Metropolitan Opera Tickets for the 2017-2018 Now on Sale

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For many people, including myself, the Metropolitan Opera is opera's Mecca.  I make a pilgrimage there every year.  New York is a great city to visit for a mini- or complete vacation, and combined with attending an opera at the Met, it is sublime.  Thus, it is worth noting that as of today, you can purchase tickets for individual performances at the Met for next season.  You can view the list of productions here.  Overall, with the exception of a new opera, The Exterminating Angel, it is a pretty standard line up.  So, you might want to look closely at who the singers are.  For example for La Boheme, you can have Angel Blue singing Mimi on Oct 2, 6, 9, 14, 19, 23, and 27, or Anita Hartwig on Nov 1, 4 or Sonya Yoncheva on Feb 16, 21, 24, Mar 2, 7, and 10.  Likewise for Musetta, you can have Brigitta Kele on Oct 2, 6, 9, 14, 19, 23, or Susanna Phillips on 27 or Feb 16, 21, 24, Mar 2, 7, and 10.  Ms. Hartwig is great, but personally, I'd really like to catch Ms. Yoncheva live.  I'm not familiar with Ms. Kele, but Susanna Phillips is can't miss.  Check carefully not only what opera is playing the dates you want to travel, but also who the performers are for that date!

If you need help selecting an opera to attend, Met Opera offers a web site quiz to provide you with some insight as to what operas might fit your taste.  The best seats and the cheap seats tend to go fast, so act as soon as you can if you plan to make a trip in the coming year.  The Met advises that the best way to purchase tickets for the 2017-2018 is through the Met website.  You may also call 212-362-6000 for assistance.  If you happen to be in NYC and can make it over to the box office, you can save a few bucks on fees.

The Met Opera HD in Cinemas 2017-2018 broadcasts have also been announced, and the list can be found here.  Tickets for cinema showings do not go on sale until July 19.  Perusing the list might help your decision of which to attend at the Met itself.

Happy Opera!

Pittsburgh Festival Opera: A Summer Six-Week Opera Festival Happening Now

Pittsburgh has options for live summer opera and not everywhere does.  Just recently I read a Facebook post from someone asking if cinema broadcasts of operas were any good because there was no opera in his city until September.  How can we satisfy our taste for opera in the summer while the productions of the major opera companies are gestating for birth in the 2017-2018 season that begins in the Fall?  Most often by looking around the country for summer opera festivals, combining vacations with opera.  Yes, there is the occasional cinema or television broadcast and there are options for streaming opera on your electronic devices. Television, with streaming possible, has certain advantages; for ease and convenience it is hard to beat. But it has its disadvantages – you are watching pictures and videos of action, not action; your attention is focused on shots picked by the director, not allowing you to see the complete stage, and most importantly, you are hearing electronically manipulated sound, not direct voice or instrument to ear sound.  The excitement often missing from broadcasts is typically present at live performances.  I enjoy opera recordings, on the radio, the TV, and in the cinemas, but opera is meant to be enjoyed live so you can experience, without filters, the profound effect that the trained, human voice can have, touching your heart and elevating your soul.  Just think of the difference in having your sweetie say 'I love you' in person and saying it on a recording.  Both are good, but there is a difference.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera wants you to experience opera live and first hand. They call their version “Intimate Opera Theater”.  Mainstage productions are in the 360-seat Falk Auditorium, and children’s performances are in the 125-seat Hilda Willis Room, though other venues around town are also utilized.  I truly believe they would come to your living room to perform if they could, but the best they can do is to bring you live, innovative, quality opera in settings much more intimate than the large 2-3,000 seat opera houses.  (Of course, if you have very deep pockets I suspect they might be willing to visit you in your living room).  They can however match your air conditioning, and this summer PFO is offering mainstage operas, recitals, and family events in cool comfort.  They also make it about as easy for you as possible – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, modest prices, and operas sung in English with projected English subtitles.  It is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form. 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera is not new, but rather, with name change, is building on success and is teeming with ambition.  This is the 40th season for this innovative opera company, known in previous years as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Summerfest.  See OperaGene’s coverage of the 2016 season at this link.  PFO maintains the same commitment to engaging Pittsburgh audiences broadly in intimate settings presenting American works, reinterpretations of older works, and new works involving themes of contemporary interest; it plans to continue its signature series of rarely performed Richard Strauss operas and its presentations of Handel operas. The company has also committed itself to new or expanded efforts on these fronts: 1) revive the Pittsburgh Ring Cycle starting in 2018; 2) launch an effort to spread the word of this festival nationally and internationally, drawing opera fans to Pittsburgh in the summer; and 3) establish a new friends organization to support an Endowment campaign, with $3 million in pledges already.  PFO is setting its sights high and providing the content to justify it. 

So, what exactly does Pittsburgh Festival Opera have planned for you this summer?  I list just the operas and one musical below, but also check out the recitals and family events at this link:    

A Gathering Of Sons by Dwayne Fulton and Dr. Tameka Cage Conley – June 15, 16, 24, 28, 29, July 1, and 8

Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck – July 1, 8, and 15

Sweeny Todd by Stephen Sondheim – July 7, 9, 15, 20, and 22

Xerxes by George Frideric Handel – July 14, 16, and 22

Intermezzo by Richard Strauss – July 21 and 23

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering Of Sons is a new opera commissioned by PFO’s Music That Matters series.  It is described as a gospel and jazz opera, and the story deals with the shooting of a black man by a white police officer, hoping to promote understanding.  The composer, Dwayne Fulton, and the librettist, Tameka Cage Conley, are locals.  See an early review here.  This is the second Pittsburgh premier of a new opera dealing with race relations; Pittsburgh Opera presented the well-received “The Summer King” in May.  Sons is an opera you will take home with you to ponder for some time to come.  Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is a perennial opera favorite, usually presented around the Christmas season.  You know the fairy tale and the music is well worth the adventure for both adults and children, though this will be an abbreviated version suitable for children.  Sweeney Todd is the well-known, highly successful Sondheim Broadway musical, most recently embodied by Johnny Depp in the movie version by the same name.  Although technically a musical and not an opera, it is often performed by opera companies around the U.S..

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Closest to my operatic heart in terms of appeal are Handel’s Xerxes and Strauss’s Intermezzo.  Last year’s Summerfest production of Handel’s Julius Caesar was a sell-out, and PIttsburgh Festival Opera offers another chance to hear baroque opera by the great maestro.  In baroque opera, the counter tenor is the thing since the castrati seemed to have disappeared, and PFO is bringing in the highly regarded Andrey Nemzer of the Metropolitan Opera to play Xerxes, King of Persia; he will also appear in the PFO recital, The Three (Counter) Tenors on June 30.  Again in opera, we have a straying king who has designs on the love interest of another.  Therein lies the drama and the comedy; who will marry whom in the end?  Richard Strauss wrote his own libretto for Intermezzo about an event in his married life.  The opera, a comedic drama revolves around a letter and a case of mistaken identity.  The composition by Strauss was considered innovative for its time in incorporating everyday events into an opera.  All told, Strauss composed 15 operas, so FPO has a ways to go to present them all.  Interestingly, Strauss was also a great conductor and conducted the 1893 world premiere of Hansel and Gretel.

The Fan Experience:  Ticket sales are not limited to citizens of Pittsburgh and the city is great place to visit.  Check out The Fan Experience section of my report on The Summer King, which my wife and I drove up from DC to attend.  PFO offers childcare options for children 2-5 for their Sunday matinees; check with the box office for more info.  I will reiterate here that if you plan to drive in the downtown area, have a good map and plan your routes ahead of time.  The inner city is situated across from a high bluff and has narrow streets with tall buildings – our GPS was unable to consistently maintain its signal.  While there, check out if the Pirates are in town for major league baseball.

TICKETS ONLINE: pittsburghfestivalopera.org

Box Office: 412-326-9687

 

Note to Readers on Absence and a Book Report on “My Nine Lives” by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette

Note to Readers: I am returned from an enriching vacation experience traveling in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Angkor Wat); Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; Bali (Ubud and Jimbaran); and South Korea (Seoul, Geongju, and the DMZ). It was a three-week vacation followed by several days of brain mush from jet lag; the flight from Seoul to DC was 13 hours.  I didn’t find any live opera to attend on this trip; Korea National Opera offers western opera and Ho Chi Minh City has an impressive opera house, but I’m not sure western opera is offered there. I offer a few photos below, and I am now ready to turn my attention back to opera.

Book report: I did take advantage of the long flights to read Leon Fleisher’s and Anne Midgette’s co-authored book, “My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music”.  It is a good read that covers Fleisher’s musical career as a distinguished concert pianist, conductor, and teacher; he was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2007.  His co-author Anne Midgette, Chief Classical Music Critic for the Washington Post, ensured that it is excellently written and told.  Mr. Fleisher was a child prodigy who had embarked on a highly promising career as a piano soloist, but encountered a deformity in two fingers of his right hand in his mid-thirties in the mid-sixties.  The book details events in his personal and professional lives and how these lives were influenced by his struggles with a baffling disease affecting his right hand. He has led an exceptionally interesting life as a member of the elite crowd of classical musicians and his anecdotes about famous musicians and conductors in the second half of the twentieth century are fun to read.  There is only a brief nod to opera in the book.  By far, my personal favorite parts of the book are his descriptions of his thoughts and feelings about some of the pieces he played that were most meaningful to him; he describes what he thought the composer intended and how he tried to interpret the piece. I found that after reading each of these discussions I wanted to hear him play those pieces.  Fortunately, he has an extensive discography listed at the close of the book.  Many of these are available on Apple Music, and I have begun to listen to some of them.  The only thing I can report at this time is that I listened to a favorite of his, Brahms Piano Concert No. 1 in D-Minor.  While I liked this piece, I am more drawn to his recording of No. 2 in B-flat Major.

Jacket cover copied from Amazon.

Jacket cover copied from Amazon.

One of my agendas for reading this book was to learn more about Ms. Midgette.  I find that generally there is only limited information publically available about professional music critics, and I like to know the background of the critics that I read… frankly, to help me determine if they have the background to speak with authority.  No question that Ms. Midgette does.  There is no information about Ms. Midgette in the book itself, but the fact that she has been involved in a working relationship with such an illustrious member of the classical music community speaks well of her qualifications.  I have found her to be an outstanding critic, knowledgeable and insightful, and an excellent writer and journalist.  I rarely miss reading a column about opera of hers and often point to them on the pages of this blog.

 

 

Click on a photo to move to the next photo: Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Angkor Wat in Cambodia; view of Ho Chi Minh City at night; shop in Ho Chi Minh City offering rice from different regions; Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore; villa in the interior of Bali; traditional dance in Bali; noodle shop in Seoul, South Korea; Royal Palace in Seoul, South Korea; Buddhist temple in Geongju, Korea; UN guards from South Korean and American forces facing across the border into North Korea in the DMZ.

 

WNO’s Butterfly: Not To Be Missed, Even If You’ve Seen It Before

The funny thing is that, although I had a ticket as a season subscriber, I was not anticipating Washington National Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly with much enthusiasm.  It is a great opera, beautiful music with a heart rendering story; however, I have seen Madame Butterfly before and listened to its recordings multiple times.  It was Renato Scotto’s singing of the role of Cio-Cio San that caused me to put her in first place on my favorite opera voices list.  So, I was looking forward to Saturday night’s performance, but not excited.  By the end of the first act, I was excited... and anxious to see what more was to come.  I had not read about this particular production ahead of time, perhaps due to my lack of enthusiasm, and did not anticipate what was in store for me.  It was a surprise.  I have never attended a tragedy before where I left the theater feeling so good.  And I was not alone.  When it ended, Ermonela Jaho, who played Cio-Cio San, appeared from the curtain to take a quick bow; she was met by a standing ovation and shouts of brava which only stopped when the last bow was taken by all cast members and the curtain came down.  All my fellow patrons I saw leaving had smiles on their faces.  My strongest recommendation is to stop reading now and just go see it.

