Wolf Trap Opera’s Bastianello and The Juniper Tree: Fun and A Moment of Transcendence

On Friday night, the master chefs of Wolf Trap Opera served up a fable, Bastianello, and a fairy tale, The Juniper Tree; the first about realizing what is important in life and the second from a Grimm fairy tale exploring the darker forces with which humans must contend.  They are complementary only by being magical stories about marriage and by sharing many of the performers.  The operas are modern and not members of the traditional repertoire.  Bastienello (music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Campbell) premiered in 2008 and The Juniper Tree (music by Philip Glass and Robert Moran and libretto by Arthur Yorinks) in 1985.  I reviewed the basic outline of the stories prior to attending, but had no idea what to expect in terms of music or staging.  I can report that I heartily enjoyed both WTO’s productions; I recommend you attend this double bill both for the pleasure and the opportunity to expand the range of your opera experiences.  And Wolf Trap Opera’s vivacious young singers will make you glad you came by adding a satisfying dollop of fun to the opera world’s nouveau cuisine.

From Bastianello, first scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Zoie Reams, the bride, Shea Owens, the father, and Summer Hassan, the mother; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From Bastianello, first scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Zoie Reams, the bride, Shea Owens, the father, and Summer Hassan, the mother; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

To delve a little deeper into these two productions, we must start with the staging.  Bastianello presents the story of a young groom who becomes disenchanted with his new bride and family and leaves vowing to only return if he can find six people as foolish as they are.  Bringing fables and fairy tales to a stage is challenging and requires creativity and imagination on the part of the director and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief.  We can mentally personalize the stories of fairy tales we read to seduce ourselves, but in staged productions, the director’s vision is what must enable our immersion into the story.  Both operas were composed to be presented in concert halls with minimal sets, but for me, Bastianello still somewhat misfired on this point.  There was a minimal set with different scenes simply being held in different locations on the stage; initially it had the feel of skit night on a college campus, but perhaps this was intended.  The potential for humor of a typically dysfunctional family in the aftermath of a wedding and out of wine was mildly realized, but stronger character motivations would have helped, especially for the husband whose outburst over his family attitudes, or maybe the fact that all the wine was gone, seemed to come out of nowhere.  Nonetheless, the lesson of the fable was nicely realized in the scene by the lake where a farmer mistakes the reflection of the moon in the water for his wife who had drowned there earlier.

From Bastianello, third scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Summer Hassan, a bride, Shea Owens, a horse owner, Jonas Hacker, the horse, and Zoie Reams, a mother; Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From Bastianello, third scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Summer Hassan, a bride, Shea Owens, a horse owner, Jonas Hacker, the horse, and Zoie Reams, a mother; Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I thought director Schlather‘s staging and scenic/costume designer Blake Palmer’s sets and costumes were much more effective in The Juniper Tree.  This is Wolf Trap Opera’s synopsis of the opera: “This famous Grimm fairy tale tells of a wicked stepmother who murders her stepson. The boy’s sister buries her brother’s bones under a juniper tree, and the child’s spirit returns as a singing bird who wreaks vengeance on the stepmother before being restored to life with his father and sister.” Now take that and turn it into a convincing opera!  And yet, for me, it was in this production that Wolf Trap Opera put it all together, the sets, the staging, the lighting, the performers, and the music in synchrony achieved for its audience, at least briefly, transcendence, where you lose yourself, totally absorbed in the experience, and lifted to a higher place of awareness.  From the beginning I was immediately drawn in by the costumes and the dark, slow march of the birds onto the stage in step with Glass’ music and who would have thought that a stage dominated by a long, rectangular table could draw the audience into foreboding and then deliverance by a slow undrapping and then drapping of this central object? Minimal staging can be effective.  Special kudos to all involved in The Juniper Tree.

From The Juniper Tree: Madison Leonard, the daughter, Ben Edquist, the husband, and Annie Rosen, the stepmother.

From The Juniper Tree: Madison Leonard, the daughter, Ben Edquist, the husband, and Annie Rosen, the stepmother.

So, let’s talk more about those involved.  With modern opera, I am always apprehensive whether I will like the music; some stretch my limits in terms of what I can appreciate.  This proved not the case for these two, even though I was particularly anxious about Bastianello because I knew nothing of composer John Musto.  However, I found myself really liking his music and it served the opera well.  Interestingly, the score for The Juniper Tree was assembled by sections assigned by the composers' agreement to either Mr. Glass or Mr. Moran.  I thought their work fit together and complimented each other well.  The score sounded a bit more like it came from a movie or broadway musical rather than what one might expect of an opera, but again was quite pleasing and effective in supporting the action on stage.  Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and her ensemble of musicians were excellent.

From The Juniper Tree: Ben Edquist, the father, is fed a stew containing his son; Madison Leonard, the daugher, assists; and Annie Rosen, the stepmother serves the stew atop a the large table; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From The Juniper Tree: Ben Edquist, the father, is fed a stew containing his son; Madison Leonard, the daugher, assists; and Annie Rosen, the stepmother serves the stew atop a the large table; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In Bastianello, Filene Young Artists Jonas Hacker, Shea Owens, Summer Hassan, Richard Ollarsaba, and Zoie Reams combined to present twelve characters in three scenes.  Each sang their parts convincingly.  Mr. Hacker and Mr. Owens perhaps shone brightest in this opera.  Summer Hassan appeared in both operas, in The Juniper Tree as the wife; she was joined by fellow young artists Ben Edquist as husband, Megan Mikailovna Samarin as son, Annie Rosen as stepmother, and Madison Leonard as daughter.  Talented and professional, they were all good.  Ms. Rosen especially impressed me with her singing and by giving a menacing edge to the stepmom and Ms. Samarin for singing effectively in a pants role, but for me the stand out in this opera was Ms. Hassan.  if I'm being honest, I was a little disappointed with her Musetta in last year’s La Boheme.  I had started to take note of her this year in earlier Wolf Trap performances, but in The Juniper Tree, her voice and singing and the music so complemented each other they became magic together.  The principal cast members were ably supported by a large contingent of young Wolf Trap Studio Artists in other roles, including choral accompaniment. 

