OperaGene Is Listed In Feedspot Blog’s Ranking of Top Opera Blogs and Websites

Feedspot Blog has posted their list of the “Top 25 Opera Blogs & Websites on the Web”.  OperaGene.com is listed at #7 in their ranking.  Feedspot states its criteria in deriving the rankings in its listing.  The blogs/websites on the list that I am familiar with are excellent.  However, I feel compelled to point out that there are many great web sites and blogs that are not listed in Feedspot Blog’s top twenty-five.  My list of recommended opera websites can be found on the Opera Info – Websites/Blogs page, and there are many excellent ones I could add to my list .  Nevertheless, I am certainly pleased to have OperaGene included in the Feedspot Blog ranking. 


What is “Mozart in the Jungle” about, really?

I binge watch “Mozart in the Jungle.”  Why do I do that?  What keeps me coming back for the next episode, the next season.  Season 3 recently became available.  According to most critics, it is a pleasant, but not a great television series in spite of its Golden Globe Award nominations this year and past wins.  For me that was sort of my response at the beginning.  Yet I did come back, and towards the end of Season One, I was returning regularly, regularly like every day.  What, you say, does this have to do with opera?  Hear me out.

“Mozart” is an Amazon TV series, so the access is on demand if you can receive Amazon streaming, and if you have Amazon Prime, the episodes are free.  Thus, I could watch all three seasons and thirty episodes in a row if I so desired, and if it was humanly possible.  It is probably possible since they are half hour episodes, but I do not recommend it.  My wife and I once watched all the episodes of “The Thorn Birds” (eleven hours, I think) on a Saturday, pausing only for bathroom breaks and for carting food from the kitchen to the bedroom. Great series, but we were literally ill and disoriented when they were over.  (By way of explanation, we were much younger then.)  But I digress.  Easy access for watching TV fits my schedule and is an inducement, but there are lots of programs now with these options using services such as Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Cable’s on demand feature.  Why my preferential response to “Mozart”?

First, what is “Mozart in the Jungle” about? Aye, there’s the rub.  Thank God, it’s not about crime, spying, monsters, or super powers; there is no violence.  On the surface the series is about the performers and staff of the New York Symphony Orchestra.  The writers/creators include director, Alex Timbers; actor, Jason Schwartzman; and writer/producer, Roman Coppola.  It is based on oboist Blair Tindall’s book, “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music,” reportedly somewhat of a tell all about sex and drugs of young people trying to make it in the NY classical music scene.  “Mozart” does have its share of sex and drugs, but this is not the focus of the show. 

A distinguishing appeal of the show is that the series is about classical musicians, not rock and rollers. We get to see the backstage, human side of the nerds, maybe not nerds, but certainly nerd-like.  Another appeal of the show is the cast: Gael Garcia Bernal as the unconventional orchestra director, Rodgrigo; Bernadette Peters plays Gloria, the beleaguered orchestra manager, and Malcom McDowell as Thomas, the self-absorbed, outgoing orchestra director, bring a great deal of experience and comic touches to their roles, and an abundance of charm.  Lola Kirke as the young, aspiring oboe player, Hailey, and Saffron Burrows playing Cynthia as the worldly-wise cellist, add emotional depth.  Other excellent character actors add support to this exceptional cast, including Debra Monk as the reigning lead oboe, Betty, not about to relinquish her throne, and the entire cast demonstrates humanity and a camaraderie of purpose in their commitment to their art and the orchestra.  The repeating performers are frequently joined for an episode or two by acting and musical stars.  Season 3 begins with Monica Bellucci playing a Maria Callas-like diva who is joined in one episode by real life opera star Placido Domingo. See, I told you it was opera related, though I wish more episodes involved opera.

Mozart is quite funny, flavored by quirkiness.  Rodrigo frequently receives advice from classical music greats such as Mozart and Bach when no one else is around; these past masters offer chiding and cryptic advice.  It is also creative; one episode is presented as a documentary about the orchestra’s trip to perform at a prison, perhaps foreshadowing Joyce DiDonato’s recent performance at Sing Sing.  And it presents the all too real-life struggle between management and the orchestra members dealing with the financial pressures of keeping a non-self-sustaining enterprise such as an orchestra afloat.  Musicians must be paid and big donors must be found.  The series is not without criticisms.  Mostly these relate to failings to present musical elements correctly, such as how the actors hold their instruments.  Frequently doctors don’t like to watch medical dramas on TV.  I suspect the same would be true for many musicians and "Mozart", though I have read that for many it is a secret pleasure..

All true, but for me it comes down to this.  There are scenes in Mozart that stay with you: Rodrigo’s rejection by a tempestuous love who castigates him for any compromise with commercialism; Hailey’s attempt to play oboe with the Symphony before being ready and her initial success as a budding conductor; and every central player, one by one, subjugating their human failings to a higher calling, the performance of their art.  What Mozart is really about is heart touching moments that define what it means to be human and to bootstrap ourselves to a higher level.  It is unique in television in that it demonstrates the power of art as a higher calling. This certainly applies to opera. Watch it and support the arts.  For me, time and time again, it wins my heart.  And time and time again, I go back for my next dose.

Note to readers:  I prefer to adorn my text with photos when possible, but for this blog report I failed to find photos in the public domain or approved for the press.  I don't wish to violate anyone's copyright, so I will simply refer you to Google Images for photos and to the Internet Movie Database for episode summaries.

Reviews by critics can be found below in chronological order:








Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia: Launchpad for Professional Opera Singers

Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia logo; courtesy of AVA.

Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia logo; courtesy of AVA.

OPERA SINGERS ARE TRAINED, NOT BORN.  Yes, talent matters, but in the field of opera, training is a must.  First of all, singing opera is hard and not natural:  see the OperaGene blog post, “Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event.”  Professional opinion is that you should not attempt singing opera until you have been properly prepared by qualified teachers; there is a serious risk of damaging your voice.  Once you have trained sufficiently, you must appear in performances, both for the experience and to be seen, to be noticed and receive additional offers.  Regardless of a performer's pathway to the opera stage, training is essential.  Today, in the US the most common pathway from interest/desire to sing opera to appearing on the stage of major opera houses usually involves obtaining a BS in music or one of its sub-disciplines and frequently a master’s degree.  At that point singers have usually appeared in college opera productions and/or recitals, but are not yet prepared for the big leagues of professionally staged opera and its demands.  The candidates still have much to learn and a need for gaining more experience performing before audiences.  Dedication and discipline are required.  During the progression of this career ladder, the competition gets more and more intense.  How might an aspiring young singer get an edge in making this transition?  Most often by competing for resident or young artist training positions with major opera companies or institutes that offer post graduate training in the areas that must be mastered to sing opera professionally.

Helen Corning Warden, founder of AVA; photo courtesy of AVA.

Helen Corning Warden, founder of AVA; photo courtesy of AVA.

One of the most prestigious institutions providing such post graduate training in opera is the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, PA.  Philadelphia socialite Helen Corning Warden initiated the Academy in 1933 to support opera during the Great Depression, and AVA’s main opera venue, the Helen Corning Warden Theater is named for her.  AVA’s mission is no less than “to be the world’s premier institution for training young artists as international opera soloists.”  Their focus is quite clear.  They are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music, but they do not give degrees, nor does their coursework transfer to other institutions.  You do not go to AVA to become a teacher, a director, or a composer. You go there as the stepping stone to becoming an opera soloist.  They are especially known for instruction in bel canto style singing.  AVA holds the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition each year.  The success of the program can be highlighted by the names of just a few of the current opera stars who received training at AVA: Michael Adams, Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato, Joyce El-Koury, Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade, Ailyn Perez, Corinne Winters; a complete list can be found at here.

The program lasts four years and tuition is free.  AVA also offers fellowships to help with living expenses.  There are typically 28-30 Resident Artists in total from around the world who receive training in voice lessons, acting, movement on stage, languages, audition skills, and daily coaching.  The contacts and networking developed by students during their four years are also invaluable in advancing their careers upon graduation.  These connections can be easily multiplied by close proximity to two other stellar Philadelphia music institutions, the Curtis Institute of Music and Opera Philadelphia.  AVA also support a Young Professionals community.  Importantly, this is a performance-intensive program and trainees are guaranteed to appear in AVA fully-staged opera performances in the large metropolitan area of Philadelphia, productions supported by a full orchestra.  Let’s take a look at the AVA staged operas for the 2016-2017 season:

Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi – Nov 5-20

The Demon, Anton Rubinstein – Dec 10-15

Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti – Feb 25–Mar 14

Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Apr 29–May 9

Rigoletto 2016 photo one; courtesy of AVA: The Duke (Marco Cammarota) holds Countess Ceprano (Alejandra Gomez) while Rigoletto (Jared Bybee) looks on. Rigoletto 2016 photo two, courtesy of AVA: La maledizione! Rigoletto (Jared Bybee) holds his daughter Gilda (Vanessa Vasquez).

Many student performers already have advanced music degrees and have been singing in local or regional productions, which ensures high quality for AVA recitals and productions.  AVA also selects its productions with an eye to the voices available among its trainees, and occasionally alumni return to sing roles.  Ticket prices are reasonable, ranging from around $45 to $95 for the various productions.  There are several venues used for the operas, which gives trainees the opportunity to perform in different environments and provides easier access to quality opera to different parts of the city.  The Rigoletto production in November received a strongly positive review from Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, Daniel Patrick Steans.  Note please that Lucia is already close to a sellout!

Demon 2016 logo, courtesy of AVA. Demon 2016 photo one, courtesy of AVA:  JoAna Rusche (Tamara), Ethan Simpson (Demon), Claire de Monteil (Angel Ensemble), Alejandra Gomez (Angel) and Meryl Dominguez (Angel Ensemble). Demon 2017 photo two, courtesy of AVA: Tamara's (JoAna Rusche) soul is saved by The Angels (Claire de Monteil, Alejandra Gomez and Meryl Dominguez).

I have previously written about my experiences making the trek up I-95 to attend opera performances of Opera Philadelphia (Cold Mountain, Breaking the Waves) and have recommended opera mini-vacations to the city.  Now I know another reason to make that jaunt, the opportunity to see and hear opera stars of tomorrow, appearing now at the Academy of Vocal Arts.

