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The cast of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, opening Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

A new musical with a very wordy title opened in St. Paul last night. The show? The Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant by Keith Hovis. The verdict? Jefferson Township is one of the most striking, funny, and original full-length musicals to open in the Twin Cities in recent years.

You might think from the title that this is a show about pre-teens and their parents behaving badly in a child pageant. No, it’s not, but you’re only 20 or so years off the mark. This show’s about 30-year-old-ish former child pageant contestants behaving badly. A small town in the Midwest perks up when a crazy decision sets one-time rivals at each others’ throats, recreating the competition of their youth – complete with, in some instances, the original child-sized costumes. (This is a small example of the show’s abundant visual humor.)

Dance-off! L-R: Kelly Houlehan (as Frannie Foster Wallace), Ryan London Levin (as Liam Ackermann), and Leslie Vincent (Valerie Hutchinson, the titular pageant’s 1996 Queen). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township began its life at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and was subsequently picked up by Park Square Theatre for its current season. The 60-minute version won a Critic’s Pick award from the Arts Reader; many rewrites and development session later, its full-length version clocks in at 2 hours, 30 minutes, counting the 20-minute intermission. The result flies by, with an inventive score, catchy songs, and hilarious lyrics; the script – like the music and lyrics, also by Hovis – is filled with memorable one-liners and a few carefully timed poignant remarks.

Park Square’s production reunites the original cast of Kelly Houlehan as Frannie Foster Wallace, Ryan London Levin as Liam Ackermann, Zach Garcia as Travis Hernandez, and Leslie Vincent as Val Hutchinson. As a sample of the setup, Val has enjoyed a two-decade reign as pageant queen, ever since a tragic accident two decades prior literally cut short both the pageant and a contestant. The cast is in fine form, with brilliant chemistry and tension crackling between them. Director Laura Leffler and choreographer Antonia Perez make a fine use of the Andy Boss Thrust Stage, with the action spilling into different corners of the theatre without compromising sightlines. A 3-piece backing ensemble led by Brian Pekol knits together into a tight sound.

Travis Hernandez (Zach Garcia) meets with Valerie Hutchinson (Leslie Vincent)’s shrine to victory. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

The score of the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant is one of its standout features. The songs are distinctive and fun, written in a wide variety of styles (try to guess which song will be a rap); some of the many gems include “Sparkling Junior Champion”, the inventively staged “Psychological Warfare”, and “Dear, Dead Grandma”. A number of songs skewer the small-town quirks of the show’s Jefferson Township namesake, but the small town gets its day.

Identifying the target audience of a show is often a critic’s hardest task. Anyone in their 20s or 30s who has experienced some career or lifegoal disaffection will find Jefferson Township especially funny, as will anyone who’s ever made tradeoffs between big city and small town life. The packed opening night house skewed from 20s to 80s and ate the show up.

Moving back into your parents’ house at 30 comes with a few drawbacks. But the old-fashioned corded phones make up for it, right? L-R: Frannie (Kelly Houlehan) and Val (Leslie Vincent). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant plays through July 28 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

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Schoolboys in Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

It’s surprising how well Spring Awakening has aged. For a show based on an 1891 stage drama by Frank Widekind, the musical’s indictment of harmful education systems and nonexistent sex ed play very well in today’s America. Willful ignorance may not entirely win out, but it certainly leaves a lot of damage in its wake in the current production by Chameleon Theatre Circle.

Chameleon’s show takes place at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, a superior acoustic space to the old Ames Center blackbox where the company previously was in residence. Some of the production virtues include intimate proximity, the cast members playing instruments, and some standout performances in the ensemble. Some of its distracting elements include overamplification and a lighting design that doesn’t seem to have accounted for pit lights, many of which illuminated the stage clearly during blackouts.

Grant Ruckheim and Cris Sanchez Carrera as the lovers Hanschen and Ernst – ironically one of the few couples to survive the tragic events of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

The events of Spring Awakening are set in an indeterminate corner of Germany where perhaps high school-aged schoolboys practice rote memorization and recitation. Capricious teachers and poorly engaged parents railroad the young men and women into scenarios where suicide, unplanned pregnancy, and worse arise to a killer rock musical score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

Chameleon’s production is directed by Jay Gilman (of the Minnesota Fringe Festival) and choreographed by Jackie O’Neill, with music direction by Dale Miller. It’s quite loud in volume terms; given the actors’ proximity to the audience, it probably would have faired better as an unamplified acoustic show. Many of the subtleties you’d expect to enjoy in Gremlin’s space get covered up in a cloud of amplified noise. Still, there’s something powerful about the mix of brutal and touching intimacies, especially in scenes like the intoxicating exchange between Hanschen (Grant Ruckheim) and Ernst (Cris Sanchez Carerra). Distinguished performances include Benjamin Rubenstein as Melchior, Lydia Wagner as Wendla, and Suzie Juul as Ilse. (One of Wendla’s scenes has Wagner accompanying herself on the piano, to excellent effect.)

Lydia Wagner as Wendla in Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

Spring Awakening enjoys a strong cult following and Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production shows some of the reasons why. Those stand lights shining onto the stage and into the audience have got to go, though.

Spring Awakening plays through June 30 at Gremlin Theatre in Saint Paul, MN.