From The Juniper Tree: Megan Mikailovna Samarin, the son, drapped by the golden tablecloth, stands triumphantly over Annie Rosen, the stepmother;  photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From The Juniper Tree: Megan Mikailovna Samarin, the son, drapped by the golden tablecloth, stands triumphantly over Annie Rosen, the stepmother;  photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I truly admire the Wolf Trap Opera Company for their excellence and their role in developing young operatic talent, but also for the enrichment they provide to Washington area communities.  Under the leadership of Kim Pensinger Witman, they annually look beyond the traditional repertoire (except for the singular, annual Filene Center presentation) and bring to life either more modern works or unearth past operatic jewels that have been forgotten.  Couple that with the enthusiasm and talent of their outstanding young Filene Artists and their productions are always sure bets for enjoyable entertainment and distinctive arts experiences.  Bastianello and The Juniper Tree add to that assessment.  

The Fan Experience: My son and I made the dubious choice of having dinner at The Barns instead of attending the pre-opera talk; these talks by Ms. Witman are always informative and helpful in appreciating the opera being presented, though for The Juniper Tree, do have your dinner prior to the opera.  The meal service begins an hour and a half before the opera and the pre-opera talk begins an hour prior to the opera performance; by rushing a little you could work in both.  Our meals were fine and we especially liked the crafts beers offered to accompany our entree choices.  Perhaps because the weather outside was not as warm as usual this time of year, I found the air-conditioning in The Barns to be a bit chilly.  The opera crowd at The Barns is typically mainly casually attired, but if you are sensitive to the cold, bring an over-shirt or light sweater with you.  As a reminder, parking at The Barns is free and egress after a performance is mercifully much less stressful than dealing with the large crowds leaving performances at the Filene Center.  Wolf Trap Opera makes opera as accessible and stress free as it can be done, and oh yes, it makes it fun.

The final two performances of this double bill are Wednesday night, August 16, and Saturday night, August 19.  For tickets, click here.  You can save on service fees by purchasing your tickets from the Wolf Trap Box Office in person.


Washington National Opera’s 2017-2018 Season: Exciting for the New Opera Fan, Though Not for the Fan of New Opera

It’s time, if you haven't already, to start making your opera selections for the 2017-2018 season, which is now only a month away.  Washington National Opera leads off opera in the mid-Atlantic region with its first production starting on Sept 9; so let’s examine what WNO is putting forth.  Upfront, here’s my personal dilemma.  I have become a fan of new opera, and last season, WNO was strong in this regard. This year they seem to have taken a step back, most likely I'm guessing, due to undeserved weak ticket sales for Dead Man Walking and Champion; Kennedy Center audiences, like most audiences around the country, seem to favor the classic operas.  That said, I must admit that the offerings for the next season are appealing to me.  In fact, as a relatively new fan of opera, I am rather excited about the upcoming season, primarily because of two classic operas I haven’t seen, Alcina and Don Carlo, and because of the powerhouse singers coming to town for each of the productions.  I'm not so excited as a fan of new opera.  The one beacon for new opera from WNO is the American Opera Initiative’s January offering of new short operas, which could be especially interesting this season.  Still, it is my hope that by going back to the past for this year’s selections that we are not seeing the future of opera from WNO.  I plan to be in my seat for each of this year’s WNO productions, but it beckons that Opera Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Opera will continue to feature new works for the 2017-2018 season. 

Here are WNO’s productions announced for the coming season, beginning in September (*indicates cast changes for different performance dates):

Sep 9-23:  Aida (1871) by Giuseppe Verdi*; Sep 23 performance broadcast to Nationals Park as “Opera in the Outfield”

Nov 4-19:  Alcina (1735) by George Frederic Handel*; Nov 18: performed by Domingo Cafritz Young Artists

Dec 14-17:  The Little Prince (2003) by Rachel Portman, a Holiday Family Opera

Jan 19-21:  Proving Up (2018) by Missy Mazzoli - American Opera Initiative

Jan 20:  Three New Twenty Minute Operas - American Opera Initiative

Mar 3-17Don Carlo (1867) by Giuseppe Verdi*

Apr 28-May 19: The Barber of Seville (1813) by Gioachino Rossini*, May 17: performed by Domingo Cafritz Young Artists

May 5-26: Candide (1956) by Leonard Bernstein

Aida: photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Aida: photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Aida, by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, can certainly be called an old warhorse, but there are good reasons for its popularity, mainly the music and the spectacle, and it’s consistently in the top ten to fifteen operas in terms of annual performances worldwide; it is a good choice for the September 23 broadcast to the Nats stadium for “Opera in the Outfield”.  To WNO’s credit this will be a new production with costumes and sets designed by the artist RETNA (that’s correct, all caps); As a prelude, WNO is offering an exhibition of RETNA’s work at the Kennedy Center from Aug 14 to Sep 24.  This is reminiscent of their production this spring of Madame Butterfly with stunning sets by the artist Jun Kenako; that staging substantially enhanced the performance, especially for those of us who had seen it before.  I’ve only seen a couple of performances of Aida, and they were video recordings; it’s a good story involving a love triangle, though the performers in neither that I saw gave convincing performances.  There is, however, no question the great music in Aida is some of Verdi’s best.  WNO will also be including dance and acrobatics in this production, and the role of Aida will be shared by two excellent young sopranos, Tamara Wilson and Amber Wagner; Ms. Wilson has played Aida for the Met and Ms. Wagner, drew positive reviews for her performance in the Met’s recent Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman).  I have high expectations for this production, but it's a toss up as to which Aida I'd rather see; maybe both.