Met Opera’s Precedent Shattering “L’Amour de Loin” in Cinemas on December 10

Author’s note: I have been distracted from writing blog posts while recovering from knee replacement surgery, but I am now ready to resume, and readers should see new posts more regularly.

Composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Conductor Susanna Malkki. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Conductor Susanna Malkki. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Something happened on the Metropolitan Opera Stage on Thursday night that has never happened before: an opera by a woman composer was performed and was conducted by a woman conductor.  What are the odds of that happening?  Well, consider that Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is only the second female composer to have a work performed by the Met; the first was Ethel Wald’s Der Wald in 1904.  Then consider that conductor Susanna Malkki, also from Finland, is one of only four female conductors to have held the baton at the Met in its entire history.  Performances run through December 29 at the Met.  However, if you cannot make it to New York City, you can see the live performance in theaters across the country on Saturday, December 10.

Eric Owens as Jaufre. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Eric Owens as Jaufre. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim and Susanna Phillips as Clemence.  Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim and Susanna Phillips as Clemence.  Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

But is it a good opera?  The story of L’Amour, libretto by Amin Maalouf, is a medieval tale about troubadour Jaufre Rudel who longs for a woman worthy of his true love.  He learns of such a woman, Clemence, the Countess of Tripoli, from a pilgrim.  The pilgrim is then enlisted to carry messages back and forth between the lovers across the sea, until finally Jaufre makes the journey to meet Clemence.  During their exchanges the lovers must deal with coming to terms with their real and idealized selves.  New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini gives the opening night performance a strongly positive review: Ms. Saariaho’s music, the libretto by Mr. Maalouf, the three cast members, and conducting by Ms. Malkki all draw praise.  Heidi Waleson writing in the Wall Street Journal calls it one of the most important operas of our era.  L’Amour de Loin premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and had its US premiere by the Sante Fe Opera in 2002. 

Eric Owens as Jaufre and the chorus. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Eric Owens as Jaufre and the chorus. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

There seems one point of controversy.  The Met production staging by Robert LePage draws praise for its creativity and has even been called exciting, especially the ability of the simulated sea to reflect the moods of the characters, but it has also drawn criticism expressing a view that it doesn’t wear well over the course of the entire opera.  Mr. Lepage considers the sea to be the fourth main character of the opera.  To simulate a shimmering sea between the lovers on the stage Mr. Lepage uses strings of small LED lights, totaling 28,000 in number.  He also has the heads of chorus members popping up between the waves at certain points.  I am especially curious to see how well these effects come across in cinema showings.

Susanna Phillips as Clemence and Eric Owens as Jaufre.  Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Susanna Phillips as Clemence and Eric Owens as Jaufre.  Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

The cast is stellar and worth hearing just on the merits of their voices and craftsmanship.  Eric Owens, who plays Jaufre, is now an established international opera star.  Susanna Phillips, with voice of pure honey and a smile that can open just about any heart has rapidly become one of my favorite sopranos.  I am not familiar with mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford, who plays the androgynous pilgrim, but she elicited praise from the professional reviewers.

Want to see an important opera and experience Met history at the same time?  Then mark your calendars and do not delay in reserving your tickets for the December 10 showing live in HD in cinemas.  Find the theaters where it is being shown near you using this link.  

The Urban Arias Experience And The ‘Hat’

I was excited to have a chance to see the opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  So, last Saturday, my wife and I headed out from the Tyson’s Corner area to the Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC to see the Urban Arias production.  This was my first visit to one of DC’s “small opera” companies’ productions, and it is a different experience.  In fact, it took me back to the days my wife and I routinely attended small, local theater productions in our twenties and thirties, before we could readily afford the major venues in DC.  It felt a little strange at first doing this again, as though the intimacy and the minimalist setting so readily embraced in youth had become somewhat daunting in later years.  But I warmed up, and it left me remembering the romance of those early years.  I was also pleased to see a younger clientele on the average for the Urban Arias production than I typically see at the Kennedy Center.

Photo of Atlas Performing Arts Center by Debra Rogers, October 15, 2016.

Photo of Atlas Performing Arts Center by Debra Rogers, October 15, 2016.

I think it is worth taking a moment to further contrast this experience with our experience of going to Washington National Opera performances at the Kennedy Center.  First up, my ticket for the Hat with a Senior Discount was $32.  My tickets to the Kennedy Center performances are usually in the $70-120 range for seats in rear orchestra or in one of the balconies.  Advantage: Urban Arias.  My seat in the Paul Sprenger Theatre in the Atlas Center was almost within range to shake hands with the singers.  There were five or six rows of seats in a middle and two side sections that wrapped around the stage in a 180 degree arc; almost completely filled, as it was Saturday night, it holds not more than about 100-125 people.  Of course, you pick your seat at Kennedy Center, whereas seating at the Atlas Theater is open.  Advantage: it depends on your preference and the opera.  I like the chance to be so close to the action and hear the voices so directly, for operas with few singers and little staging.  The intimacy definitely heightens the emotional involvement.  With a large number of singers and cast, it probably would not work.  With the Washington National Opera you get a full orchestra.  With Urban Arias, there is a small ensemble.  For the Hat, there were seven musicians led by conductor Robert Wood, founder of Urban Arias.  Advantage: generally I’d say WNO, but for some operas, like the Hat, the score is written for a small ensemble.  Finally, for the Kennedy Center, opera performances are typically 2-3 hours and can go longer (Wagner can take you into the fifth hour).  The Hat was about an hour and Urban Arias keeps its performances no longer than an hour and a half.  Advantage: obviously both have advantages.  I would give the nod to Urban Arias for giving newbies a chance to become acquainted with opera at a modest cost in time and money, though I’d still recommend that newbies try a standard repertoire opera at a major opera house. 

Ultimately, however, the arts and entertainment experience is not about the peripherals I have been discussing.  As Hamlet says, the play’s the thing.  Once the opera begins, what is important is the story, the singing, and the music.  Does it engage you and your senses?  How does it affect you intellectually and emotionally?  Advantage: to any performance anywhere that can do those things.

Ian McEuen as Dr. S, Jeffrey Beruan as Dr. P, and Emily Pulley as Mrs. P.  Photo by Ryan Maxwell; courtesy of Urban Arias, 2016.

Ian McEuen as Dr. S, Jeffrey Beruan as Dr. P, and Emily Pulley as Mrs. P.  Photo by Ryan Maxwell; courtesy of Urban Arias, 2016.

Now that we are oriented, about that Hat…  I previously covered the background for this opera in my recent blog report on Urban Arias; a link to the Washington Post review of Hat is found in the performances listing in the sidebar to the right.  The opera is for three singers, Dr. P who is suffering from agnosia played by baritone Jeffrey Beruan, Mr. P’s wife, played by soprano Emily Pulley, and his psychiatrist, Dr. S, played by tenor Ian McEuen.  The characters in the opera are those in Dr. Oliver Sacks' book of the same name.  The staging was fine with one main and two flanking sets on the small stage.  Two medical interns of Dr. S in non-singing roles, played by Courtney Kalbacker and Valentin Le Roy, were also cleverly disguised stage hands who moved around props.

I was familiar with the synopsis of the story which was helpful.  Urban Arias does not project supertitles, having made the decision to depend on its artists to convey the story and emotion even if all the lyrics are not fully understandable.  In such a small theater, supertitle projections would likely interfere with audience focus on the story.  I admire the artistic choice Urban Arias has made.  At the same time, I found myself wishing for supertitles, especially when Ms. Pulley was singing.  Ms. Pulley’s soprano fit the role and conveyed emotion. The details in this opera, however, are important in carrying this drama, and I wish that I had read the libretto before attending.  Presumably, Mrs. P defends her husbands change to painting abstracts as not related to his dysfunction, but I could not clearly follow this.  Mr. McEuen, who sang Dr. P has an agreeable tenor voice, enunciated clearly, and showed a flair for acting.  I was engaged and sensed Dr. S’s humanity as well as his intellectual curiosity, as he sought to make the patient’s relationship to his disease the focus and not just the loss of function.  For me, the highlight of the singing was Mr. Beruan’s lovely baritone voice.  Dr. P’s equanimity confronting his disease was surprising and added charm to a story that could have been maudlin.  Michael Nyman’s music for this opera falls in the minimalist genre.  The small ensemble led by Mr. Wood was quite good.  The music supported the action on stage for the most part.  However, it was rather hard driving and repetitive for most of the evening. I thought some parts of the story could have done with less tension building music and a softer, more sympathetic and embracing background for some parts.  The singing of Schumann’s "ich grolle nicht" as part of the opera by Mr. Beruan left me longing for that recital I mentioned above.  Overall, I liked the production; my curiosity has been satisfied, and I found it affecting, still thinking about the performance days later and for some time to come.  I recommend trying to catch one of the last two performances.

Tickets for Hat can be purchased online for $35 ($32 for students and seniors).  Hat is being performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; directions and parking info can be found here.  One word about parking – as the Atlas Center notes on its website, parking is limited and the typical car garages are a good distance away.  Atlas has a small lot of its own and parking can be reserved online prior to the performance.  I recommend this.  On-street parking is zoned in the area.  The signs we saw were 2 hr limit for M-F, 8 am to 10 pm.  On Saturday night competition for street parking was fierce; this strip of H street has a heavy concentration of restaurants, bars, comedy clubs, and music clubs.  We spent 35 minutes driving around before finding a freed up spot three blocks away that I could squeeze my car into.

The cost and the time commitment make Urban Arias highly competitive with spending your time at a movie, and to my mind, live opera is to be preferred over most movies.  There is also a good chance you will see an interesting, engaging opera that the major companies will not do.  My bottom line is to recommend that you add Urban Arias productions to your arts and entertainment options.  There are two more performances of the “Hat”, Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22, both at 8 pm.

Bel Cantanti Opera 2016-2017: A Full Slate and December All To Itself

If you want to see live opera in the DC area in December, the choice is obvious; in fact, there is only one option.  It’s Bel Cantanti Opera.  They will be presenting Puccini’s Suor Angelica Dec 3-17.  The ambitious 2016-2017 season schedule for Bel Cantanti Opera is listed below; the first entry is already past:

Sept 11-18: Medium by Gian Carlo Menotti; The Unicorn, the Gordon, and the Manticore by Gian Carlo Menotti

Dec 3-17: Suor Angelica by Giacomo Puccini; Puccini's Heroines from Le Villi to Turandot

Jan 29-Feb 5: Mozart and Salieri by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov; Le Voix Humaine by Francis Poulenc

March 3-12: The Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach

May 6-14: Le Villi by Giacomo Puccini; Zanetto by Pietro Mascagni

Bel Cantanti's 2016 The Unicorn, the Gordon, and the Manticore. Photo by Alex Souvorova and courtesy of Bel Cantanti Opera.