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Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, and Jorrel Javier in the national tour of The Lightning Thief. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There might be a good children’s show lurking inside The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. If there is, however, it’s buried pretty deep. The show’s great moment of wonder is when you start pondering just how this turkey got on the road.

Some musicals unfold too quickly, racing to the dénounement with barely a moment for scenes to breathe. This version of The Lightning Thief has the opposite problem: the show is too long and too large. Most of the songs are extremely forgettable, filled with banal lyrics; the tepid applause from the opening night audience seemed mostly directed at well-remembered moments from the source book by Rick Riordan. At the end of the day, a few talented performances and a couple standout songs don’t redeem this awkwardly exploded show.

The company of The Lighting Thief ends up in Hades. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It’s always important to keep audience and the intimacy of a venue in mind. The Lightning Thief musical was originally written as a 1-hour show, which shows – you could cut half of Act I with no problem, while Act II has a much clearer polish to it. The choreography also seems designed for a radically more intimate venue – again, no surprise considering that the full-length show debuted at the 299-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre. Cut away some of that excess put the audience up-close-and-personal, and the show probably would feel much better than it does.

Rick Riordan’s bestselling Percy Jackson novels were often hyped as the next Harry Potter-type series, which led to some aping in the screen and stage adaptations of The Lightning Thief. This wasn’t helpful; this show is best when it revels in the weird and bizarre, like the use of toilet paper cannons to represent ocean waters (again, something that has a whole different feel in a smaller venue). The best fight scene is actually the opening harpy attack, where a combination of puppetry and lighting really bring out the menace.

Don’t you just hate it when you get attacked by harpies on the bus? Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Unlike some other properties, The Lightning Thief doesn’t seem designed to try and entice new viewers. Its primary audience seems to be younger fans of Riordan’s young adult novels, for whom the paint-by-numbers walkthrough of the novel’s plot points is a welcome review of a bedtime story. Some of its better points for neophytes include Ryan Knowles’ lyric baritone and prancing as the centaur Chiron, the songs “Oracle” and “Killer Quest”, and Jorrel Javier’s moving performance in “The Tree on the Hill” – a genuinely sad, touching, even tearjerking number in the middle of Act II. It’s not that there aren’t some good moments and ideas in this show, but you have to wade through a great deal of filler to get there.

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical plays through June 22 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

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Following last night’s publication of an investigative feature on Stephen Lord, the American conductor has resigned from his positions at Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Statements from both organizations follow.

MOT’s complete statement reads:

Michigan Opera Theatre announced today that its Principal Conductor Stephen Lord has resigned from the company, effective immediately. MOT accepted the resignation following public allegations of Lord’s past behavior, which do not align with the Company’s values and standards.

“Stephen has had a long and successful relationship with Michigan Opera Theatre, and we appreciate his artistic leadership, especially in his last three years as Principal Conductor,” said MOT President and CEO Wayne S. Brown.

MOT’s 2019-20 season begins in Oct. 12 at the Detroit Opera House.

OTSL’s complete statement reads:

We are shocked to learn of the serious allegations made against Stephen Lord in an online publication on June 18th. There is no place for harassment of any kind at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and we have strict policies in place for dealing with such matters.

We have not received any complaints or reports of harassment against this company member at our organization, but we take any allegation of possible misconduct extremely seriously. Given the serious nature of these allegations, we will be conducting a full and thorough independent investigation into this matter. 

Effective June 18th, Mr. Lord tendered his resignation, which has been accepted by Opera Theatre.

Andrew Jorgensen
General Director
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Stephen Lord was accused of sexual harassment and other misbehavior.

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The cast of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, opening Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

This Friday, a show with a surprisingly long title opens at Park Square Theatre: the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant musical. This roaring comedy – a story of 30-something adults revisiting the hyper-competitive junior talent competition of their youth – was a hit at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival. For this featured run, show creator Keith Hovis has expanded the script and score for into a full-length evening.

Show creator? Yes, Keith Hovis does it all when it comes to writing: he’s the show’s playwright, composer, and lyricist. Keith spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about bringing the show into the world and dolling it up for its debut on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

Composer-librettist Keith Hovis.

How did you first get the kernel of an idea that grew into the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant musical?

I had hit my thirties and was going through some changes both professionally and personally. I looked around and saw that I had a number of friends who were going through the exact same process. This reflection that comes with age. It’s not that I was scared of getting older – in fact, I’m relishing my thirties – but it was more a moment of, “Where did I think I was going to be by now, and am I happy with the direction life took?”

I think everyone at some point in their life feels lost, and this show grew out of that. What happens when life shifts and you have to find a new path? How do you deal with failure, and what does failing even mean? And at the end of the day, who are the people you choose to surround yourself with?

I began thinking about those first moments of “failure” in my life: times that I had built up in my mind, but upon reflection were so inconsequential. We still keep going back to those moments in our minds. And with that, the pageant was born.

Also, I grew up in a small town – Princeton, MN – so part of this was me writing a satirical love letter to the place that shaped me, challenged me, and ultimately set me on a path to being who I am.

At what point did you decide to commit to performing this specific show at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival?

