Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos on Saturday left me with two primary impressions: Strauss’ music is exceptional and WTO’s young performers are terrific. The opera bursts onto the stage with raucous vaudevillian humor worthy of the Marx brothers and ends with a fade to true love worthy of Frank Capra. Kudos to composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl for allowing true love to develop amid a clash of two cultures without anyone dying from swordplay or committing suicide and to the WTO players and creative team for bringing such a funny and charming story so compellingly to life.
l to r: Lindsay Kate Brown (Composer), Ian Koziara (Tenor), Alexandria Shiner (Prima Donna), Joshua Conyers (Music Master), Wilford Kelly (Wigmaker), Jeremy Harr (Lackey), Conor McDonald (Major-Domo), Seiyoung Kim (Brighella), Victor Cardamone (Scaramuccio), Ian McEuen (Dancing Master) and Ron Dukes (Truffaldin) in the Prologue. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
Ariadne auf Naxos is one of a string of opera hits by the Strauss/Hofmannstahl team, but the opera has a convoluted history. It was originally intended to be an innovative combination of a play by Hofmannsthal and an opera by Strauss, now known as Ariadne I (1912). Ariadne I became cumbersome and drawn-out (play and opera combined at about 6 hours), and expensive to produce, requiring two separate troupes of performers. Hofmannsthal went back to the drawing board, wrote a Prologue in which the characters set the stage for the Opera that follows. Strauss made the needed changes to the music, and Ariadne II (1916) is what is most often performed today, coming in at a little over two hours. That sounds easier than it was. There was considerable tugging back and forth between the two, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, though played out very politely: At one point, Strauss wrote Hofmannsthal to the effect that the libretto was wonderful, but if he couldn’t understand it what hope might there be for the average fan. Fortunately, they worked it out.
l to r: Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, and Lindsay Kate Brown as Composer. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
The opera begins on a set that is the backstage with an opening onto the performance hall, which is being used for dinner and music. We meet the characters by their titles, not their names, Composer, Tenor, Prima Donna, etc. The Major-Domo explains to the Music Master that the opera is to be followed by a commedia dell’arte performance of “Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers”, and then fireworks 9 pm sharp. The Music Master and Composer are highly upset at this juxtaposition of this low art with their high art. The comedy players believe they will bring blessed relief to a bored audience. It gets worse – the Major-Domo returns to state the opera and the play must be performed together to make certain that they can start the fireworks on time. Cuts must be made; egos must be attended to. Meanwhile, the irate Composer finds himself warming to Zerbinetta who herself becomes enchanted by the Composer’s commitment to presenting his vision of true love; her view is that if God wanted women to be faithful to one man, he would not have produced them in so many varieties. Next, the backstage set has become the performing stage with small off-stage views on both the right and left. The Opera mashup begins, interweaving the stories of Ariadne and Zerbinetta to comedic and heartwarming effect. Director Tara Faircloth did an excellent job in presenting the story, especially in choreographing the moves of a large number of players on a small stage and bringing each character to life. The set designs by Laura Fine Hawkes and the costumes by Rooth Varland are marvelous, further drawing us into the drama.
The orchestra is on stage behind the set for this performance to allow all the musicians, a chamber orchestra of thirty-something players, to fit in one spot. The music caught my attention right away because it has to move back and forth between the styles of opera seria and commedia dell’arte, as it helps flesh out each of the characters. It also switches between small groupings of instruments for characterizations and the entire ensemble that sounds full and rich. Whether Wagnerian in nature or comedic in nature, Strauss’ music is both pleasing and fitting, and always his own. Conductor Emily Senturia and the Wolf Trap Orchestra gave a marvelous performance, especially considering that only tv screens afforded views of the conductor to the singers, and Ms. Senturia had to fly blind without a view of the singers.
l to r.:Victor Cardamone as Scaramuccio, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, Ron Dukes as Truffaldin, and (bottom) Michael Pandolfo as Harlekin taking their turn in the Opera/comedy mashup. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
My son expressed the opinion that the Opera section of Ariadne was a parody of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Once he said that I began to see parallels myself – Ariadne believes her depression over lost love could only be assuaged by death, ala Isolde, and when Bacchus arrived causing her transformation and salvation, the horns sounded very Siegfried-leitmotif-like. Moreover, the opera within the opera is heroic in style and Strauss was a fan of Wagner’s music; might this be a tip of the hat to Wagner?
Ariadne auf Naxos provides WTO the opportunity to use 17, by my count, of its Filene and Studio Artists. The professionalism of this young crew is impressive; opening night went off without an apparent hitch. The stand-out opportunities in Ariadne are the roles of Ariadne and Zerbinetta played in WTO’s production by soprano Alexandria Shiner and soprano Alexandra Nowakowski. Both of these two WTO Filene Artists delivered stand out performances. Ms. Shiner as Ariadne (Isolde?) sang with such power and compelling gravitas that I began to buy into the opera’s opera much as Zerbinetta did. Ms. Nowakowski as Zerbinetta proved to be both a talented singer and a delightful actress. Her trills and roulades were used effectively, and she exuded a natural charm, nailing the coquettish nature of the role completely. Both sopranos received enthusiastic rounds of applause. Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown also delivered a strong performance; her vibrant, lovely voice was thoroughly engaging in a pants role as the Composer.
left photo: (top row L-R) - Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade and Meagan Rao as Najade. (front row L-R): Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. right photo: Ian Koziara as Bacchus and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
There were many fine supporting performances, and I will mention a few. Baritone Conor McDonald who played the speaking-only role as Major-Domo was perfect in appearance and in spewing his messages with a ringing German accent. The operatic Dyads – soprano Meagan Rao as Najade, mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade, and soprano Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo – had a beautiful sound together and a deft comic touch that reminded me of the Rhine Maidens (Wagner again). In a performance that might be too easily brushed aside in the midst of so much action, tenor Ian Koziara was excellent, looking nothing like Ian Koziara in sight or sound; he was dressed and moved about for comedic effect and gave us a heroic heldentenor that was certainly respectable. Fully engaging, singing and acting performances were also given by baritone Joshua Conyers as Music Master, bass Jeremy Harr as Lackey, and tenor Ian McEuen as Dancing Master.
Ariadne can be enjoyed just for its take down of high art pretensions by commedia dell’arte styled comic antics; yet, I felt I went home having had an experience far richer than just having a few laughs. Somehow an opening to the transformative power of love had been tapped. Opera can do that, and Wolf Trap Opera and it’s young ensemble consistently delivers on that promise.
The Fan Experience: There two more opportunities to see Ariadne, July 24 and 27; tickets can be found at this link. The opera is in German with English supertitles. Also recommended is the informative pre-opera talk by pianist Joseph Li that begins in The Barns one hour prior to the performance.
I have written many times about the benefits of opera in The Barns – a cozy venue for opera putting the singers and audience close together, casual dress and atmosphere, food and refreshments available, drinks can be taken to your seat, air-conditioning, free parking, and easy in/easy out access. There are seats on the main floor that do not allow viewing of the supertitles and a few in the balcony where structure posts can split your view; if this is the first time to attend opera there, I’d advise talking with the box office in selecting your tickets.
Actually, tickets for live in HD “In Cinemas” broadcasts have already been on sale to Metropolitan Opera members, but they will be made available to the general public on Wednesday, July 17. These Saturday live-streamed transmissions of Met operas have become quite popular; the Met replays the video recording of the Saturday broadcast the following Wednesday in most locations; dubbed “encore” presentations, many of these are later added to the Met Opera “On Demand” video service, and some are broadcast again in the summer between seasons. My experience is that seat availability varies depending on the popularity of the opera and the popularity of the series in the location closest to you. In my area, the best seats go early, and even weeks before the broadcast, the only seats remaining are in the neck-straining first few rows. So, my advice is to get your tickets early for the operas you most want to see live; seats for encore performances are not that often a problem. Wednesday, July 17 is not too early for performances in 2019; some seats will have already been sold to Met Opera members.
May 9 (live); 13 (encore) —–-- Maria Stuarda – (Gaetano Donizetti)
Reasons to go: Everyone will have their own reasons, but here are some of mine beyond liking movie popcorn and soda. I mostly want to see the ones I haven’t seen before, but let’s look just a little deeper. Note for each listing, the title is hyperlinked to the Met webpage for that opera and the synopses links are to the Met’s own summaries:
Scene from Turandot. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.
Turandot (synopsis)– I saw this Zeffirelli production live a couple of years ago at the Met, also with soprano Christine Goerke in the lead role. Goerke was outstanding and Puccini’s music is always gorgeous, but what really blew me away were the costumes, sets, and staging as only the Met can do; I felt that I was experiencing high art in just this aspect of the performance. If you can’t see it in person, then yes, see it live on the really big screen, the biggest one you can find.
l to r: Scenes from Manon (photo by Karen Almond), Madama Butterfly (photo by Marty Sohl), and Akhnaten (photo by Richard Hubert Smith). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.
Madama Butterfly (synopsis)– Ok, it’s my favorite opera and has the great tenor, now baritone, Placido Domingo, in his role debut as Sharpless. This opera is so popular you might be the 1,000,000,000 customer. It looks like a very colorful production.
Akhnaten (synopsis)– The story is about the rise and fall of the 14th century, BC pharaoh. Other than that, I am clueless on this one but won’t miss it because it is Philip Glass and this opera doesn’t get performed that often. I do know that it has the currently hot, star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the lead role. It also includes the very fine, young mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.
l to r: Peter Mattei in Wozzeck, Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess, and Joyce DiDonato in Agrippina. Photos by Karen Kudacki; courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.