Left photo: Snapshot of the Kennedy Center Opera House screen as seats were filling up. Photo by author. Right photo: Villagers in an early scene. Photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

What caused my reaction?  Visual art, acting art, music art, and vocal art.  This Butterfly has them all in aces.  Let’s start with the visual art; just look at the photos. It was almost an operatic equivalent of Disney’s “Fantasia”.  At the very beginning, the stage is filled with lines, shapes, color, and lighting effects in the costumes and the staging.  I thought I must have wandered into a Japanese art gallery, and it only got better; these elements began to move.  Brightly colored streamers were added from ceiling to floor and they changed with the mood of the scene.  Screens are magically added that project more color and lines and shapes that move.  And it is all strikingly beautiful.  The staging was completely open (sparse) for much of the opera and some scenes might have benefited from better framing, but maybe that would have conflicted with the artful design.  The design of this production was by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko.  This production of Madame Butterfly originated in 2006 with performances by Opera Omaha; it has played several other companies since, including the San Francisco Opera.  The staging alone will make your attendance worthwhile, even if you have seen Butterfly before.

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Troy Cook as Sharpless (the American counsul), and Brian Jagde as B. F. Pinkerton. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Troy Cook as Sharpless (the American counsul), and Brian Jagde as B. F. Pinkerton. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

For newbies, Madame Butterfly is a great choice for your first opera.  The composer is Giacomo Puccini and the librettists are Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  If you don’t know the story, an American navy officer, B.F. Pinkerton stationed in Japan marries a teen-aged Geisha, Cio-Cio San, because he finds her enchanting, knowing that under Japanese law he can divorce her simply by leaving her.  She, totally in love, converts to his religion and is abandoned by her family.  You will sympathize with her and hate him right away.  He is reassigned to the States and leaves with false promises that he will return to her, not aware she will soon bear his son. He does return, but only to claim his son to raise with his new American wife.  As you can see, this is not headed for a happy ending. The musical, Miss Saigon, is based on the story of Madame Butterfly.

Left photo: Brian Jagde as B.F. Pinkerton assures Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San of their bright future together. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera. Right photo: Silhouette of Brian Jagde as B.J. Pinkerton and Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San on their wedding night. Photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

And then there is the singing and music.  For beautiful music, Puccini is hard to top and Butterfly may be his most beautiful.  The orchestra under conductor, Phillipe Auguin, was outstanding, enhancing the flow of the drama and adding its own artful colorations.  Lead soprano Jaho is making her first appearance in DC; she has played this role in many venues in Europe.  She manages to embody the teen-aged Cio-Cio San with swift, light movements and dramatic gestures.  She has a beautiful voice and sings with touching emotion.  I hope to see her again.  Tenor Brian Jagde, who plays Pinkerton (boo, hiss), is a young artist who has fully emerged in this excellent performance. He has a powerful voice, so much so that in a couple of spots he overshadowed some of the other singers.  And the supporting cast was excellent all around.  In particular, I was immediately impressed with mezzo soprano Kristen Choi who has a rich, lovely voice and played Susuki with such depth of feeling.  Troy Cook as Sharpless and Ian McEuen as Goro gave fine performances.  It was fun to have some of the Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz young artists participating; Michael Adams as Yamadori, Timothy Bruno as Bonze, and Allegra De Vita as Kate Pinkerton acquitted themselves well.

Left photo: Kristen Choi as Suzuki with an expression of concern while Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) sings of her dreams. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washingto National Opera. Right photo: Ermonela Jaho (Butterfly) as Cio-Cio San faces the truth. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washingto National Opera.

The drama of Madame Butterfly was strongly affected by this style of presentation.  If you want a gut-wrenching performance of Butterfly, this is not that.  The artful style, while engaging and even arresting on its own, distances the viewer somewhat from the emotion of the story.  I was watching more than feeling the story, even with the urging of the music and vocals.  I felt involvement and the sadness, but not at a level other performance styles might evoke.  It may be more involving for newbies.  It was nonetheless a satisfying and exhilarating arts experience, simply a different way of engaging with the story.

My bottom line is the admonition I began with – just go see it!

Coffee mug from the Kennedy Center gift shop. Photo by author.

Coffee mug from the Kennedy Center gift shop. Photo by author.

The Fan Experience: Tickets are still available; current prices are from $25 to $300, but with Kennedy Center dynamic pricing, if this becomes a really hot ticket, the prices could go up.  In deciding on a performance, take note that THERE ARE SIGNICANT CAST CHANGES AMONG THE PERFORMANCES.  Four different sopranos will play Cio-Cio San over the course of the 14 scheduled performances; one performance, May 19, will feature only Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz young artists.  WNO scheduled extra performances for this very popular opera. This created an issue for finding singers with that much space on their schedule, then some replacements had to be made and a young artist performance scheduled; so, you can pick your favorite or go see them all.  Post critic, Anne Midgette, who encapsulated Saturday night’s performance well in her professional review , noted that Sae-Kyung Rim, who will play Cio-Cio San in five of the performances, is supposed to be terrific; there are some fans who believe the role should only be played by an Asian singer.  I don't think it is necessary.  I loved Ms. Jaho's rendition; singing and acting are the critical criteria.  However, I can also see that casting an Asian singer could add greater authenticity to the portrayal.  Check the performers and dates and ticket availability at this link.  If you need help with your ticket selection or purchase, call 202-467-4600.  I left the performance feeling so good that I spent $50 in the Kennedy center gift shop – check out the Madame Butterfly coffee mugs .

The Summer King Will Entertain You And Touch Your Heart

I was both excited and scared to attend Pittsburgh Opera’s The Summer King.  I love opera, and I am particularly fond of new opera. My wife and I drove all the way from the suburbs of DC to attend Saturday night.  It was the world premiere of this new opera by composer Daniel Sonenberg (librettists are Sonenberg and Daniel Nester with additional lyrics by Mark Campbell); it is revised and fully staged after an earlier concert opera presentation.  And I love baseball, a fan since I was a young boy.  Attending the premiere of a new opera about baseball had special appeal, but honestly, I was also worried.  What if I didn’t like it?  I write an opera blog, and I would hate to say negative things about a new opera, especially about baseball.  I am both pleased and relieved to say that my fears were not realized.  And in truth, this opera is about much more than baseball.  It is about swinging the bat in life itself. 

Left photo: Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) prepares to face Broadway Connie Rector (Gregg Lovelace) at Yankee Stadium in 1930 . Right photo: Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) and his wife Helen (Jacqueline Echols) sing of the bright future that awaits them. All photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Most of us developed our love of opera from listening to the great masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The operas of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner are still the preferred staple of today’s audiences.  If you have been to modern operas, you know that you should anticipate that a new one will be different from traditional opera in important ways. Operatic singing remains, but modern opera utilizes different styles of music and opera structure, and it typically addresses modern themes that current audiences can more easily relate to.  For The Summer King, think opera, but also think musical… bio-pic…drama…cultural event.  For the music of The Summer King, think Gershwin, not Mozart…think “An American in Paris”, more than “Rhapsody in Blue”.  I am especially pleased to be able to report that I liked the music, quite a lot.  Conductor Antony Walker and the orchestra made the music come alive.  Sometimes it was boisterous with individual instruments surging to the forefront like baseball fans shouting from the stands.  Sometimes it was soft and sweet, as caressing as words of love spoken between Josh and his wife. It varied in style by scene, frequently pleasingly jazzy. One aspect of the music I did not like was the overuse, in my opinion, of mariachi music for the scenes in Mexico.  While appropriate for the setting, this music seemed too genre-driven and derivative.  It felt copied from the Mexican music playbook, and as a result, for me, the unity and overall integrity of the piece was interrupted.  And as is the case for every modern opera I have attended, I wished for additional melodic arias.  Overall, though I can see myself listening to this opera’s music separately from the staged opera and hope it will be recorded at some point.

Left photo: Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith (Sean Panikkar) tells how he got passed over by a white baseball scout and decided to turn his energies to writing. Right photo: Calvin (Brian Vu) and Clark Griffith (Ray Very), the owner of the Washington Senators, tell Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) that it was in his own best interests that they not sign him to their major league team. All photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

There were scenes in both Act I and II where I thought the pace slowed down and lost momentum.  On those occasions, I started to dismiss The Summer King as not quite making the opera majors, just a good minor league opera.  However, the story and drama of Josh Gibson’s life kept pulling me back into the moment and elevating the opera’s level of play.  This story has sadness, but also the joy of love, the thrill of triumph, the bitterness of unfairness, our need for hero worship, the stress of racial tension, the burden of societal demands on the individual, and the meaning of a life over time.  Josh Gibson, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was a baseball player in the American Negro leagues of the thirties and forties of such extraordinary talent that he was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, even though he was never allowed to play in the major leagues because of the color of his skin.  He is often referred to as the black Babe Ruth, and sometimes, Babe Ruth has been referred to as the white Josh Gibson.  An important focal point of the story emphasizing his hitting prowess are eyewitness reports that Mr. Gibson once hit a ball completely out of Yankee stadium; he hit that ball a long way, a feat never accomplished by any major leaguer.  He managed some fame and financial success by playing a few years in Mexico where his skin color was not an impediment.  The extraordinary pathos of his life was caused not only by racial segregation, but by the death of his wife during childbirth, shortly after they were married in their late teens.  It was a crushing blow to the young baseball player.  Gibson himself died of a brain tumor at only 35 years of age, a condition affecting his behavior in the years just prior to his death.  As he matured and his talent became evident, he was pushed to attempt to break the color barrier of baseball’s major leagues; Jackie Robinson was to do that in 1947.  Though wanting the opportunity to compete in the majors, becoming the vanguard of a cause was not a role that he desired, though he may have accepted it.  Gibson was a likable, well-mannered man who only ever wanted to love his wife and to play baseball.  Life gave him so much, took away so much, and demanded much of him.  I wish I could have seen him hit that ball out of Yankee stadium.

Left photo: Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker),  Grace (Denyce Graves), and others celebrate Señor Alcalde (Eric Ferring) naming Josh 1941 league MVP in Veracruz, Mexico . Right photo: Sam Bankhead (Kenneth Kellogg) mourns the death of his best friend Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker), who died at the age of 35. All photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Staging for this challenging two-act, multi-scene, biographical opera was creative and clever.  I especially liked the baseball scenes with catcher, hitter, and batter all facing the audience.  There was a large cast and chorus, and the singing was generally excellent. Scoring the role of Gibson as a baritone was just right, giving gravitas to the weight of life he felt. The role was sung by Alfred Walker, an international singer noted for his Wagnerian roles.  He played the role perfectly, displaying charm in the happy moments and affecting sadness in the bitter ones.  A part of me wishes a younger singer had portrayed the early years; I would have liked to have seen the young Gibson.  International opera star Denyce Graves, who played Grace, Josh's girlfriend, sang a touching and beautiful farewell-to-Josh aria in act II, one of the more sustained melodic pieces.  Soprano Jacqueline Echols, seen recently in Washington National Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking as Sister Rose, hit just the right notes in her brief role as Gibson’s attractive, loving wife. Sean Panikkar played journalist Wendell Smith who tried to enlist Gibson in breaking baseball’s color barrier.  He has a high tenor voice that stood out and I hope to hear him again.  The chorus was used effectively.  The ending scene did seem to some degree as an add-on and has been criticized as not needed, but I disagree. The children’s chorus singing about Josh’s mighty home run at Yankee stadium ended the opera on notes of both awe of Josh Gibson’s extraordinary baseball abilities and the hope that the young provide that things might get better.  For a professional review, I point you to an excellent article, both balanced and on target, written by Robert Croan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I classify The Summer King as a hit.  I think it belongs among the modern operas I have seen recently, Cold Mountain, Breaking the Waves, Champion, and Dead Man Walking. The compelling presentation of the life story of Josh Gibson and the pleasing music are its major strengths.  Attending new opera is fun and I found this new opera both entertaining and touching, an experience that will stay with me for a very long time.  Kudos to Pittsburgh Opera for its courage and commitment in bringing forward this new opera.