At first, when I had the idea, I wasn’t sure if I should do it for fringe. When I applied to the fringe, I had originally gotten my cast to sign on by pitching them a comedic horror musical about cannibals and a summer camp. They were all very excited, so when I went back and said, “Hey, I might do a show about adults staging a rematch of a child’s talent pageant,” the initial reactions were essentially “Okay…” – but they trusted me. I gave myself a little time to work on both shows to see which one started flowing first, and Jefferson won. And then once I got into the fringe festival, I wrote down the title and decided to go for it. They still ask me when the cannibal musical will happen. Ha.

So, we should not look forward to a cannibal music in a future season? It seems to have worked out for Trey Parker and Matt Stone…

Yeah, I had/have some wild ideas for it, so it is still on my list of potential project ideas. We’ll see how inspiration strikes. (Hah.)

What are some of the ways that this show has evolved from its Fringe run to the show opening at Park Square?

In developing the show, I am not exaggerating when I say that I have written at least four distinctly different versions. We took it in so many directions, only to ultimately end up with a structure similar to the original, but expanded with more songs, fleshed out characters, deeper histories and motivations, more pageant, etc…

I think you have time now to further care about the characters. Invest in their journey. At the fringe, the audience is willing to take wild leaps of logic with you in order to finish the show in 55 minutes. In a full-length musical, you have to fill in those gaps. There was a lot of great material in those other versions of the show, but at the end of the day, we had to ask ourselves, “What is the central story and do those conversations/plot points fit?” Or, “Is that a whole different show we should write at a future date?”

We had time to explore those possibilities, which is cool.

Travis Hernandez (Zach Garcia) meets with Valerie Hutchinson (Leslie Vincent) underneath her shrine to victory in Park Square’s full-length premiere of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Musical theatre titles are usually fairly short – Parade, Show Boat, Love Never Dies, etc., etc. This show is the opposite, at 15 syllables. How did you arrive at the title?

Titles are hard. (Hah.)

I wanted the title to evoke the absurd spirit of the show…I thought Jefferson Township was too vague and Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant was too generic. Together, however, it was funny to me and seemed right.

At one point, I dropped Sparkling, but there’s so much subtext in that word. We’re born with so much promise, and when and how does it start to dim? And why do we let it dim due to ridiculous expectations placed on us by ourselves and others?

Also, when you’re on a Fringe website with 120+ other shows, you need to stand out in some way. A title and image that makes people stop. With this title, and the image of four adults, you immediately got so much information.

You’ve written the lyrics, book, and music for this show. Is this your normal modus operandi?

It is. Honestly, my mind has a hard time wrapping around those people who can write lyrics and not know how it sounds. I, personally, cannot write a lyric without hearing how it should sound.

My writing is all about syncopation and finding the right flow of the words to create a rhythm that adds to the music/melody…although, I do break a lot of songwriting rules lyrically in this show. (Don’t tell Ben Krywosz at Nautilus Music-Theater – I did their composer-librettist studio.) But those decisions of when to break rules were deliberate.

In terms of also writing the book, I think it helps provide a consistent tone throughout. It would be great to find a book writer who I mesh with and who has the exact same style and understands me, but too many musicals with incredible scores are absolutely derailed by a book that isn’t serving the show well. A great musical pays attention to all of those elements in equal measure. Look at Gypsy – now that is a show where they were not afraid to let the book scenes breathe and be just as dynamic as the music.

That being said, I would love to collaborate on a show in the future. I’ve been experimenting with it on a few projects, and feel like that would be a good next step that’s important for my growth. For example, I have a background in devised work, and am interested in seeing how that world could combine with the incredibly structured world of musical theater. This has already led to a collaboration and the show A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters at the 2018 Twin Cities Horror Festival. It was a phenomenal experience, birthing a show I am so proud of, and it taught me a lot about sharing the writing process.

Otherwise, for my musicals, I would love to find someone who is an expert at arranging and orchestrating to be my artistic partner. I am the slowest notator alive (only a slight exaggeration).

How do you do most of your music notation and composition? Pencil and paper? Finale or Sibelius?

I use Finale, but even though I have done tutorials on all of the shortcuts, I don’t use them. Every note is entered manually, one click at a time. I usually break up the notation into sections as I add layers (additional vocals, piano, etc.) and do a lot of listening and re-listening to the awful midi to ensure it is how I want it.

When writing a song, I usually find a base chord progression or riff I like and then build the song. I don’t put anything down in Finale until it is complete and I have full sense of how it should go.

Pages from the script and score of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant.

You have a whole other career as the Director of Communications at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Some artists find double careers to be a point of cognitive dissonance, while others run the spectrum from juggling to finding synergies. How do your two different professional sides relate or not relate?

I have always had the incredible fortune of working for understanding bosses. I started this job in September 2018; during my interview, the Dean of the Humphrey School told me she had seen Jefferson. It was such a great place to start from, since I made it clear this project would need some attention, and work/life balance was important.

Prior to this job, I spent eight years working in various communications roles for commissioners in Governor Dayton’s administration. The leadership at both agencies I worked for were really supportive. Both careers are demanding, and both offer fulfillment. In both places, I get to be creative, which is great. I am so lucky to have carved a path in both worlds, and that is something I don’t take for granted.