Bel Cantanti's 2016 The Unicorn, the Gordon, and the Manticore. Photo by Alex Souvorova and courtesy of Bel Cantanti Opera.

Opera Bel Cantanti’s existence and success rests squarely on the shoulders of its Founder, and General and Artistic Director, Katerina Souvorova.  Ms. Souvorova, a native of Belarus and an accomplished pianist, came to the United States in 1996, moving to the DC area in 2001 where she worked on the faculty at George Mason University, serving as a vocal coach.  She is currently working as a vocal coach for Catholic University.  She founded Opera Bel Cantanti in 2003.  Her commitment and ability to sustain this enterprise is truly impressive.  Operas produced by Bel Cantanti employ local professional singers and pre-professional singers in training.  Their goal is “to provide an affordable and viable option for singers and audiences alike to experience the magic of high quality opera.” This troupe has drawn praise for many of its productions in local publications, including the Washington Post, which is especially impressive given that this opera company operates on a shoe string budget.  Reviews for many of their performances can be found on their website, although I have been unable to locate a review for their first offering for this season.  Bel Cantanti uses several small venues around the DC area, mainly in suburban Maryland. 

Bel Cantanti poster for Suor Angelica; courtesy of Bel Cantanti Opera.

Bel Cantanti poster for Suor Angelica; courtesy of Bel Cantanti Opera.

Their December offering is labeled as a “Tribute to G. Puccini” and combines a short opera by Puccini and a program of arias by Puccini written for the heroines in his operas.  This sounds to me like a pleasing choice for the holiday season.  There is no additional information as yet about the portion of the program that will be Puccini’s Heroines from Le Villi to Turandot (in other words, from Puccini’s first opera to his last).  On the other hand, Suor Angelica is a well-known, opera by Puccini.  It is a one act opera that is part of an opera triology by Puccini, that is typically performed together by major opera companies as Il Trittico.  The plot for Suor Angelica is a little Hitchcockian; it starts slow and relatively uneventful, builds suspense, and then throws a couple of plot surprises at the end.  I won’t spoil the ending for those who like to be surprised, but bring your handkerchiefs.  The holiday season, live opera, Puccini, quality performers, inexpensive – what’s not to like?

There are three productions planned for the first half of 2017 that cover three one-act operas, a two-act opera-ballet, and one member of the standard repertoire.  It includes formidable composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Poulenc, Offenbach, Puccini, and Mascagni, and works that, with the exception of Tales are not oft performed.  It includes an early treatment of the conflict which was latter made famous by the movie, “Amadeus” (Mozart and Salieri); an opera with the telephone as a central character (Le Voix Humaine); an opera with a muse, incarnations of evil, and three lost loves (The Tales of Hoffman); an opera with a siren, fairies, and a ghost (Le Villi); and an opera about love not realized (Zanetto).  And it includes a collaboration with The Olney Ballet Theater for Le Villi.  I must say that I am impressed and excited by the audacity of Bel Cantanti’s season.  Nonetheless, this formidable undertaking offers a chance to broaden and deepen our personal opera repertoires.

Tickets are available through eventbrite.com.  Prices are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors, $15 for students, and $30 per ticket for groups of ten or more.  The “Tribute To Puccini” is being held in the Theater of Concord, St. Andrews United Methodist Church, Bethesda, MD, located on Goldsboro Road at the intersection with River Road.  English supertitles are provided.


Urban Arias Now And For Six Years Serving Opera, Short, New

Do you realize that live opera can be found in the Washington, DC area every month of the year!  That is not true everywhere in the US.  Twenty-five operas will be offered in the DC area in the 2016-2017 season, covering most opera genres.  There are selections from the standard repertoire, modern opera, and even premieres.  There are traditional length operas and short, chamber operas.  There are staged operas and concert operas.  There are operas in large opera houses, in small theaters, and even outdoor opera.  The DC area is sprinkled with opera companies of different sizes and missions.  There is a major, large-scale opera company, Washington National Opera, which can put on fully-staged operas.  So can Virginia Opera which has three Virginia venues, including showings of each of its productions in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside the DC beltway.  There are smaller companies, including Urban Arias, Opera Bel Cantanti, and Opera Lafayette that have defined niches for themselves.  Summer productions are provided by Wolf Trap Opera, a company in suburban DC with a major training mission, and there is one concert opera company, Washington Concert Opera.  I likely have even missed one or two yet to come up on my radar.  I am impressed that all the companies employ established and emerging artists and exhibit a commitment to high quality productions.  Listings of these companies and their seasonal offerings are maintained on OperaGene's Seasonal Lists page.

Urban Arias 2015 production of Laura Kaminsky's As One.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy of Urban Arias.

Urban Arias 2015 production of Laura Kaminsky's As One.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy of Urban Arias.

I have been working my way through coverage of each of these companies, and will now address Urban Arias.  I have picked them to cover next because I am especially intrigued by their first offering of the new season, beginning Saturday, October 15.  In all, three operas are being presented, an opera hat trick if you will:

· The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Michael Nyman: Oct 15-22… Atlas Theater

· Lucy by John Glover: April 1-8…Atlas Theater

· The Blind by Lera Auerbach: June 3-11…Signature Theater

Urban Arias has been in existence for six years and is presenting its seventh season of performances this year.  The company was founded by conductor, Robert Wood, who remains its general director and president.  He has carved out a very specific niche for the company.  It’s motto is “Opera. Short. New”.  Urban Arias is very up front and straightforward about what it does and why, which is covered in impressive detail in its comprehensive website, urbanarias.org.  Their mission is to produce “short, contemporary operas…to expose DC-area audiences to engaging, accessible, entertaining operas, and to provide a venue at which both established and emerging composers can present their shorter works. By “short,” we mean 90 minutes or less; and by “contemporary,” we mean written within the last forty years.”  Their operas are shown in small theaters which brings the audience close to the performers. The website lists its previous productions and their press clippings, which provide evidence for the excellence of their staff and cast and productions.  You can get a good sense of Urban Aria productions by visiting the Our Past Work page and viewing the photos and video clips of past performances.  One of the measures I use for the DC areas opera companies is whether they get reviewed by Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, and what her reviews say.  Ms. Midgette is a very tough and discerning critic.  Here is a quote from one of her reviews of Urban Arias: “If Urban Arias is presenting small-scale opera, it is doing it with many singers you might well encounter on the stage of the Washington National Opera; it’s a treat to encounter some of them at close range, while the intimacy of the presentation helps compensate for the weaknesses of others.”  Another feature that I really like about the website is that the cast listings are hyperlinked to short bios of the performers. 

Promo for Urban Arias production of Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat; courtesy of Urban Arias.

Promo for Urban Arias production of Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat; courtesy of Urban Arias.

First up this season is Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a chamber opera about an hour in length, which is based on psychiatrist Oliver Sacks most famous book.  I previously reported on the Sacks’ book, “Musicophilia”, which describes brain-damaged patients of Dr. Sacks with cognitive deficiencies who still had their ability to process and utilize  music intact, or even enhanced.  The opera examines the case of Dr. P. who suffers from agnosia, a mental disturbance that causes him to lose the ability to identify familiar objects.  At one point he reaches for his wife’s head to put on his hat.  He is able to make sense of his world through identification by sound. One of the intrigues for me of the opera is that the question is raised as to whether Dr. P is showing a progression of his illness or growing into a different reality.  The opera is for three singers, including Dr. S, who is treating Dr. P, and Mrs. P.  The composer, Mr. Nyman, is well known for his movie scores including “The Piano” and “GATTACA”.  His orchestration is identified with the minimalist genre, utilizing only a few instruments.  A highlight of the opera is a performance of a version of Ich Grolle Nicht from Schumann’s Dicterliebe in a minimalist treatment.  I was able to find online about six previous performances of the opera in the U.S. and most reviews are laudatory, and all consider the opera thought-provoking.  In regard to a Long Beach Opera performance in 2012, the LA Times called the score “compelling” and stated that this is “an opera that needs to be seen”, and about its U.S. premiere in 1987, the NY Times reported that the opera had “intensely moving appeal”. 

Additional Urban Opera offerings that will be coming up next year include Lucy by John Glover and librettist, Kelley Rourke.  Lucy is the story of psychologist, Maurice Temerlin, and his wife, Jane, who raised a day-old chimpanzee in their home for twelve years as though it were a human, before it was necessary to relocate it to a rehabilitation center in Gambia.  The final entry is The Blind, revolves around the story of twelve blind people who have been abandoned in a forest.  It is referred to online as a multisensory experience and In its 2013 premiere audience members were blindfolded.  We will have to await further information to be posted by Urban Arias on how these operas will be performed.

Urban Arias motto could also be "opera, short, new, and inexpensive".  Tickets for Hat can be purchased now online for $35 ($32 for students and seniors).  Hat is being performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; directions and parking info can be found here.  So, for about as long as it takes you to watch a movie, for not much more than it costs to buy tickets for a movie, you can experience the live opera of today sung by professional opera singers in close proximity to where you will be sitting.  That's a pretty good deal.


The New Opera, Breaking The Waves: What Would Mozart think?

Warning - some of the images below may be disturbing to some viewers.

Perhaps you know you have suffered an arts experience when you find yourself thinking about the performance two days later.  Maybe you can’t exactly say you liked it; you also can’t say you didn’t.  It has engaged you in an aliveness, a relationship, and will not let go until you come to terms with it.  That is my reaction to Breaking The Waves, a new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, produced by Opera Philadephia for its world premiere on September 22.  When my wife asked what I wanted for my birthday, I stated attending this opera as my first choice.  I, for one, am hungry for new opera.  We attended the final performance on Saturday night at the Perelman Theater.  I covered the announcement of this production briefly in my report on Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 season back in April.