Composer Daniel Sonenberg at the pre-opera talk. Photo by Debra Rogers.

Composer Daniel Sonenberg at the pre-opera talk. Photo by Debra Rogers.

The Fan Experience:  My wife and I drove to Pittsburgh from the suburbs of DC. It is theoretically a four hour (250 mile) drive with speed limits of 65-70 mph for the majority of the way, and there is a toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Because of traffic volume, accidents, and lane closures due to road repair it frequently takes longer; we endured an hour back up due to one lane closure, among several.  Traffic into Pittsburgh and out on Sunday had a couple of unexpected areas of congestion for a weekend.  Check traffic congestion on Google Maps or other services before heading that way to find alternate routes if needed.  The streets are narrow and convoluted in downtown Pittsburgh lined by tall buildings and our GPS had trouble picking up the signal; take a map and directions with you for your hotel.  The three rivers setting with multiple bridges, while lovely to take in, also add to the traffic complexity for newcomers.  Major league sports here attract crowds to the downtown area.  Hotels in the Cultural District are not cheap, but are not exorbitant like NYC and are within walking distance to the Benedum Center.  There are quite a few parking garages in the area, many with 24-hour parking rates of only around $15.  The Benedum Center concert hall seats 2,800 and seems well designed for opera performances.  Its décor suggests an earlier, steel-powered era; it is decorated in brass and dark paneled wood with stunning glass chandeliers.  It was built in 1928 and restored in 1987 to its original form.  Pre-opera talks are given an hour prior to performance.  The talk Saturday night included an appearance by the composer Sonenberg who talked about his fascination with Josh Gibson since his own boyhood and how that led him to write the opera.  A typical advantage of attending the premiere of new opera is getting to see the creators, in this case, Sonenberg, Nester, and Campbell, take bows on stage after the performance.  Tickets are priced moderately and at many levels.  Good restaurants can be found in the area; we had dinner at Eleven and it was excellent.  We experienced no real problems and have no complaints other than the traffic.  Two performances of The Summer King remain, an evening performance on May 5 and a matinee on May 7.  The opera has received a strong response but good seats can still be had.

Outside and inside snapshots of the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.  Photos by Debra Rogers.

Summer 2017 - Who Loves You, Baby? Wolf Trap Opera, That’s Who!

Wolf Trap Opera might be my favorite opera company; it certainly has a special place in my heart.  Yes, more than the larger companies like the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, or Virginia Opera (haven’t been to Pittsburgh Opera yet, but will at the end of April).  I love all those companies also, but Wolf Trap Opera is special.  It can’t compete in terms of numbers or the grandeur of offerings achievable by the larger companies, but WTO’s commitment to the art of opera and the quality of what it does with its resources is impressive.  And for getting audiences up close and personal with talented young opera singers, it can’t be beat.  Each year about 15-16 young artists are brought to Wolf Trap for further training as part of developing their budding careers.  These singers are carefully selected by auditions held around the nation and represent some of the finest young operatic talent anywhere.  They are also already accomplished singers; they usually have bachelor’s and often master’s degrees in music and have performed in staged operas in other venues. 

2017 Filene Young Artists, left to right: Alasdair Kent, Alexandra Loutsion, Annie Rosen, Anthony Robin Schneider, Ben Edquist, Jonas Hacker, Kihun Yoon, Mackenzie Gotcher, Madison Leonard, Megan Mikailovna Samarin, Nicholas Nestorak, Richard Ollarsby, Shea Owens, Summer Hassan, and Zoie Reams; photo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera. 

2017 Filene Young Artists, left to right: Alasdair Kent, Alexandra Loutsion, Annie Rosen, Anthony Robin Schneider, Ben Edquist, Jonas Hacker, Kihun Yoon, Mackenzie Gotcher, Madison Leonard, Megan Mikailovna Samarin, Nicholas Nestorak, Richard Ollarsby, Shea Owens, Summer Hassan, and Zoie Reams; photo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera. 

Each year two rarely performed operas are unearthed and presented in stellar fashion by this troupe in the cozy (less than 400 seats) confines of The Barns at Wolf Trap.  They also present one of the more popular operas in the repertoire at the Filene Center each summer which serves as a fine opportunity for newcomers as well as devoted fans to view grand opera; this year it will be Puccini’s Tosca.  In addition, they offer several recitals and special events in the DC area that give audiences a chance to have a delightful experience being entertained by this young talent.  All the selections for presentation are arrived at with an eye to what the kinds of vocal talent will be in that year’s performing artists pool.  Many kudos to Kim Witman, WTO’s director, for her astute leadership and her commitment, not only to these young singers and to opera, but also in placing WTO in the service of its surrounding community.

Scenes from Season 2016's The Rape of Lucretia, L'Opera Seria, and La Boheme. Photos by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The agenda WTO has in store for us in Summer 2017 is varied and ambitious.  Due to the variety of offerings, it gets a little complicated to describe succinctly.  Three fully staged opera productions (June 23, July 14, and August 11) and several recital events will be performed at Wolf Trap Park itself.  There are also quite a few special events planned as part of the new “UNTRAPPED” initiative, performed at venues away from Wolf Trap Park on weekends; there is also an opera for children scheduled at Wolf Trap’s Theatre-In-The-Woods.  The complete calendar listed in chronological order and labeled by category is included further down; you can read details of the events at the Wolf Trap Opera website:

Let’s focus on the fully staged operas at Wolf Trap Park.  These are the season’s heavy weights:

June 23, 25, 28, July 1 - The Touchstone (La Pietra Del Paragone) by Gioachino Rossini; performed at The Barns

July 14 - Tosca by Giacomo Puccini; performed at the Filene Center

August 11, 13, 16, 19 - The Juniper Tree by Philip Glass and Robert Moran; Bastianello by John Musto; performed at The Barns

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

First up for operas performed in The Barns is Rossini’s The Touchstone (1812), or in Italian, La Pietra Del Paragone, loosely “the stone of comparison”; the librettist is Luigi Romanelli. To me, not knowing Italian, La Pietra Del Paragone sounded foreboding; I was sure a tragedy was involved.  Quite the opposite, this opera is a comedy about a rich man who devises a test (a touchstone) to show who his real friends are.  That this is a comedy is very good news indeed; my experience in attending opera at Wolf Trap Opera is that they do comedies exceedingly well: L’Operia Seria presented in 2016 (and currently streaming online) and The Ghosts of Versaille in 2015 were two of my favorites.  Their young singers have fun with them, which draws in their audience, and of course, we get a happy ending.  The Touchstone resulted from Rossini’s first commission from a major opera house, La Scala, and was an immediate hit in Europe, but has been little performed here.  The great composer. Rossini, is undergoing somewhat of a revival with many of his lesser known, but still excellent, operas being performed more often now in the U.S.. As an aside, you can read about Ms. Witman’s thought process in selecting this opera at this link.   

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The second production at the Barns begins on August 11; it is a twin bill of two shorter and more modern operas.  First is Philip Glass and Robert Moran’s The Juniper Tree based on the Grimm fairy tale.  This is a fairy tale for adults – mother kills son and serves as soup to father, buy hey, it has a happy ending, I think.  Philip Glass is perhaps the most celebrated American opera composer and is observing his 80th birthday this year, still working.  The second half of the twin bill is Bastianello by John Musto.  It describes a husband's attempts to find people who are bigger fools than his family.  Not saying anything here; could get myself in trouble.  Described as a comedy with heart, it should serve to ameliorate any indigestion caused by The Juniper Tree

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Image courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Wolf Trap’s featured opera at the Filene Center is Tosca by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  The gorgeous music in Tosca is reason enough alone to attend this opera; Puccini at the top of his game.  The aria “Vissi d’arte” makes just about everyone’s opera’s greatest hits list.  Singing it will be WTO young artist, soprano Alexandra Loutsion, who just completed singing the title role in Turandot at the Pittsburgh Opera; her performance was called triumphant (I told you these singers were already accomplished).  This brief overview of Tosca is copied from the WTO website: “Caught up in a world of political intrigue and corruption, Puccini’s fiery diva is trapped between her allegiance to her rebel lover and a treacherous police chief who will stop at nothing to possess her. The explosive conflict between these three unforgettable characters comes to a hair-raising conclusion in one of opera’s most popular, suspenseful, and unforgettable dramas.” Oh yeah, it also has a couple of nifty plot twists.  It’s one of very few things I have watched with my son where he admitted he didn’t see that coming.  Here is another reason you should go, even if you have seen Tosca multiple times already: WTO young artist Mackenzie Gotcher.  He will play Cavaradossi, one of the leads.  I heard him sing an aria at the Wolf Trap preview of its upcoming season.  I expect most of these young singers will go on to become professional opera singers, and some, stars.  Mr. Gotcher has one of the best tenor voices I have ever heard.  Not to be missed.

All the special events look engaging.  One I especially recommend is Aria Jukebox on July 9.  The young artists each get to sing an aria that the audience selects from one of three they have prepared.  It is a chance for the singers to strut their stuff.  They will knock your socks off and you get to pick by which song.  I have made this assertion before, and I repeat, "Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun!"

Summer Calendar for Wolf Trap Opera:

June 3:

UNTRAPPED - Pops Extravaganza – A Night At The Theater; The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland

June 3-4:

Wolf Trap – Four of A Kind (Four Singers, Four Hands); The Barns

June 10:

UNTRAPPED – POP-UP@Union Market in DC

June 17:

UNTRAPPED - The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Philip Glass; Dock 5 at Union Market in DC

June 23, 25, 28, July 1:

Wolf Trap - The Touchstone (La Pietra Del Paragone) by Gioachino Rossini; The Barns

June 24:

UNTRAPPED – Mahler’s Fourth; The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland

July 8:

Wolf Trap – Studio Spotlight; The Barns

July 9:

Wolf Trap – Aria Jukebox; The Barns

July 14:

Wolf Trap - Tosca by Giacomo Puccini; Filene Center

July 19-20:

Wolf TrapListen, Wilhelmina by David Hanlon; Children’s Theatre-In-The-Woods

July 28:

Wolf TrapCarmina Burana by Carl Orff; Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto; Filene Center

August 11, 13, 16, 19:

Wolf Trap - The Juniper Tree by Philip Glass and Robert Moran; Bastianello by John Musto; The Barns

Exterior and interior views of The Barns and the Filene Center. Exterior Filene Center photo by Roberst Llewellyn; all photos courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The Fan Experience: Not only do you get to sample budding young talent and excellent performances of opera, you get to do so at quite modest prices, compared to the larger opera companies.  The operas at The Barns prices range from $36 to $78.  The Barns is a small venue and most seats are excellent; check whether the cheaper seats have obstructed view of the stage or subtitles.  Lite fare food and beverages are served at The Barns and drinks can be taken into the theater and some seats have cup holders.  Tickets for Tosca at the Filene Center range from $25 for lawn tickets and $45-65 for seats under the roof.  Both venues have plenty of free parking, though getting out of Filene Center parking areas after the performance will take patience.  One caveat for the Filene Center – this is open air (The Barns is air-conditioned) and summer nights in the DC area can be rather hot and humid.  Pre-opera talks are given about an hour before each performance and are well worth your time.  Seats for these talks are more limited at the Filene Center, so get there especially early; take a picnic onto the spacious grounds or dine at Ovations restaurant and make an afternoon of it.