I don’t really talk about my work in communications when I’m doing theater, so most people are surprised. To me, that separation is important. The hardest part is balance. Jefferson has demanded a lot of my time, which in turn means conversations with both the theater and my boss about how we can be flexible. But that balancing is a constant struggle. It’s tiring. There are days when I get home from work, and the last thing I want to do is sit down at the keyboard and write. But there is a deadline looming, so you do it. Having both jobs has taught me a lot about time management and how to turn off one part of your brain when the other needs to be activated. I think it is an ongoing battle that I will always be trying to figure out. As well as how to have two jobs and make time for family and friends and relationships.

Here’s the thing though: My career in communications has taught me about my value. It has taught me that I am enough, I am in the room for a reason, and I have a right to be compensated fairly. Those are lessons I am constantly trying to bring over to my work in the arts, where it is easy to lose confidence and forget your value. There is power in reminding ourselves, daily, that as artists, each of us is enough and bring amazing talent to the table. We are in the room for a reason. We have value. And we need to stand up for ourselves and for each other. That’s a mantra I’ve been working to adopt.

Sometimes you need to just see if you can fit into your old clothes… Pictured: Leslie Vincent (foreground), Kelly Houlehan, Zach Garcia, and Ryan London Levin. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Musical theatre scores usually have a whole slew of songs that are cut during the journey to opening night. What’s a song that was cut from this show and why?

I wrote around 35 songs for this show, 19 of which made it in (plus an original medley of patriotic music performed by a contestant for the pageant).

Writing songs is a beast. Even more than cutting dialogue, when we would drop a song, or even cut pieces of a song, it would hurt because each song represented hours and hours of crafting and writing; testing different melodies and hooks. But it’s all for the betterment of the show.

There are references to a former contestant who died during the 1997 pageant, which is why the the pageant was cancelled and the characters never got a chance to win the crown. We went through a phase where the lead character, Frannie, would get visited by the ghost of the dead contestant. The purpose of the ghost was to push Frannie to take her efforts to win too far.

I wrote three wildly different songs for the ghost to try and make the moment work, and it just didn’t. One was a country rock, Carrie Underwood “Before He Cheats”, type song. One was playing with the idea that she was both the ghost and the devil, so half the song is in sweet little girl voice, and then the other half is this devil voice coming out to say terrible things (ala Hand to God). Then the last one was very poppy, upbeat, and patriotic sounding while the lyrics were about moments in history where people did terrible things to get ahead. They came and they went.

You didn’t ask, but I am thrilled that the Twin Cities has slowly been developing a new musical theater scene. You have the History Theatre and Theater Latté Da leading the pack, but other theaters are trying, which is really cool. (I am a musical nerd. I spend hours scouring for videos and cast recordings, whether they are of big commercial shows or obscure pieces.)

This show is very much in the contemporary musical theater vein. New musicals can be a terrifying endeavor. So many pieces have to go right, like a complex puzzle. And then the added cost of development and a band, as well as trying to get audiences to take a chance on songs they have never heard before. But when the right lyric and the right melody and the right moment combine, there is nothing like it.

The show is absurd and irreverent and heartfelt – and I hope audiences enjoy it.

Dance-off! L-R: Kelly Houlehan (as Frannie Foster Wallace), Ryan London Levin (as Liam Ackermann), and Leslie Vincent (Valerie Hutchinson, the titular pageant’s 1996 Queen). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant is currently in previews at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. The show formally opens Friday, June 21.

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Photo by Toni Maksan.

[Warning: This article includes a detailed discussion of sexual harassment.]

“If you sleep with me, you would have so many jobs.”

“I could cast you in so many things…”

“I could make or break your career.”

“If only you’d slept with me…”

“One word from me…”

These are not made-up lines in a playscript. These are actual statements made by opera conductor Stephen Lord to opera singers, conductors, and pianists at some of the nation’s most prestigious opera companies. These statements are the tip of an iceberg of repeated and pervasive sexual harassment behaviors by Lord over the past decade.

Stephen Lord’s actions emerged during a year-long investigation by the Arts Reader into sexual harassment and abuse in the U.S. opera industry. For our investigation of Maestro Lord, as he is often known, we interviewed more than two dozen individuals who made harassment claims. We also collected copies of emails and other electronic messages by Lord and others, obtained corroborating statements from third parties, and spoke with the representatives of several opera companies at which Lord was employed. The findings not only document pervasive and persistent actions by Lord, but also how the threat of power and prestige silenced his victims.

Background Conductor Stephen Lord’s official publicity photo. Photo by Christian Steiner.

Imagine that you are a young, up-and-coming professional in a highly competitive field. For years, you have been told about the importance of meeting and networking with the most powerful men in the industry. Then, the day comes – you have your chance to show one of these rare individuals what you have to offer. In the middle of your make-or-break moment, however, they lean over and say, “If you sleep with me…” You would never consider saying yes – but what would happen if you reported the sexual harassment, and it was your word against theirs?

Stephen Lord is one of those powerful men. As his official biography on Barrett Artists’ website proclaims, he was “chosen by Opera News as one of the ’25 Most Powerful Names in U.S. Opera’.” Over the years, he has headed some of the country’s most prestigious opera training and opera-making programs, including almost 40 years’ association with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and 17 years as the music director and principal conductor at Boston Lyric Opera. He has been involved in various capacities with several Young Artist Programs (YAPs) for training early-career opera professionals, as well as conservatory teaching, master classes, and advising.