John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The opera is based on the 1996 film by the same name, which I have not seen.  The movie received critical acclaim and some box office success.  The story is difficult to convey in a few words.  A young woman, Bess, in a tightly controlled Calvinist community in rural Scotland marries an outsider, Jan.  Jan is paralyzed in a oil rig accident, and she pursues a dark path to save him, believing she is serving God and her husband by doing so.  I will only say further that it has interweaving themes (God, religion, hypocrisy, community, love, sex, mental health, the nature of goodness, and sacrifice) that are gripping. 

Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Michael Bolton, Vice President of Community Programs at Opera Philadelphia, gave the pre-opera talk and discussed these issues and their portrayal in the opera.  He also talked about staging the opera and pointed out that when contacting singers to invite them to auditions that a first question was "are you willing to appear nude?"  There was concern whether classically trained opera singers would be able to sing well in the nude.  He talked about reactions to the opera so far.  A few audience members were back for a second or third showing.  One came back to focus on listening to the music this time.  It came out in the discussion that the composer’s mother and an aunt of the lead soprano were in the audience.  Mr. Bolton asked them if they would comment to the group on what this opera has meant to their family members.  Each pointed out with pride the hard work and dedication they had seen go into it.  It was revealed that Ms. Mizzoli spent four years composing this opera.  She was sponsored for three of these years by Opera Philadelphia as a resident composer, which gave her the opportunity to work with other artists, preview segments of her opera for feedback, and learn more about the craft of composing.  Other events were scheduled concerning the opera such as a Brunch with Missy Mazzoli.  I, again, as I did earlier this year in attending Cold Mountain in Philly, got the feeling that Opera Philadelphia is responding to and reflecting a vibrant arts community in the Philadelphia area. 

Like the woman mentioned above, I wish I could hear the music again.  My attention was strongly on the story and the acting and singing.  I can’t tell you how the music stands alone, but I can tell you it was effective.  The orchestra included just 15 musicians.  The percussionist had an number of interesting instruments, such as a car suspension spring.  There were brief inclusions of electric guitar played as recorded by Missy Mazzoli, who has played in a band, but these were woven seamlessly into the score.  When I noticed the music it was always supporting the singers and the story and the mood.  The arias were tightly integrated into the story.  None stood out to me for humming after the performance.  However, both the vocals and music were effective in telling the story and making it come alive.

The voices fit their characters and each performer sang well in their individual roles.  Kiera Duffy who played Bess deserves special comment.  She is a good soprano.  I can’t say yet just how good.  She is a great actress.  Of that I am sure.  Her performance was key to the entire production and she was brilliant.  He co-star John Moore, baritone, was also effective in his role and singing.  The male chorus was menacingly effective and contributed to the dream-like character of the opera.  The set design was minimalist, a couple of gray walls and angled blocks of flooring.  Projections on the wall of ink or oil oozing about help set and maintain the mood, manifesting the feelings I sometimes had oozing over me.

Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

There was full male and female nudity in the production, in keeping with the telling found in the movie.  I found it a little shocking being live, even though such nudity and language can be seen on cable TV any day of the week.  It must be daunting for singers who might want to appear in future productions.  Was it integral to the story?  It was.  Was it salacious or gratuitous?  No, it was not.  Would the opera have been as effective without the nudity?  I doubt it; it added significant impact to the drama.  I was in no way offended.  What I can say for sure is that this opera worked as it was performed and presented.  Change it and it might not work.  For me, Waves was actually better than Cold Mountain which I liked very much.  As always, the thrill of seeing new opera added additional excitement.

The timing was remarkable for me.  I enjoyed seeing the Washington National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro a week ago.  Figaro and Waves could hardly be more different in styles.  I was more affected by Waves, but I enjoyed Figaro; I think that the third time around for me,  Figaro has become more of an entertainment experience than an arts experience.  I wonder what Mozart would think about Waves.  I bet he would like the sexual aspects, and in particular, the shock value of the sex.  What would he think of the music?  I bet he would think it was creative and inventive and that it worked.  He would like its originality and the freedom available to its composer.  What else?  Keeping in mind that I am not trained in music, It seems to me that for both Cold Mountain and Breaking the Waves, the music was very much in service of the story.  Interestingly, I had the impression that Puccini was moving that way in La Fanciulla del West which I saw recently.  But in general for the great composers of the past like Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and a few others, it sometimes seems to me that sections of the music are there for their own sake.  An aria might be as much a vehicle for the music as it is in service of the story.  How would today's approach set with Mozart?  Not well perhaps.  We can't really say, but Breaking the Waves was not composed for 18th century audiences; it is cutting edge for now.  It is opera that connects us with our time.

Professional reviews of this production are accessible by links in the performance listings in the sidebar to the right (or bottom on a mobile device). 

WNO’s Season Opening, The Marriage of Figaro: The Fan Experience

Vienna, VA about noon on 9-22-16

Ok, opera tonight.  Washington National Opera’s 2016-2017 season opener – The Marriage of Figaro at 7 or 7:30 pm at the Kennedy Center.  Ugh, expect traffic, but oddly excited to see Figaro yet again.  Several name brand cast members I am anxious to hear.  Need to print off parking voucher ($20 after $2 discount for reserving online early) or maybe just rely on texted copy on cell phone?  Done that before ok.  Have to go solo tonight.  What to do about dinner?  Maybe grab something in the Terrace Cafeteria there.  Let’s see, I think the opera is 7:30.  Should leave about 5:30 to pick up my ticket exchange at the box office will call booth and to have time to eat.

About 5 pm

Time to dress.  Wish I felt comfortable attending wearing a T-shirt and jeans.  Hmmm, sport coat and slacks, but no tie!  Shoes need shinning.  Should I wear a tie?  Almost 5:30. Time to go.  Gotta take confirmation number for ticket, and oh, I think I will print off parking voucher.  Darn, already 5:40.

Good grief!  Tyson’s traffic is at its rush hour worst.  OMG, I need gas.  Back in traffic, now 5:50.  Starting to feel a little time pressure.  Starting time is 7:30, not 7:00, right?  Traffic crawls to Rte 66 bypas (sorry fella, I had to move over; your gesture was amusing) and then crawls past Lee Highway exit on Rte 66.  Moving now.  Another back up on the Bridge.  Breathe, remember to breathe.  Another back up getting into Kennedy Center parking lot.  Glad I printed off voucher; calling up text on the cell phone takes time.  Saying to myself: metro next time, but driving to park at station and the ride in, plus getting from the stop to KC, takes almost as much time and my knees say no, no, no.  Wonder what a limo costs.  Going home will be easier.  Ok, where to park to exit fastest when its over; best closest to entrance.  Yikes, it’s a couple of minutes before 7 pm.

Good thing I know my way around the Kennedy Center.  Picked up ticket, no line; lady was grateful I had confirmation number.  Find cafeteria.  Wrong turn.  Where am I?  Found it.  Time for quick salad.  Food is good.  Visit toilet.  Just thought -  I am so familiar with Figaro I forgot to check on the pre-opera talk; bummer, bummer, I always get more out of the opera when I attend the talk.  In place, in seat.  Time is 7:25. Piece of cake, even time to text wife.  Turn off cell phone.

About 7:40 pm

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director for WNO, comes out from behind the curtain.  Usual welcome and encouragement to subscribe for the season.  Says traffic on Rock Creek Parkway has caused 400 ticket holders to be late; I am sympathetic. Will start now but will allow late seating in first act.  Decent.

Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Ryan McKinny as Figaro, and Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Ryan McKinny as Figaro, and Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

The music starts,

Applause for the entrance of the conductor, James Gaffigan.  The overture begins.  Love this music by Mozart.  Playing seems uninspired to me.  I am seated center and sixteen rows back.  Is the sound not as good as the upper tier where The Ring sounded so great?  Enter Ryan McKinney as Figaro and Lisa Oropesa as Susanna.  McKinney is a big handsome dude; voice sounds nice, rather a deep baritone.  Oropesa is attractive too; she has a pleasing soprano voice and sings well.  This is promising.  Colorful period costumes and attractive set design.  Wow, Oropesa is a charmer; I will forgive her most anything, but nothing to forgive.  Ok, this Figaro is going to be light hearted with the humor emphasized.  McKinney’s Figaro is more the jealous boyfriend than the wise, manipulative Figaro we sometimes see.  And this Susanna is more the cute young girl trying to avoid the imposing letch than the more mature woman trying to deal with a social order in which she is victimized that we sometimes see.  Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira has a beautiful baritone voice, but often sings with low volume; I wonder if the folks in the back can hear him.  Aleksandra Romano as Cherubino is a scene stealer eliciting laughter and quickly becomes an audience favorite.  Had not seen Amanda Majeski before.  Her voice is strong and lovely, carrying the melody with such feeling.  I could listen to her more. Hey, I am really enjoying this.  The excellent performances stack up.  Valeriano Lucas as Dr. Bartolo, Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Timothy Bruno as Antonio, Ariana Wehr as Barbarina, and Rexford Tester as Don Curzio all have professional voices and sing well.  Keith Jameson as Don Basilio stands out for his fine voice and comedic flair.  Mozart’s ensemble arias, duets, trios…up to a hextet with the singers singing different lines at the same time are so impressive!  Orchestra is playing it role, though sometimes the volume seems a little off.

Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira, Lisette Operpesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almavira.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira, Lisette Operpesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almavira.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

About 11 pm,

Last scene concludes, curtain goes down.  Quite a few people move out of their seats and head to the exit.  I have enjoyed a surfeit of singing and am grateful to the performers.  Am a little resentful of fans leaving without giving up their applause to a deserving team.  Bows are being taken, and slowly more and more people rise, me among them, until there is a standing ovation.  Curtain down for last time and applause subsides.  Head for car to navigate the interweaving jam to leave the parking deck. Head out and once away from KC the traffic has cleared and an easy ride home.

Afterthoughts at home,

A glass of wine and musings on the evenings performance. Having seen Figaro a couple of times before, the humor can only be so amusing for me, but the audience was certainly in to it.  Some of the effects in the last act were funny but departed noticeably a bit from reality.  I maintain that there are at least three groups that make up the audience: the critics, professionals, and the opera cognoscente is one group; the opera newbies are another; and finally those folks like myself somewhere in between.  These groups are likely to react differently to the same opera.  I suspect the first group will long for something more substantial; the newbies will love it, and the last group will be won over after a few arias.  I suspect this production will succeed with the Opera in the Outfield crowd on Saturday night.  You can argue with Zambello’s choice of operas, but she gives us a quality product.  There will likely be several reviews of this performance by professional writers.  How can I offer a report that is different, hmmm?


