Maybe it is just intended to say that pop music is more natural than opera which is artificial. Regardless, let me raise this question, is putting down a musical art form, in front of young people, in order to sell their cars a strategy Mercedes really wants to be associated with? 

When they go low, we go high.  I offer a different commercial with a different message for Mercedes to use.

Opening - a conductor is working with a diversified youth orchestra to learn a Mozart piece of music and it’s not going so well.  Or maybe it’s the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Each subsequent scene with the orchestra the music sounds better.

Intersperse with young artists being coached in learning Mozart arias or Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s ninth.

 In each subsequent scene with the singers they are getting more confidant.

Finish with the singers and orchestra playing the piece together.

Last scene is the conductor getting into her new Mercedes to drive away; she says “change the color, make it cooler, and play my music…wow, how did they develop this feature?”; she drives away with the music still gently playing in the background.

The closing voiceover says, “It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but when it all comes together, it’s beautiful!”.

The ending caption reads – And Beauty Never Goes Out of Style.

Even if I am overreacting, I think this would be a cool commercial.



Knights of the Opera Table 2019: How’d My Favorite Opera Critics Do?

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri:  http://www.oldbookart.com/2012/01/15/middle-ages-medieval-dress/ .

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri: http://www.oldbookart.com/2012/01/15/middle-ages-medieval-dress/.

I wrote a blog report a year ago on professional opera critics whose beats are in the mid-Atlantic, in which I proclaimed my appreciation for the work they do as journalists and as knowledgeable arbiters of the good.  I deemed them Knights of the Opera Table who champion the shining examples of opera productions and slay the weak ones.  But I also claimed that some reviews and reviewers are better than others, so the reviewers deserve some scrutiny themselves.  So, how did the critics in the mid-Atlantic do this past year?  Well, here is my quasi-scholarly review, or as with all of my blog reports, one fan’s opinion.

What do I expect of professional critics?  First of all, I expect that a critic will be knowledgeable and experienced in their area of coverage and use that expertise to provide insights and relevant information about performances and performers.  Unfortunately, information about the backgrounds of critics is often difficult to find; see my Critics web page for information I culled together on backgrounds of some of the critics.  Second, I expect a critic to be a good journalist, providing an informative and balanced report on what happened at a performance.  Lastly, I expect them to be objective and critical in reporting on what measured up to or exceeded professional standards and what did not.  I always read reviews either before or after I see a performance to compare my views with an experienced professional critic. I learn more about opera that way and, I believe, enhance my enjoyment of opera that way. 

I should mention that I live in the DC area and tend to read more reports by DC critics because I see more operas in this area and have the Washington Post delivered each morning.  However, I make pilgrimages to Philly and Pittsburgh (and NYC) at least once a year, and I check for reviews of all operas in those areas.

Let’s begin at the top.  My favorite Knight in the mid-Atlantic realm continues to be the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette.  She had an exceptional year in terms of both productivity and quality of her reviews and features.  Her reviews are timely; she frequently writes what she calls “insta-reviews” that she posts online the morning after a performance - I stand in awe.  If you want to read an article that sparkles in terms of presentation, composition, and content, read her piece on composer Philip Glass.  She makes helping her audience better understand classical music a priority; read her recent piece on the best way to understand a Beethoven concerto. She also takes on social issues in opera and classical music, especially championing women performers, conductors, and composers.  A series of articles (beginning with this one) with her colleague Peggy McGlone on sexual misconduct in the classical music community have had significant impact.    I don’t always agree with her assessments; for example, I thought her view of Silent Night seemed a little jaded, but maybe mine was a little too naive.  If there is a better classical music and opera critic anywhere, please point her out to me.

The DC area continues to be informed by reviews from Charles Downey who writes for Classical Review. Mr. Downey’s review is usually the first one I read because he is usually the first to post online; virtually all of his reviews are insta-reviews.  To write such concise, knowledgeable, balanced, and insightful critical reviews that quickly is impressive, and I always learn something by reading his reviews.  His reviews also sometimes help provide balance to Ms. Midgette’s; for example, compare his review of WNO’s La Traviata with Ms. Midgette’s.  I was more in his camp than hers.