To an early-career musician working in opera, Lord’s influence is hard to miss. Work under his baton and you’ll see that official biography splashed across the staff pages. Watched the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions one year? You might have seen him. Read the bios of opera stars? His name jumps out of the credits and lists of prestigious teachers. His career includes ample work with the “who’s-who” of opera, and Lord is routinely listed high in the ranks of companies’ artistic and administrative leadership, often as principal conductor.

Public vs. Private: Perceptions and Reality

To the general public, Maestro Lord is one of the opera world’s luminaries, one of an elite number of super-conductors. Whether a visiting music director joining one production at a time, or in his regular capacity as Resident Conductor at several opera companies, he brings musically impeccable credentials, a flair with the baton, and a reputation for finding and cultivating exciting young talent. Countless reviews testify to his well-acknowledged musical talents. Behind the scenes, however, lies a much darker story.

“I learned to fear Maestro Lord,” said one singer who worked with the conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “And to dread his messages.” Another musician, who encountered Lord as a young vocal coach-in-training, recalled, “I was warned to be careful around Lord – even before I met him. I was told to expect overtures, and to be careful how I acted. Redirect or ignore, but don’t report him – that’s career suicide.”

Is “career suicide” too extreme? Not if you’re plugged into some of opera’s whisper networks – unofficial channels in which information is exchanged. These days, whisper networks take many different forms – sometimes a WhatsApp group message chain, sometimes a private Facebook group, and sometimes old-fashioned, “off the record” verbal advice. Opera’s whisper networks are full of cautionary tales, anecdotes, and warnings – many of them about histories of unheard complaints and retaliation.

Whisper networks have many uses, but also some pitfalls. One pitfall is the trouble translating anecdotal accounts into coherent data, to give warnings lasting effect. Another is the inherent opposition between “safe” anonymity and knowing who to believe. These factors collided last year in one social media-based whisper network, when some singers began creating their own version of 2017’s crowdsourced Shitty Media Men spreadsheet for opera. Allowing anonymous edited backfired: some contributors started maliciously editing entries, scrubbing complaints; within a week, the effort was dead.

Predatory Grooming The steps of predatory grooming.

There’s a term used to describe how some sexual predators work their way into the lives of potential victims: grooming. The term – once more narrowly applied – describes a process used by predators to gain contact with and desensitize their targets. Acquiring contact information is an early step in the grooming process; in Lord’s case, the rise of Facebook and its messaging service gave an easy way in – which, by coincidence, wouldn’t have been tracked by organizational email systems.

“One of the first things we [the whole cast and creative team] did after the first rehearsal was friend each other on Facebook,” said one singer, who worked with Lord at a North American opera company that he asked not be identified. “It’s just something you do – it’s networking, you want to tag people in photos and posts about the performance. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

That was before the Facebook messages started to arrive – entirely unsolicited and, after a quick read, quite unwelcome. “Stephen just messaged me out of the blue,” the same singer said. “I remember it was kind of inappropriate and I deleted it immediately. That was followed by ‘I hope I didn’t offend you.’ I didn’t engage, but the messages kept coming. And they got worse and more sexually explicit.”

Ignoring the messages didn’t make them stop. Nor did asking not to be messaged – as shown in multiple sets of Facebook messages provided to the Arts Reader. If confronted, Lord often would claim that his message was an off-color joke. Then, after an interval, his messages resumed.

That deflection and subtler manipulations of the truth are characteristics of Lord’s verbal and written sexual overtures. They’re also important actions in Steps 4 and 6 of the grooming process of abuse: isolating the victim and maintaining control. If that sounds familiar, you may have heard it from one of the scandals of yesteryear. (James Levine used cult-like ultimatums like “If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.” Also being on the list of opera’s 25 most powerful probably did not hurt Levine’s aura.)

Several singers who worked under Lord’s baton at the English National Opera and Opera Maine relayed stories of Lord mixing professional and sexual overtures, putting a dark spin on the “Come coach with me” invitation common between singers and conductor-coaches. A singer who coached Lord during his time at the New England Conservatory similarly recalled the conductor advising them to leave their teacher – something that opera’s whisper networks hasten to label a big red flag.

The Law

The Code of Federal Regulations describes several potential conditions for identifying forms of sexual harassment:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Arguably the easiest to prove is the first category, what is commonly termed quid pro quo harassment. This was plainly seen in some of the electronic messages supplied by Lord’s targets, in which the conductor responded to complaints about these offers by making jokes, sometimes offering different variations. The second category, however, can be very difficult to prove. Did you not get the gig because someone sang better than you, or because the panel had someone else in mind, or because someone’s blackened your name? What if it’s an audition panel for something like the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, where even a slight change in the vote could ruin your progression?

Proving that an employment decision was linked to unwelcome sexual advances and other behaviors is an especially difficult thing in opera. Most opera companies have a relatively small core staff, with most musicians classified as contractors. The industry’s major professional pathway to the top, Young Artist Programs, are highly competitive and prone to recruiting interventions (good and bad) by high-profile artists.

These high stakes and the leverage that they might provide did not escape notice. Three individuals interviewed about Lord recalled his dangling access to YAPs at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Michigan Opera Theatre (the latter more formally known as the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio). Others had stories of his “offering” to pull strings with other programs, with quid pro quo demands that raised from subtly veiled to impossible to miss. Lord’s potential leverage was large, and the fear of making an enemy out of him even greater.