Angela Meade as Alcina: photo by Julio Rodriguez; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Angela Meade as Alcina: photo by Julio Rodriguez; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

It’s Alcina that really gets my juices flowing.  George Frederic Handel is best known in the U.S. for the Messiah, his oratorio that has become a part of Christmas for many of us. During the first half of the eighteenth century, however, he was the opera guy.  I have a recording of his opera, Semele, staring Kathleen Battle that I love (but it might be mainly because of my love of her voice).   Handel composed over forty operas, often more than one per year; yet, only a few have received production in the U.S.  Alcina is currently (thru 8/17) being performed by the Sante Fe Opera, but that is the only other production in the U.S. in the last three years. In fact, Handel’s operas in total while reasonably popular in Europe have had no more than five U.S. productions in the last three years, most notably Guilio Cesare and RodelindaAlcina’s plot has interesting features, a sorceress on a magical island, an enchanted knight, a woman disguised as a man, and a magic ring, and it explores the nature of love and desire.  It has gender-bending roles for WNO’s excellent young mezzos.  Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong will play Ruggiero, a knight; this could be played by a castrato, but they are in short supply these days.  Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack will portray Bradmante, Ruggiero’s betrothed; she is pretending to be her brother, Ricciardo, to elude Alcina’s wrath; Ms. Mack is playing this role in the Sante Fe production.  Headlining will be opera star, Angela Meade, as Alcina.  The staging will be critical for Alcina.  Handel’s operas focus on the arias; what will happen with the rest of the cast when one is being sung?

Don Carlo: photo by Kelly and Massa; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Don Carlo: photo by Kelly and Massa; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Don Carlo is a power opera, both in terms of its subject matter and its effect on audiences, and is often accorded the term, masterpiece. The team of composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettists Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle composed a Parisienne grand opera in French including five acts and a ballet, titled Don Carlos.  The history of this opera is extraordinary; there are many versions of the opera and many hands as well as Verdi’s in creating them.  It was even cut just before the first performance so that it would end in time for the opera goers in Paris to get the last trains out of the city to the suburbs.  There also was subsequently an Italian version, titled Don Carlo, which is the one most often performed now.  And there were subsequently two Italian versions, the Modena version with the original five acts and the Milan version with only four acts.  WNO is presenting the latter.  The drama revolves around King Philip of Spain’s decision to take as wife, Elizabeth, daughter of the King of France, in order to end the war between the two nations; a complicating factor was that Elizabeth was betrothed at the time to Carlo, son of Phillip, and Carlo and Elizabeth were smitten with each other.  Throw in some rival suitors and political intrigue and it gets messy, and Verdi brings it home with a stunner of an ending; can you say deux ex machina?  There are lots of opportunities for emotional arias to be sung by a primetime cast, including Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, and Eric Owens.

The Little Prince: photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The Little Prince: photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

It is traditional for opera companies to feature an opera especially appropriate for children during the holiday season.  WNO is offering The Little Prince by composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright.  This opera was previously offered by WNO in 2014 and is based on the Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella of the same title.  The cast will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and include the WNO Children’s Chorus.

If Don Carlo is a warhorse, The Barber of Seville (or Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Italian) is a money horse.  Composer Gioachino Rossini’s and librettist Cesare Sterbini’s spirited romantic comedy is consistently among the top grossing operas in the world.   It is one of a handful of operas that you recommend to your friends who want to try opera.  Actually, watching two different versions of this opera taught me just how different it can be depending on the players, especially depending on who plays the pivotal role of Figaro.  Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky will make his U.S. debut performance in the role of Figaro.  For that reason and because soprano Isabel Leonard, who plays Rosina, is a favorite of mine, I will even look forward to another refrain of Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fi-gar-ro.

Left photo of The Barber of Seville by Cory Weaver and right photo of Candide by Karlie Cadel for the Glimmerglass Festival; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Candide could be interesting.  It now seems to be labeled an operetta, but features the music of classical composer Leonard Bernstein.  Having said that, I know him best for his fantastic score for "West Side Story".  This Candide is based on Voltaire’s Candide; the music and libretto have undergone many revisions/additions with quite a few contributors.  WNO describes it as a “funny, philosophical, and fast-paced take on Voltaire’s biting satire, which annihilates any notions of hope with its dizzying display of human depravity and catastrophic disasters.”  It’s sort of like most cable mini-series, but will they be able to make it funny?  Well, “House of Cards” was sort of funny; at least it was for a while.  The draw for me here is the opportunity to hear Bernstein’s music. 

I have discussed the American Opera Initiative before and this year’s is highlighted by the one-hour opera, “Proving Up”, by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Roy Vavrek.  This duo’s outstanding Breaking the Waves (premiered by Opera Philadelphia) won the Music Critics Association of North America’s first Award for Best New Opera in North America.   Proving Up is about homesteaders using a clever, but difficult, deception to acquire rights to their lands, which they were too poor to do otherwise.  Jeff Sessions would not approve; I suspect we will.  This offers water for my parched new opera lips and having seen Breaking the Waves, I anxiously await this one.

In conclusion, Washington National Opera’s 2017-2018 Season, though disappointing for what it does not offer, is nevertheless, exciting for what it does.

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets are available for all performances at this time, though tickets for the American Opera Initiative already have limited availability.  If you are interested in buying tickets to more than one opera, check with the box office at 202-467-4600 to see if you are eligible for subscription pricing; you may be eligible for ticket and parking discounts and/or other benefits, such as the ability to change your ticket to an alternate performance date.  Also remember that the Kennedy Center uses dynamic pricing which means that if certain performances are in high demand they may raise the prices for the remaining tickets. 


Opera America, Streaming Videos, and a La Boheme Find

With no particular place to go, I wound up in 1965 with Mirella Freni and having a great time.  Let me explain.  Now that I am retired, I have time to spend in stream of consciousness thinking, no mandates or deadlines. When I was working, I had to decide, or was given the objective, that point C was where I needed to go, which then typically necessitated that I begin at point A and move linearly to point C.  There was room for directed creativity, but not so much for wandering aimlessly.  Now I am free to start at a point that interests me with no further directive, other than pursue as I go along what interests me.  Starting wherever my fancy dictates then leads me to another point which leads me to the another and so on, until I tire of the wandering.  The journey may wind up being nothing more than a walk in the woods, but sometimes an item of strong interest is discovered and an objective arises of its own accord, for example, I decide that I want to write about it; then, goal-oriented thinking takes over, i.e., gathering relevant information and verifications.  The aimless, random-walk journey I will relate began with a decision to join Opera America.  You can decide what the moral of the story is.

