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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Opera’s Turandot Hits the Wow Button

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III              What is the ice that sets you on fire?

Popular Turandot: Sensuous Music and Stunning Visual Pleasure

Original 1926 poster for Turandot; public domain.

Original 1926 poster for Turandot; public domain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My First Concert Opera, My Second Leonore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opera Lafayette and My First Leonore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Opera Lafayette: From Violins to Opera, Cloaked in Romance

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews by critics can be found below in chronological order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi – Nov 5-20

The Demon, Anton Rubinstein – Dec 10-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Conductor Susanna Malkki. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Conductor Susanna Malkki. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Urban Arias Experience And The ‘Hat’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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