The Met’s Eugene Onegin, Fine Fare, Live In HD In Cinemas April 22

Saturday, my wife and I made our second voyage to Manhattan in less than two weeks, this time to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, or more precisely, to see Anna Netrebko perform as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.  Ms. Netrebko has been one of my favorite sopranos since I first developed an interest in opera about six years ago. She has a beautiful voice, is a major talent, and is a consummate professional.  She has worked hard to achieve her diva status and it is very well deserved.  She is one of only a handful of opera stars whose presence ensures a good audience turnout.  So, it was with a good deal of excitement last Saturday night that my wife and I went to hear her sing.  We were not disappointed in either her performance or the opera; both were outstanding.

Anna Netrebko as a young Tatiana. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Anna Netrebko as a young Tatiana. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Eugene Onegin is the most successful of Tchaikovsky’s operas in the United States.  It is, of course, sung in Russian.  Anna Netrebko is a native Russian, making her and this opera a perfect match; it is an iconic performance.  The librettist is Konstantin Shilovsky and the libretto is based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, who wrote it in verse.  The story revolves around a letter written by a young country girl to a more sophisticated bachelor neighbor declaring her love for him.  His response and the aftermath of its effects on their lives constitute the tale.  No spoilers here except to report that, not unsurprisingly for a Pushkin tale, it is a story with both heart and painful realities.

Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as Onegin discussing her letter. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as Onegin discussing her letter. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

There is nothing painful about the music however.  It is sweeping and grand with beautiful melodies, and a lead theme that you will leave the opera house humming, which Tchaikovsky weaves into the music throughout the opera.  Originally scheduled British conductor, Robin Ticciati, was ill and was replaced by staff conductor Joel Revzen.  No problem from my stand point; I thought the orchestra played quite well and the music was a highlight of the performance. 

Peter Mattei as Onegin at an aristocratic party. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Peter Mattei as Onegin at an aristocratic party. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The staging was very effective with a large country house and an outdoor setting containing the action in the early part of the drama and an aristocratic ball in St. Petersburg in the latter.  At the first intermission, my wife who was not aware of Anna Netrebko’s reputation told me that when she sang, it was like the other singers were singing from farther back, that she sounded exactly like she’d expect an opera star to sing.  Ms. Netrebko certainly commands the stage, but each of the principal singers in the drama were excellent.  Baritone Peter Mattei, who played Onegin, stood out in a talented group.  I thought the strength and beauty of his voice were a good match for Netrebko.  The scenery, the costumes, the dance numbers, and the acting all worked to make it believable that this story occurred at its time in Russia, early nineteenth century.

Anna Netrebko as a more mature Tatiana. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Anna Netrebko as a more mature Tatiana. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

I simply have no substantial criticisms to make of this Eugene Onegin production by the Met Opera.  I think this is a wonderful opera and stars a great soprano in Anna Netrebko.  In my view, she owns this role and all singers who attempt it after her will be compared to her.  Of course, it is only the second time I have seen Eugene Onegin.  According to my rule of three, noted in my previous blog report, on my next viewing I will be more critical (smiley face).  Regardless, any opportunity to see Anna Netrebko should be seized upon.

You can see this production live in HD with Anna Netrebko this coming Saturday, April 22 at select theaters around the country.  Click on this link to track down the one nearest to you

The Fan Experience:  Once again my expectations fell victim to not perusing the cast list carefully enough.  I had thought Mariusz Kwiecien was playing the role of Onegin.  I have seen Mr. Kweicien in a couple of videos of operas and was looking forward to seeing him in person.  However, the casting had switched the performance before the one I saw to have Peter Mattei in that role. This was planned all along, not a last-minute substitution.  Fortunately, Mr. Mattei was not a disappointment, and I was thrilled to have seen and heard him.  I can’t emphasize too strongly, though, to you and myself to always check the cast listings for operas you want to see to determine if there are planned cast changes during the run of the opera.

 

My Third Leonore: Met Opera’s Fidelio And Discovery Of The Rule of Three

For most U.S. opera fans, the Metropolitan Opera is our Mecca.  The Met brings in the biggest name singers, employs an outstanding orchestra and chorus, can attract the most creative directors, and has the resources to stage the most elaborate productions and broadcasts many of them into cinemas around the nation.  It produces about 25 different operas every season from September to May, three times as many as its closest rivals.  Going to NYC to see a Met opera is exciting – always - as it was on last Wednesday evening awaiting Fidelio.  As I sat there, I remember thinking that, really, the Metropolitan Opera is just a concert hall, and the audience and performers are just people, but when they come together sometimes magic happens.  Wednesday night, the audience was there and so were the quality performers.  They were armed with a great story, and the music by Beethoven alone makes it worthwhile.  All the ingredients were there for a great production of Fidelio, but for me, honestly, the magic was sparse.  I found it to be a very good production, but not a great production.

Hanna-Elizabeth Muller as Marzelline, Falk Struckmann as Rocco, and Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Hanna-Elizabeth Muller as Marzelline, Falk Struckmann as Rocco, and Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

My journey in opera fandom added a new lane at this performance.  Strangely, I found myself in a mood to be critical, even though I tend to be a very positive opera fan.  Why?  Perhaps it was a bit of undigested potato from dinner affecting my vision, a hopeful guess from Ebenezer Scrooge on encountering his first disturbing Christmas apparition.  Or maybe familiarity does breed, not contempt, but a more critical attitude.  Fidelio is the story of Leonore, who disguises herself as a man in an attempt to free her husband unjustly held in prison.  Fidelio (the name she takes as a man) is my third viewing of her story since February .  First, there was French composer Pierre Gavaux’s version, titled Leonore and performed by Opera Lafayette, and shortly thereafter, an earlier version of Beetoven’s own Fidelio, titled Leonore and performed by the Washington Concert Opera.  Both of those performances were excellent.  It is possible that these experiences raised the bar for my satisfaction or simply had shorn Fidelio of its novelty. This thought spurs me to offer a theorem: opera criticism was born when someone attended an opera for the third time; professional critics were born when someone asked such an attendee what they thought of the opera and a light bulb went on.  Henceforth, this will be known as Rogers’ Rule of Three: your third viewing of the same opera will be as a critic.  My assertion is made even more cogent by the fact that my three Leonores were the same story, but significantly different operas.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore and Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore and Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s go now to the moment I found most poignant, most magical, in the Met’s Fidelio.  It wasn’t the rejoining of Leonore and her husband, Floristan, or the arrival of the regional minister to save the day, though these scenes were affecting as well; this probably does attest to my familiarity with the story.  The moment came in act I when Fidelio, in a desperate attempt to find her husband, opened all the cells and allowed the prisoners to move out into the prison courtyard.  These appeared to be the world’s best behaved prisoners, but let’s assume they were all wrongfully incarcerated political prisoners, as was Floristan.  They stood and sang wistfully and beautifully “The Prisoner’s Chorus” a gripping aria that begins, “Oh, what a pleasure once again, Freely to breathe the fresh air!”  With freedom seeming to be playing defense around the world today, I was momentarily connected to the many political prisoners in the world who might be feeling this sentiment, if not singing this aria, on getting a rare breath of fresh air in the open.  This I think attests to the power of Fidelio and was surely Beethoven’s intent.

The singers were impressive. Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka has a lovely, strong soprano voice and played Fidelio with spunk and determination, yet with a vulnerability that made you know she would need both help and luck to set Floristan free.  Marzelline was played by soprano Hanna-Elizabeth Muller, appearing in her first role at the Met; her strong, clear voice drew a favorable response from the audience.  Klaus Florian Vogt as Floristan had a voice light in timber and projected easily throughout the house.  He did not fit the image of haggard and worn with suffering in his voice I had imagined for the role, but I loved his voice and singing.  In supporting roles, David Portillo as Jaquino, a suitor of Marzelline, Greer Grimsley as Pizarro, the villain who imprisoned Floristan, and veteran Met star James Morris, as minister Don Fernando, were solid in their roles.  My favorite was base-baritone Falk Struckmann.  He convincingly played Rocco with engaging singing and acting that helped hold the story together.

Final scene where Leonore is praised by all. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Final scene where Leonore is praised by all. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Now to descend again into the darkness, I found the orchestra to be lackluster.  What's wrong with me?  It seemed spirited enough, but except for moments of exalting freedom, it did not seem to add much to the pathos of the scenes.  My ear is untrained, but I thought I heard three repetitions of the same musical phrase near the end of the overture that sounded like the woodwinds and perhaps brass were out of sync; although I liked the sound they made; Beethoven should have thought of it.  The orchestra also seemed underpowered from where I sat in good orchestra seats.*  The chorus on the other hand was able to push me back in my seat and sang beautifully, though to my taste preferring power over pathos too often, but perhaps that is what the maestro intended. It does not take much to stage Fidelio, a prison courtyard, a dungeon, and an open area, which were fine in this production.  At first I felt critical of the direction, but maybe it is just that the direction is challenged by the story's open questions which were not resolved: the Marzelline infatuation with Fidelio was featured at the beginning and only dealt with facial expressions; at the conclusion included for no clear reason was an aria by Rocco about the need for money in marraige; as mentioned before, the well-behaved prisoners, and finally, how quickly Pizarro gives up on hearing the trumpet announcing the arrival of the minister.

All criticisms aside, my immersion in Leonore has been highly entertaining and enlightening., about the Leonore story and about Beethoven's work ethic.  A study of these three versions could easily take up the better part of a semester of college.  Some additional comparisons of the three Leonores:  I loved the music, which was not only different from Gavaux’s Leonore, but significantly different from Beethoven’s own earlier version, Leonore.  In particular, the overture was changed by Beethoven for each version of his Leonore/Fidelo progression, and Leonore was reduced from three acts to two for Fidelio.  The Leonore overture is about three times as long as that for Fidelio.  Fidelio turns Jaquino into a cad, whereas for Leonore, he was more of a lovestruck young fellow.  In Gavaux’s Leonore, Jacquino is accepted by Marzelline in the end.  Rocco has become my favorite character in the drama.  His struggle between wanting to keep his position and not being willing to engage in murder provides the only character with any depth.  In the Gavaux version he actually becomes a hero in the end.  Leonore is the stronger character, but is one dimensional.  As I have said before, these three Leonores do not substitute for each other. If you have the opportunity to see any one of them or all of them, do so and you will be rewarded.  If you have a choice, pick Gavaux if you want a version that emphasizes romance or Beethoven if you are the mood for love, justice, and the joy of freedom.

The Fan Experience: Going to the Met (outside and inside views above) is a thrill and cheap seats are an option for most performances, but in my experience, you must act early in the season to get cheap seats; at the Met those sell out first.  Unfortunately, going to the Met from the DC area is expensive.  My family does it as a mini-vacation once or twice a year.  We usually drive, which on a good day can be done in about five hours and on bad days up to eight hours depending on traffic.  Up and down I95 and thru a tunnel will set you back about $70 in tolls round trip; do get EZ Pass to save you a bunch of time.  Overnight parking in NYC costs about $50-75. Bus, train, and airflights are available options at a price; cheapest is local bus to Penn Station in NYC at $50-75 each way.  Taxis in NYC are usually plentiful, but just prior to show times it can be very difficult to flag down one not occupied; plan getting to the theater carefully.  And hotels there are quite expensive, as you might expect; it’s a good place to use your travel points and free nights.  However, if you can muster the effort and the finances, going to NYC is a treat in itself, and combined with an opera at the Met, is divine.