There was a 25 min intermission, enough time for a bathroom break and/or collect a drink or snack, though with long lines; also a chance to take stroll on the deck outside and view the Potomac at night.  Being a season subscriber has its advantages.  I was able to easily move to an earlier performance date, and I was able to upgrade my ticket ($162) by just paying the balance.  Professional reviews of Figaro are linked in the monthly performance listings in the sidebar on the right and are also now included on the Seasonal Listings page.  The remaining performances of Figaro are on Sep 28, 30, and Oct 1 and 2.  My advice is to go, relax, and enjoy it for what it is, a treat for the eyes and ears with some comedy thrown in.

“La Momma Morta”: Netrebko versus Callas

I occasionally enjoy dialing up a specific aria on YouTube or Apple Music and listening to the same tune sung by different singers.  The juxtaposition in my head of Anna Netrebko’s new album, “Verismo”, the subject of my previous blog post, which features “La Momma Morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano and remembering the use of “La Momma Morta” in the movie Philadelphia, sung by Maria Callas caused me to wonder how they compared to each other.  Ms. Netrebko is today’s leading soprano by most accounts, and Ms. Callas is one of the most famous opera singers of all time; she was labeled “La Divina”, Italian for “the divine”, and tops many lists of best sopranos of all time.

The funny thing is that I have tried and tried to become a Callas fan, but my enjoyment of her work is spotty.  During her era, her followers were sometimes fanatics, to the point of attending rival soprano performances, especially Renata Tebaldi, and booing.  She and star tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, were possibly the two most influential singers in promoting opera’s popularity in the second half of the twentieth century.  Callas is credited with having revived the bel canto genre of opera, primarily operas by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.  Her life story is fascinating and is featured in a Federico Fellini film, titled “Callas Forever”, 2002, and actress Noomi Rapace is portraying her in a film coming out in 2017 titled, “Callas”

My difficulty with Ms. Callas is one shared by quite a few others; it’s the voice.  New York Times critic, Harold C. Schonberg, writing after her death, said of her: “Her voice was in some respects a flawed instrument, undependable in the high register. In the middle range it had a haunting beauty. Her imposing bottom register had a different quality entirely and it was said of her, not always admiringly, that she had three voices.”  I am very much a voice person.  I have to like the voice to really like the singing.  I have listened to her recordings enough to appreciate her tremendous artistry and her ability to infuse drama and emotion in her performances.  While I am not fond of the sound of her voice, I recognize that it has a natural pathos.  I cannot listen to her without feeling that I am on her side and often have the desire to comfort her.  In her lyrical upper registers, her voice can be quite beautiful, but for me, when it sinks to the mid and especially lower ranges, it can at times grate on my ears.  If you have not given Maria Callas a try, I recommend the album, “The Very Best of Maria Callas”, for a good selection of her arias.  There are also a lot of arias by Ms. Callas on YouTube.  Though it must be appreciated that it was her ability to connect with her audiences in live performances that may have been her unparalleled achievement. 

I have now listened several times to “La Momma Morta” in the YouTube clips further down, by both Callas (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oZi2fovnZQ) and Netrebko (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYJUFtKyuVE).  The lyrics can be found below and should be read to get the most out of the aria.  The singer is Maddalena and the time is that of the French revolution.  She is telling a suitor, Gerard, of her mother’s killing and their house being set afire.  Her servant, Bersi, sacrificed herself to prostitution to save Maddalena, and Maddalena is hopelessly in love with the poet, Andrea Chenier.  She sings that she had lost faith, but is now inspired by love.  Lyrics in Italian and English, side by side, are available from Wikepedia  .  English lyrics are below:

They killed my mother
at the door of my room
She died and saved me.
Later, at dead of night,
I wandered with Bersi,
when suddenly
a bright glow flickers
and lights were ahead of me
the dark street!
I looked –
My childhood home was on fire!
I was alone!
surrounded by nothingness!
Hunger and misery
deprivation, danger!
I fell ill,
and Bersi, so good and pure
made a market, a deal, of her beauty
for me –
I bring misfortune to all who care for me!
It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me.
A voice full of harmony says,
"Keep on living, I am life itself!
Your heaven is in my eyes!
You are not alone.
I collect all your tears
I walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am Love!
Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
I am Divine! I am oblivion!
I am the God who saves the World
I descend from Heaven and make this Earth
A heaven! Ah!
I am love, love, love."
And the angel approaches with a kiss,
and he kisses death –
A dying body is my body.
So take it.
I am already dead matter!

Netrebko has a beautiful sound and sings the aria beautifully with great deal of power and emotion. Clearly she has totally invested herself in this performance.  Hers and Ms. Callas’ renditions are both moving.  The vocal fireworks of both are impressive.  The accompaniment is similar on both recordings, though to my untrained ears, the Pappano orchestration on the Netrebko recording seems more rounded out and movie-like than the rawer classical version on the Callas one, which I like better.  Both the Callas and Netrebko versions are spectacular performances.

Here is the punchline in terms of which recorded version I like better: my gut feeling is that I have to give the slightest edge to the Callas performance, though both are great.  I may have been prejudiced by hearing Callas in the Philadelphia treatment, but I think the opinion I formed by watching that video was mainly an appreciation for the aria.  With Ms. Netrebko, I hear a strong woman who has been wounded and brought down by unspeakable loss, who becomes inspired by love.  With Ms. Callas, I hear a vulnerable woman who has suffered tragedy and found salvation through love.  I think somehow the roughness of Ms. Callas voice emphasizes the pathos inherent in her voice and elicits greater sympathy and empathy.  As a result, what I dislike about Ms. Callas’ voice actually works for her in “La Momma Morta”, for me.

Having declared the slightest and surprising (at least to me) preference for the Callas recording, let me emphasize, I do not wish to give up either version and will listen to both many more times.  We are blessed.  Both are terrific.  I prefer a smorgasbord of greats to a basket of number ones.



Anna Netrebko’s “Verismo”: What You Hear Depends On Where You Sit

Anna Netrebko at Romy Awards 2013.  Photo by Manfred Werner (Tsui); taken from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Netrebko).

Anna Netrebko at Romy Awards 2013.  Photo by Manfred Werner (Tsui); taken from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Netrebko).

Anna Netrebko, one of the reigning divas of present day opera, has released a new album titled “Verismo”.  I think it will be perceived differently by three groups of listeners. One group includes the critics, musicologists, and opera connoisseurs.  Another is the opera newbies, and a third is those in between, where I reside, fans who have enjoyed opera for a while, but are not expert.  The professionals and cognoscente will analyze whether the arias are good examples of “verismo”; they will find the flaws in her diction, singing, and emotional interpretations.  They will question whether this lyric soprano has the correct voice type now to sing many of these arias that require dramatic heft; many will worry that doing so may erode her voice.  Hers will be compared to other singer’s interpretations and performances.  Her conductor, Antonio Pappano, will also draw critical comment.  Many will praise all those things and profess her to be an extraordinary singer whose beautiful voice has matured as she has reached the height of her powers.  Many reviews can already be found online from around the globe, as examples of these views.  For those of us who are perhaps more familiar with pop music, this album could be compared to Barbara Streisand or Frank Sinatra publishing in their maturity ‘the’ definitive album of pop standards, arranged around a theme.  Opera devotees can think of it as an outstanding recital.

The opera newbies will be thrilled by the gorgeous singing and emotion of the arias.  It will be like getting to eat the center cut of a beautiful and perfectly cooked piece of meat; the serving is flawless.  They will look up what the label verismo is supposed to represent and find that it was a post-Romantic style favored mainly by Italian composers around the end of the nineteenth century, best represented by two short operas often performed together, Cavaleria Rusticana and Pagliacci; a selection from Pagliacci is on the album.  Roughly translated as realism, verismo opera sought to focus attention on the problems and raw emotions of ordinary people.  It reflected a literary style of the same name and was sometimes shocking and offensive to the opera fans of its day.  For opera newbies this album will be a treasure revisited many times.

For those of us who sit in between those first two groups, listening to “Verismo” is akin to eating that delicious meat but also experiencing the absence of the sauce, and the potatoes, and the steamed asparagus, and the wine.  It is indeed beautiful and perfectly prepared, but it is meat followed by meat followed by more meat.  I found that in the second half of the album that the arias were starting to sound somewhat alike.  For those arias for which I know the back story I was able to supply some of the missing context, enhancing my enjoyment.  For those for which I did not know the story, it was beautiful singing and sound.  To best enjoy the album it may be advisable to read the libretto for each aria.  While I listened to the album, I could not help wishing during each aria that I was instead in the audience watching and hearing a great diva, especially Anna Netrebko, performing each of these operas.  I wanted the sauce (hearing it live) and I wanted the potatoes, asparagus, and wine (the context).  This was a new feeling for me while listening to recital albums.  Oh, I will go back to listen to “Verismo” again, and probably again, but as great as it is, it will never be as satisfying as being there.  To get an idea how context affects the impact of the arias, listen to the sample below from "Verismo" and then listen to the same aria as utilized in the movie, "Philadelphia"; you can find the film clip in the OperaGene blog post on how to listen to opera.

"La mamma morta" aria from "Verismo", a leader sample available on a Vevo/Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYJUFtKyuVE).

Ms. Nebrebko is one of the most recorded modern opera stars.  The album by Deutsche Grammophon contains 16 arias; the last five are essentially the last act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. It also includes the aria "Ebben?  Ne andro lontana" from La Wally which was used in the movie "Diva", warmly remembered by me.  You can view the entire aria list on the Amazon website.  For the album, Antonio Pappano conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia; it also includes duets with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov who sounds great to me.  The “Verismo” CD is available from the usual outlets for about $16-20.  It is $12 on iTunes and can be streamed from Spotify or Apple Music by those with subscriptions.  It is most definitely worth a listen.  You can also view the trailer about the making of the album below, focused around the "La mamma morta" aria.

The Pearl Fishers: Did Bizet Get It Wrong?

Georges Bizet studio photograph circa 1800; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Bizet.