Opera America, in existence since 1970, is the premiere U.S. organization supporting opera; virtually all opera companies are members or associates of OA.  It offers a strong advocacy program, including supporting increased funding for the arts with Congress.  OA features programming and leadership in the following areas:

Creation: Artistic services that help artists and companies increase the creativity and excellence of opera productions, especially North American works;

Presentation: Opera company services that address the specific needs of staff, trustees and volunteers;

Enjoyment: Education, audience development and community services that increase all forms of opera appreciation.

OA offers a huge number of programs in these areas.  The OA website is extensive and features several pages for the opera fan, though most OA offerings are for opera professionals; see my OA listing on the websites/blogs page.  I have been on Opera America’s email list for some time now, but had not joined.  Membership is open to artists, administrators, and audiences.  Out of the belief that I would be supporting opera in some small way, I succumbed to the emails advertising membership and joined OA this summer.  I didn’t expect much personal benefit other than the subscription to Opera America magazine.  However, I had not recognized that membership also gave me free access to the Naxos Video Library, which includes online access to over 2,600 classical music videos, including opera, and membership is only available to groups. 

I have covered opportunities for opera streaming in other blog posts, such as Met Opera on Demand, StaatsoperTV, Opera Platform, and YouTube; and occasionally opera companies will stream a production of their own and announce the performance on social media.  The Naxos Video Library turns out to be a treat and a treasure trove of operas not available via Met Opera on Demand, which is limited to performances at the Met’s Lincoln Center in NYC.  The Naxos collection covers opera companies in the U.S., such as the San Francisco Opera (but not the Met) and in Europe, such as the Royal Opera House and the Vienna State Opera.  There are many search options that make it easy to find the artist or performance of interest.  The pages are a little slow to load on my, Mac but functionality is fine.  Some of the operas have subtitles, sometimes in as many as five languages, but some have none.  Like YouTube videos you can move forward and back in the recordings.  Some things I sampled by searching briefly were a 1978 performance of Carmen starring Placido Domingo and a 2005 Salzburg Festival Performance of La Traviata starring Anna Netrebko.  It was exciting to see and hear Ms. Netrebko at an earlier point in her career, but not as exciting as seeing her in person in Eugene Onegin at the Met this past Spring.

The Naxos collection provides the opportunity to hear gifted singers not available on Met recordings and/or who no longer perform.  So, it was with pleasure that I stumbled across a 1965 recording of Puccini’s La Boheme with Mirella Freni starring as Mimi.  Ms. Freni, who was 29 years old when this was recorded, went on to be an international opera star of great reknown.  Her voice and singing on this recording are golden.  Rolando Panerai as Marcello and Gianni Raimondi as Rudolfo were stars in their own right, also with wonderful voices. The Milan Scala Orchestra and Chorus was conducted by the famous conductor, Herbert von Karajan and the music is lovely.  This is an interesting recording because it is a studio performance and was not recorded live.  The sound is exceptional, but unfortunately there are no subtitles and in spots the lip syncing is noticeable.  On a very positive note, Franco Zeffirelli was the stage director and the settings are very attractive; they looked rather familiar, and I wonder if he set the standard for latter La Boheme productions.  I didn’t find this dvd available on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon streaming, or iTunes, but it is offered for purchase on Amazon.  In the year the movie was released, I was in college, enjoying the Beatles and Rolling Stones, with no interest at all in opera.  That gulf has now been bridged, though not until about six years ago.  I still enjoy pop music, but now opera is available to me in a way that it wasn’t in 1965, both internally and by streaming.


Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca: A Scarpia for the Ages

(Spoiler alert – plot details are revealed in this blog report)

Original Tosca poster. In public domain from Wikepedia.

Original Tosca poster. In public domain from Wikepedia.

Tosca is not the opera to attend to introduce your children to opera.  It is violent, even brutally so, and profane, not so much in language, but by deed.  It has shocks; there is an attempted rape, two suicides, and two executions.  It has one of the most purely villainous characters in performance art. Yet, it is a love story and a story about commitment to higher callings.  But, do not go gently into this good opera.  It is Shakespearean; all the main characters die in the end.  It portrays local villainy against the backdrop of violent history.  Honestly, Quentin Tarantino, why haven’t you tried staging this one?  This is not a bedtime story.  One would guess that it would be a story that keeps you from sleeping, but it does not.  I suspect that after the play you might have trouble sleeping.  Why not the opera?  Because Puccini’s music and arias wraps this dreadful story in beauty and hope.  The music gives the drama an immediate jolt and swirls around it, pushing the story to its inevitable finish, adding a few lightning strikes along the way.  Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica brought this opera, based on Victorien Sardu’s play, to the stage in 1900.  Yet, the themes are as modern as today’s headlines: conflict wrought through the interplay of love, honor, lust, authority, and evil.  Puccini’s music makes you feel these themes differently than the visuals do.  While your eyes must deal with the barbarity, the music makes us feel, through its art and beauty, that love and honor are worthwhile, even against insurmountable obstacles,…and we can sleep.  There is good reason that Tosca remains among the top ten operas each year in terms of performances and attendance.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca, Friday night at the Filene Center, was a crowd-pleaser in music, singing, and story-telling.  It displayed some of the finest young singers that WTO has put forward, which is saying quite a lot.  The standout for this performance was baritone Kihun Yoon.  From his entrance on the stage attired as police chief Scarpia, which gave me a momentary feeling that the evil Count Dracula had appeared, until his last gasps, he dominated the stage.  Every move was evil incarnate, and his baritone had softness when guile was needed, a natural beauty in each utterance, and amazing power to command at his will.  The oozing sound when he was dying was not the blood leaving his body, but air leaving the stage.  As marvelous as Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca and Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi were, this was Scarpia’s Tosca.  The audience agreed.  Mr. Yoon came onto the stage to take his bow before Gotcher and Loutsion, but it was then that the applause became thunderous and the audience sprang to its feet.

Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I must emphasize, however, how good Loutsion and Gotcher performed as the lovers, Tosca the singer, and Cavaradossi, the painter.  Perhaps if they had come out first the audience would also have stood.  I had not heard Ms. Loutsion previously.  She has a beautiful soprano voice and played her part convincingly, from coquettish glances at Cavaradossi to venomous looks to Scarpia.  I have written about Mr. Gotcher before.  He has one of the best tenor voices I have heard and sang marvelously.  He is a sure-fire future opera star.  The remainder of the cast were stellar as well.  I rather expected to see bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba in the role of Scarpia based on his previous roles, but he was also an excellent choice for the haggard and pleading, escaped political prisoner, Angelotti.  Anthony Robin Schneider's bass was almost too impressive for the role of a Sancristan, though he played it well with gruff and humor.  Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a fine supplicant in a supporting role as the police agent carrying out Scarpia's orders.  Puccini’s music was ably provided by the National Symphony led by conductor, Grant Gershon.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Now here’s the part I had problems with, the set and visual effects.  The set for act one imagined the inside of a cathedral with an imposing statue, angled floor and frames, and video screens within the frames.  I could accept that.  However, for me, the visual effects using the screens were only really effective in Scarpia’s aria where he boasts of his evil ways while flames were shown on the screens; this was a little reminiscent of Don Giovanni.  Act two takes place in Scarpia's office which pretty much looked like the cathedral of Act one with different pictures in the frames.  Act three had a bare stage that was supposed to be a prison courtyard for the firing squad to take aim at Cavaradossi and have a nice jumping off place for Tosca.  I spent a little time trying to imagine just where Tosca was going to take her leap; she finally stepped out onto something at the back of the stage and fell backwards.  Tosca does not need much in the way of set design.  The focus is clearly the story and the interactions between the players.  The set was imaginative as was some of the staging, but for me, it was wrong for this opera; at its creative best, the set and visual effects competed with or distracted from the story rather than supporting it.  Fortunately, this cast could have made Tosca work without any set at all.  To be fair, I heard some positive comments about the set and visual effects from the crowd leaving the theater, so my view was not unanimous.

The Fan Experience:  Other than the traffic getting in and out of Wolf Trap’s parking areas (at least they are free), Wolf Trap is a delightful place to visit, lovely setting, beautiful open air theater, lawn seating available, and picnicking encouraged; it is formally a national park.  The gods even cooperated by sending in afternoon thunderstorms to clear out the heat and humidity before show time.  The acoustics of Wolf Trap are not ideal for opera since amplification is needed to cover all audience areas, as I’ve covered before, but I didn’t find them to be a problem for this production.  One wonders, however, if the sound wouldn’t be better if the orchestra were in a pit, rather than at the back of the stage, mostly behind the set. 

It appeared to me that the place was sold out, and as I’ve noted before for previous operas at the Filene Center, it had a younger audience than we typically see at major opera venues.  One can only wonder why Wolf Trap doesn’t stage more operas here over the summer (but not at the expense of the ones in The Barns, a venue I prefer).  It was the National Symphony playing Friday night; if they can do Wolf Trap, why not Washington National Opera or Washington Concert Opera?

Met Live HD in Cinemas: Tickets for 2017-2018 Season Available Wednesday

I don’t typically cover what is going on with the Metropolitan Opera (they spend millions of dollars doing that), but the Met Live in HD series has gotten so popular locally that I feel compelled occasionally to do so.  Thinking of Met cinema broadcasts still reminds me that Anne Midgette wrote a column last July where she referred to anything not a live, staged opera as an opera product.  I found that characterization annoying because I have seen a few of these broadcasts, and I think they are quite good.  So, I felt compelled to write a snooty, defensive blog report defending broadcasts in cinemas. In fairness to Ms. Midgette, an outstanding classical music critic with the Washington Post, she was trying to emphasize the point that there ain’t nothing like opera live, hearing the soaring human voice unmodified by electronic transmission.  I completely agree.  If behind door number one you can choose to attend in person a live opera performance or behind door number two you can choose to attend a live, cinema broadcast, by all means, choose door number one.  However, that doesn’t mean that door number two is a bad choice, especially if you consider the price and convenience and the fact that you can wear shorts and T-shirts.  Ok, enough re-venting about “opera product” and enough of encouraging you to attend some live performances in person.

Metropolitan Opera has just announced that you can buy tickets for next season’s shows in cinemas on Wednesday.  Why am I bothering to bring this up in my blog?  Simply to pass on my experience with theaters that offer reserved seating, which I prefer to having to arrive early and stand in line to get a desirable seat.  For reserve seating theaters, I have found that the seats that allow you to watch the performance without being so close that you must turn your head from side to side to see all the action, sell out well in advance of the show dates, and seats for non-reserve theaters can sell out early for popular operas.  So, it’s not too early to buy your seats as of July 19, or at least start thinking about it.

Some things to know: Tickets will be available for purchase this coming Wednesday, July 19. Showtimes are Saturdays at noon, 12:30 pm, or 12:55 pm – check when you buy your ticket.  There typically is a rebroadcast of each opera on the following Wednesday evening; these are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of.  Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater.  Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area.  For a comprehensive list of participating theaters check here.  Last year tickets were in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors. If you join the Met as a member at or above the $150 level, you can choose your seats now through July 18.  To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.