Wozzeck (synopsis) – I saw Berg’s Lulu on video and I’m not sure I enjoyed it; it was more like a car wreck I could not keep from looking at. The music was a mix of melody and atonality. I did read the synopsis for Wozzeck. It seems to also be a bleak uncompromising look at poverty and adultery, so I guess I’ll go. It does have one of my favorite baritones, Peter Mattei, playing Wozzeck.
Agrippina (synopsis) – Think Joyce DiDonato, Kate Lindsey, and Brenda Rae. That’s all you really need to know; anyone of those sopranos could headline an opera. Plus, there seems to be a Handel revival going on. When I read the synopsis, I was thinking tragedy, but it is in fact a satirical comedy where the characters use plotting, deception, and murder to get what they want. Sounds like fun.
l to r: Scenes from Der Fliegende Holländer (photo by Paola Kudacki), Tosca (photo by Ken Howard), and Maria Stuarda (photo by Ken Howard). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.
Der Fliegende Holländer (synopsis)– Or in English (with no umlauts), The Flying Dutchman, who is cursed to sail the seas until he finds true love and is given a chance once every seven years. I have viewed the Dutchman as introductory Wagner, but I attended this opera in concert this past year and came away thinking this is truly a great opera. Sir Bryn Terfel will sing the Dutchman and German soprano Anja Kampe, famous for singing works by Wagner, will sing Senta. I am currently lobbying my wife for us to drive up to the Met to see this one in person.
Tosca (synopsis) – No, no, and no; I cannot stand to see one more Tosca. It’s starring Anna Netrebko? Well, of course I will attend. I always feel I don’t want to attend yet another performance of Tosca, but when performed nearby, I always go, and I’m always charmed again; Tosca is pretty much the perfect opera. For Ms. Netrebko, I am willing to travel. It and she are among the great ones.
Maria Stuarda (synopsis)– Met favorites Diana Damrau and Jamie Barton lock heads as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I in a famous historical drama and an opera that gives it stars a chance to show what they can make of it. The Met says, “the opera’s drama is true to history in a way the facts are not.” Hmmm. In the current climate, that might benefit from some explaining.
I think the Met has done an excellent job this year of setting the opera table for fans of “In Cinemas” broadcasts, with an array tha should appeal to all tastes in opera. These broadcasts offer less travel and cheaper prices to witness a Met performance, casual dress and taking refreshments to your seat, the possibility of close ups of the singers, and cast interviews in intermission. Looking over the season, I have my favorites; what’s yours? See you at the concession stand.
The Fan Experience: Showtimes for live performances are Saturdays at 12:55 pm, but always check when you buy your ticket. The re-broadcast (termed an “encore”) of each opera typically takes place on the following Wednesday, often more than one showing. The encores are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays though what you see on screen is exactly the same, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of. Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater. Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area (note: I have found that entering your zipcode does not work). Wikipedia provides a history of this program. Tickets are in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors. To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.
Note that Intermissions can be a little tricky. When intermission begins don’t head for the restrooms just yet; the performer and staff interviews come next. After the interviews, there is a 15-20 minute intermission when you can leave for the restrooms and refill your soda without missing anything.
Watching movie versions of operas and videos of operas performed on stage can be both enjoyable entertainment and worthwhile arts experiences. Opera purists should stop reading at this point or take more anti-hypertensive medication. Seeing Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts streaming on the big screen in a movie theater as I eat popcorn while wearing jeans and a sport shirt is fun. Also true for watching movie and video recordings of operas on my big screen TV while I have lunch or dinner and can hit the pause button for bathroom breaks or hit the rewind button when I realize I missed something. Besides, who can afford to go to the Met in NYC more than a couple of times per year or wants to wait a month between operas for local company productions? And of course, movies and videos are cheaper than live performances. However, if you replace hearing opera live, local or at the Met, with only screen experiences, I’d insist that you are missing out on the best opera experiences, what the purists contend is true opera, hearing trained human voices without electronic transformation and experiencing the emotional impact those live voices carry, plus the deeply humanizing effect of live, shared arts experiences.
“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.
Perhaps the biggest difference in producing staged and filmed/video versions is the acting demands on the singers. Acting on stage requires broad dramatic gestures to be seen throughout the opera house. Acting must be more nuanced for the close-ups of film and videos. Now, let’s clearly make the distinction between movie versions of operas and videos that are recordings or streamed showings of live operas being performed on a stage; these are two very different formats that tend to get clumped together, especially when you are ordering DVDs from vendors. They share certain advantages and disadvantages. Videos and movies both offer close-up shots during the performance; if you want to see a close-up in the opera house you need opera glasses or binoculars. Both formats control the focus of what you see, not true in the opera house. Both can also offer additional viewing material. I especially like the performer interviews during intermissions of Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts, pretty cool actually. Video directors have some creative options not available to stage directors, movie directors even more so. Movie versions are not restrained by time or space. Nothing can make a story that takes place in the 1800s look like you are viewing it taking place in the 1800s in real time like a movie, and movement in time or place is more easily made in films since you don’t have to wait for sets and costume changes. A currently underappreciated advantage of movies and videos is that they capture performances of great singers and productions that can be viewed on demand forever more. I often watch videos of operas, but I am just venturing into movie versions, mainly at the urging of my son who also loves opera. I recently watched engaging movie versions of Tosca and Don Giovanni recorded on DVDs that were recommended to me by knowledgeable opera folks, and wish to report on these.
“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.
The 1976 movie based on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, tenor Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi, and baritone Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia, is an excellent, classical production of Tosca and an excellent film that is a made for TV version. Puccini and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote Tosca as taking place in three stunning locales in Rome, the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III. A major advantage of this movie is that it was shot on location, so those three venues are where the movie was filmed, and they are sumptuous; you see what the staged versions are trying to emulate. In fact, the movie is worth seeing just to compare the actual venues with various stage sets you may have seen. One can certainly argue that the realism of movies is not as effective for enhancing mood or emotionalism central to the artistic experience as theatrical staging, but in this movie, the real thing certainly works. Another aspect of film-making that works is the ability of movies to move the action to different places easily and rapidly, i.e., the escaped Angelotti is hurriedly moving along a path to enter the church, not so easily shown on stage due to the distance covered. This also works for movements required in filming the excellent execution of the “Te Deum” scene.
For me, the best reason to view this film is the singers, all in the prime of their opera careers when the film was made. I had not heard Ms. Kabaivanska before and am delighted to report she is a wonderful Tosca with a beautiful tone to her voice; she gives an emotional “Vissi d’arte”, and an overall fine acting performance; in Europe she was known at the time for her Tosca. Seeing renown tenor Placido Domingo in his prime is a particular treat, and he made a convincing Cavaradossi. However, the highlight of this film is baritone Sherrill Milnes, whose singing and acting in the role of the villainous Scarpia are superb. The sound track is excellent; Conductor Bruno Bartoletti gives us a fine recording of the music. One could take issue with a few features of the film, such as lacking the candelabra placement ritual on Scarpia’s demise, and Ms. Kabaivanska’s acting early in the movie is more suitable for the staged version, but overall, everything works. Tosca is perhaps one of the better operas for making film versions due to its story and pacing, and the fact that it comes in at a little under two hours, which is short even by today’s movie standards. This one is even worth watching again for the pleasure of it.
The 1979 movie of Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni takes liberty with the setting as Director Joseph Losey attempts to adapt the theatrical version to a movie format. The film opens in Venice with principal characters visiting a glass factory and using gondolas for transport and is filmed in a palazzo in Vicenza, Italy, though Mozart’s opera takes place in Spain. It is an intriguing and promising operning and the change in locale allows use of very dramatic Venetian carnival costumes. Otherwise, Mr. Losey stuck carefully to the Mozart’s score and Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, probably to the detriment of the movie, as I explain below. The movie is beautifully filmed in beautiful locales.
One of the problems with Don Giovanni as a movie is that even as an opera it meanders a bit in the middle in order to offer up beautiful music and great arias, and the sequence of events gets confusing. If this is to be your first Don Giovanni, read a good synopsis of the plot first, or better, see a staged version. Some of the scenes in the movie are spirited and enjoyable from that perspective, but all of the roaming about in the opera becomes a bit puzzling even in staged versions, which presumably covers a 24-hour period and yet has a statue to the deceased appear by the end. This doesn’t play well in Mr. Losey’s version which mixes day and night scenes and thereby loses the mood and momentum of Giovanni spiraling towards hell. The finale could definitely benefit from today’s CGI effects. This film is fascinating to watch as an attempt to make a great movie based on Don Giovanni, though in the end, it misses the mark. A NYTimes review hit the nail on the head with the comment that the film fails to evoke “a movie world in which we believed”.
A fantastic cast does a credible job of acting and a marvelous job of singing. Famed baritone Ruggero Raimondo plays an impressively baleful, privileged nobleman in Giovanni, but does less well in projecting his charm or lust. Raimondi is known for his portrayal of Giovanni and listening to his vocals one can understand why. Baritone Jose Van Dam is very good as Leporello, as is soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina. Soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna and Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira are fabulous. The conductor for the opera is Lorin Maazel, leading the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the music is also fabulous. The voices and vocals of the extraordinary singers are a compelling reason to watch the film in themselves.