Georges Bizet studio photograph circa 1800; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Bizet.

I find myself in the position of recommending a video recording of an opera.  The Pearl Fishers, recorded from last year’s (Jan 16, 2016) Met Opera staged production at Lincoln Center deserves some attention; it is also known in French as Les Pecheurs de Perles.  I taped it from a May 22 broadcast on a PBS station and just recently watched it on a big screen TV.  It is relatively short at 2 hrs 15 min and is now available in HD on Met Opera On Demand, which I discuss in more detail below.  The production garnered a good deal of praise at the time (NYTimes review and Washington Post review).  It will not be repeated this year and is well worth watching, even at home on video.

The Pearl Fishers 2016. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Pearl Fishers 2016. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Met version serves as an example of the impact that staging and singer selection can have on the success of an opera.  The special effects in the opening sequence were spectacular, realistically portraying pearl divers underwater; the village docks on the rocky shore and the switch to the blighted apartment complex were also effective.  Kudos to director Penny Woolcock, the Met technology folks, and the creative staff.  The opera has been considered historically as a somewhat flawed opera with an uneven score, a mix of great and lesser moments, and a libretto described by one critic as “clunky” (hey, Bizet composed it when he was only 24 and the libretto is by Eugene Cormon and Michael Carre).  However, it contains one of the most famous and thrilling arias of all time, “Au fond du temple saint.”  Normally, I would insert a Youtube video recording of the aria at this point (you can do it yourself), but I really want to encourage you to watch the Met video version first.  More on that soon.  I think the staging by the Met was near perfect, at least it worked perfectly in supporting the mood and placement of the story. 

Photos above: Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, Diana Damrau as Leila, and Matthew Polenzani as Nadir.  Photos of Kwiecien and Polenzani by Ken Howard and photo of Damrau by Kristian Schuller; all photos courtesy of Metropoitan Opera.

Three outstanding singers were selected for the main roles, two friends and the woman they love. Mariusz Kwiecien fit the role of Zurga, leader of the village, quite believably as well as bringing a rich baritone voice to the role.  I expected soprano Diana Damrau playing Leila, the Brahmin priestess loved by the two male leads, to be great.  My big surprise was Matthew Polenzani, whom I have seen a couple of times previously in lighter roles.  In The Pearl Fishers, he remarkably and effectively played the role of Nadir, a determined adventurer; his look and acting were excellent.  I wonder if this represents a growth spurt for him and want to see him in future roles.  Ms. Damrau sang wonderfully as I anticipated, but her acting was not always on point and this was emphasized by the close ups you get with video.  Indeed, often the video director chose to go with close ups when I think views of the full stage would have worked better to place the difficulty of their love affair in the context of its conflict with their social responsibilities.  The score uses the simple duet (Triangle) theme effectively throughout the opera in recalling the love of the main characters for each other.  There were several beautiful arias, and the scene in the second act with Leila, herself a capture, pleading even fighting with Zurga to save Nadir really drew me into the drama.  The Pearl Fishers does have a few major implausibilities (this is opera), and I might have chosen a slightly different ending, but the story was effective nonetheless.  For me, it had the feel of watching an old movie because nothing else was on and finding that it was surprisingly good.

I had heard and enjoyed its most famous aria, the baritone-tenor duet several times over the years, but I did not know the story or the words of the aria.  Watching the video, I believe that, while it is a great melody, the music in this aria does not really fit the words or the story.  Let me explain.  Reading in one of my son’s college music theory texts, I found a selection from “Man The Musician” by musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl which stated that the role of music is to “help us to share actively in what is being said.” You derive your own emotion.  The music accompanying singing provides you entry to the experience outside yourself.  What we learn prior to the ‘au fond’ aria is that two friends became rivals because they fell in love with the same woman that neither was able to obtain.  They reaffirm their strong love for each other and claim that they have gotten over their passion for the woman.  Yet, their true feelings for Leila arise again and they struggle against them.  The duet proceeds in this context.  When I hear the music I am experiencing their comradeship, but I am feeling inspirational passion, not the passion of brotherly or romantic love, but a commitment to each other through a common cause.  It is as though they are singing together their love for their homeland.  There is the possibility that I have been influenced by having seen the musical Les Miserables first, because I feel like maybe the French flag should have been the center of the scene with cries of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the background.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the aria and Kwiecien and Polenzani provide a beautiful rendition, but for me, Bizet got it wrong.  Ok, I know your arrows are already pulled out, so shoot.  But, maybe that is why the duet has become more popular beyond the opera itself; the words would limit its popularity.

All things together, the opera worked for me.  It’s short, not longer than the average movie these days; it has an exotic locale, the drama of a passionate love triangle, and some great arias.  And I admit to tears in my eyes at the end.  I am surprised that this opera is not done more often.

Ok, a word about viewing The Pearl Fishers on Met Opera On Demand.  The website gives details about which devices you can use to view the video and audio recordings.  Samsung smart TVs can play them using an app and you can stream them using other services to capable TVs.   You can subscribe for $15 per month or annually for $149.  However, you can also view them individually for $4 for SD recordings or $5 for HD recordings; the operas when purchased individually are streamed to you directly over the internet.  You have up to six months to start the videos and 24 hours to finish them once started.  Signing up is relatively painless, but you can spend some time finding exactly what you want on the website.  A free seven day trial is offered, but when I tried that a few years ago it only allowed you to view sections of operas, not the whole operas.  This may have changed but I can't tell since it won't let me sign up a second time for the free trial.  I am hoping Met Opera will choose to broadcast The Pearl Fishers again in the coming year as part of their HD in Cinema Encore series.



Weekend Round Up – Opera in the Outfield, FFJ, Left-Handedness, Opera as Anti-Depressant, and Ex-iPhones

Opera in the Outfield,

Want to see The Marriage of Figaro with Lisette Oropesa and Amanda Majeski at a cheaper price?  You can.  The Washington National Opera and the Washington Nationals have teamed up to make it possible with “Opera in the Outfield.”  On Saturday, Sep 24, Figaro will be simulcast from the Kennedy Center to the Nats Park’s jumbo screen.  And the price is free; how’s that for a cheaper price!  Gates open at 5 pm and the opera starts at 7 pm.  There is also a contest online you can enter right now to win free tickets to the next Kennedy Center production, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment.  Seating is available in the outfield and the stands.  If you haven’t been to Nats Park, parking is available, but the Green Line’s Navy Yard-Ballpark subway stop is right beside the park.  You will have to pass through security to enter the park;  I recommend checking the Nats’ Guest Conduct Policy’s 'prohibited items' list before attending if you are thinking of carrying more than a sweater and blankets with you.

Florence Foster Jenkins,

I went to see this film out of curiosity and because there is an opera connection with FFJ.  Ms. Jenkins became a celebrity by singing notoriously out of tune.  I think it is a good movie, though it raises some strong feelings in some viewers concerning how she was treated in real life, a point of some debate.  The movie will not convert any new fans to opera, but there is no question that Ms. Jenkins aided many young opera stars in developing their careers.  I liked the view of the 1940s world of the well-to-do in NYC, which Hollywood is good at recreating.  The scene featuring a young Lily Pons, played by soprano Aida Garifullina (winner of the 2013 Operalia competition), is an opera highlight.  And of course, it has Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.  The very balanced review by Ann Hornaday can be found at this link

Musicians and Left-Handedness,

Nicola Benedetti at Royal Albert Hall by Allanbeavis, Sep 2013.

Nicola Benedetti at Royal Albert Hall by Allanbeavis, Sep 2013.

This article on left-handed classical musicians caught my attention because I saw Twitter posts saying that two of our greatest composers were left-handed (Guess who? See the article. Ok, their last names begin with B and M), and I always wondered how musicians deal with being left-handed, or if it matters.  The data is not exact, but about 10% of the world’s population is left-handed.  President Obama is left-handed.  According to a CNN report, the scientific basis for handedness is yet to be established, but involves more than simple genetic differences and seems to occur early in fetal development.  Sports seems to be one area where it can be a clear advantage.  If I am reincarnated, I pray I will return as a left-handed Washington Nationals baseball pitcher who can sing.  The last example of musician left-handedness in the article above is concert violinist, Nicola Benedetti, who clearly had a rough time initially dealing with hers: “The Scottish violinist claims she doesn't have any memories of before she played the violin, but she shared this early one in a 2010 interview: "I couldn't stop crying because, being a shy, small girl and left-handed, I kept holding the instrument the wrong way and felt terribly self-conscious."”  Ouch, it certainly matters, but it didn’t stop her and she will be the featured violinist with the NCO at the Kennedy Center, Oct 27-29.  The CNN report states that over a lifetime, handedness doesn’t seem to have much of a measurable impact.

Opera as an anti-depressant,

Ok, now for a little foolishness and fun. Take a look at this James Corden Youtube clip when he is visited by soprano Ailyn Pérez and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni of the Metropolitan Opera.  It cheered a sad James up, and I hope it does as well for you.

Ex-iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches,

This has nothing to do with opera, unless you use your Apple products to view and/or listen to opera.  However, the new iPhone 7 is expected to be announced on Sep 7, and I always wonder how to clear my old phones before disposing of them.  Maybe you do too.  At the following link, Apple provides their recommendations for what to do before getting rid of your old device: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201351.


Washington Concert Opera: It’s All About The Music

Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Suppose they gave an opera where there were talented, accomplished singers, a full chorus, and a full orchestra, and the singing was with emotion and in character, with supertitles overhead, but there were no costumes, no sets, no dancing, and no action on stage.  Well, that would be called ‘concert opera’, a form of opera that is enjoyed by many fans.  And you don’t have to choose.  In the mid-Atlantic region you can have both; in addition to our many first-rate staged opera companies, there are several prominent concert opera companies in our region.  In Washington DC, we have the highly regarded Washington Concert Opera, and that is the company I will be discussing in this blog report.  I plan to report on Baltimore Concert Opera and ConcertOPERA of Philadelphia in future posts.  And full disclosure – I have not as yet attended a concert opera, thus I spend some time below examining the genre.  My bottom line is that attending concert opera is now on my opera to do list.  I think after reading my report you may as well.