“I felt powerless,” said one singer who worked with Lord on several productions and found himself on the receiving end of repeated, unwanted messages. “I thought he’d be an advocate in the future to help me be hired at different companies. When someone holds that much power in this industry, it takes so much to speak out against it, and I still feel that way. I fear blacklisting.”

The Veil of Silence

The first time I heard of misconduct by Stephen Lord was around 2012, when I was a doctoral student in music at Boston University. One evening in the BU College of Fine Arts basement, I overheard a pair of students from the New England Conservatory of Music who were sitting in the lounge and talking in veiled tones. (Then, as now, BU’s state-of-the-art practice rooms frequently become an unofficial practice home to NEC students on nights and weekends.) The two were discussing how to respond to an indecent overture by Lord, one of the city’s leading opera conductors – and, to make the lines of power even clearer, a man recently ensconced as the NEC Opera program’s artistic advisor. The reasons for doing nothing, they enumerated, included casting repercussions, threats to financial aid, and being labeled as “difficult to work with” – a term often used in opera as a cover for blacklisting someone who complains.

Seven years later, when interviewing people for this story, not a lot has changed. Being an early-career opera singer can be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle filled with scrimping and stretching to make ends meet, weighting for paychecks to arrive and traveling wherever someone will have you. Putting up with sexual harassment is rarely someone’s first choice, but the fear of a financial chasm has a chilling effect on reporting. One of the oldest people who agreed to be interviewed for this article, a singer now in their mid-30s, explained it in these terms: “It makes me sick to think about this, but what am I supposed to do? I made $25,000 last year and it was one of my better years; I don’t have a financial safety blanket and I don’t have money for a lawyer. It only takes Stephen thinking that it was me and then I’m out of work. I have a family and I can’t take that kind of risk, even now.”

Perhaps one of the hardest ironies of the #MeToo era is that many people now desperately yearn to tell their stories of harassment and abuse, while being even less confident of response and action. In the comedy world, Louis C.K. is again performing, even after the fallout of public accusations and his confession. In the symphonic music world, Daniele Gatti was fired by a Dutch orchestra for harassment but hired the next season by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Read the news and several high-profile artists still deny that there’s even an issue. It’s no wonder that if you hang out on one of those opera whisper networks, you’ll see almost every story of harassment and abuse paired with an “I said something and they did nothing” response in the comments.

“It’s ironic,” said one singer. “To perform Rigoletto and Don Giovanni – opera about men behaving badly – and have the same thing happening off-stage.”

A Coverup, A Surprise, and a Twist An email from Stephen Lord about Matthew Stump’s hiring by Michigan Opera Theatre.

Back in July 2018, an investigation by the Arts Reader published several women’s sexual assault allegations against one Matthew Stump, a bass-baritone who was quickly dropped by his artist agency. Stump soon disappeared from the opera scene, but on Wednesday, June 12th, the British music critic Norman Lebrecht noted that Matthew Stump had been hired by Michigan Opera Theatre for its October production of Don Giovanni. His role-to-be? Leporello – the manservant who enables Don Giovanni’s seductions and rapes. “The opera industry has issues with short-term memory,” Lebrecht opined dryly.

Also at Michigan Opera Theatre was its Principal Conductor, Stephen Lord – the man scheduled to lead its season-opening gala, Sweeney Todd, and Pagliacci. As it turns out, Lord was advocating for Stump behind the scenes, while simultaneously engaging in victim blaming and character assassination against Stump’s accusers – several of who themselves work in the U.S. opera industry.

As news of Stump’s hiring spread, a storm of social media and subscriber criticism whipped up. Michigan Opera Theatre’s Facebook page was besieged by complaints, and on Thursday, June 13th – just one day after the casting decision reached the media – the company responded to these posts with a public message: “Michigan Opera Theatre strives to respond to social media posts within 24 hours. Due to the serious nature of this issue, we will provide a statement by noon tomorrow, June 14. Please know that we take this very seriously, and we appreciate your patience.”

Behind the scenes, Lord was attempting to deflect criticism of Stump. In an internal email obtained by the Arts Reader, the maestro was free in his criticisms of others. Norman Lebrecht – one of Britain’s most-respected music critics – was a “muck raker”. One of the women who’d accused the singer of sexual assault? Just a gold-digging, would-be blackmailer. The strategy, one designed to maintain control of the message, is #6 on the list of predatory grooming habits. This variation was a close relation to gaslighting, a strategy of twisting the narrative to confuse, befuddle, and ultimately disempower victims.

On Friday, June 14th, however, MOT made its next response on schedule, stating that it “will be making a casting change for the role of Leporello in the company’s fall 2019 production of Don Giovanni. Casting details will be forthcoming.” Stump was out.

Confuse, Befuddle, Disempower Stephen Lord Quits Facebook, Blames Others

The day that Matthew Stump’s firing from MOT broke, Stephen Lord made his own post to Facebook. “Greetings [sic] friends!” it read. “Lesson learned these last days: no good..

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A promotional photo for The Rinky Dink Show! What Kind of Rinky Dink Show is This?, now playing at Bryant-Lake Bowl.