*I am wondering if my response to the power of the orchestra is a pit effect one encounters when sitting close to the stage, with the sound projected up and past you before it resonates off the walls.  I had the same response to the orchestra in similar seats for WNO’s Marriage of Figaro at the Kennedy Center.   I found the sound to be great in KC’s first and second tier seats for the Ring Cycle. I will have to figure this out.

Virginia Opera’s Turandot Hits the Wow Button

I admitted in my previous blog post that I have a weakness for Turandot.  But still, opera companies must get it right.  Virginia Opera has gotten it right.  They’ve got the singers right, both principals and chorus; they’ve got the staging right, and they’ve got the orchestra performance right.  It’s not the lush, massive production that the Metropolitan Opera is able to stage, and I have a few nitpicks, but overall, this is an elegant gem of a production.  In fact, I am still aglow with the artistic experience and the pleasure provided.  As the cast’s final bows were taken, the performers were given an enthusiastic standing ovation with shouts of approval from a grateful Fairfax audience at the Sunday matinee performance.  Kudos and thanks to all involved in this production!

A Mandarin, Andrew Paulson, who read the edict pronouncing death to a suitor who fails to answer the riddles correctly, surrounded by co-executioners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

A Mandarin, Andrew Paulson, who read the edict pronouncing death to a suitor who fails to answer the riddles correctly, surrounded by co-executioners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The opera’s plot revolves around a princess named Turandot in ancient China who, embittered by a prince’s abuse of an ancestor, requires her suitors to answer three riddles to win her hand in marriage; the penalty for failure is death (you can read the three riddles at the bottom of this report with answers on the For Newbies page).  One prince, Prince Calaf of Persia, comes forward equal to the task, but not willing to win by strength and cunning alone.  Aye, the plot thickens.

Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, rings the gong accepting the challenge, while his father Timur, Ricardo Lugo, and the slave girl Liu, Danielle Pastin, watch in fear; Ping, Pang, and Pang also seen on the right side. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, rings the gong accepting the challenge, while his father Timur, Ricardo Lugo, and the slave girl Liu, Danielle Pastin, watch in fear; Ping, Pang, and Pang also seen on the right side. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Turandot is meant to be a spectacle, a fable to stir the heart and please the eye.  It brings the exotic dress, furnishings, movement, and sounds of the ancient orient to western audiences. A fable must be engaging in revealing its transformative experience.  The transformative lesson of Turandot is the power of love, and the senses must be engaged.  The staging by director Lillian Groag and her production staff was creative and elegant in concept and design, including costumes, lighting, positioning on the stage, color schemes, movement, and dance.  I might quibble with a few minor points, the occasionally wooden movement of Turandot and Prince Calaf to their stage positions, the sparse settings for some of the scenes, and whether even more effective imagery might have been projected onto the back screens.   However, these items were quite effective overall and the costumes were delightful, and one, that of the emperor, was awesome.  With all the color, the entrance of Turandot in a shimmering white gown was jaw-dropping.  The chorus playing villagers were used effectively to encase and focus the action on the main players.  The use of women as executioners was sensuously menacing.  Clever aspects were the color changing floor and the back screens that allowed the opening of entrances to seem magical. 

Turandot, Kelly Cae Hogan, stands above Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Turandot, Kelly Cae Hogan, stands above Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Then there is the gorgeous music – so melodic, so harmonious, so intricate, so effective at conveying and enhancing the emotion of the drama. Kudos to Puccini! And thanks to the Virginia Opera Orchestra, a sixty-member group, and Conductor John DeMain for bringing Puccini’s music forward so effectively and so beautifully. I am not a music expert, but I thought the orchestra played with great sensitivity. The music was soft and sweetly empathetic on occasion as when supporting Ping, Pong, and Pang’s wistful aria to start the second half.  It was stately in support of the emperor’s arrival and pronouncements, and even majestic as the chorus joined in.  And the Virginia Opera Chorus deserves special mention for its enchantingly beautiful sound.

Night has fallen and the city is lit so that everyone can stay awake to discover the answer to Prince Calaf's challenge to Turandot. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Night has fallen and the city is lit so that everyone can stay awake to discover the answer to Prince Calaf's challenge to Turandot. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The principal singers were also a strong feature of this production.  Turandot is a demanding role for a soprano and it would diminish the entire opera to not have one up to the task.  It begs for a dramatic soprano, the likes of which one would encounter in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Kelly Cae Hogan, whose roles have included Wagner’s Brunnhilde, is an impressive Turandot.  A beautiful presence on stage with a lovely piercing voice, her vocal power easily filled the upper reaches of the auditorium.  Her counterpart playing Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, has a beautiful tenor voice and sang perfectly as far as I could tell, though a bit more power could be wished for; his Nessun Dorma aria drew spontaneous applause on completion.  Playing Liu, the servant girl in love with Calaf and willing to give all for him, is Danielle Pastin.  Puccini blessed the soprano playing Liu with a couple of achingly beautiful arias, and Ms. Pastin’s voice and singing were the equal of the arias; her star is in ascendancy.  The remaining cast were all excellent in their roles.  I might have wished for a bit more stately gravitas in Ping, Pang, and Pong, but their comic relief was needed and most welcomed.   

My last word – Virginia Opera’s Turandot was just what I wanted it to be.

The Fan Experience:  Tickets ranged from $54 to $110.  I chose the cheap seats (get to see more operas that way), which in the back of the George Mason Performing Arts Center balcony are fine.  In this case, because Turandot is so visually interesting, I might have preferred to be closer.  For personal reasons, I had to wait until late to decide to go.  One point I didn’t realize before is that online tickets sales end a couple of hours before the performance time.  I had to buy my ticket at the box office; however, that saved me having to pay the convenience fee, approaching ten percent these days for online sales.  I managed to get one of the last $54 seats available.  Orchestra and prime seats in the balcony were almost full. The George Mason Center has free parking a few minutes walk from the auditorium or paid parking ($8) right beside the theater.  I was disappointed that mainly the usual older crowd was in attendance.  I kept thinking that if you could pack the theater with young folks for this performance, they’d like it and new opera fans would be made.  Definitely a good opera for newbies.

Turandot moves on to Richmond for performances on March 31 and April 2.  The pre-performance talk by Dr. Glenn Winters begins about 45 minutes before curtain time.

My previous post about the opera itself also noted the Turandot production of the Pittsburgh Opera, which began on March 25 and runs through April 2.  I am unable to get up to Pittsburgh to see that production, but Elizabeth Bloom, music critic, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has given it a glowing review, noting its unique take on the Turandot story and offering special praise for Alexandra Loutsion who plays Turandot and the impressive staging of the work.  I do have my tickets for PIttsburgh Opera's April 29 premiere of The Summer King.

Turandot’s Riddles – (Answers have been temporarily placed at the top of the For Newbies page to spare those who don’t want to see the answers until having seen the opera.)

I                 What phantom dies each dawn but each night is reborn in the heart?

II               What blazes up when you think of great deeds, is hot in love, and grows cold when you die?

III              What is the ice that sets you on fire?

Popular Turandot: Sensuous Music and Stunning Visual Pleasure

Original 1926 poster for Turandot; public domain.

Original 1926 poster for Turandot; public domain.

I have a weakness for Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Turandot.  My conversion to opera was sealed by hearing a recording on the radio of the great Birgit Nilsson singing Turandot.  At that point opera stepped way ahead of pop and country in my time spent listening to music.  A few years later (2015), I saw Turandot performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  It starred the fabulous soprano Christine Goerke, and it was the Met’s Franco Zeffirerili production.  It was stunning.  This production is nothing short of visual art.  I sat in my seat unable to take it all in; it was overwhelming.  Now, you have a chance in the next couple of weeks to see Turandot performed in Fairfax and Richmond by the Virginia Opera and in Pittsburgh by the Pittsburgh Opera.  Tickets are selling well; get yours soon!

This opera represents an opportunity ripe for stage directors to not only work, but also to play, to exercise their creativity in colorful and exotic ways.  Turandot is a fairy tale that lends itself to such designs.  It is, however, a grown-up fairy tale revolving around the redemption by love of an embittered, vengeful princess in legendary, ancient China.  Turandot is expected to marry, but she requires that a would be suitor answer three questions correctly to win her royal hand.  If they fail, and many have at the point we enter, they forfeit their lives.  The opera begins with the sad march of one of the failed suitors on his way to be put to death.  The story also features a new prince, Calaf, arriving who becomes stricken by passion to marry Turandot and is willing to risk all, a pure-hearted servant girl, Liu, in love with the prince who makes sacrifices for him, and government ministers who deliver sage wisdom and sometimes comic relief, Ping, Pang, and Pong. 

Ping (Keith Brown), Pang (Ian McEuen), and Pong (Joseph Gaines). Photography by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Ping (Keith Brown), Pang (Ian McEuen), and Pong (Joseph Gaines). Photography by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The music is by Giacomo Puccini, which should be enough said.  This is the composer who also wrote La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama ButterflyTurandot is very popular and is performed over 50 times across the globe each year.  The libretto was written by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on a play by Carlo Gozzi.  In Turandot, Puccini is at his most melodic and blends in exotic Asian sounds as well.  Also in Turandot, he employs the chorus in inventive and impressive ways that make you take notice of their beautiful sound.  And it has arias that will leave you humming on your way home. You will often find “In questa reggia” sung by Turandot and “Nessun Dorma” sung by Prince Calaf on opera’s greatest hits albums. For musical and visual pleasure, Turandot excels.

Alexandra Loutsian as the icy princess Turandot. Photography by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Alexandra Loutsian as the icy princess Turandot. Photography by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Turandot also has a mystique about it arising from the fact that Puccini was a perfectionist who argued with his librettists and did rewrites of sections and worked on this opera for years, perhaps struggled to bring it to a conclusion.  In the end, he died before the final scene was written.  A young colleague, Franco Alfano, finished composing the music for the opera as it is heard today.  That final scene is an important one and has generated much discussion of what might have been if Puccini had finished it.  Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera, has written three fun and insightful blog posts about Turandot, including a fascinating discussion of the final scene; he also presents the pre-opera discussions for Virginia Opera performances, which I recommend.  Turandot is sung in Italian with English subtitles. 

Virginia Opera’s production in Faixfax will take place on March 25 and 26 at the George Mason Performing Arts Center and performances in Richmond will occur on March 31 and April 2 in the Carpenter Theater.  Prices in Fairfax vary from $54-110 and from $22-124 in Richmond.  Discounts may be available for students in high school or secondary school.  Do not fear the cheap seats; my last visit to Fairfax, I sat at the back of the balcony where the view and sound were excellent, but as always check when you are looking for cheap seats to make sure that neither the stage or subtitles are blocked from view.  This production of Turandot was initially presented in Norfolk on March 17, 19, and 21 and received a very positive review from the Virginia Pilot-Online, especially for its visual appeal (see link to reviews in the sidebar listing on the right, at the bottom for mobile devices).

Pittsburgh Opera’s production will take place on March 25, 28, 31, and April 2 at the Benedum Center.  Prices vary from $22-170.  Student discounts may be available.  I have not been to the Benedum Center as yet, but plan to attend the world premiere of The Summer King in April.  There is quite a variety of prices for cheap sears in the Benedum Center; check with box office for help with seat selection if desired.