Movie versions of operas were mostly made in the last half of the last century and many were made for TV versions with limited budgets, and thus lack today’s media and sound refinements. Nonetheless, I recommend these two. I also think there is an opportunity being missed here by today’s movie directors. I’d be happy to see Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu jumping into the field: Movie directors, accept the creative challenge of using today’s film-making possibilities to give us a great opera-based film. Can you create a world we can believe in, even a fantasy world, around a great opera or, for a bigger challenge, overcome the deficiencies of a flawed one that prevents its great music from being oft performed today?
The Fan Experience: Both of these films are currently unavailable for streaming from any of the usual sources, such as Amazon or Apple. You should be able to find DVD copies in the $20-30 range, but a little effort in checking options can prove worthwhile in that prices can vary considerably depending on source and type of DVD – regular or blue ray. I called Amazon to ask that they add these operas to their streaming service, but don’t expect them anytime soon.
Wolf Trap Opera’s opening salvo of opera at The Barns this summer is a twin bill combining Gluck’s Merlin’s Island and Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis. I enjoyed Merlin’s Island. It’s a fine farce providing social commentary that is still valid today. As done by WTO’s young artists, it is a piece of puff pastry to be relished. However, The Emperor of Atlantis is the one not to miss; I thought it brilliant. Sometimes, something special happens. Stage directors are always trying to achieve that thing, but it’s illusive. First, they have to have a good play or opera to work with; then they have to be talented, and then, they have to be lucky; somehow it all works. It’s like the heavens, maybe as a tease, occasionally allow us a glimpse of the truth of our lives through such works.
l to r: Two sailors from Paris, Scapin (Daniel Noyola) and Pierrot (Ben Edquist) approach Atlantis as Merlin (Conor McDonald) tracks them overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
Merlin’s Island (1758) is essentially Gluck does French vaudeville, a surprise to me; the libretto, written by Louis Anseasume, is in French. But speaking of surprises, in my preview blog report, I labelled WTO’s new season as “Here Comes the Judge” and as if by fate, early on in this opera the Judge appears. Maybe I should say that Gluck does “Laugh In”. Though he wrote quite a few operas, Composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck is today popularly known for his opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, and for having a major impact on the opera genre by flipping the script, giving the drama precedence over the music, rather serious stuff. Merlin’s Island is an opéra comique, a genre that evolved from French vaudeville productions of the time and consisted primarily of arias and spoken dialog; if a comedy, the humor derived from its social commentary. In this Gluck commentary on French Society, two sailors are shipwrecked on an island where there is no crime; philosophers recommend laughter; being rich is frowned upon, and husbands and wives are always faithful. The sailors’ world has been turned upside down. WTO’s production is modified, somewhat shorter I think, and a few touches added to make it more Parisian, such as adding an accordion to the ensemble and performing the opera in a cabaret style. The result is disarmingly funny from the very beginning until the end. The music is pleasant and for the most part sounds very traditional of the mid eighteenth century, though varied in style for the different scenes. The focus of this opera is the scenes not the continuum. The Filene Artists and their younger siblings in the Studio Artist program showed remarkable acting ability in a comedy staged to veer sharply from classical opera. Believe me, you will laugh. All of the artists acquitted themselves well in their vocals. Highlights for me included the remarkably strong, clear voice of bass Daniel Noyola who played sailor Scapin and baritone Conor McDonald’s campy and engaging Merlin. I thought that soprano Shannon Jennings and mezzo-soprano Niru Liu who played Merlin’s nieces, Argentine and Diamantine, sounded especially good together in a duet where they were singing on opposite sides of the stage, and finally, mezzo-soprano Megan Ester Grey demonstrated remarkable calm while projecting power as the island’s doctor; her voice caused me to take notice, and she showed some good moves coming down the slide. For me, the storyline fizzles a bit with Merlin needing to deliver a deux ex machina ending, but perhaps there is meaning there that Merlin had to convert the sailors to the ways of Atlantis. Clearly Merlin’s Island is as relevant for today’s society as its original audience. Gluck’s opera is not just an historical curiosity; otherwise, it wouldn’t be funny.
l to r: Merlin’s nieces, the rich, young bachelorettes, Argentine (Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (Niru Liu) arrive to court the sailors. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
I came expecting two comedies, one light and one dark. However, while The Emperor of Atlantis (or Der Kaiser von Atlantis in German) has some laughter-generating scenes, they were over shadowed by the darkness. And the back story to the opera casts its own shadow. But as the libretto notes, it is human to laugh, even as we hold back tears, and we need to keep laughing. The opera was written in 1943 when composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist and poet Peter Kien were held in Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto” that the Germans used to show the world how well the inhabitants were treated as a means to deflect attention from the gas chambers. While opportunity there existed for creating works of art, the German authorities would not allow this work to be performed, correctly viewing it as anti-Hitler. The underlying story line is that Death, wearied of human folly, finally gets fed up by Emperor Overall’s call for total war, everyone against everyone, and Death goes on strike. The Emperor at first claims not dying is a gift to his supporters but soon the absence of death undermines his authority, and Death requires as a condition of returning to work that the Emperor be his first customer. Both Ullmann and Kien were transferred to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers there. For them, their message of tolerance for all humanity ended horrifically. The opera finally premiered in 1975 in the Salzburg Festival. Somehow, I feel honored to have witnessed it.
l to r: Hippocratine (Megan Ester Grey) arrives while Merlin (Conor McDonald) observes overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
At first the mix of characters seemed weird - Loudspeaker, Harlekin, Death, Drummer, Emperor Overall, Soldier, and Girl with the Bobbed Hair, and there were times in some of the scenes when I did not know what was going on. The character Harlekin danced and sang and laughed and asked Death to kill him; Death refused. A drummer spreads the news of Emperor Overall’s decrees. Loudspeaker would not lie but would not reveal the truth. A man and woman try to kill each other and fall in love. I don’t know that I will ever get the image out of my mind of Emperor Overall prancing around in his office while admiring himself in a handheld mirror. What made me love love this opera was the slow realization that something was stirring inside me, that somehow the opera was communicating with me in spite of the apparent lack of coherence. That is why I call it brilliant. I also think Kien’s poetry is brilliant, making me want to read the libretto. By the end, my laughter had been replaced by tears. As I have thought more about this opera, it is likely brilliant for another reason. Ullman and Kien could not have told their story straight up; it needed the cover of a zany fantasy to survive in their world at the time. In the end, I found the opera unsettling. Given the divisiveness in our country and the world today, might it happen again? Kudos to Director Richard Gammon and as he alludes in his program notes, this encounter with Death causes one to embrace life even more strongly, and I will add for Viktor and Peter - for everyone.
Emperor Overall (Ben Edquist) isolated and ruling from his office. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
I was so absorbed in the drama that I am hard pressed to speak to the music. Gluck would have been proud. Ullman’s music is varied in style and was scored for the limited number of instruments likely available in Thieresienstadt. It certainly supported the story and contributed to moods and was enjoyably melodic. Ullman was a student of Schoenberg, but the score was not disconcertingly dissonant, though it reflected the tension in the drama. In fact, kudos are due Conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the WTO orchestra for both performances. Again, the young artists acquitted themselves well, in some cases smashingly so, with some holdovers from Merlin’s Island who had to sing in both French and German that night. Anthony Robin Schneider gave a tour-de-force performance as the moody and depressed Death; with his stature and rich baritone voice he dominated the stage. Baritone Ben Edquist gave an excellent performance in Merlin’s Island, but an even better one as Emperor Overall; I am sorry to report, Mr. Edquist, that you were an amazingly effective loathsome dictator. Tenor Joshua Blue was both funny and touchingly sad at the same time as Harlekin, and Daniel Noyola returned to make an outstanding, if duplicitous, Loudspeaker.
l to r: Harlekin (Joshua Blue) engages Death (Anthony Robin Schneider) in a macabre dance; Soldier (Victor Cardamone) embraces Girl with the Bobbed Hair (Shannon Jennings) after they try to kill each other. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
I liked the pairing of these two operas. Two light pairings might test our endurance and two dark pairings might send us in for therapy. Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera for again giving us the opportunity to hear such talented performers and for bringing us less well-known operas so high in both entertainment and artistic value.
And don’t miss The Emperor of Atlantis.
The Fan Experience: “The World Turned Upside Down” has additional performances on June 28 and 30. The Barns continues to be one of my favorite venues for attending opera, and it’s coziness works especially well for the intimate cabaret styling of this double bill.
Pianist Joseph Li, who accompanied Steven Blier in his 25th anniversary concert, gave one of the best pre-opera talks that I have heard, providing substantive background and insights into these operas. The pre-opera talk begins one hour before the performance.
A lot had to come together for the semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s opera, L’heure Espagnole on Saturday night, a lot more than you might realize. The National Orchestral Institute had to bring about eighty (by my guess) of the most promising young musicians in the country to University of Maryland, College Park for a month of training and performances at the Clarice under the aegis of the National Orchestral Institute + Festival program. Wolf Trap Opera had to bring in a new class of the most promising operatic emerging artists for their Filene Artists summer program at Wolf Trap. Wolf Trap Opera does not select the operas to be presented until they know the voices and talent that will be available for that year. Then finally, the opera and program to be presented had to be chosen and the myriad logistics of presenting a collaborative opera production worked out. The end result was a delightful evening of opera by Ravel and suites from operas by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss. I love it when a plan comes together, especially if it involves opera.
Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
The NOI + Festival orchestra opened the program with “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (1945) by composer Benjamin Britten. The orchestra was led by Conductor Ward Stare, Musical Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who was assisted by Joel Ayau, a frequent contributor to Washington National Opera. Peter Grimes, perhaps Britten’s most popular opera, is a psychological drama of vigilante justice in a small fishing village. This is a musically diverse piece, modern in containing elements of dissonance, raucous in places as the music is tossed around from section to section of the orchestra, much like the sea can toss boats about. The four interludes are titled Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm, with the titles being somewhat descriptive of the music, especially Storm. I suspect this would be a challenging piece for even a seasoned orchestra of professionals, and NOI+Festival’s young performers displayed impressive artistry and came together beautifully, with an especially impressive orchestra-wide flourish to end the Storm interlude.
While a bit of shuffling about was taking place to rearrange some instruments and players for the next piece, Conductor Ward Stare gave insightful comments about the different sections of the evening’s program. The second offering of the night was “Suites from Der Rosenkavalier”. The suite was assembled by Strauss himself combining different excerpts from the opera. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is one of Strauss’ most popular operas. The story revolves around Marschallin, a middle-aged married woman having an affair with a young man, Octavian. As the story progresses, she has to face the realization that she must give up Octavian who has fallen in love with the young Sophie, fiancé of Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs. The opera is amusing and sentimental, and the music by Strauss is lush and beautiful, complete with waltzes, what you might expect if you were attending an important concert in 19th century Vienna. It was quite a contrast with the opening interludes by Britten, and surely, gave the youthful players a chance to master a different area of their repertoire. To those of us in the audience, it was sheer pleasure. As applause was given for each section of the program, conductor Ware charmingly recognized first the solo players in the piece and then each section of the orchestra by having them stand. The applause was both appreciative and heartfelt.
left: Gonsalve hidden inside a clock and played by Joshua Lovell is carted off by Ramiro played by Joshua Conyers. What? You don’t see the clock? right: Torquemada played by Ian Koziara tries to sell Don Iñigo the clock he is stuck in. Sometimes suspending disbelief involves seeing things that aren’t there. It’s fun; remember when you were little. Photos by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
Each of the opening works were about twenty-five minutes. The forty-five minute L’heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1911) constituted the second half of the program after intermission. To be honest, I did not know that Ravel composed operas until I saw the WTO season announcement. And in fact, he only composed two; he also composed a fifty-minute opera titled “L’enfant et les sortiléges (The Child and the Sorceries) which tells the tale of a mischievous child who after a tantrum of breaking items in his room must face the things as they come to life to confront him. L’heure espagnole is a more adult tale. In fact, though the opera score was completed by 1907, the director of the Opéra-Comique delayed it’s production until 1911 due to his concerns about the risqué storyline, though tame by today’s standards and totally in keeping with what we have come to expect of the French, but then…the story is set in Spain. For the libretto, Ravel used an eponymous play by Franc-Nohain, making only a few changes to the drawing room comedy. The story takes place in a clock repair shop. The muleteer Ramiro arrives to have his watch repaired by the clockmaker Torquemada. Torquemada’s wife Concepcion reminds her husband that the hour approaches that he must leave each week to service the clocks in the town, a time when she has regular male visitors unbeknownst to her husband; Torquemada leaves them both to await his return. First, her current lover, the poet Gonsalve, arrives followed soon by another suitor, the banker Don Iñigo Gomez. To keep them separate and on point, Concepcion has the muleteer Ramiro cart clocks hiding her suitors to her bedroom, offstage. While Concepcion wants to get down to business of making the most of the hour, Gonsalve becomes self-absorbed creating poetic lines, and Don Iñigo gets stuck in a clock, leaving only the muleteer, who has sudden appeal to the practical-minded Concepcion. You can see the comedic potential, and the opera ends with everybody happy, except perhaps for the Parisian censors (in case you are wondering, Torquemada was happy from the sale of two clocks). It was pointed out in the pre-opera discussion that Ravel composed the rare opera where female sexuality is accepted, and the heroine does not get killed off. Who knew this was once frowned on in France?
Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
L’heure espagnole does not have big show-stopping arias and much of the singing is recitative. The vocals are mainly intended to carry the plot, not delve deeply into the emotional life of its characters. Wolf Trap Opera’s Filene Artists had the right voice types and did a fine job making this semi-staged version work. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Concepcion had the only challenging role, to exude sexuality carefully while maneuvering the players around to achieve her aim; she sang beautifully and did a credible job of acting for a young performer. The other characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that serve to frustrate and finally satisfy Concepcion as she struggles to find the release she seeks. Joshua Conyers, winner of the recent Annapolis Opera vocal competition, played Ramiro and shone with his warm baritone; he gave us a simple, happy Ramiro. The fine young tenor Ian Koziara, who starred to rave reviews in last year’s Idomeneo, presented Torquemada as a presence as functional as his clocks. The comedic foil and primary source of Concepcion’s exasperation was Gonzalve played by tenor Joshua Lovell. He possesses a striking tenor worth hearing more of and appeared amusingly self-absorbed in his poetic creations. Bass-baritone Calvin Griffin took a bit to warm up, but soon settled in to display his deep voice and give us the officious, self-important Don Iñigo. The opera ends with an ensemble of all the characters that was a highlight of the performance and cemented the happy ending. Director Emily Cuk did a fine job of staging the action through and around the orchestra. Lighting was effectively handled by Christopher Brusberg. Kristen Ahern designed the costumes and a special thanks to production designer C. Murdock Lucas for the giant stack of clocks forming the portal to the off-stage bedroom.
The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
The sixth major character in this story is the orchestra and Ravel’s music, which joins in propelling the farce forward. Every action and emotion is painted with musical color, sometimes to the point of causing me to want to pause the characters and focus on the music. The sound of clocks and metronomes added to the coloring. Sometimes the music added to the drama, and sometimes it performed as a comedic foil generating musical slapstick in the background. I’d also like to hear this score as a suite. Conductor Stare led the NOI+Festival orchestra through a marvelous performance. The opera is written for a chamber-sized orchestra, but NOI gave us a full orchestra, and the semi-staging of the opera allowed the orchestra to also be on the stage instead of being in a pit; this aspect enhanced the emotional impact of the performance which led to thunderous applause at the end.
The L’heure espagnole creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera and the National Orchestra Institute for providing us with such an engaging and enjoyable evening of classical music and opera performed by some of the best young talent in the US. These two organizations complement each other beautifully and their collaboration is to be encouraged, and then enjoyed.
The Fan Experience: L’heure espagnole was a single performance, but part of a triple bill for Wolf Trap Opera. On the same night the Filene Artists back at The Barns in Wolf Trap were staging Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis. The twin bill at The Barns continues on June 26, 28, 30. The National Orchestral Institute + Festival orchestra concludes its season on June 29 with a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The Dekelboum Concert Hall in the Clarice is a fine venue; the clarity of the sound is very good, and I love the free parking after hours and weekends at the Clarice.
Getting to the Clarice from Tyson’s Corner is often problematic due to traffic on the beltway, even on the weekend. Traffic issues early Saturday evening made me fifteen minutes late to the pre-opera talk. A trip that should have taken 35 minutes took a little over an hour. The pre-opera talk was a discussion panel that included Amanda Consol from the UMD’s Maryland Opera Studio, Morgan Brophy from Wolf Trap Opera, and Emily Cuk who directed L’heure Espagnole. I enjoyed the comments I heard on how the program came to be, interactions between WTO and NOI, and challenges encountered.
Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s annual summer season begins on July 12 and runs through July 27. With an array of seven operas and three concerts over 17 days, PFO is focused on attracting as wide an audience as possible to the world of opera. PFO is not associated with Pittsburgh Opera whose new season begins in the Fall. Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s mission is to bring “the power of world-class performances to humanize, energize and re-define opera as an experience that is up-close and personal, approachable, and relevant to today’s audiences.” How do they do it? Check the variety of listings, but first, check the title of this report. It sounds like a Sesame Street game of ‘which one of these doesn’t belong’ – Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, or Fred Rogers. Yet, all four names are associated with operas that are being performed, and who doesn’t like Mr. Rogers?
Artwork for The Valkyrie; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
Pittsburgh Festival Opera places their productions under the banner of “Intimate Opera Theater”, meant to convey their intent to more fully immerse the audience in the opera experience. They make it as easy as possible for you to attend performances in several ways – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, and modest prices. To further increase accessibility, almost all operas are sung in English with projected English subtitles. The festival is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form (I can almost hear PFO whispering Mr. Rogers’ refrain saying “We like you just the way you are”). For those whose love of opera is a pre-existing condition, it offers the chance to get a new perspective on works you are familiar with already; I am not sure where else you might hear Wagner’s The Valkyrie sung in English. And for the average Joe or Josephine, it is also a really fun way to enjoy the last two weeks of July and help make it to October when Pittsburgh Opera starts up again.
Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s program of operas:
The Love of Danae (Richard Strauss) - July 12, 7:30pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium
The Enchanted Forest (Children’s opera by Anna Young) - July 13, 27; sensory friendly, July 20; all performances at 11 am at Winchester Thurston School, Hilda Willis Room
“Mister Rogers' Operas” - July 13, 20, 25, 7:30pm; July 14, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium
The Valkyrie (Richard Wagner)- July 19, 27 at 7:30pm; July 21, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium
Gianni Schicchi at Snuggery (Giacomo Puccini)- July 20 at 6:00 pm, picnic and performance at Snuggery Farm
Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl (Music That Matters Series) - July 24 at 7:30 pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium
“Scandals and Schicchi” - July 26, 7:30pm, July 28, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium
Concerts and events:
“Master Class Series”, July 13- Jane Eaglen; July 20- Danielle Pastin; July 27- Mark Trawka;all performances at 2:00pm at the Cabaret Lounge at Winchester Thurston School.
“Wagner and the Mastersingers”, Act I - July 14; Act II - July 18; all performances at 7:30pm at First Unitarian Church.
“Lenya in the Light: Daphne Sings Weill”: July 17, 7:30 at First Unitarian Church.
“Degenerate Art Concert” - July 23, 7:30pm. First Unitarian Church
Artwork for Love of Danae; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
I can’t resist commenting on just a few of the offerings. PFO has a long-standing commitment to producing works of the great composer Richard Strauss and Love of Danae (1944) sounds like a pleasing one for the human spirit. The librettist is Hugo von Hofsmannsthal who worked with Strauss on his more famous operas as well, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. The plot is a little complicated with the god Jupiter on the make again, this time for Danae, and he creates a Midas touch for his accomplice in wooing her. It backfires of course, and the god is taught a lesson by the humans. Strauss is said to have intended this to be a light, operetta-like creation, but grew more sympathetic to the Jupiter character in its development. Danae was composed during WWII and the war prevented its full performance during Strauss’ lifetime. It was finally presented at the Salzburg Festival in 1952. Though the opera is little performed, the music draws great praise. This one is sung in German with English suoertitles.
The Valkyrie, known in German as Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner’s series, The Ring of the Nibelung (Ring des Nibelungen), among the most famous and highly regarded operas in the repertoire. The first opera in the series, Rhinegold, was presented by PFO last year to very positive reviews. The story focuses on the Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s struggle with her father Wotan, the head of the gods. The Valkyries are maidens who speed through the sky to take fallen heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act III is one of the more famous and dramatic musical themes you are likely to hear; it was the theme used in the movie Apocalypse Now in the helicopter scene. PFO’s production will be sung in English with English supertitles and shortened from the four-hour original to two hous and 45 minutes. Though The Valkyrie is the most popular opera of the group, If it whets your appetite for Wagner, the entire 18 hours of the four Ring operas is well worth your time.
Artwork for Gianni Schicchi; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
Gianni Schicchi by composer Giacomo Puccini is one of the better opera comedies in the repertoire if well played. Family members are shocked when a relative leaves his entire fortune to the church. To acquire the inheritance instead of the church, they employ the low-bred lawyer Gianni Schicchi to come up with a plan. The plan works, but for whom? The opera includes one of the most popular arias of all time, “O mio babbino caro”; f you don’t know what the aria is about, you will likely be surprised to find out. PFO serves up Schicchi in a couple of different ways. One includes a play called “Scandal and Schicchi” performed prior to the opera itself. The play sets up a judgment of Puccini based on Dante’s response to the opera. Once you see Gianni Schicchi it all makes sense. If you prefer your Schicchi straight up, you can attend a performance at the Snuggery Farm instead and couple it with a gourmet picnic prior to the performance.
Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl by composer Guang Yang and librettist Paula Ciznet is the third in a series begun in 2015 called “Music That Matters”, new opera commissions that focus on contemporary issues. Owl presents views of three young girls longing for the educations out of reach for them. Last year’s A Gathering of Sons in this series won an international award for excellence in productions dealing with society and societal issues.
I want to make special mention of Anna Young’s children’s opera, “The Enchanted Forest” which adapts music from Bizet, Mozart, and Sullivan. I am impressed and pleased by the inclusion of a special sensory friendly performance for children who might be especially sensitive to light and sound. When my son was young, sounds my wife and I considered normal would cause him to put his fingers in his ears. PFO says this performance will “feature less stage lighting and lower sound levels. We invite families to bring familiar, comforting objects to the performance and to feel free to move around the theater as necessary.”
There are many other delightful offerings in the festival, including more operas, concerts, and even master classes with distinguished artists. The PFO website provides interesting and helpful information on each activity, easily accessed through the “What’s On” button at the top. There is little specific information on the website about performers, singers or orchestra; however, the roles will mainly be played by PFO Resident Artist Singers who are here for summer training. Based on reviews of last year’s performances, which can be found on this blog’s Seasonal Lists page in the 2017-2018 Season listing, one can feel comfortable that casting and orchestration will be well handled.
Artwork for “Mr. Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
Ahhh, you didn’t think I was going to end the report without saying anything about Mr. Rogers’ operas, did you? PFO will present two, Windstorm in Bubbleland and Spoon Mountain. For a discussion of the truly extraordinary life and contributions of Fred McFeely Rogers, I refer you to PFO’s web page about this program. While most famous for his gentle and engaging children’s program on public broadcasting, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” which ran nationally from 1968 until 2001, it is little known, I suspect, that he was the composer and lyricist of over 200 songs during his lifetime; he died in 2003 at the age of 74. PFO will present two short operas developed and written by Mr. Rogers and composed with his show’s musical director, Johnny Costa. Mr. Rogers had a friend in college, John Reardon, a baritone who later became a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera. The process Mr. Rogers used for developing his operas was to have Mr. Reardon show up on Monday and be directed by King Friday on the show to create an opera by Friday, and over the week, the characters would do so. Mr. Rogers told the kids that “An opera is just a story for which you sing the words instead of saying them.” Adults make it a little more complicated, and these performances will be sung by young opera artists, but Mr. Rogers’ operas are certainly accessible and fun, and those are principal themes of this entire festival. Check ‘em out.
The Fan Experience: Tickets range in price from $15 to $65 and are available online, by phone, or at the box office. My experience is that buying tickets at the box office can save you a few dollars in fees. A student discount of 20% is available. For questions, call the box office at 412-326-9687.
As I sat in the audience Friday night enjoying the excerpts of Giacomo Puccini’s great operas being performed by the graduates of the Maryland Lyric Opera’s Young Artist Institute, I felt like I was home playing selections from my favorite operas being sung by great artists I have grown to love. But this was live, and more than live, the talent and professional quality were there. With MDLO’s emerging artists and some with more established careers, I didn’t have to lower my expectations. All I had to do was to enjoy, and two hours flew by like it was twenty minutes.
Yongxi Chen as Rodolfo and Youna Hartgraves as Mimi. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..
MDLO gave us excerpts from La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and an orchestral “Intermezzo” from Manon Lescaut. The concert began very strong with the Act I scene from La Boheme where Mimi arrives and she and Rodolfo fall in love. Conductor Louis Salemno introduced each group of excerpts preparing the audience with background commentary. Yongxi Chen played Rodolfo and Youna Hartgraves sang the role of Mimi. They are excellent choices for these roles. Mr. Chen has that gorgeous, steely clear tenor voice that we all love, and Dr. Hartgraves possesses a voice with both a velvety timbre and impressive power. They were supported by the superb Maryland Lyric Opera Orchestra led by Maestro Salemno. Together, they filled the concert hall with beautiful sound and emotion, as Mr. Puccini intended. Stage lighting, including colorful projections on the screen behind the orchestra were handled by Lighting Designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe.
SeungHyeon Baek as Sharpless and Marco Cammarota as Pinkerton. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..
The next excerpts were the opening scene from Madama Butterfly, followed by the Act three scene where Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive early to give Suzuki the news before Cio-Cio San awakens. Tenor Marco Cammarota sang Pinkerton. He has a strong pedigree as a recent graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts and has a distinctive voice; there were a couple of spots where he was difficult to hear over the orchestra. He was also featured in the excerpt that closed Part I of the program singing “E lucevan le stelle” with feeling as Cavaradosi laments his fate. Veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin made a fine Suzuki. I had forgotten she was one of the Rhine maidens in the DC Ring that I enjoyed so much. Mauricio Miranda gave us a pleasing Goro with a bright tenor voice in his brief appearance that made me interested in hearing more. For me, the standout in this crew was SeungHyeon Baek who played Sharpless; he possesses a strong, clear baritone voice. His voice is also powerful, and he sings with an ease enabled by an impressive legato, though that ease sometimes leads him to momentarily lose the tension in the character he is portraying. I have been similarly impressed with his previous performances with Maryland Lyric Opera.
Conductor Louis Salemno leading the MDLO Orchestra. Photo by Sam Trotman, Jr.; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..
To begin Part 2 of the “Evening”, Conductor Salemno led the MDLO Orchestra in playing the beautiful “Intermezzo” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. I find it impressive that a small company can assemble a concert orchestra of this caliber and size. The rich sound from this 56-piece ensemble is very worthy of being enjoyed all on its own; I find the string section to be especially impressive. During the entire evening, Maestro Salemno was on point at leading the orchestra in supporting and not over powering the singers while at the same time providing a sound level sufficient to enjoy and be moved by Puccini’s music as well as the vocals; kudos also to Concertmaster José Miquel Cueto.