The Rinky Dink Show! opened last night at Bryant-Lake Bowl & Theater in Minneapolis. This evening of sketch comedy brims with visual, spoken, and musical humor. It recalls at times some of the best moments of Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live, while also planting its flag firmly in the Twin Cities and the present.

Where to begin in describing sketch comedy? One could start with a listing of some favorite skits – parodies of movie trailers, karaoke gone wrong, and some recurrent and really quite funny gags skewering the show creators, for example.

Alternately, you could list some favorite performances or performers of the evening. That’s harder to do, as expected with a cast composed of Josh Carson, Kelsey Cramer, Brad Erickson, Mustafa Hassan, Sam Landman, Aisha Ragheb, Bill Stiteler, Drew Tenenbaum, and Anna Weggel – the comedic talent brimmeth over, and should we be pointing at the person who sets up a joke or the person who lands it?

This is, perhaps, why many sketch comedy reviewers settle for a narrative summary of the evening. It’s an abrogation by misdirection, and avoids many of the responsibilities of critical judgment via massive spoilers. Since giving away jokes is like shouting spoilers at people watching Avengers: Endgame for the first time, clearly that wouldn’t be appropriate.

This brings us to a final angle: the experiential one. The show is well-paced, showcases a variety of comedy and humor styles, and has a few excellent comedy threads that get even funnier as they’re exploded into more and more outrageous arcs and songs. How many shows do you get where Carmen Sandiego and Where’s Waldo get mashed up, and where laughter rolls through the whole audience in a hilarious rap about grocery shopping? Without exaggerating, one skit had me laughing and crying simultaneously, and the show’s big musical theater number still lets you out in time to enjoy some sunlight.


The Rinky Dink Show! What Kind of Rinky Dink Show is This? plays at Bryant-Lake Bowl & Theater in Minneapolis, MN through June 29.

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A promotional photo of master musician Stanley Clarke. Photo by Raj Naik.

Stanley Clarke gave a masterful and energetic performance at The Dakota Jazz Club last night. Clarke, who returns to the downtown Minneapolis location tonight for two additional performance, has been an important figure in contemporary music for 45 years. The performer, composer, arranger, and producer has won four Grammy Awards and been nominated for an Emmy, and remains one of the most influential players of the acoustic and electric bass.

For some, Clarke’s work is epitomized by his great 1976 album, School Days, which showed the viability of the electric bass as a lead instrument – just listen to the lead track from that album, played by Clarke and George Duke on the Old Grey Whistle Test show). For others, what defines Clarke is his work with pianist Chick Corea and others in the early and influential jazz fusion group Return to Forever, a band that formed in the 1970s and continues to play today after several successful reunions). Still others may know Clarke only from the 1981 hit with George Duke “Sweet Baby“. Clark’s most album recent release was 2018’s The Message, which ranged widely – from the narrative of a space alien invasion (Combat Continuum) to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, played straight.

Stanley Clarke. Photo by Raj Naik.

What the audience got last night was not the early Clarke characterized by blazing away on electric bass, but the wise bandleader of more recent years. He set the tone from the middle of the stage, playing on an upright bass. In a recent and reflective interview, Clarke declared that what keeps the music vibrant is developing young musicians, just as the greats in his field (e.g., Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Dexter Gordon) had helped him to develop.

Stanley Clarke in performance. Photo courtesy of George Madrid.This view is evident in the band with which Clarke is touring, a group of fairly young but extremely able musicians: Beka Gochiashivili on piano, Cameron Graves on keyboard, Evan Garr on violin, Salar Nader on tabla, and Shariq Tucker on drums. In Friday’s concert, each was given considerable time to display their virtuosity. All were great, with Garr perhaps the special favorite of the audience. Songs performed included versions of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and John Coltrane’s “Crescent” (a song covered by Return to Forever on its album Forever).

Though Clarke is now in his late 60s, he still plays with great energy and authority – using the upright in turns like a cello, an electric bass, or a percussion instrument – one can get a sense of the range of styles from just two videos. He is a master, sharing his art both with his fans and with the next generation of musicians.

See him if you can; he has two more shows this evening at 7 pm and 9 pm.

Stanley Clarke returns to the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, MN at 7 PM and 9 PM tonight.

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Rapper Juice WRLD.

The Armory is the pinnacle of rap performance and open venues in Minneapolis. As such, it plays home to gigs such as Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love tour (after his recent, eponymous album), which landed at the Armory on Saturday.

Hours before the doors opened, fans were lining up around the block. Clearly, this show was a must-see for many local hip-hop fans. When Juice WRLD finally took the stage, accompanied by Ski Mask the Slump God and Yung Bans, it was in front of an energetic, sold-out crowd. The performance did not disappoint.

This tour was sponsored by Lyrical Lemonade, which is considered by some to be the premier music-video directing organization on Youtube and other social media platforms. As a result, a Lyrical Lemonade All-Star artist opens each performance on the tour. In Minneapolis, this was the 20-year-old St. Louis rapper Yung Bans, known mainly for his tracks “Ridin” and “Lonely”. Running on stage, Bans took the crowd by surprise with his vibrant sound and abundance of hits.

The result? While many people were still trickling in, the venue broke out into chaos and mosh pit frenzy. Bans stoked the jumpy crowd, even showing off his impressive and (underrated) vocals. Yung Bans was definitely a “man of the people”; after leaving the stage, he headed straight for the merchandise stand in the back, interacting with the fans there.