 

My First Concert Opera, My Second Leonore

On Sunday, March 5, Washington Concert Opera performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, Leonore…except that the maestro wrote four versions of this opera, including different overtures for each, and all were performed separately over the ten years he took to arrive at the final version, whose name he changed to Fidelio (1814).   The WCO presented the 1805 version of Leonore differing in number of acts and overture from the final version, as well as a few other significant variations.  The character Fidelio is really Leonore dressed as a man.  Relax, she did it for noble reasons, to gain entrance to a prison where her husband was a political prisoner during the French Revolution.  The story revolves around her heroic effort to save his life, free him, and ward off the affections of the jail keeper’s daughter who wants to marry Fidelio.  Love, justice, high moral character, and the will of God win in the end, as Beethoven would have it.  The important take away point here is that if you have seen one Leonore, you have not seen them all, and if you have seen Fidelio, you have not seen Leonore.  And it is even more complicated as I mention later.  Maybe we should give Beethoven credit for four operas, or at least two.  However, you often get to see Fidelio, a mainstay of the traditional opera repertoire, but you very rarely get to attend a performance of Leonore.  For that we are now indebted to Washington Concert Opera; a part of WCO's mission is to "provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces."

Marjorie Owens as Leonore, Celena Shafer as Marzelline, Eric Halfvorsan as Rocco, and conductor Antony Walker. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Marjorie Owens as Leonore, Celena Shafer as Marzelline, Eric Halfvorsan as Rocco, and conductor Antony Walker. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

I wrote about the Washington Concert Opera in August of last year based on research I had done.  I had hoped to attend WCO’s Herodiade presented in November, however, knee replacement surgery required a longer recovery than I expected.  But last Sunday my wife, son, and I trekked down to Lisner Auditorium in DC for our first experience with concert opera.  Frankly, I was a little blown away.  It was a much richer experience than I had anticipated.  WNO’s motto is that it is all about the music, and while I agree the emphasis is on the music since the singers don’t need to be concerned about costume changes, action, and placement on the stage, it is also about story telling (the singers are in character) and about the visual pleasure of watching the singers and the orchestra, which is placed on the stage.  The singers' interplay, emotions, and excitement are readily communicated to the audience.  For me, this was one of the most enjoyable opera performances of the season.  My entire family was enthusiastic about both the performance and the experience.  WCO has announced their productions for next year which represent an opportunity to hear two bel canto operas not often performed: La Straniera by Vincenzo Bellini in November and Maria di Rohan by Gaetano Donizetti in February.  Concert opera is now enthusiastically added to my opera itinerary.

Jonas Hacker playing Jaquino makes his case as a suitor to Celena Shafer playing Marzelline. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Jonas Hacker playing Jaquino makes his case as a suitor to Celena Shafer playing Marzelline. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

The experience was also enhanced in no small measure by the fact that the music being played and sung was Beethoven’s, and among his best.  The elegant construction and power of Beethoven’s music was ably demonstrated by the vocalists and the orchestra.  Conductor Antony Walker was certainly emphatic in signals to the orchestra sections; there were times I think his feet left the floor (would not have seen that at a staged opera where the orchestra is in a pit in front of the stage).  Leonore was played by soprano Marjorie Owens, and Marzelline, the jailor’s daughter, was sung by soprano Celena Shafer.  Ms. Shafer’s acting pushed the edges of her character a bit and Ms. Owens, on the other hand, was noticeably understated early on.  However, Ms. Shafer sang beautifully with a lovely voice, and when Ms. Owens moved into her later arias and duets, the power, technical accomplishment, and expressivity of her voice owned the stage.  Young tenor Jonas Hacker ably sang the role of Jaquino, a suitor of Marzelline (and fulfilled WCO's mission of introducing emerging artists).  Other principals, bass Eric Halfvarson as the jailor, Rocco, bass-baritone Alan Held as Don Pizarro, the corrupt prison governor, tenor Simon O’Neill as Floristan, Leonore’s husband, and bass Nicholas Masters as Don Fernando, the just governor were all effective in their roles.  O’Neill’s arias, especially duets with Ms. Owens were powerful and moving.  It was a feather in WCO’s cap to have Alan Held performing; he recently played Wotan in Washington National Opera’s highly acclaimed Ring Cycle.  The performance was supported and enhanced by men’s and women’s chorus of WCO, around forty members altogether.  Leonore offers a stunning ending with principals, chorus, and the orchestra on stage together, providing a rising crescendo of Beethoven’s powerful music.  One could not help being thrilled and impressed.

Eric Halfvorsan as Rocco,  Marjorie Owens as Leonore, and Simon O'Neill as Floristan confront each other in the dungeon. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Eric Halfvorsan as Rocco,  Marjorie Owens as Leonore, and Simon O'Neill as Floristan confront each other in the dungeon. Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

You undoubtedly noticed that my title refers to my “second” Leonore.  If you thought four Leonores by Beethoven was confusing, well, It turns out that four opera composers in all wrote works based on this story by French playwright and librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly; Joseph Sonnleithner also contributed to the libretto for Beethoven's Leonore.  Two weeks earlier my wife and I had seen our first Leonore, that by composer Pierre Gavaux and librettist Bouilly, performed by Opera Lafayette.  Thus, we had a chance to compare the version by composer Gavaux with that of Beethoven.  Truthfully, we enjoyed both, and they don’t substitute for each other, despite telling essentially the same story.  Opera Lafayette did a great job and a great service performing their Leonore.  I agree with the critics that Beethoven’s Leonore is the stronger opera, but my wife refused to name a winner.  She enjoyed the romance more in Gavaux’s version, which is in French and emphasizes the human interactions.  Beethoven’s Leonore is in German and emphasized morality and justice more.  I liked the music in the Gavaux version also.  Gavaux’s Leonore is not often performed, but if you have the opportunity, attend his Leonore as well for a delightful evening.

Closing applause for Eric Halfvorsan, Alan Held, Marjorie Owens, Antony Walker, Celena Shafer, Jonas Hacker, the orchestra, and the chorus (not seen). Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Closing applause for Eric Halfvorsan, Alan Held, Marjorie Owens, Antony Walker, Celena Shafer, Jonas Hacker, the orchestra, and the chorus (not seen). Photo by Don Lassell and courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

My Leonore saga is not over.  My wife, son, and I have tickets for Thursday night’s premiere of Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, one more Leonore to get to know and add to the comparison.

 

Washington National Opera’s Champion: A Life Taken, A Life Lived, Forgiveness Elusive

Champion is about a fighter whose blows caused the death of an opponent.  Champion is about the impact of being a black homosexual on a man’s life.  Champion is about a man’s attempt to come to terms with what it means to be a man.  You can take your pick which you want it to be, or enjoy all three.  I somewhat expect that your age might have something to do with your choice.  In fact, I wish I could read a review of this opera by a young person.  Your choice might also be affected by whether you are black and/or gay.  It was synchronistic that WNO’s production came shortly after “Moonlight”, about a young black man dealing with his homosexuality, had surprisingly won the Oscar for best picture.  I think Saturday night’s audience was more diversified than usual for opera at the Kennedy Center, and there was an eruption of applause when Griffith uttered the opera’s signature line, “I killed a man and the world forgave me; I loved a man and the world wants to kill me.”

Old Emile, Arthur Woodley, from his nursing home room looks down on Benny "The Kid" Paret, Victor Ryan Robertson, young man Emile, Aubrey Allicock. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Old Emile, Arthur Woodley, from his nursing home room looks down on Benny "The Kid" Paret, Victor Ryan Robertson, young man Emile, Aubrey Allicock. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The music in this “jazz opera” by composer and jazz artist Terence Blanchard and librettist and playwright Michael Christofer is quite pleasing.  I thought that it was only a couple of memorable arias away from greatness.  I liked the mixing of jazz and opera, but even more jazz direction could have been used effectively.  The libretto was clever and effective at communicating Griffith’s struggles through his entire life, but its use of repetition began to wear on me in later sections of the opera to the point of become a little mind-numbing.  The staging was well-done and effective overall.  Three Emile Griffiths were used, as a boy, a man, and an old man.  This covering of the entire life of a man offers insights and perspectives on life that cannot be achieved by time-focused stories.  I can identify with each stage of Griffith’s life, but I wonder what younger viewers might focus on; again, that review by a young person might help.  The scenes were substantially enhanced by the clever use of screens on both sides of the stage and the back of the stage which projected images of Griffiths Virgin Island homeland and New York City.  The fight scene’s use of slow motion and stop action were effective, but for me it pulled its punches in not emphasizing those final 17 blows that likely caused Paret’s death.  I thought Griffith’s fierceness was also underplayed.

Griffith, Aubrey Allicock, knocking Paret, Victor Ryan Robertson, out. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Griffith, Aubrey Allicock, knocking Paret, Victor Ryan Robertson, out. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

In an overall excellent production, the stand out performer for me was Arthur Woodley who portrayed old Griffith.  Woodley has this rich, warm bass voice the you want to snuggle up to and in his jazzier numbers you got the feel he could sing that genre too.  Young man Emile was played by baritone Aubrey Allicock and although he sang well, he was not menacing enough to me to play Emile as effectively as I wanted.  Allicock portrayed him as a lost young man being tossed about by the waves of his life’s waters.  More menacing was tenor Victor Ryan Robertson who sang beautifully.  Opera star, mezzo soprano Denyce Graves played Emile’s mother, an important figure in Emile’s life, and her aria early in the second act was quite strong and emotionally affecting.  Baritone Wayne Tigges who played his manager was ill and his singing was done off stage by Samual Schultz.  Early Tigges came across as a caricature of a boxing manager, but his aria also in the second half was touching.

Arthur Woodley as old Emile, Aubrey Allicock as young man Emile, and Denyce Graves as Emile's mother. Photos by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

For me, personally, attending the opera was a failed attempt at redemption.  At least that is what I thought initially.  You see, as teenager, I watched on television the 1962 prize fight of the real Emile Griffith versus Benny Kid Paret.  I was a fan of Griffith and was rooting for him to knock Paret out.  I was excited when he stunned Paret in the 12th round, but then Paret fell back, helplessly on the ropes in a corner of the ring, and Griffith pummeled Paret’s undefended head with a series of 17 vicious blows over seven seconds.  I realized, even before the slow-to-respond referee, that it had gone too far.  They took Paret out of the ring on a stretcher and ten days later, never coming out of a coma, he died.  I read the newspaper each day to see if he had recovered.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I had rooted for the beating this man received, though not for the last blows, and I had assumed his injuries would be temporary. When the news came that he had died, I lost my interest in boxing.  I had seen the end-point of watching men beat each other senseless, and at that time, the later-in-life mental problems suffered by boxers were largely unrecognized.  I must say in Griffith’s defense that he had no desire or intent to kill his opponent, even though badly taunted by Paret for his secret homosexuality.  Boxers are taught that when your opponent is weakened to move in and land your best punches to finish them off.  He was simply playing the game as it is played and was not blamed.  There were later suggestions that Paret had not fully recovered from a previous fight.  Nonetheless, Griffith felt guilt for his entire life. 

So, where am I now with Champion?  It was not the catharsis I wanted, but it was artistically excellent, an illuminating opera covering the life of a man who led an extraordinary life.  In the end, seeing Griffith’s life-long struggles at least has led me towards acceptance, acceptance that life gives us challenges against which we struggle driven by both our good intentions and our human needs and weaknesses.  The son of Benny Paret told Old Griffith that the forgiveness Emile sought must come from himself, and so must forgiveness for the guilt I feel come from my own heart.  I’m not sure I’m there yet, but Champion helped put it in perspective.

There are four more performances scheduled for Champion: March 10, 12, 15, and 18.  Good seats remain with prices $35 to $250.  Don't be afraid of the cheap seats - the view is good and the sound is great!  The language at times is explicit.  Interestingly, while the characters spoke the F-word, the supertitles listed it as F**k. 