The final excerpt was again from La Boheme, from Act III, when Mimi seeks out Marcello for word about Rodolfo after they have separated. The lovely pairing of Hartgraves and Chen returned and was supplemented with Baek as Marcello and soprano Nayoung Ban as Musetta. I thought the ensemble section with all four singers in full voice was a highlight of the evening, and could, I suspect, have been heard in the stadium across the street. I add that I am also impressed that Ms. Hartgraves can provide such a strong portrayal of consumption with deep coughing and still manage to hit the high notes in the aria. This excerpt also included an amusing note at the beginning when Mimi wanders across the stage coughing and finding her way; as she passes Conductor Salemno, she sings to ask him the direction of the tavern, and he points the way to his right with gruff voice. These sort of unexpected moments that include the audience in the joke heighten interest and enjoyment.
Curtain call: l to r, SeungHyeon Baek, Yongxi Chen, Mauricio Miranda, Conductor Louis Salemno, Marco Cammarota, Catherine Martin, Nayoung Ban, and Youna Hartgraves. Photo by Dhanesh Mahtani; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera..
The first time I attended a Maryland Lyric Opera concert, it featured their young artists accompanied by only a piano, and I found it to be excellent Just a year or so later, they have added an impressive orchestra, led by a renown conductor, and have established a stable of former trainees to help stock their productions, which have very quickly expanded to include concert and fully-staged opera, as well as concerts and recitals. With the success of the Baltimore Concert Opera in Baltimore and the arrival of the fledgling Maryland Opera in Baltimore, opera appears to be a Phoenix rising in Maryland. Keep an eye on MDLO; if you are in suburban Maryland and want to have first-rate opera available locally, supporting Maryland Lyric Opera is an opportunity to be welcomed. I await their next season with anticipation.
The Fan Experience: The performance I saw was on Friday, 7:30 pm, June 7; a second performance was given on Sunday, 2 pm, June 9. The Kay Theater in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland is an excellent theater for opera viewing and hearing for fans. The small size may restrict what opera companies can do on stage, but the sound is great in every seat and so is the view. I sat in the middle of the orchestra seats for Part 1 and moved to the back of the balcony section for Part 2 as an experiment. There is some loss of stereophonic effect in the back of the balcony, but the volume is great and the view of the orchestra, on stage for this performance, was better. The lighting on the stage was very well handled; however, the size of the surtitles providing the English translations of the lyrics did not serve the audience well from the orchestra section or the balcony.
Views of the MDLO Orchestra from the orchestra section (left) and the Balcony (right). Photos by author.
One downside for the beautiful Kay Theatre is getting there anywhere near rush hour, especially if you have to deal with the Beltway. It took me one hour and ten minutes on Friday to make the commute from Tysons Corner, about twice the non-rush hour time. If possible, I would move weekday start times back to 8 pm. When you do attend a performance, check the parking description on the Kay Theatre website, plenty of free parking in lots 1B and Z after 4 pm on weekdays and on Saturdays and Sundays, except during some sporting and other events.
I have a suggestion for MDLO to consider. There are many parts of Puccini operas that would be enjoyable to hear in a concert of excerpts. Give the audience a chance to influence what will be presented. Let us vote ahead of time among possible selections. I have no complaints with the great excerpts selected, but it would be fun to vote and might generate even more interest.
Steven Blier has served as accompanist, arranger, and artistic director of song recitals at Wolf Trap for the past 25 years. On Saturday and Sunday, Wolf Trap Opera celebrated this record with an anniversary concert. Mr. Blier is also the Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song, a Juilliard faculty member, and a Grammy award winner who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including playing vocal recitals with Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Jessye Norman, and Samuel Ramey. For my wife, I will add that he is also an English Literature major who graduated summa cum laude from Yale.
As he walked us through the concert with background comments, he also displayed a keen sense of humor, remarking early on that he didn’t know how many songs he had programmed for Wolf Trap Opera over his 25 years, but it was somewhere around 713. Each song selected for the concert meant something special to him and had survived fierce late-night battles within his psyche to be included, hundreds of Sophie’s choices. He rode to the piano on an electric wheelchair and required assistance to be seated at the bench; he has FSH Muscular Dystrophy that limits his mobility, which he talked about. His fellow player and co-arranger for the concert was Joseph Li, pianist and vocal coach, who has worked with WTO for several summers himself. The piano duo were accompanied on percussion by Joe Connell; the stage direction was handled by Katherine Carter and the stage manager was Alycia Martin. Soloists were current WTO Filene Artists mezzo-soprano Lindsey Kate Brown, tenor Ian Koziara, baritone Johnathan McCullough, and soprano Alexandria Shiner; they were joined by former WTO artists, tenor Frederick Ballentine, bass Matt Boehler, soprano Amy Owens, and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen.
For the singers, it was not the typical recital arrangement of singer by the piano on the stage and sing your song. The Barns stage was not used. The center of the orchestra section on the floor of The Barns was cleared to create a performance area with seats in a U-shape around the performance area, which was capped by. two grand pianos sitting on the orchestra floor in front of the stage. There was frequent movement in the performance area as soloists sometimes joined in ensemble pieces and sometimes served as supernumeraries for each other; there was even some dancing. Hearing these singers live and that close is an experience, a thrilling experience. It was also fun to hear them sing songs in genres outside of opera and their comfort zones.
What do you like: opera arias, art songs, jazz pieces, show tunes, songs for drag queens? Mr. Blier’s concert had them all, nineteen by my count, in a program that reflected the eclecticism of his career, which he claimed had been more of a problem for him than being gay, a timely reflection given that it is Gay Pride Month. For Mr. Blier, any combination of music and poetry has a chance with him, and certainly those he chose for Sunday’s performance worked for his audience. My wife had accompanied me to the concert willingly, but for my sake, I think. I enjoyed seeing her come alive and say as she left that it was a great concert; I even heard her cheering the performers a few times as they were getting applause.
I will single out only a few, but I enjoyed all of the numbers, even the lieder, “Ich sehe wie in einem Spiegel (I see myself as if in a mirror)” by Richard Strauss, sung by Alexandria Shiner, maybe because it was sung by Ms. Shiner, who has the lead soprano role in WTO’s upcoming Ariadne auf Naxos. Most of the numbers were prefaced with comments from Mr. Blier on their back story and their meaning for him. I found out that Mr. Blier and I share a lack of passion for lieder; he humorously claimed he had been scarred by a lieder when he was still pursuing a singing career, but still admires their beauty and importance. Lindsay Kate Brown sang the emotionally packed “Farruca” by Joaquín Turina, which includes a lover’s cry, “when I gaze into the mirror/ Instead of seeing myself I see you!” Basses are usually the heavies in opera, so it was immensely fun to hear Matt Boehler sing “Bruce” by John Wallowitch, an ode to a cross dresser’s bad taste. Annie Rosen showed a different side of herself, a cabaret flair, singing “Le Soleil et la lune (The Sun and the Moon)”. As a preface to Amy Owen’s first number, Mr. Blier stated his love for showy coloratura arias, but it was her second act performance of Enrique Granados’ “Elegia eterna” that most adoringly showed the beauty of her voice. Ian Koziara sang the ballad “The Rose Song” by Marc Blitzstein in a casual Sinatra style. The showstopper of the afternoon might have been Frederick Ballentine singing Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” in five-inch heels.
A couple of the ensemble pieces deserve highlighting. Johnathan McCullough with Lindsay Kate Brown, Ian Koziara, and Matt Boehler sang a funny and poignant doo wop piece called “Through the Wall” by Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene, charting a young man’s love affair with a neighbor that he lacks the courage to meet. The entire cast participated in closing numbers for each act. To end Act 1, the troupe gave a boisterous rendition of a scene from Arizona Lady by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán, played as it might have been if the American west had been populated by Germans imitating American settlers; it was a hoot! All numbers were accompanied beautifully by Messrs. Blier, Li, and Connell.
Mr. Blier and Mr. Li also played piano numbers together to begin each act. As I listened to them play Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y misterio” to open Act 2, I realized our current repertoire of good music is based on a body of thought, not just a body of work. The melodies of this jazzy, freewheeling fugue were interwoven to the delight of the audience. That work involved more than musical talent; it required intellectual analysis, and not just by the composer, but also by the people before him who worked out music theory and its applications to various genres. To the musicians who read this comment and think, “Duh”, bear with me. Music fans, like myself, think of scientists and philosophers as geniuses because of their depth of thought, not just their experimental and compositional talents. I suspect many fans, like I have at times, think of musicians as talented people who can come up with a song out of thin air and write it down using their special language, and that may happen in some cases, but even then there is arranging and when to present. I doubt musicians get the respect they deserve for the intellectual side of what they do because the effect of what they do involves mainly a feeling response. Music also involves a body of thought, and Mr. Blier told us throughout the concert of the tremendous thought that went into selecting the songs and arranging this anniversary concert, all to our benefit.
Mr. Blier chose to make the concert’s encore a personal moment and play a piece meaningful to and representative of him. He said it was a difficult choice because he does not favor performing alone, but I doubt anyone disagreed that it was both befitting and a touching way to end this wonderful concert. The Rob Schwimmer piece he selected is titled “Holding You in My Arms”. Mr. Blier may have difficulty rising to hug you with his arms, but he has the power to embrace you with his music.
The Fan Experience: Going to The Barns to see performances is such a pleasure - easy in, easy out, food and drink available, ok to carry drinks to your seat without the special cup, casual attire, a cozy, intimate setting. It helps make attending WTO performances a fun experience.
I like to point out on occasion that you can save significant dollars on fees by purchasing tickets at the box office instead of online; true for most venues.
