“What do you want from opera? What does opera not give you that you wish it did? How can opera make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?” asks star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the promo for Glass Handel, also stating that his team’s goal is to create new esthetic experiences existing within the contexts of opera. That seems to me to capture the fun, but serious spirit of Festival O18, Opera Philadelphia’s kick off to its 2018-2019 season. OP wants to engage you in forging the future of opera.
Last year’s Festival O17 was a major opera event in the U.S. I was very impressed by the vision and leadership demonstrated by OP, so much so that my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Philly to see The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and a clever version of The Magic Flute (see photos below) and felt regret we could not take in the other O17 offerings. O18 begins this season and will be followed up beginning in Feb 2019 by two classics and two newer operas to complete the season. I’m sure my wife and I will be hitting I-95 North from DC once again. The challenge is making our choices and doing so soon, before performances sell out. Let’s start with their grand ball that is Festival O18.
Scenes from last year's O17: Troy Cook is John Cree in The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and Ben Bliss as Tamino in The Magic Flute. Photos by John Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.
O18’s concept is to envelope the entire area’s arts community, fans, and potential fans over eleven days with creative new or re-designed works, on what OP calls an urban stage. Thus, O18 will offer two world premieres, 3 new productions, and emerging artists concerts with the Curtis Institute of Music. If you prefer to stick with the classics, they have you covered with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor. These events will be presented in five different venues over the period of September 20-30.
Festival 018, Sept 20-30:
Sky on Swings, world premiere – Sept 20, 22, 25, 27, 29
Lucia di Lammermoor, new production – Sept 21, 23, 26, 28, 30
Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine, new production – Sept 22, 23, 27, 29, 30
Glass Handel, world premiere – Sept 22, 23, 30 (performances are sold out)
Queens of the Night, cabaret – Sept 24, 25, 28
Fridays at the Field, emerging artists concerts – Sept 21, 28
Opera on the Mall – Sept 29, pending funding
Venues, respectively (the urban stage): Perelman Theater, Academy of Music, Theater of the Living Arts, the Barnes Foundation, Field Concert Hall, Theater of Living Arts.
This year’s strategy for the program for O18 is similar to last year’s, starting with a premiere of a chamber opera and a new production of a traditional work. Sky on Swings is a new chamber opera by composer Lembit Beecher, a former OP composer-in-residence and librettist/playwright Hannah Moscovitch; this team last year provided O17 with I Have No Stories To Tell You. Working closely with director Joanna Steele, they embrace the timely and sensitive topic of Alzheimer’s Disease and use it to explore how music can reflect the changes caused by the disease and to explore hidden barriers to love that are revealed. The performances are highlighted by star mezzo-sopranos Fredericka von Stade and Marietta Simpson playing the leads. Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the most popular operas in the world and the role of Lucia is coveted by coloratura sopranos. This is a new production by famed director Laurent Pelly featuring famed coloratura soprano Brenda Rae, who recently appeared in OP's Tancredi. Mr. Pelly is reknown across the globe for inventive and stylish productions. What will his production of Lucia be like? The production is co-produced by Wiener Staatsoper and will be performed in Vienna, Austria in 2019.
Lucia di Lammermoor director Laurent Pelly (photo by Kelly and Massa) and soprano Brenda Rae (photo by Carole Parodi). Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.
Glass Handel is the next edition of combining opera with art at the Barnes Foundation, done so effectively last year in O17's highly regarded The Wake World. Leading the effort is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who is working with multimedia company Visionaire and the Barnes Foundation to present an audience immersion experience with music by Philip Glass and George Frederic Handel, that involves music, singing, art, fashion, dance, film, and technology. It will also be the coming out party for Mr. Costanzo’s new album also covering music by Glass and Handel. Sadly at this point, it’s three performances are sold out; if you wish to join me on the waiting list, click on this link. The creation of new experiences continues with a new production of Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine. It will begin with a selection of French art and cabaret songs by baritone Edward Nelson followed by opera luminary Patricia Racette performing Poulenc’s one-act opera for a soprano, La Voix Humaine, which focuses one side of telephone conversations between ex-lovers; James Darrah of Breaking the Waves fame directs.
Anthony Roth Costanzo (photo by Matthu Placek) in Glass Handel and Patricia Racette (photo by Devon Cass) in Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.
Now, for something different – hopefully that intro at least got a smile, but I do mean different. Over three nights, opera star Stephanie Blythe as her alter ego Blythely Oratonio and Dito van Reigersberg as Martha Graham Cracker will alternate hosting evenings of drag-infused cabaret songs ending the third night with Dito and Aeneas, a concert and dance party, which was well received in last year’s O17. Festival O18 will also offer two Friday emerging artists concerts, program yet to be announced, with singers from the Curtis Institute of Music.
Philadelphia is currently attempting to crowdsource funding to include an Opera on the Mall to provide a free showing of last year’s sold out and highly acclaimed production, We Shall Not Ne Moved that revisits the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound to address issues about “national identity, race, gender, the failure for some of the public education system, and personal responsibility.” An announcement will be forthcoming.
After O18, Opera Philadelphia regroups and prepares for the second half of the season which will begin in February:
OP 2018-2019 Season, Part II:
A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, U.S. production premiere – Feb 8, 10, 15, 17
Don Giovanni, new production – Mar 7, 8, 9, 10
La Boheme – Apr 26, 28, May 1, 3, 5
Empty the House, new production – May 2, 4, 4, 5
I recently saw Virginia Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by composer Benjamin Britten with a libretto written by Peter Pears and Britten, and I have to say that Dream is a very underrated opera. It provides beautiful music and arias with clever twists and maintains Shakespeare’s humor, charm, and heart. And Shakespeare’s story, if you will consider, can be viewed from a darker perspective as biting commentary on human nature. The keys to a great performance will be the staging and the singers who play Oberon (countertenor Tim Mead) and Tytania (soprano Anna Christy). I hope to make it up in February to take this one in.
The great Don Giovanni by Mozart and the equally great La Boheme by Puccini are among the operas that opera fans cut their teeth on. If you are new to opera, you must go, and if you are already a fan, you most likely will attend. Giovanni is a collaborative effort with Curtis Institute of music combining young singers with established production staff. La Boheme will feature soprano Vanessa Vasquez as Mimi; she won the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. This production will also feature art from the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Empty the House (2016) composed by Rene Orth with libretto by Mark Campbell is new to me. Ms. Orth is currently OP’s sixth composer-in-residence. She has rearranged this version for a chamber orchestra rather than the original 9-piece ensemble. The story involves the interactions between a mother and a daughter and memories encountered in moving mom out of the family home. This is another collaboration with Curtis.
OP's 2018-2019 lineup looks impressive and enticing. If nothing else, Opera Philadelphia deserves our applause. Right now, they are leading the opera pack.
The Fan Experience: It’s obvious but worth saying: the sooner you secure your tickets the less likely you are to encounter a sell out (Glass Handel is already sold out). Opera Philadelphia’s website is excellent and chockful of useful information. Performance pages have links to find tickets or you can use this one for all performances. In addition to single tickets, packages are available as well as special offers such as discounted student tickets. I also find their Guest Services telephone staff to be quite helpful at 215-732-8400. I suggest you peruse the web sites of the individual performances of interest because extra features such as lectures or meetings with composers, directors, etc. are sometimes planned. Philadelphia is a great tourist destination beyond opera. For out-of-towners, Guest Services will recommend hotels and dining options.