 

Dead Man Walking On My Heart: the Book, the Movie, and WNO’s Opera

I attended last Saturday night’s opening of Dead Man Walking (2000) produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.  I am not over it yet. I had not read the book, nor seen the movie by the same name (the complete name of the 1993 book is “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States”).  I have WNO season tickets and Walking was simply next on the agenda.  I approached this opera with both a little anxiety and a little dread: first, it is a modern opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terence McNally and, while I like going to new operas, I often find the music in modern operas to be …well, challenging.  Fortunately, Anne Midgette’s preview in the Washington Post had assured me the music was “tonal” and “melodic”; it was also reassuring that it has received fifty performances since its premiere.  My second concern was that what I knew of the story made it sound depressing, not the way I might want to spend my Saturday evening.

If you plan to attend the opera, see the movie, or read the book, be forewarned that this blog report will talk about the ending of this true story, which is the same in all three sources.   I felt I had to watch the movie after seeing the opera to compare the two methods of storytelling.  I still have not read the book, and am in a tug of war with my feelings about whether I want to or not.  I think the charge that these three treatments of the story are depressing is fair, until you have managed to get through the entire story with one of them, and then, they are more than that, much more.  The story itself is an exploration of being human and being forced to confront violence and its aftermath.  I can vouch that the movie and the opera do this well. 

Kate Lindsey as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Kate Lindsey as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Briefly, Joseph De Rocher (name used in the opera version), a young man who had grown up in a poor family in Louisiana, had with another young man come upon a teenage girlfriend and boyfriend parked in the woods.  De Rocher and his accomplice brutalized the couple, raped the girl, and killed both her and the boy.  The accomplice had a better lawyer and got life imprisonment for his sentence.  De Rocher had not faired so well and was on death row when he contacted Sister Helen Prejean.  He asked for her help in getting his sentence reduced; he maintains his innocence, claiming it was the accomplice who had killed the couple.  Sister Prejean eventually agrees to become his spiritual advisor and takes on the goal of trying to get De Rocher to accept the responsibility for what he had done.  He admits his guilt immediately before he is put to death by lethal injection.  More than grappling with our opinion about the death penalty, we are left grappling with our feelings about this young murderer.  Have we or can we forgive this repentant young man who committed such a heinous crime, as Sister Prejean was able to do?  Once a crime has been committed, should our goal be revenge and punishment or forgiveness and redemption? Would we be willing to flip the switch that puts him to death? 

There were three special guests for Saturday night’s performance, the composer Heggie, the librettist McNally, and the author, Sister Prejean.  Sister Prejean also attended the brief post opera wrap up session.  In response to a question about her view of the opera, she said that opera was the fullest or most complete art form.  There is no question in my mind that this story is opera worthy.  Books and movies have their own advantages, but at its best, opera with its deployment of the human voice conveys feeling, emotion, and human values in ways and to a degree that books and movies do not.  Admittedly, I am prejudiced, but I liked the opera’s telling better than the movie.

WNO’s staging of the opera began with a powerful depiction of the rape and murders.  The movie sustained suspense by not completely revealing De Rocher’s guilt until the end.  However, being confronted immediately with the brutality and savagery of De Rocher’s act made forgiving him seem impossible and leaves the audience in that quandary throughout.  Unfortunately, I found the rest of the staging less than desirable, such as having Sister Prejean sit in a chair to simulate driving to the prison.  Aspects of the staging were creative and added to the impact, such as having the young victims run across the back of the stage while De Rocher is dreaming about that night.  I realize that opera always asks the audience to immerse itself in the fantasy, but for most of the evening, I could not help but wonder if Walking had been given a small budget for staging; the visual pleasure of opera is important.  The final scene was detailed and compelling.  Much has been made in reviews about the ending because the gurney’s arm sections supporting De Rocher gives the support a cross-like appearance, and some people feel that it is portraying a crucifixion-like setting where the De Rocher is depicted as dying for our sins.  Sister Prejean explained that the shape of the gurney used in the opera is as it was at the actual scene. However, in the opera ending, the gurney is raised to fully face the audience.  If this was meant to be an effective statement against capital punishment, I did not find it so.  I was still struggling with how could I forgive this man.

Susan Graham as De Rocher's mother. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Susan Graham as De Rocher's mother. Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Baritone Michael Mayes plays De Rocher and has played this role many times before; he has it finely honed, in acting and singing.  I thought mezzzo-soprano Kate Lindsey who plays Prejean was excellent, but at the same time, her performance both singing and acting did not stand out as much as I had expected.  Perhaps, she will grow stronger in later performances as her confidence grows, allowing her to better employ her obvious talents.  Clearly, the person on stage who stood out was international opera star, Susan Graham, who plays De Rocher’s mom and had played Sister Prejean in the opera’s premiere in 2000.  The supporting cast was quite good.  I thought Mayes had the best lyrical moments, such as “every things gonna be alright,” when bluesy, rock elements entered his arias.  The music overall was fine, but I kept thinking, “Jake, you should have taken this further in mixing New Orleans style music and opera.”  I think that some mixing of genres might be a worthwhile direction for opera to go.  Interestingly, next up for WNO is “Champion” by Terence Blanchard, which is described as an “opera in jazz”.

Photos above of Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher are by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Washington National Opera.  I offer them here to make a point about how our prejudices come into play so quickly and often irrationally in stressful situations.  Given only what you know now, which man in these two photos would you be more likely to offer a stay of execution?  The movie's greater ability to show details allows it to make this point even more completely than the opera.  In the movie, he makes statements to journalists to the effect he thinks Hitler was a great man.  Guess how this influenced his case?

I realize this blog report is long on background and short on comments about the WNO performance, but my strongest reactions were to the story, and I think the telling as an opera was very effective at leading me to become immersed in the story.  I recommend you go. It is a powerful artistic and human experience.  I did hear one couple talking as they exited the theater who agreed it was the best WNO performance of the year.  For more comment on the WNO production and new opera versus old opera, see the links to professional reviews in the side bar to the right (at the bottom on smart phones).

There are four more performances of Dead Man Walking: March 3, 5, 8, and 11.  There are plenty of good, including cheap, seats available.  Champion begins a run on March 4.

Opera Lafayette and My First Leonore

An orchestra is a magnificent thing.  That certainly was my feeling during Pierre Gaveaux’s opening overture for Leonore, ou L’Amour du conjugal.  Thirty-three players and a conductor, each doing their own thing, and yet all working in concert to create something beautiful, an effect greater than the sum of its parts.  There is a life lesson there for a world whose music today is certainly not often sweet.  After a momentary unsteadiness to get their feet on the ground, this group under Ryan Brown’s direction accelerated and swerved through Mr. Gaveaux’s score like a Maserati negotiating winding roads of the Pyrenees, providing thrills along the way.  And what a score it is; not having heard Gaveaux before, I often wondered if I was listening to Mozart.  The music did not contribute the complexity or subtlety to the drama as that by Mozart, but it provided the right backdrop and spirit to move the drama along. 

Fidelio, played by Kimy McLaren, and Marceline, played by Pascale Beaudin. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Fidelio, played by Kimy McLaren, and Marceline, played by Pascale Beaudin. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Termed an opera comique, Leonore mixes spoken dialog (not recitative) and arias.  And it is a great story – Leonore, a young noble woman dresses as a man to infiltrate a prison as an employee in the time of the French Revolution; her goal is to save her husband who is being held as a political prisoner.  The title of composer Gaveaux and librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s opera in English is Leonore or married Love.  This story of a heroine and her true love was not only compelling in its time, but remains so today.  Gaveaux’s opera was also successful in its day, but has yielded its popularity to Beethoven’s version completed after Gaveaux’s, which he titled Fidelio, Leonore’s name in disguise.  A side story of the jailer’s daughter falling in love with Fidelio adds suspenseful and comic touches.  There were at least two other opera composers who used the Leonore libretto for their operas, but Beethoven’s has ruled almost completely.  Julia Doe’s program notes provide the interesting historical context for the opera.  It’s obscurity is a shame.  While overall a rather light opera (the conclusion moves very rapidly), I am grateful to Opera Lafayette for the chance to hear Gaveaux’s version, a pleasure all its own..

Floristan, played by Jean-Michel Richer; Roc, played by Tomislav Lavoie; and Fidelio, played by Kimy Mclaren. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Floristan, played by Jean-Michel Richer; Roc, played by Tomislav Lavoie; and Fidelio, played by Kimy Mclaren. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The singers were an all Canadian cast.  First on that stage were Marceline, the jailor’s daughter, sung by soprano Pascale Beaudin, and her long-time suitor Jacquino, sung by tenor Keven Geddes.  Both had pleasing voices and sang well, though at first I thought sound volume might be an issue. Both played their parts well and lightened the mood.  Marceline’s father, Roc, was played by bass Tomislav Lavoie who projected very well, showing both his personal goodness and his stong attachment to the benefits of his position.  Fidelio (Leonore), played by soprano Kimy McLaren, was dressed like a man, befitting her position as key carrier for Roc.  Ms. McLaren has a strong, pure soprano voice and made her arias highlights.  Villain Pizare was played by baritone Dominique Cote; his acting was very stylized 1800s.  Prisoner Floristan, Leonore’s husband, was sung by Jean-Michel Richer, who possesses a very pretty tenor voice.  He sang well, though sometimes rather softly.  Last of the principals was governor Dom Fernand, played by Alexandre Sylvestre; he was suitably officious and yet touched by the plight of the young couple.  Oh, I cannot leave out the chorus which included Andrew Adelsberger, Joseph Baker, Andrew Bearden Brown, Jerry Kavinski, Bradley King, Joseph Regan, Jason Rylander, and Antony Zwerdling.  They should take their show on the road as a group. As a group they had a truly beautiful sound; I would come back just to hear them sing more.

Leonore, played by Kimy McLaren, and Floristan, played by Jean-Michel Richer. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Leonore, played by Kimy McLaren, and Floristan, played by Jean-Michel Richer. Photo by Louis Forget and courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

One of the benefits of the Leonore story is its happy ending.  My wife did not know the story and expected right up to the end that the two lovers would die in each other’s arms in true opera style. And don’t worry about Marcelline.  She took the news about Fidelio rather well and quickly turned back to Jacquino.  It was interesting to me that Roc had a much more important role than I anticipated.  In a way, he was the star.  His kind heart, perhaps serving as a proxy for the French spirit saved the day in the end.  I am sure that message resonated strongly with audiences of the day.  In my report on Opera Lafayette, I noted this company’s commitment to quality.  Now, having seen one of their productions, I am sure I will return again, and I will always remember my first Leonore.

Now I (and you) have a rare opportunity.  One Leonore is not enough and on March 5 the Washington Concert Opera will perform Beethoven’s Leonore.  I will be there.  I can’t wait to see the contrast with Gaveaux’s opera.  And you know what?  Met Opera’s new production of Fidelio will premiere on March 16 for a run at the Lincoln Center in NYC.  Could that be in my future also?

Logistics: The tickets to Leonore were a Valentine’s gift from my conjugal love.  We had good orchestra seats that cost $100 each.  Seat prices for the performance varied from $25 to $130.  We could have gone much cheaper and still had excellent seats.  The Lisner Auditorium really has no bad seats.  From the front of the orchestra seats to the back row of the terrace seats is not that far.  However, Lisner also has a larger width to length ratio than most concert halls; so when attending events there, such as the upcoming WCO’s Leonore, try to sit closer to the middle if you can.  I also suspect this affects the sound quality.