Here is the Met live HD in Cinemas lineup for the 2017-2018 season:

Norma – Oct 7

Die Zauberflote (translate: The Magic Flute) – Oct 14

The Exterminating Angel – Nov 18

Tosca – Jan 27

L’Elisir d’Amore – Feb 10

La Boheme – Feb 24

Semiramide – Mar 10

Cosi fan tutte – Mar 31

Luisa Miller – Apr 14

Cendrillon (translate: Cinderella) – Apr 28

What interests me that's coming up: Norma has Sandra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato. The Exterminating Angel is a new opera by Thomas Ades, based on the Luis Buneul film of the same name.  I read both good and not so good things about the opera; the film is a cinema classic.  This will be the opera's American Premiere.  Tosca – I’ve been wanting to see Sonya Yoncheva; it also has Vittorio Griglio and Bryn Terfel.  Hmmm, La Boheme also has Sonya Yoncheva and it has Susanna Phillips as Musetta, but I’ve seen Tosca and La Boheme multiple times.  What to do?  Semiramide  – a Rossini opera that seems to get performed a lot lately; I haven’t seen it and it has Javier Camarena, a tenor getting truly rave reviews.  Cosi fan tutte – can’t say that I want to see this opera one more time, but it does offer an imaginative new production (look at the Met ad above).  Luisa Miller – a Verdi opera I have not seen and guess who is in it?  Sonya Yoncheva.  Problem solved.  Plus, it has Placido Domingo.  Cendrillon – might be interesting to compare DiDonato’s performance in Massenet’s Cinderella to the one in Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola).  One other dilemna - I like to go to a live performance or two each year at the Met; which to go live and which to attend the cinema broadcast?

By the way, there is a summer encore broadcast of Carmen on Wednesday evening, July 19 at 7 pm.  Plenty of seats available at movie prices. All-star cast (2010): Barbara Frittoli, Elina Garanca, Robert Alagna, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. 



Wolf Trap Opera’s Aria Jukebox: Opera Singers, Choices, And Fun!

Imagine that for a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment you could attend a wine and cheese party, followed by hearing arias that you helped select, sung by some of the best of today’s young opera talents.  You could have had that this past Sunday simply by buying a ticket to Wolf Trap Opera’s “Aria Jukebox”. The singing alone was worth the modest price of admission, but getting there early allowed you entrance to the party and the opportunity to vote on which of four arias should be sung by each Filene Young Artist. The young artists were also at the party and available to meet and talk with patrons.  This has become an annual affair for Wolf Trap Opera, so you will have another chance next year. Don’t miss out!

Wolf Trap Opera's 2017 Filene Young Artists. Top row, l to r: Alistair Kent; Alexandra Loutsion; Annie Rosen; Anthony Robin Schneider; Ben Edquist; Jonas Hacker; and Kihun Yoon. Bottom row, l to r: Mackenzie Gotcher; Madison Leonard; Megan Mikailovna Samarin; Nicholas Nestorak; Richard Ollarsaba; Shea Owens; Summer Hassan; and Zoie Reams.

Wolf Trap Opera's 2017 Filene Young Artists. Top row, l to r: Alistair Kent; Alexandra Loutsion; Annie Rosen; Anthony Robin Schneider; Ben Edquist; Jonas Hacker; and Kihun Yoon. Bottom row, l to r: Mackenzie Gotcher; Madison Leonard; Megan Mikailovna Samarin; Nicholas Nestorak; Richard Ollarsaba; Shea Owens; Summer Hassan; and Zoie Reams.

Thirteen of the Young Filene Artists sang the aria that got the most votes from the four they had prepared to sing.  Alistair Kent was the only young artist not scheduled to perform; Alexandra Loutsion, who will star in Tosca on Friday at the Filene Center, was to perform, but had to withdraw.  After all the young artists had sung, Filene Artist in Residence Simon O’Neill sang, and he spoke of his time as a young artist himself at Wolf Trap and the impact on his career.  All soloists were ably accompanied on piano by WTO Opera Director Kim Whitman, who even provided some vocal back up for one of the young artists.  Host Marcus Shields was an affable host adept at setting the scene for each aria.

I will comment a bit on the performances, but honestly, all the young artists are excellent, and mine are the personal opinions of an opera fan, not a professional critic. Further, as Mr. O’Neill noted in his comments, these are talented young performers who already have received top notch training and performance experience.

Last year, I thought the boys got the better of it in “Aria Jukebox”, but this year I think the gals held their own, even without Ms. Loutsion and though outnumbered 8-5.  Leading off was second year tenor Shea Owens who sang a Meyerbeer aria from Dinorah.  Mr. Owens has a fine voice and is a gifted stage performer.  Next, bass Anthony Robin Schneider sang Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin, one of my favorite operas.  He possesses a lovely bass voice and gave a convincing rendition of this aria.  Then, the first soprano of the afternoon was up, Annie Rosen, who sang William Bolcom’s cabaret song “Amor”.  Ms. Rosen provided a charming performance with an amusing vocal assist from Ms. Whitman.  Following was Mackenzie Gotcher, who has become a favorite of mine.  He sang “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca and sang beautifully with his strong tenor voice.  I personally was hoping the group’s choice would be one of his other arias since I will be hearing him Friday night in Tosca.  Soprano Madison Leonard performed Puccini’s wildly popular aria “O mio babbino caro”; she has a lovely voice and gave a gentle rendition to an appreciative audience.  Tenor Nicholas Nestorak sang “Not While I’m Around” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; singing with such feeling he makes a very compelling Tobias.  The first half of the concert was closed out in stellar fashion by WTO returnee Kihun Yoon whose powerful baritone commands your attention.  Talking to him, I learned he is planning to return to home in Seoul, Korea after WTO to perform in the role of a father prior to taking off for performances in Germany.  He sang Iago’s aria “Credo in un Dio crude” from Verdi’s Otello.  I don’t know if he has more opportunity this year to display the softer side of his voice or if I am paying more attention to it now, but he is effective singing softly as well as with the power his is capable of.  In my opinion, his was the most impressive performance to that point.