I am impressed by WTO’s willingness to limit the size of their audience in order to achieve the staging used; this included blocking off the balcony. I also like that the lyrics for each song, with English translations as needed, were included in the concert program; it was too dark to read them during the performances, perhaps on purpose, but I can now read and reflect upon them. Finally, I note that it was a special treat to get to hear the previous Filene Artists once more. I encourage WTO to do more of that.
Remember Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” and its oft repeated comedic line, “Here comes the judge!”, made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr.; great fun, right? Like trips to the pool and backyard barbecues, Wolf Trap Opera’s summer season rolls around every June lasting to August. While the large opera houses are in between seasons, WTO is making a splash and cooking up a storm. It’s more like a festival really, than a season, and my oft repeated line is that “Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun!”. The WTO Filene Artists, a competitive selection of emerging artists from around the country, are readying their roles and will be supported by a team of young Studio Artists; these folks are all here for the summer to get as much performance experience and opera learnin’ as they can. It is a chance for us to hear some of the best new talent in the US bring their energy and enthusiasm and fresh voices to the air-conditioned Barns and the open-air Filene Center. For the best seats get your tickets now (Special warning: only a few seats remain for “Aria Jukebox” on July 28 (see below), my favorite Wolf Trap fun event of each year).
June 22, 26, 28, 30 – Merlin’s Island by Gluck/The Emperor of Atlantis by Ullman
June 22 – L’heure Espagnole by Ravel
July 19, 21, 24, 27 – Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss
August 9 – The Barber of Seville by Rossini
Opera events: June 1, 2, “Steven Blier: 25th Anniversary Concert”; June 1, “Porgy and Bess: A Concert of Songs”; June 13 and July 11, “Vocal Colors”; July 23, “Master Class with Lawrence Brownlee”; July 28, “Aria Jukebox”; Aug 1, 2, “Studio Spotlight”.
Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis - ever heard of them? Me neither, I regret to say,…but hold on. Both of these are fantasies, one light, one dark. One of the things I love about Wolf Trap Opera and other smaller companies is that they can take chances on pulling forward lesser known, sometimes shorter works, for production, and this team is expert at finding the gems among the lesser known works. It is also worth noting that WTO selects its operas to match the singers who have come to Wolf Trap for three months of intensive training. And of course, we get to hear something new and different. After reading the story lines, I’m thinking these two are not to be missed.
So, what are these two smaller pieces all about? WTO bills them as “The World Turned Upside Down”. In some sources, the name of Gluck’s opera is listed as Merlin’s Island, or The World Turned Upside Down (1758). Speaking of Gluck, Mr. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) that is, started a movement in opera to focus the music in operas on serving the poetry and not the singer’s vanity. Best known perhaps for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), his influence was so great he is considered a father figure for Mozart. The librettist for Merlin is Louis Anseaume, and the poetry in Merlin is satirical and amusing. Two guys land on an island of plenty with all the food, drink, and young ladies they might want. Further, the girls are rich and have to marry poor men, and they are always faithful. Even more further, fighting is forbidden, and the lawyers are all honest. See, the world is turned upside down. If the music must serve the poetry for Gluck, it will be light hearted and enjoyable.
We cannot expect the same for Ullmann’s Emperor where a much darker world is turned upside down, though it includes a love story and some humor. The opera’s full name is The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal to Die (1975). The opera was written in 1943 when composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien were held in the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, but the German authorities would not allow the work to be performed, viewing it as anti-Hitler. The underlying story line is that Death in a feud with the Kaiser of Atlantis goes on strike. As you can imagine, things do not go well, the Kaiser’s authority is undermined, and Death has a stringent demand for returning to work. Important philosophical questions are posed. Both Ullmann and Kien were later transferred to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers there. Since its (re)discovery and later premiere in 1975, the opera has drawn praise for both its poetry and its music and has regularly been performed worldwide. There are 20 musical sections that mix genres somewhat and 14 instruments, including a banjo, that may represent what was available in the ghetto.
Now with composer Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), we are back on familiar ground with one of his most popular operas, although this will be a new production. This is one of seven operas Strauss composed with librettist Hugo von Hofmannthal, including his famous Elekra and Der Rosenkavalier. Ariadne is a comedic opera within an opera: a wealthy employer requires two companies to perform at the same time in his home so that the evening’s fireworks can begin on time; one companies is to perform an opera seria and another a commedia dell’arte play. We can expect there will be fireworks before the fireworks. The role of Ariadne is coveted by many sopranos, and the music is beautiful Strauss music. I note that soprano Alexandria Shiner will sing in the role of Ariadne; if you heard her perform recently with The Chorale Society of Washington, you would not want to miss this performance.
Each year WTO performs one of the more popular operas in its Filene Center which pulls in an audience that might not be opera regulars, including a much younger crowd; maybe a few will be recruited over to our side. This year it will be Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; I think at any given time day or night this opera is playing somewhere in the world, and when you attend you will see and hear why. Barber is a light-hearted comedy of love and deception, another comedic work based on commedia dell’arte. Figaro, a barber/fixer undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself. Bartolo is assisted by the music teacher Don Basilio. Disguises and plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo. You might remember that in Marraige of Figaro, the Count and Figaro meet again with the Count chasing Figaro’s fiance. Barber has tunes you will go home singing. For opera nerds, the Filene Center is not the ideal venue for opera. Because of its size and open-air construction, the singers have to be miked, a no-no for the opera purist, but the performances I have attended have sounded good and WTO has provided some spectacular sets and costumes, plus you get that great, young talent bringing it.
It might appear there are conflicts in the schedule. Last year Wolf Trap Opera started a program called “Untrapped”, a play on words to cover events where WTO singers are performing at other venues. Active collaborations have developed between WTO and the National Orchestral Institute, part of the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland, and The Philips Collection in DC. On June 1, WTO and NOI will present Porgy and Bess: A Concert of Songs at the Clarice Center, and on June 22, WTO and NOI will present a semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole at the Clarice Center, along with other program offerings. These performances overlap with WTO performances at The Barns, but The Barns performances have alternate dates as well; so you can see both if you wish. On June 11 and July 13, you can attend a popular program, Visual Colors, pairing visual art and music by WTO at The Philips Collection.
Among the many excellent opera events the WTO performers are doing this summer is one I will point out as my favorite, “Aria Jukebox” on July 28. Essentially all the Filene Artists perform an aria for this event, and the audience gets to pick which one. A party before the performances let’s attendees mingle with the singers and vote for which of several arias a singer has prepared will be performed. Wow. Act now; the last time I checked, there were very few seats remaining. WTO should consider doing this event twice during the summer!
As always, the most compelling reason to attend WTO performances is the opportunity to hear the power house emerging talent that has successfully competed to spend a summer at Wolf Trap. Former Wolf Trap Opera Filene Artists include Christine Goerke and Lawrence Brownlee, two regulars at the Met Opera. See the next generation of Met stars now (and at bargain prices!).
Wolf Trap Opera’s new season – here comes the fun! You be the judge.
The Fan Experience: Wolf Trap has a program I am excited about called Young at Arts. For selected performances this summer, including WTO’s three fully-staged productions, adults who purchase a ticket can receive a youth ticket for free that allows them to bring someone with them who is 17 or under. What a great way to introduce your youngsters and teens to concerts, especially opera.
The Barns deserves mention for its atmosphere and accessibility. Indeed, I find it to be a significant factor in WTO’s making opera fun. Opera in The Barns has a dinner theater vibe; there is good food and drinks available in a separate room and you can take your drinks to your seat in the auditorium, which is indeed rustic and barn-like on the inside. You won’t find many suits and ties in The Barns, but you will find an enthusiastic crowd ready to enjoy an evening’s entertainment. It’s relatively small and cozy, putting the audience and singers in close proximity, a great way to experience opera singing. Another great thing about The Barns is the easy in/easy out (free) parking. Going to the opera could hardly be less stressful.
I have been seriously into opera for about eight years now, and I have been writing this blog for four. Those are the only credentials I can put forward in making these suggestions – I am led by a strong love of the genre. I also have an innately curious mind and an inquisitive nature. Even as an opera outsider looking in, I wonder about opera almost as much as I enjoy it. What makes it tick? Why is this done and not that? Endlessly. So, let’s get on with it.
One of the first observations I made when I started following opera is that opera professionals have a mostly pessimistic outlook about the survival of opera. There was and is very little solid data available that I could find, but a general fear pervades the community that the public doesn’t want opera anymore. Over several years, I have come to wonder why. Sometimes attendance is disappointing, and companies sometimes fail, but there is also lots of creative activity occurring; premieres of new operas and start-ups of niche, small companies seem to be happening with regularity, and innovations popping up every now and then, such as Opera Philadelphia’s season-opening month-long festival and Wolf Trap Opera’s outside the barns performances. For the field at large, I personally feel very optimistic about the future of opera.
I do think opera attendance suffers from competition from the greatly expanded, good-quality entertainment options available now, especially via streaming; this is also true for movies and sports as well as classical music options. The competition for time and entertainment dollars is massive in the US. There is also a clear demographic issue. When I look around the audience at any opera, I see a preponderance of attendees having the same hair color as mine, gray. I wonder why but will save those thoughts for a different report. I will point out that every year Wolf Trap Opera offers one of the more popular operas in its open-air Filene Center where picnic grounds and lawn seats, casual dress, cheaper tickets, and free parking abound. It always draws a much younger crowd than typically seen in the opera houses. I think the wrappings and logistics of attending opera matter even more to the younger crowd. Opera companies are working hard to attract that younger, more diversified audience. I hope they are successful. But even if they are not successful, the US population is getting older, which augurs well for opera (tongue in cheek).