You might ask why give up costumes, sets, dancing, and action?  The Washington Concert Opera (WCO) has a motto of “It’s all about the music.”  And therein lies the primary basis for this form of opera’s appeal.  The performers do not have to be concerned with their costumes and makeup, how they fit and changes; they do not have to be concerned with dancing and movement and being in the right place at the right time, or physical interaction with the other singers, and managing to control their breath while moving around.  It’s like listening to studio recordings of opera except it’s live music.  The performers can focus on the music and on their connection with the audience.  You get the singers full attention. They are placing themselves before you for your scrutiny, as well as enjoyment, and the results are immediate.  The audience must also stay engaged.  There are no do overs for either the performers or the audience. The two are in an intimate relationship for the evening.

There are other benefits as well: you will likely get to hear operas that the full opera companies can’t or won’t do; the orchestra is on the stage, not in a pit, playing a more prominent role; the tickets are likely cheaper because concert opera is less expensive to perform; and you will be better able to employ the creative role of imagination.  You will follow the story through supertitles or not, but your imagination will provide form and color to the play in your head.  You will not have to split your concentration with questions like why is Senta strangling herself on the bed instead of taking the leap off the cliffs?  You will provide your own interpretation of the opera without dealing with a director’s conception.  In a sense, it is an audio book.  Or, you can forget the story and just enjoy the live music.

I will talk more about concert opera in future posts, but let’s get back to DC’s company, Washington Concert Opera. I first became aware of this opera company a few years ago and have seen them praised in critical reviews and by word of mouth.  They employ both established singers of renown and young and upcoming ones.  Ann Midgette of the Washington Post regularly reviews WCO performances; here is a quote from one of her reviews: “Concert opera companies often end up specializing in a form of opera akin to an athletic event: The focus is turned from the drama onto the physical feat of producing the sound.  The Washington Concert Opera is a fine purveyor of this manifestation of the genre, often focusing on bel canto opera, which is not much done by major opera companies (too long, too esoteric) but which, when you get the good singers and an involved audience, can move the crowd-pleasing needle high up into the green.”

This quote was in a review of Semiramide from last year, in which the critic found the performance itself lacking in some ways, but in their second production of the season, La Favorite by Donizetti, she found much to favor.  My point here is that this company’s productions are considered significant enough to the Washington DC opera scene to be consistently covered by the Post’s chief classical music critic.

WCO’s mission statement includes “provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces” as one of its goals.  The 2016-2017 season includes two such operas and a 30th anniversary celebration concert:

September 18        WCO 30th Anniversary Concert

Novermber 20       Jules Massenet’s Herodiade

March 5                  Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore

The performers for 30th Anniversary Concert, a celebration of the company’s legacy and success since its inception in 1986, will feature international opera star, Angela Meade.  Massenet's Herodiade (premiere in 1881) is based on a story by Gustav Flaubert about the historical character, Salome; librettists are Paul Milliet and Angelo Zanardini.  This opera enjoyed a good deal of staged success until Richard Strauss’ Salome (premiere in 1905) offered a version based (and sensationalized) on the biblical story of Salome as written in a play by Oscar Wilde.  Strauss’ Salome is a tense psychological portrayal and offers the provocative dance of the seven veils.  Herodiade portrays Salome in a very different, rather noble, light and offers the calmer, more seductive music of Massenet, but is still edgy due to its portrayal of a suggested romance of biblical characters.  The cast is impressive, starring Michael Fabiano, Joyce El-Khoury, and Michaela Martens.

Leonore by Beethoven may raise a few eyebrows. We are told that Beethoven wrote one opera, that one named Fidelio.  True or not?  Well, yes and no.  Ludwig worked over ten years on his sole opera, premiering his original version in 1805 named Leonore, and nine years later in 1814, premiered the final version named Fidelio.  Interesting, over that period he wrote four overtures, Leonore #1, Leonore #2, Leonore #3, and Fidelio.  I don't know which WCO will be using.  Here is a hook to try to attract the younger demographic to this one (I would like to see more young people at operas).  I read that millennials are having less sex and moving more slowly in seeking commitment and marriage.  Millennials, Leonore is for you!  The original name for the opera was a little longer -  Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe;  English translation – Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love.  It’s about a woman who demonstrates extraordinary commitment and bravery to save her husband, and also gives Beethoven a chance to make a political statement about freedom.  What more could you ask for?  Great singers, maybe?  They got’em: soprano Marjorie Owens, heldentenor Simon O'Neill, and soprano Celena Shafer.  As a special treat, they even throw in Alan Held, Wolf Trap Artist in Residence, and Washington National Opera’s Wotan in its recent Ring Cycle.

All performances are on Sundays at 6 pm in Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus in Washington DC.  Tickets for the two operas range from $40 to $110 for single tickets and $72-200 for a season subscription covering both.  Tickets for the 30th Anniversary Concert are $15-90.  Tickets to all can be purchased online at this link, or call the box office at 202-364-5826.  Pre-performance talks are held one hour prior to the performance in Lisner. 

Because I have not attended a performance in Lisner as yet, I cannot comment on acoustics or seat selection.  I'm planning for this to change. 



La Boheme at Wolf Trap, the Missing Act, and a Lesson in Seat Selection

Public domain - 1908 photo of Giacomo Puccini

Public domain - 1908 photo of Giacomo Puccini

Public domain - Original 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

Public domain - Original 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

Nothing more highlights the difference between the experts and practitioners of an activity and its fans than the case of Giacomo Puccini.  La Boheme is exhibit A.  My reading reveals that a surprising consensus among critics, musicologists, and musicians is that Puccini is considered a very good composer, but not a great one.  He is not considered a musical genius with contributions to music on the level of Wagner or Verdi, for example.  Yet, among opera fans, he is considered one of the greatest composers of all, as judged by fans voting with their feet; La Boheme may be the most performed opera of all time.  For me personally, La Boheme is the opera equivalent of the movie, Casablanca.  Somehow, all of the elements in both works came together in this crazy world in just the right proportions and just the right construction to make a great work of art. Both of them work because they work, and just about perfectly.  Was that genius or just a lucky shot, like that one photo that you take in a few thousand that you know is special?  I am willing to let the experts work it out, as long as they keep performing this enchanting opera. 

This report will be distorted because of my seat location relative to the stage at last night’s (Aug 5) performance, which affected my ability to see and hear the opera.  More on that later, but before my tale of woe, let us examine that of La Boheme’s and the case of the missing act.

The missing act,

I have seen two live performances of La Boheme now and watched one HD video recording.  I’ve enjoyed them all, including last night’s version by Wolf Trap Opera.  However, I have been puzzled by the break in story line between Acts II and III.  I heard someone leaving the performance expressing the same sentiment; so I investigated further.  Puccini leaves Mimi and Rudolfo rapturously in love at the end of Act II; yet, begins Act III with the couple estranged.  There was friction between Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Giocosa and Luigi Illica over the telling of the story.  It turns out that the original libretto had five acts and Puccini cut one, sort of tightened it up.  It would be difficult to argue now with the wisdom of that decision, but the missing act sheds some additional light on the story.  In the deleted act, Musetta throws a party at which Mimi dances with a Viscount making Rudolfo jealous, revealing her to also be a woman who, like her friend, Musetta, lived by her wits and charms; Rudolfo makes reference to the Viscount in Act III.  There are theories why Puccini cut the missing act.  Boheme is not long by opera standards.  I wonder if the decision to trim it was at least somewhat influenced by the fact he was in a race with Leoncavallo to compose an opera based on bohemian stories by Henry Murger.  Leoncavallo lost the race; premiering his version of La Boheme a year later than Puccini, it had limited success and the competition created a rift between the two.  However, don’t feel sorry for Leoncavallo.  He is widely known for his popular opera, Pagliacci. I wish Puccini had written the music for the deleted act so we could compare versions, or maybe because I wish there was even more Puccini music out there.

My personal favorites from the WTO performance,

In general, the singers carried the night for me; each had their moments:

D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

D’Ana Lombard – last night’s Mimi was excellent; this is Ms. Lombard’s second year as a Filene Young Artist; she played Rosina in last year’s Ghosts of Versaille; I always feel a little tension at an opera until I hear the lead soprano sing; if she is good, I relax and enjoy it.  Ms. Lombard is very, very good. Her singing was expressive and her voice has a beautiful tone.

YongzhaoYu – I had not been especially impressed with Mr. Yu in Aria Jukebox; I am now impressed; he has a lyrical tenor voice with a beautiful tone that was perfect for the romantic Rudolfo and sang the melody with apparent ease, a pleasure to hear.  He could work on facial expressions for his acting, but in the third and fourth act he seemed to loosen up and show more emotion.

Shea Owens as Schaunard; Yongshao Yu as Rodolfo; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Shea Owens as Schaunard; Yongshao Yu as Rodolfo; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Reginald Smith, Jr. – a very good Marcelo with a colorful baritone, especially effective in the early playfulness with Rudolfo that got the opera off to a good start.

Shea Owens – his voice and the professionalism of his singing almost stole the show for me. 

Summer Hassan – she showed the verve and fire one expects of Musetta.

Timothy Bruno – with a distinctive bass voice, his aria to his overcoat was a highlight.

Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Shea Owens as Schaunard; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; Summer Hassan as Musetta; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Shea Owens as Schaunard; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; Summer Hassan as Musetta; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

The key to me for La Boheme is creating the mood and sustaining it in each act, especially by establishing in Act I the rapport among the young men who have chosen the bohemian life, sacrificing comforts for the sake of art.  The principal players, the minor players, and the supernumeraries in the performance all did an excellent job of this in each act.  Kudos all around, not the least to the director, Paul Curran.

Chorus; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Chorus; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Once again, the average age of this opera crowd was substantially lower at the Filene Center than typically seen at opera houses.  I suspect many were there for their first opera and I also suspect some young converts were made.  I believe that the reason for the lack of young people, especially young families, at our opera houses has to do with the need to dress up, painful commutes, high parking prices, the formality overall, and high ticket prices.  Opera at Wolf Trap is an enticing alternative.  Lower the barriers and they will come.

Low points, including a lesson in seat selection,

One low point was the humidity.  We can’t control the weather, but requiring the performers to wear overcoats and wraps in August at Wolf Trap is hardship duty; perspiration was in evidence on stage and in the crowd.  If Wolf Trap Opera does this one again in the Filene Center, move the setting to the French West Indies and let them wear bathing suits.