Leading off the second half was tenor Jonas Hacker, also a returnee from last year, who sang “Una furtive lagrima”, a hit aria from Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore.  In my report on Aria Jukebox 2016, I stated that I anticipated a successful professional singing career for Mr. Hacker; he again demonstrated why.  Soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin performed an aria from Gounod’s Faust, “Faites-lui mes aveux”, a pants role which she sang in a lovely dress. No matter, she has a strong voice and sang the love song with conviction.  Next returnee, Richard Ollarsaba turned his powerful bass-baritone to the tender “Autumn Leaves” leaving us wanting more.  At the reception, I learned that he will perform again in this area next spring when he will be performing with the Virginia Opera in their production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  "Autumn Leaves" by Joseph Kosma was originally known as “Les fueilles mortes”, literally “the dead leaves”; and you ask what’s in a name.  Soprano Summer Hassan, another WTO returnee, sang Debussy’s “Air de lia”.  I found that I especially liked her voice in its lower register.  WTO newbie, baritone Ben Edquist sang Papageno’s “Suicide” Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; I gathered from the audience reaction to the announcement of the winning selection there must have been a sizable contingent voting for a different aria.  Mr. Edquist did justice to this popular aria and I look forward to hearing him again.  Last in order among the Young Artists was Zoie Reams whose singing in the recent WTO production The Touchstone made me a fan.  This young mezzo soprano made more fans with her warm rendition of “Amour, viens aider” from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila.  This closed out the performances by the Filene Young Artists, and I am certain they sold more tickets for WTO in the future.

But the show was not over.  It was time for the Wolf Trap Artist in Residence to perform.  This year that artist is opera star, heldentenor Simon O’Neill, especially well known for his Wagnerian roles.  I was already impressed with Mr. O’Neill from a performance earlier this year in the Washington Concert Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Leonore.  For Aria Jukebox, he sang not one, but two arias (nobody objected); the first was his choice and the second was the audience’s.  He explained that he wanted to perform Wagner’s “Wintersturme” from Die Walkure with Ms. Witman accompanying to celebrate remembering his days as a Filene Young Artist and how it helped launch his Wagnerian career.  It was an impressive performance, with an amusing moment when the young artists, out of sight, provided choral support.  However, as impressive as it was, the best was yet to come.  He sang the audience’s choice, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, one of world’s favorite arias, and he was simply sensational. I sat in my chair and thought, oh yeah, this is what opera is about.  It was as though the Filene Young Artists had made a powerful statement and Mr. O’Neill had added the exclamation point!

What fun!

The Fan Experience: On arrival at the wine and cheese reception you are given a small number of voting tokens, but not enough to vote on each Filene Young Artists selections.  You can purchase more tokens or vote with bills to cast a vote in every artist’s “jukebox” or you can stuff the ballot box for a favorite.  While I have no complaints at all with Aria Jukebox, I will respectfully put forward the suggestion to put the lists of arias to vote for online on the day before the performances.  I needed a little time to think about the choices, especially when so many of the arias were unfamiliar to me, and it would free me up to spend more time chatting with the young artists at the reception.


OperaGene: Taking Stock and Seeking Suggestions

Original OperaGene logo

Original OperaGene logo

OperaGene.com went live on Feb 29, 2016.  The website was started with a mission and certain goals in mind.  OperaGene’s mission is to help opera fans, and potential opera fans, to access and enjoy opera; for convenience I categorize those who are opera fans as sharing the opera gene.  As a relatively new opera convert, I wanted to share what I had learned pursuing my interest in opera.  And to offer a wider perspective than just the DC area where I live, I decided to cover opera companies and performances that I could reach in half a day’s drive; this roughly corresponds to the U.S. mid-Atlantic region.  The principal feature of the website is the blog where I report on things opera, including opera schedules and performances.  I also installed other pages on the website: an About section; a three months sidebar performances list; seasonal lists of opera schedules; info on other opera websites/blogs, venues, and critics; an info for newbies page, and a for parents page. 

One goal that I had for OperaGene, that has not materialized is generating and supporting discussions about opera performances and other opera topics.  In fact, very few comments have been received.  I have come to realize that views, discussions, and opinions these days have moved to social media.  There are several professional opera critics that I follow and, when I look for comments to their articles in newspapers, very few if any comments are received, with rare exceptions.  Articles on sports and hot political topics still get heavy comment traffic on newspaper articles. I will leave the comments section intact for now, but I also now have Twitter and Facebook feeds (Twitter: OperaGene @douhavethegene; Facebook: facebook.com/operagene).  I’m more active on Twitter right now; Facebook presents some problems I'm still working out in having a personal Facebook and a separate page for your blog or business.  I use these feeds to point to new OperaGene blog posts that have been added, but also to point out or muse about current topics in opera.

I am doing OperaGene for the enjoyment of it, my avocation in retirement.  It provides me an outlet for writing, which I enjoy, and a place to express my personal opinions about opera and opera performances.  I try to emphasize that my opinions are those of an opera fan, not an opera authority; I refer readers to professional critics for professional reviews.  The website also provides me with motivation to see more operas and to take mini-vacations to attend operas in other venues in the mid-Atlantic.  I have learned a great deal about the large array of opera companies and performances in the mid-Atlantic each year and still have not covered it all.

Beyond my personal enjoyment, however, I would like OperaGene to have an audience and to attend to the needs of those readers.  So, I am using this post to ask for suggestions on how the website might be improved to better serve reader interests.

Some questions to stimulate your thinking (you can see a month by month listing of the blog reports in the Archives section):

Are there features of the website you especially like or dislike?

Is there an opera feature that you’d like to see added to the website?

What blog topics interest you the most:

comments on performances,

descriptions of upcoming performances,

comments on “in cinema” performances,

informative blog reports on different aspects of opera?

Other topics?

Please send me any thoughts you are willing to share.  Critical comments intended to improve the website are welcomed.  You can use the Contact page to comment; to respond anonymously, do not fill in your name or email address on that page (just type your comments and hit the send button), or you can email me directly at Mike@operagene.com


Wolf Trap Opera’s The Touchstone: True Love and Singing Triumph

In her pre-opera talk, WTO Director Kim Witman stated that in composing The Touchstone, Rossini’s goal was to put on a good show.  Well, WTO has taken this opera and put on a good show.  The mad cap comical action of this opera was so fast paced it reminded me of the Marx brothers’ films, including one called “A Night at the Opera”.  In fact, it causes me to state up front that my personal preference would have been to slow down the comedic touches a bit and scale it back to let the love story be more at the forefront, given the marvelous singing of The Touchstone’s love triangle, but maybe I am trying to rewrite the plot.  And I doubt my fellow audience members would have been willing to part with a comedy that evoked such out-loud laughter.  As with all of Wolf Trap Opera’s productions, the main attraction is the fresh, yet already trained voices of and the infectious enthusiasm of the young singers who come to WTO each summer to practice their craft; Friday night was no exception.  As I reported in my blog post on the 2017 WTO season and oft have repeated, Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun!