Here is my first why not? Opera companies should advertise each other’s performances.
Why aren’t opera companies more supportive of each other? Contrast that with the way opera performers are supportive of each other – just take a look at tweets of opera companies versus opera performers. Washington Concert Opera and Opera Lafayette have recently recommended each other’s performances. Opera Philadelphia seems to have a special relationship with the Curtis Institute, as does Baltimore Concert Opera with Opera Delaware, but that is about all that I see in the mid-Atlantic in the way of opera companies advertising each other’s offerings. I guess opera suffers the same downside of free market capitalism as medicine and news media. High-minded goals, and the need to earn a living conflict in the real world. The good of the provider influences what is recommended to the patient. Opera companies feel they must focus on the good of their own company with some attention to the good of opera, but not directly to the good of other opera companies. They approach opera fan recruitment as a zero-sum game. An opposing view is that a rising tide lifts all boats.
It seems to me that it would cost opera companies very little to include in their mailings, or give mention on their website, a plug for a performance of another company, especially a non-conflicting performance. For example, would it harm Washington National Opera to advertise Wolf Trap Opera’s summer season or advertise the Annapolis Opera’s annual vocal competition? Here is where I, as an opera fan and the companies, as entrepreneurial entities, disagree. I don’t think it would hurt their attendance to advertise other opera companies’ performances in low cost ways, and it would grow the audience for opera overall. Interest generates interest. Opera needs to make the effort to increase interest in opera for all opportunities. I think it will increase the attendance overall for opera, which will feedback to benefit supportive companies.
Here is my second why not, clearly related to the first? The Metropolitan Opera Company should accept responsibility for being the leader of opera in the US.
Why doesn’t the Metropolitan Opera accept its role as the lead opera company in America? De facto, they are. They should be the leader in setting standards for equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment free workplaces,… and assume some responsibility for the well-being of other opera companies? How you say? Met Opera has clearly invaded the territory of local opera companies with its Met HD In Cinemas broadcasts, ten live broadcasts during their season with encores presented in the summer. They offer local companies nothing as compensation for this. The Met presented some early data suggesting attendance at local opera was not affected by the broadcasts. I am skeptical. These broadcasts are very popular in DC and are an easy way to enjoy opera without having to make the trek to the Kennedy Center or other downtown locations, not as good as live, but a palatable substitute for many. Have you seen what happens to small town businesses when Walmart moves in? Suppose the Met tried being supportive of local companies. Perhaps they could offer a discount to their In Cinema broadcasts to those who hold season tickets to local opera companies. At least they could advertise local opera company showings on the movie screens prior to their broadcasts. They could even make a stronger effort where it is needed. Suppose they scheduled a performance at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore to help generate interest there in opera and thereby improve the chances of a staged opera company being successful there. Perhaps, Opera America could set up a committee to work with the Met to find ways to help other companies be successful. I think such efforts would feedback positively on the Met.
Here is my third why not? Opera critics should also accept responsibility for growing the enterprise.
I am reluctant criticize any journalist given the pressure that newspapers are under these days, and critics’ plates are already overflowing, but this suggestion is in their best interest; their success is linked to opera’s. I don’t mean they should stop being critical in their reviews or become advertising arms for opera companies, nor start dumbing it down, but I think they should give a greater priority to generating interest in the genre at large. One recent attempt along these lines is Anne Midgette’s articles on how musicians approach a piece of music. Anything that stimulates curiosity adds interest, which helps and education works. When I heard that NSO will play all nine Beethoven symphonies next spring, I thought that’s nice for Beethoven aficionados. Then I heard conductor Gianandrea Noseda talk about how one Beethoven symphony leads to the other and the impact on the field of music these works have had, and my thinking changed to I might just attend these. Opera critics need to find and write about interest hooks that might bring people in. Publish some must see lists. Hold a live online discussion with attendees of a performance before posting the review. List some good sources for opera news, entertainment, and reference materials? Which music streaming service is best for opera? Criticize Apple Music’s opera offerings (somebody needs to)? Who does the critic most often read other than themselves and journalists on the same paper? Who are the favorite critics of a critic? Best reference sources? Have an online debate among critics from different news sources over an opera production – remember Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs up or down? Have Midgette, Dobrin, and Tommasini go toe to toe on a Met performance. It takes a lot to get folks off the sofa and into the opera house. One thing is not going to be the cure. It will require everything.
Here is my fourth why not? Try some way-out ideas; add an element of fun.
It’s time for opera to back away from its deification just a bit…cue Bugs Bunny. Going to opera now is just like going to church – dress up, sit still, and be quiet, even reverent. How can some fun be interjected every now and then? Pittsburgh Opera’s recent Don Pasquale asked for an audience response when the scene called for an encore and the place erupted; I think there was a message there. Opera Philadelphia’s beginning its seasons with a festival might have been thought of as far out. Pittsburgh Opera in the Fall will start offering online content during performances for audience members to access via their cell phones, with a view to appealing to younger fans; that’s at least a willingness to take a risk (I plan to attend their first performance in the Fall to check this out). Opera has a great product, but you have to get people into the opera house. People want great arts experiences, but they also want fun and feeling involved and connected to the proceedings. Opera folks like to say opera is for everybody, but it still has for most people the aura of elitism – the rich who want to be seen and the intellectuals who want to feel superior attend opera. I was surprised when I started pursuing my interest in opera at the hostility I found in some people’s reactions to my new interest; it was like I had joined the snob demographic. And frankly, opera needs to offer something new to generate some added excitement, and if it is fun, all the better. Opera companies aren’t just selling opera; they are selling an opera experience (Baltimore Concert Opera’s Thirsty Thursdays are a hit). Here are some crazy ideas for fun:
·Have local celebs and high-profile individuals from different walks of life open performances with five minutes speaking on their top opera experiences. Start with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and have one by Big Bird and one by a sports figure and a rock star.
Have the opera director come out and spend five minutes explaining her vision for the opera, or the conductor give us five minutes on musical features to be look for. I was impressed at a recent performance of The Choral Arts Society of Washington that the artistic director spoke in detail about the performance at the beginning.
Offer one performance of American Opera Initiative premieres at each of the Wolf Trap Barns and Strathmore venues in addition to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater – engage a more diverse audience; the venues are close to each other, and the operas have light staging to move around.
My favorite – have pizza and beer Tuesdays with casual dress for a couple of the performances each year and make the intermissions long enough to consume the pizza. Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona does this with Iberian ham and cheese subs at their performances.
Hold some chamber opera performances in the round.
Have dress-up Saturdays where, during intermissions, a spot light and camera will show best dressed couples on a screen. Maybe pick a winner and invite them backstage.
Experiment with opera two-packs where a single ticket gets you into a concert performance of an opera by young artists and then into the fully-stage version with established stars, or lead off a production run with such a concert performance.
In a season of opera performances, for one of the well-known operas, give one performance with a surprise ending (i.e., we find out Mimi is pregnant and dies in childbirth as Musetta vows to raise her child)
Have characters from the opera appear on stage during intermissions, and in character, defend their actions.
Find a company that will sponsor a free glass-of-champagne-night.
Draw seat numbers for prizes, like Francesca Zambello’s least favorite earrings.
Borrow from baseball – have bobbleheads and t-shirt giveaway nights. Make Ruth Bader Ginsburg the first bobblehead. I want the Renee Fleming bobblehead.
Sponsor vocal competitions and show the judges final scores like they do in Olympic competitions. Give me some opera judges to boo.
Opera companies should do online surveys of attendees immediately after reviews are out to see if patrons agree with specific points in the professional reviews or to rate the reviews and reviewers, maybe offer rebuttals themselves. Risky? Perhaps, but people will appreciate the risk taking.
Send buses to major shopping centers offering round trip transportation to downtown opera houses (especially from Tyson’s Corner for me). Have an attendant teach the riders a chorus from the opera on the way.
Have opera stars do autograph signings of programs and tickets for a few minutes before or after performances.
Sell reusable sippy cups with bugs bunny on them at cost in the gift shop that can be used at concession stands to hold drinks that can be taken into the theater.
Offer signed opera star photos to the people who buy the cheapest seats in the house, meant as an inducement to show folks that even the worst seats at live opera are good enough.
Elect a president just on the basis of whether they like opera. Again, I offer Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Here is my fifth why not? Somebody, please start a cable opera channel.
Opera fans need an opera channel like MTV for pop music, with opera news, quizzes, interviews, educational materials, and films (This is what Met Opera should have done).
Simply, the family of opera needs to work together to support each other and look for ways to heighten interest for all opera. I’m not suggesting that opera abandoned its refinement, nor lower its standards. And, it’s ok if all you want to see is classic operas done as they were intended to be by quality performers, and if a company wants to be that company they should and should announce it. But maybe add a new wrinkle every now and then - look what Opera Lafayette did recently: they collaborated on La Susanna with Heartbeat Opera. A company highly focused on authentic 18th century opera collaborated with a company with a mission to alter performances to make them more relevant to modern audiences. It generated interest. Some new things, helping audiences feel connected to the event and to the opera tribe, loosening up a bit by adding some fun, and make it more comfortable. I think audiences respond to that. Maybe such gateway experiences will bring more folks into the totally serious, strait-laced, attempts-at-the-highest-art performances which we all love.