Continuing with critics in the DC area, I will also mention Susan Galbraith, Philip Kennicott, and newcomer, at least to my attention, Patrick Rucker.  Ms. Galbraith, who I only recently added to the Opera Table, writes longer, more detailed reviews, perhaps less critical, but an excellent place to add to your opera knowledge.  She also reviews theater and musical theater for DC Theatre Scene. 

What to do about the Post’s Mr. Kennicott?  He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and my favorite writer among journalists, though his beat is actually art and architecture.  His work in those areas displays an acute sense of the human and societal undercurrents influencing art and being influenced by art; I found his review of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to be especially powerful.  His lone opera review this past season was a rather dark critique of Washington National Opera’s Don Carlos.  Given the infrequency of his opera reviews and features this past year, I have decided to institute a reserve corps and move Mr. Kennicott to the Knights of the Opera Table Reserves.  In fairness, he spent much of the past year writing a book titled “The Goldberg Variations: A Memoir”.   The publisher notes that the book investigates “the nature of learning and mastery, and how they might help us during times of grieving and loss”; his particular loss was his mother’s death.  The book is due out this winter.   

Patrick Rucker, a classical music critic for the Washington Post, drew my attention this year with a strong, incisive writing style.  I’m not awarding him opera knighthood yet, with his limited forays into opera battles, but he is one to watch.  I hope he reviews more operas.  Oddly, he doesn’t have a Washington Post web page I can refer you to, but you can look up his reviews on the Post website.   

Let’s move up I-95 to Philly and consider the lone resident Knight in that area, Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  His review of “Glass Handel” made me regret again I waited too late to buy tickets and it was sold out. He split reviewing the other performances in Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival with his former colleague and former mid-Atlantic Knight, David Patrick Stearns, who relocated to NYC, but returned to contribute free lance reviews of a couple of O18 Festival performances for his former employer, the Philadelphia Enquirer.  I enjoyed his review of Sky on Swings, but the one on Lucia di Lammermoor seemed to me to be overly critical, though I enjoyed reading the review nonetheless.

Let’s head out the Pennsylvania Turnpike to see who’s been writing criticism in Pittsburgh.  Well, there is a new sheriff in town.  Jeremy Reynolds joined the Pittsburg Gazette as chief classical music and opera critic.  I found his review of Madama Butterfly to be rather lyrical, while his review of Idomeneo afterWARds was a straightforward critique.  These are good reviews whose merits rest mainly on the reporting and criticisms they offer.  His craft is still developing, and my hope for his future reviews is that he will help forge the connection of his readers to opera and classical music by sharing more of his knowledge and insights about opera and classical music in addition to his reporting and criticism; I also extend this plea to all the critics.  Regardless, welcome to the Opera Table, Mr. Reynolds. Critic Robert Croan, who is retired from the Gazette, made a return visit to provide an excellent review of Pittsburgh Opera’s Hansel and Gretel.   

What to do about the city of Baltimore?  Baltimore, a major mid-Atlantic city, continues without a fully-staged opera company and has also now lost its primary classical music and opera critic.  They had an excellent one in Tim Smith, but he retired from the Baltimore Sun this past year.  As of this writing, the Sun is advertising for a free-lance writer to cover classical music for them, not a permanent staff member.  It seems unlikely there will be a Knight patroling the Baltimore area anytime soon, and for sure, not one who is permanently employed.

Two additional opera critics have drawn my attention for consistently providing quality reviews in their locales, George Parous in Pittsburgh who writes for Pittsburgh In The Round and Cameron Kelsall in Philadelphia who writes for the Broad Street Review.   Perhaps they will merit knighthood in the future.

In closing, let me add that most of the critics have a presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) where they advertise their articiles and pass along other relevant and timely info and comments. I have found it remarkable that even the best known critics get few, if any, comments online to their newspaper articles, and I have also noticed that they often do get comments on social media. If there is any chatter about a performance, that is where you are most likely to find it.

There you have it for the 2019 edition of the Knights of the Opera Table.  Those are my favorites.  How about you? Support your local Knight!