Rotating columns holding the members of The Touchstone's love triangle: Zoie Reams as Clarice; Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale; and Alasdair Kent as Giocondo.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Rotating columns holding the members of The Touchstone's love triangle: Zoie Reams as Clarice; Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale; and Alasdair Kent as Giocondo.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The Touchstone begins with some clever staging as rotating columns appear with wall paper on one side and period paintings on the other side.  These are used to enter and exit characters from the action.  This and the colorful 19th century costumes representing the social status of the players are the primary staging elements and, with the frequently rapid fire action are sufficient.  However, the plays the thing, and I must admit to a personal difficulty in following the plot: I have a tendency to sometimes still be taking in an aspect of the production, such as how wonderful the previous aria was or considering what someone’s motives might be, while the plot moves on; I come back to the moment and realize I’ve missed something.  As I said, the action for The Touchstone moves fast; so, to get all the jokes you must pay close attention.  Most of the audience did and laughter erupted frequently.

Conductor Anthony Walker and his thirty-piece ensemble brought Rossini’s music to life.  Somehow that wonderful sound manages to project out of the tiny box that is The Barns orchestra pit.  Although Rossini wrote this opera when he was only twenty years old, it is spot on Rossini.  The ensemble arias are delightful and the Wolf Trap Opera chorus is excellent.  You will enjoy the music.

The story of The Touchstone (La Pietra del Paragone; composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Luigi Romanelli) revolves around a rich Count’s scheme to determine who his real friends are and to test his true love by feigning to have lost his fortune. A touchstone of old was a type of rock against which metals such as gold were struck to aid in their determining the identity of the precious metals.  In her program comments, director E. Loren Meeker quotes an Italian proverb that says “Men use a touchstone to test gold, but gold is the touchstone to test men.”

Left photo - Richard Ollarsby as Count Asdrubale and Zoie Reams as Clarice.  Right photo: Alasdair Kent as Giocondo and Zoie Reams as Clarice.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The center of the opera is the love triangle: Count Astrubale (Richard Ollarsaba) loves Clarice (Zoie Reams); the Count’s true friend Giacondo (Alasdair Kent) is also in love with Clarice. Clarice loves, well…let’s leave a little suspense.  Each of these three singers has a beautiful voice and is able to convey the feelings of their characters.  Richard Ollarsaba (Astrubale) and Alasdair Kent (Giacomo) are returning Filene Young Artists, who proved their mettle last year.  Given the chance to display some tender moments in this year’s selection, Ollarsaba’s rich bass-baritone shone the entire evening.  Last year I thought he was talented; this year I think he has star quality.  It was obvious last year that Kent’s high tenor had star quality and his aria in act 2 of Touchstone was a show stopper.  Zoie Reams in her first season with WTO was the surprise.  Ms. Witman’s decision to give this contralto/mezzo soprano the lead was fully redeemed by her performance.  I liked the sound of her voice from the beginning and by the end of the evening the richness of her voice and her ability convey emotion with her singing made me a fan. 

Left photo - Alasdair Kent as Giocondo, Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale.  Right photo - Shea Owens as Pacuvio and Summer Hassan as Donna Fulvia.  Photos by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In large measure, the plot is simply a vehicle for Rossini and Romanelli to have fun with some character stereotypes, all with designs on the Count’s riches and their love interests. The comedy rests on the shoulders of capable supporting players: returnee Shea Owens as Pacuvio, a hack poet; Anthony Robin Schneider as Fabrizio, the Count’s servant; Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia who has designs on the Count; Summer Hassan, also a returnee, as Donna Fulvia who also has designs on the Count; Kihun Yoon as Macrobio, the corrupt newspaper critic.  Mr. Schneider's mugging and deadpan humor as a servant brought laughs.  Shea Owens showed his comedy chops in last year’s L’Opera Seria and delivers again in a stand out performance, sometimes a little too over the top, but clearly loved by the audience.  Summer Hassan had a nice aria in act 2 which she sang well; to my ear, she sounded significantly improved over last year and piqued my interest to hear more.  Kihun Yoon has a thunderous baritone that he can also use to some really charming, gentler moments; he becomes a major character as the story develops.

A rehearsal cast photo for The Touchstone; not previously shown, far left, is Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

A rehearsal cast photo for The Touchstone; not previously shown, far left, is Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

So, if you can get a ticket at this point, go see The Touchstone, maybe get your favorite beverage in hand, and sit back to have a fun, memorable summer evening.

The Fan Experience: Wolf Trap’s The Barns has its advantages: air conditioning (not so at the Filene Center); free parking, easy in and out; all seats close to the stage; beverages, including alcoholic beverages, and lite dinner fare available; drinks, but not food can go with you to your seat and some seats have cupholders; and excellent acoustics.  It has a few disadvantages: first some seats on the floor level do not have visibility for the supertitles; part of the structure of the balcony is two 5x5 inch support beams that run from the balcony bannister to the ceiling and are positioned at the aisles adjacent to seats AA101 and AA112 in the front row.  Depending on where you sit, you could have restricted view; generally, this will be listed online, but something to consider when you purchase your tickets if restricted view is an issue for you.  One other note on seats and this may never happen to you: If you think there is a problem with your seat, bring this up with the usher; management may be able to re-seat you, and if there are no other suitable seats, your case will be improved for seeking a refund or some compensation. On the balance, I love attending opera at The Barns, especially the intimacy of the audience and singers so close together.

Seating is limited but a few tickets remain for the performances on June 28 and July 1.



Metropolitan Opera Tickets for the 2017-2018 Season Now on Sale

Metropolitan Opera Ad

Metropolitan Opera Ad

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.