To the amazement of the crowd, Juice WRLD began performing even before his main opening act, Ski Mask the Slump God. Juice began with some major hits off of Deathrace for Love, including fan favorites “Make Believe” and “Empty.” Alongside original visuals playing on the screen behind him, Juice’s set was an all-encapsulating experience with experimental pyrotechnics and stirring choreography.  

After running through several songs from the newest project, Juice was joined on stage by colleague and close friend, Ski Mask, for their collaboration “Nuketown”, off Ski’s album Stokely. In a recent interview, Ski proclaimed that the main purpose for that song was for performances like this one. As seen on Saturday  night in the Armory, it worked: groups of fans erupted, swaying from one side of the large open theater to the other. The two continued to perform together for nearly an hour, during which Juice ran through almost all of his recent hits from Deathrace and his debut project, Goodbye & Good Riddance. Ski also gave a tribute of appreciation to his late best friend and collaborator, XXXTentacion.

The superstars left the Minneapolis crowd exhilarated, optimistic and – more than anything – well satisfied.

 

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The 12th annual Soundset Music Festival, presented by Rhymesayers Entertainment and held at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds, was full of incredible young talent, must-see acts, and hip-hop legends. Over 30,000 people milled around the Fairgrounds as well-known artists from around the country played their biggest hits, their unreleased singles, and everything in between. Despite a few minor setbacks, including popular artist Lil Uzi Vert cancelling on the festival (for the second time in three years), the festival remained fun, festive, and smooth.  The organizers managed to book North Carolina rapper DaBaby, as well as the creator of the number one song in the world right now (and quickest streamed track of all time), Lil Nas X. With artists from all across the globe, combined with a diversity of associated activities, including skateboarding, car shows, and food vendors, Soundset offers the perfect gateway into Summer.

Some of the festival highlights included:

  • Taylor Bennett. This 23-year-old, up-and-coming Chicago rapper created a lively environment with his significant local fan base. Performing many of his major hits, Taylor (the brother of Chance the Rapper) showed off a dynamic set that built the crowd to a frenzy.
  • Buddy. Taking over right after Taylor, Buddy provided a new vibe to the stage, crooning the melodies of perhaps his most famous piece, “Trippin”, while also bringing a more energetic side for later pieces, “Black” and “Shameless”. Buddy used the somewhat smaller crowd of the early festival to his advantage, creating an intimate environment that won new fans over with his unique style, witty lyricism, and infectious positivity.
  • Trippie Redd. A clear fan favorite from the beginning, Trippie burst onto the stage with a string of recognizable hits: “Dark Knight Dummo”, “Wish”, and “Topanga” (all Billboard Hot 100 Tracks). Welcomed to the stage by chants of his name, Trippie didn’t disappoint, switching from ultra-hyper mosh pit-esque music to singing his tracks a cappella.  In addition to his own hits, Trippie also honored his colleagues, including the late xxxtentacion, with the song, “F**K Love”.
  • Beast Coast. Directly following one of hip-hop’s most revered and influential artists, DMX, Beast Coast (a supergroup composed of Brooklyn MC Joey Bada$$, New York group Flatbush Zombies, and several others) had the liveliest show of the night. Having released their debut group album a mere four days prior, Soundset was the first time they performed their new work live. While there was time allotted for these new singles, much of the set was devoted to individual members/groups and their mega hits, notably Joey Bada$$ performing “Devastated” and Flatbush with a fiery performance of “Headstone.” Known for their contagious energy, undeniable vigor, and truly eccentric style, this supergroup supported their reputation as great live performers.
  • G-Eazy. Following rap duo Run the Jewels’ emotional performance, Oakland rapper Gerald Gillum (known by stage name G-Eazy) came on with the sun just beginning to set.  He was met with overwhelming energy from the still growing Soundset crowd. Eazy kept repeating that the Twin Cities as his “favorite place to perform at,” even going as far to claim that his current set as the favorite he ever played.  In addition to performing many of his best-known hits, including “Me, Myself & I,” “Pray for Me,” and “1942,” Eazy also played a song from his new project (supposedly “coming soon”). Eazy additionally displayed his local ties by bringing out local rapper, Mod Sun, and Minnesota Timberwolves all-star, Karl-Anthony Towns.  Towns performed with Eazy on the latter’s biggest song, “No Limit.”
  • Lil Wayne. After releasing the fifth installment of his “Tha Carter” series this past year, Lil Wayne cemented his rightful claim to the Mount Rushmore of rap artists. While not known as a great live performer, tens of thousands flocked to the two main stages to catch a glimpse of the all-time great. “Weezy”, as fans often called him, played the show despite rumors that he wouldn’t show up (he’d missed three Minnesota performances since 2015) and entered the stage to chants of his name. His 1-hour set covered much of his illustrious discography, including the megahits “A Milli”, “Lollipop”, “6 ft 7 ft”, and his most recent Billboard chart topper, “Uproar”. Wayne’s smooth vocals, distinct style, and seemingly never-ending amount of hits capped off a fantastic Soundset Music Festival.

Exiting the State Fairgrounds, one could feel the crowd’s excitement and joy – and pleasant surprise – that the Twin Cities had clearly become a hub for rap music.

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