Photo on left is a quick shot of the orchestra just prior to the performance.  Photo on the right is a wide shot of the inside of Lisner Auditorium. Seats in the foreground are the orchestra seats from row A and seats in the rear beginning with the exit coves are the terrace seats. No bad seats.

Sound Health: A Win-Win-Win Program for the Arts and NIH and Patients

I was excited to see the recent news report about the new collaboration between the National Institutes of Health, my old stomping ground, and the Kennedy Center, a locus for my love of opera, to expand and deepen a program called Sound Health, originally begun by the National Symphony Orchestra.  In the NIH announcement of the new collaboration, it notes that “music can get you moving, lift your mood, and even help you recall a memory, but can it improve your health?”  It reminded me of an example of opera in the movies.  The movie is “The Shawshank Redemption” and the opera selection is Sull’aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, heard in the YouTube video below.  One of the inmates in Shawshank Prison manages to play this aria, against the wishes of his captors, over the prison’s loudspeaker system.  We see the calming effect it has on the other inmates and how they stop what they are doing to listen intently.  We don’t know for sure what is going on, but it is clear the music is having a profound effect on the men.  Sound Health is intended to encourage research into the links between music and wellness.  

I am intrigued by how the brain processes music, which is different from how it processes language.  One of the first OperaGene blog posts was on this subject.  The impact of music on brain disease is actually explored in the opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, based the book by Oliver Sacks and recently performed by Urban Arias.

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.

This new collaboration has been forged by renown opera star, Renee Fleming, who also currently serves as Artistic Advisor at Large for the Kennedy Center.  The program is solidly backed by Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center, and Dr. Frances Collins, the Director of the NIH. Their announcements state that through this partnership, both institutions will create opportunities to:

  • Expand current levels of knowledge and understanding of how listening, performing, or creating music involves intricate circuitry in the brain that could be harnessed for health and wellness applications in daily life;
  • Explore ways to enhance the potential for music as therapy for neurological disorders across the human lifespan;
  • Identify future opportunities for research; and,
  • Create public awareness of how the brain functions and interacts with music.

A conference, sponsored by KC and NIH, was held at the Kennedy Center on January 26 and 27.  Experts reviewed what is known so far about the relationship between music and wellness.  The talks and discussions covered neural pathways uniquely engaged by music, and neural networks that connect the brain’s music processing system with movement, emotion, and language.  Discussions also included how music is helping patients with Parkinsonism, pain management in cancer patients, and possible implications for autism research.  The program generated enthusiasm for additional research into these and other areas.

Another joint conference titled “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” is planned for June 2 and 3 at the Kennedy Center.  The conference will feature talks and interactive presentations by leaders studying the connections between neuroscience and music.  The event will be kicked off by a performance of the National Symphony Orchestra.  In the interim, the NSO will continue its performances at the NIH Clinical Center and the Kennedy Center has planned several activities supporting Sound Health prior to the June Conference; you can track these at the following website.

This is all very interesting, but it is also highly significant.  Foremost, of course, is the potential for helping patients with debilitating conditions and for improving the overall health of the general public.  It is also important that NIH is providing its imprimatur and backing for this research; this action alone will spur additional research efforts in these areas.  And finally, support for the arts has not been a priority for sometime in the US and is particularly at risk in the current political and economic climate.  While most of us believe that support of the arts is fundamental for having a citizenry grounded in human values and the human spirit, demonstrating the strong links between music and health can only strengthen the case for public support of the arts.  This new Kennedy Center National Institutes of health collaboration is truly a win-win-win development.

References:

Kennedy Center press release: http://cms.kennedy-center.org/docs/default-source/public-relations-documents/2017-press-release-pdfs/02-february-2017/kcandnihpartnership.pdf

Kennedy Center website: https://www.kennedy-center.org/nso/MTM/Community?loc=SH

NIH announcement: https://www.nih.gov/research-training/medical-research-initiatives/sound-health-nih-kennedy-center-partnership

YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5E4a5ZwZ9E

News coverage: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/health/The-Impact-of-Music-on-Health-is-the-Focus-of-a-Partnership-Between-The-Kennedy-Center-and-The-National-Institutes-of-Health-413643753.html 

 

 

Opera Lafayette: From Violins to Opera, Cloaked in Romance

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The romance of the Opera Lafayette story is very compelling.  There must be a play or movie there. The company was born out of “ambitious artistic inspirations” to find new ways to explore music of the past, spurred on by the rise of interest in period instruments in America.  These operas are typically forgotten works of French composers that once enjoyed considerable popularity and have now engaged the interest of Opera Lafayette in the company’s exploration of music from this period.  As with almost every small opera company, Opera Lafayette is led by a music professional who is dedicated to a specific mission and who has the charisma and connections to elicit the interest of other music professionals and garner support from donors.  In this case, Founder, Conductor and Artistic Director, Ryan Brown, a noted violinist himself, has this company focused on performing and recording 18th century French music and opera (occasionally spilling over into the 17th and 19th centuries), and successfully so since 1995.  One gets a sense of Mr. Brown as a real-life Ichabod Crane-type from the TV show, “Sleepy Hollow”, a character transported to present day who gives us glimpses of our not too distant history.  The company began as the Violins of Lafayette and was focused only on music.  Singing, dance, and semi-staged operas were added, and finally, fully-staged operas with orchestra, and the name was changed to Opera Lafayette for the 2001-2002 season. (Had the name been changed to the Voices of Lafayette, it might have been even more romantic, if less descriptive.)

There is also romance in the intellectual commitment of this group, which augurs well for the quality of its productions.  Each performance is preceded by a good deal of research.  Their retrospective on their first twenty years states: “Regarding the discovery and presentation of new repertoire, we have been lucky to be a stone’s throw from the extensive collections of the Library of Congress, to have generous colleagues in Europe who have made scores available to us, and to have the assistance of several distinguished musicologists and experts in the field, ... With their help, we have introduced multiple works from the traditions of the tragedie lyrique, the opera ballet, the pastorale, the drama giocoso, and the opera comique.”  Opera Lafayette’s mission also includes creating a recorded legacy of their explorations.  Starting in 2005, they now have eleven recordings published on the Naxos label.  I have sampled several of these, which can be streamed on Apple Music, and I can report that they are of exceptional quality and the music will find favor with most opera fans.

The company has added educational and outreach programs to its efforts to keep alive and explore the music from this period.  The Young Artist’s Program was begun in 2007-2008.  And they help make the fruits of their labors more accessible to audiences by performing in low cost venues to keep ticket prices less expensive.  Opera Lafayette productions are each presented once in DC and once in Manhattan.  They also made an invited presentation at the Opera Royal in France in 2012.

Opera Lafayette website banner with photos of past productions.  Jean Paul-Fouchécourt in Menu: Plaisir (Photo by Bruno Amsellem); Kimy McLaren in Into the Woods at Paris' Thêatre du Châtelet (Photo by Francois Guillot); and, Sherezade Panthaki (Photo by David Fung).  Courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette website banner with photos of past productions.  Jean Paul-Fouchécourt in Menu: Plaisir (Photo by Bruno Amsellem); Kimy McLaren in Into the Woods at Paris' Thêatre du Châtelet (Photo by Francois Guillot); and, Sherezade Panthaki (Photo by David Fung).  Courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

What does Opera Lafayette have planned for us in its 2016-2017 season?

Feb 19, DC; Feb 23, NYC: Leonore, Ou L’Amour Conjugal; composer, Pierre Gaveaux, and librettist, Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

May 31, DC; June 2, NYC: Les Indes Galantes – Part IV; composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and librettist, Louis Fuzelier

Nowhere is romance more evident than in the program for 2016-2017.  Leonore, Ou L’Amour Conjugal (1798), translated Leonore, or Married Love is the story of a woman who takes life threatening risks to save her husband.  Composer Gaveaux utilizes the same libretto by Bouilly that was later used by three other composers to tell this story.  The last and most famous of these versions is the one by Beethoven, titled FidelioFidelio is the great maestro’s only opera.  It is based in part on the Gaveaux version, and actually, three versions by Beethoven titled Leonore were presented (each with a different overture) over a ten-year period before being resolved into Fidelio.  Opera fans in the mid-Atlantic region are presented with a rare opportunity.  The Washington Concert Opera is presenting Leonore by Beethovern, the earlier version of Fidelio, on March 5 in Lisner Auditorium (previously covered by OperaGene).  And for the hat trick, after hearing these productions, you can travel to the Met Opera in NYC to hear Fidelio, itself, offered from March 16 to April 8.  This juxtaposition of the Leonore versions probably happens less often than Haley’s Comet makes an appearance.  If you need more of an inducement to attend a performance of the Leonore story, let me add that the Opera Lafayette version occurs very close to St. Valentine’s Day.  So, why not get tickets for you and your sweetie, though only if you are serious about that particular sweetie, and see an opera about the power of marital love.  Bound to win you points.

Les Indes Galantes (1735), to be performed as a concert opera, only involves one composer, Rameau, but has its own complicated history. This opera has a prologue and four entrees (acts).  Opera Lafayette will present the Prologue and Entrée IV.  The complete opera underwent several iterations and different entrees were performed separately before the complete opera was presented.  Entrée IV is titled Les Sauvages (the Savages), not used for obvious reasons, I suspect, by Opera Lafayette.  Despite the threatening and racist title of its day, it is a multinational love story where a native American maiden has three suitors of different nationalities from whom she picks one, and according to the Opera Lafayette description,"all celebrate in “Forêts paisibles” (“Peaceful forests”), an idyllic depiction of diverse cultures living in harmony with nature and one another."  This may be why Rameau’s work is not performed more often today; unlike most operas, nobody is killed or forced to submit to an unwanted love.  Nevertheless, the opera became quite popular in its day.  It is worth noting that Rameau may be the most prolific and popular composer you never heard of.  The “New Penguin Opera Guide” devotes fifteen pages to Rameau’s work, including thirty-one entries.  The article also notes that an epitaph printed for Rameau on his death stated, “Here lies the God of Harmony.”  The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette calls Rameau, “one of the most important French composers, but you’re unlikely to see his work at the Washington National Opera or the Metropolitan Opera, compelling as much of his music may be.” He was one of the music theory experts of his day.  You can sample other work of Rameau on the Opera Lafayette Naxos CD by his name.

YouTube video excerpt from Opera Lafayette production of Rameau's opera-ballet Les Fetes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour, 2014-2015 season; also available on Opera Lafayette website:

Opera Lafayette productions have uniformly drawn praise over the years from area music critics, especially for performing important musical works that no one else is performing.  What they do pleases, and they do it exceedingly well.  This opera company appears to be a gem among those in the U.S. mid-Atlantic area, and adds a large dollop of romance to the rich Washington DC opera scene.  Tickets and information can be found at this link

Note: Opera Lafayette and the Washington Concert Opera are presenting a joint discussion of their two Leonore works in a free seminar in DC on January 26 (reservations required).

 

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:

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/arts/television/amazons-mozart-in-the-jungle-with-backstage-drama.html

http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/inside-the-sex-and-drugs-of-mozart-in-the-jungle-20141222

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/01/15/377232599/what-we-love-and-hate-about-mozart-in-the-jungle 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/style/wp/2015/12/30/mozart-in-the-jungle-finds-its-feet/?utm_term=.839403edcc53 

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/fashion/mozart-in-the-jungle-amazon-classical-musicians-speak.html 

http://www.indiewire.com/2016/12/mozart-in-the-jungle-season-3-review-gael-garcia-bernal-malcolm-mcdowell-venice-rikers-island-1201756284/ 

http://www.vulture.com/2017/01/mozart-in-the-jungle-gets-classical-music.html?mid=twitter-share-vulture