A more serious low point for me personally was the acoustics from where I sat.  I was two rows from the stage and on the very right side facing the stage.  The Filene Center is a very large house with a very wide angle stage.  When you are far right or left and very close to the stage you are almost looking directly across the stage.  The view from the center stage you do not have at all.  When the singers faced me I heard them clearly in their natural tone, but when they turned away, I could hear distance in their voices. On the positive side, when the singers came over my way and they were close to me, those moments were thrilling. 

I think that the Filene Center is a difficult venue for opera in terms of sound anyway.  There are no enclosed sides or back wall for the sound to bounce off and the lawn seats are a long way from the stage.  It appeared the singers were wearing microphones, and I would guess that to reach the lawn seats amplification and speakers are needed, not traditional in opera.  I don’t mean to discourage opera productions at the Filene Center; far from it.  Just an observation to take into account.

The orchestra also seemed a bit distant to me.  Part of the problem was that the orchestra was seated behind the stage during the performance and for two acts a huge set structure blocked them from the audience.  I find myself unable to comment on the playing or sound received by a center cut of the audience.  Being on the far right side created an unevenness in the sound volume in my area depending on which section of the orchestra was being emphasized.   My bad for seat selection, but it was an unusual set up as well.

I also cannot comment much on the staging due to the placement of my seat.  However, it seemed true to the story and was a new adaptation by Mr. Curran, moved up in time to 1917 and the end of World War II.

The Washington Post review by Grace Jean was laudatory and covers the orchestra and staging, though rather briefly.

an unfortunate development,

Compounding the undesirable effects of my seat choice was an unfortunate development.  In choosing seats this time I wanted to be up close to the performers and took the closest seats available in the prime orchestra section.  I knew which seats I was purchasing and the trade-offs I was making.  However, to my surprise a railing for steps and a landing had been constructed on the right side of the stage directly in front of where I was sitting.  It gave the set the impression that the performers were ascending apartment stairs as they entered and exited.  For me, it meant I was viewing the performance through a fence with cross railings.  It was frustrating the entire evening.  I contacted Wolf Trap patron services the day after and received a call explaining there was internal miscommunication about the railing and an apology with an offer of restitution in the form of tickets to a future performance.  Stuff happens and it was nice of Wolf Trap management to try to make amends.

Summing up,

One conclusion to offer is that at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center choose seats as close to center as you can for opera, especially for the best sound; I got a lesson in seat-manship that I hope will benefit OperaGene’s readers.  A more important conclusion is that La Boheme is worth seeing, yet again and again.  I can also whole-heartedly recommend seeing and hearing Wolf Trap Opera’s 2016 Filene Young Artists wherever they go in the future.  What a pleasure this season has been (including The Rape of Lucretia and L'Opera Seria).  I wish them all the best going forward in their careers.  And I hope the Filene Center will continue to offer opera and make new opera fans, especially within the younger demographic.  So, in the final analysis, I can honestly say, even with issues noted in my report, I enjoyed the performance overall and am glad I was at the opera.

Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event

Image in Public Domain

Image in Public Domain

AP Wire Photo - Public Domain

AP Wire Photo - Public Domain

Opera is a “performance” art.  In fact, one that involves a lot of physicality, exemplary muscle control, and total body awareness.  The singers in the photo are icons of modern operatic history, the great soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, and one of the greatest tenors of all time, Luciano Pavarotti; their singing power and acumen was truly extraordinary.  Let’s consider the challenge they faced when singing in an opera house: they project their voices such that they are heard clearly, without amplification, in the back seats, which might be 150 feet from the stage, and do so over the sound wall made by a full orchestra.  Their lowest and highest notes must be heard clearly using their softest and loudest intensities.  They must carry the melody with excellent diction.  And they may need to sing in musical keys outside their comfort zones.  They often must sing in languages not their own.  Oh, and they must sound beautiful while exhibiting the emotion in the story.  All of this is subject to evaluation by human judges, similar to many Olympic events that will begin this weekend.  Young opera singers will often compete in voice competitions in developing their careers.

How hard is it?  Think you can sing opera?  In fact, most people can’t, and for those who can, it is not natural.  Popular music singers have rarely received training.  They sing in whatever fashion is effective for them, possible because they typically are singing into a microphone.  Singing opera has to be learned, much like learning to play a musical instrument.  The muscle control and body awareness that allow singers to project and control their voices in this way is both an art and science, and must be tweaked for individual bodies.  The process is called technique.  You may hear the phrase that a singer is working on their technique.  It involves a number of terms that I don’t fully understand.  For example, there is a throat voice, a chest voice, and a nose voice.  Singers must be aware of and relax any tension in their bodies, because tension can affect voice sound and breathing.  They must be aware of their body alignment, and perhaps most important, their breathing and how to control it.  Good health through proper diet and fitness are high on the agendas of opera singers.  They also must pursue their careers with awareness of what their voices can withstand.  There are risks.  The vocal folds, more commonly referred to as vocal cords, may not be fully developed until college age and attempting strenuous arias before their development is ready can cause permanent damage, as can overuse later in their careers.  And voices change over time.

The San Diego Opera webpage has a sub-page titled “Music and Science Curriculum” that discusses the biology and physics of opera.  Five lessons are offered in Biology Connections, four in Physics Connections, and two in Physical Science Connections (the second one appears to have a broken link).  Some of the topics are the anatomy of the human voice, how singers use their body to produce sound, the physics of music, and emotional responses to music.  One interesting tidbit I learned from Physics Lesson Two:

“Can a singer shatter a wine glass with the pitch and intensity in their voice? The answer is yes and modern physics prove it.  This takes a combination of pitch and intensity. To find the frequency of the glass, run your fingers around the rim and listen for the sound it creates. Chances are good that this is a High C flat. Now the singer must be able to match that pitch, which is about 105 dB and 556 hertz, and hold that pitch and intensity for at least 3 seconds.  If the pitch and intensity are correct, and constant and if the wine glass has any type of microscopic flaw in it, the glass will shatter.”

I thought it was just a cartoon cliché, but it could be an Olympic event by itself, though I doubt many serious opera singers would risk their voice to it, and according to the Myth Busters video the competition from heavy metal singers could be vibrant.  For a more scientific discussion of how singers sing over the orchestra by focusing their power on a singing range above the orchestra and by use of vibrato, click here.

Why do we enjoy watching Olympic Events?  For one thing, it is a competition, and that builds anticipation and excitement.  For another, it is people who are the best in the world at what they do that are competing and have been preparing for this competition for many years, often their entire lives.  We know that the performance level will be extraordinarily high.  We expect that new world records will be set in some events.  All of this makes the Olympics fun to watch.  There is, however, another element to consider, our knowledge of the events.  We know what the athletes are trying do and how they are going about it and the broadcast announcers go to great lengths to inform us of special preparations the athletes make and detailed explanation of what the athletes must do in their events.  Our brains are ticking off accomplishment of these sub-aims as an event proceeds and we feel our excitement or disappointment wax and wane as the a performance progresses.  The anticipation creates tension in our bodies and the results resolve that tension, and pleasure is released. 

In performing, both opera singers and Olympic athletes come to know the thrill of victory (a standing ovation) and the agony of defeat (not hitting that High C).  And we their fans, thrill and suffer with them.  All of these things keep us coming back to the Olympics over and over every four years.  Opera fans also keep coming back, but it is of course not going to become an Olympic event, even though I think its athleticism would qualify it.  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.

Still, most people do not realize the physicality involved in singing opera.  Fans familiar with opera understand what the singers are trying to accomplish, but those not familiar with opera do not.  I think if more people understood the Olympic-sized challenges of singing opera their appreciation for and interest in opera might increase.

Opera: What’s In A Name?

Shakespeare contends that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but does opera in any other form than a full opera, live in a theater deserve to be called opera?  I read a letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post defending cinema broadcasts of opera as opera.  In remembering the article to which the letter writer was referring, I recalled the opera critic’s reference to opera HD cinema broadcasts as an “opera product.”  It kinda bothered me at the time, and I wish to return to it now.

Referring to opera broadcasts in this way as a “product” to distinguish it from the real thing denigrates cinema broadcasts and thereby those who enjoy it.  The intent of the article was to encourage fans, especially young fans, to engage the full experience of live theater opera; this is praise worthy.  However, when expressed as disparagement of alternatives, it carries another message.  “Product” used in this context to me carries the connotation of “byproduct,” as in cheese product rather than real cheese, which sounds like something to eschew.  It subliminally creates a class divide, those who attend opera in opera houses and concert halls and those who settle for opera byproducts.  Ok, a bit of an overreaction perhaps, but this tempest in my teapot has boiled over.  I can’t get away from the fact that it bothers me.  It puts live opera performed in a theater on a pedestal and anything else is well, less than that.  It’s all very nice for those of you who like to watch the cinema broadcasts, who love Met Opera radio Saturday broadcasts or listening to CDs or streaming opera audio, etc., but you realize you are not enjoying the real thing.  Class division is one of opera’s lingering problems.  A new acquaintance recently asked how I got into opera and said he always thought of it as something for academic types.

On the other side, does not the real thing, the full-fledged live, acoustic, in the house performance deserve some special distinction, its own designation?  I just read a charming affirmation of live opera in an interview with Mr. Aaron Blecker, a 105 year-old opera fan.  In it, he describes his first opera.  He saved up for tickers and took his wife to their first opera (noted in Slipped Disc and published in Met Orchestra Musicians).   Mr. Blecker’s comment on live opera:

“We loved it. It’s 80 years later and I still remember it. She was happy that I got it and we were both happy that we saw it. To go to the opera was a great treat for us. To be able to see it in person and hear the splendid voices…with the records you had a lot of static, and to hear the voices live was a much more thrilling experience.”

With a testimonial like that no one should be worrying about the demise of opera.

Recordings are better now, but virtually everyone still agrees that live opera in theaters is the best experience of opera.  Should we give that experience a new name?  Maybe so, or maybe I should just try to forget about “opera product.”  Let us encourage anyone interested in opera to pursue their love of opera in any form available to them (I do personally), which means we need to embrace all avenues to enjoy opera including, but not exclusively, attendance at live theater performances. 

What do you think?  Do we need a new name for opera performed live, acoustically in opera houses and concert halls?  Or should we adopt the term “opera product” for everything else?  Or should I just pipe down and let it go?