The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: After 50 years, Madison Opera stages its first Baroque opera – Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” – Thursday through Sunday in the Overture Center’s Playhouse. Production principals discuss the international resurgence of Baroque opera and details of this particular production.

January 8, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s official.

Winter intermission is over.

The first big event to open the second half of the concert season will be the Madison Opera’s staging of George Frideric Handel’s opera (or “masque”) “Acis and Galatea” – originally performed on the terrace of the same castle belonging to the Earl of Carnarvon where PBS’ smash hit Edwardian drama “Downton Abbey” is filmed — in The Playhouse of the Overture Center.

Four performances of the two-hour opera, with English supertitles and a libretto written by John Gay of “The Beggar’s Opera,” are slated on this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., and on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. (The last performance is close to sold out, and tickets to the other performances are selling very well, according to marketing director Ronia Holmes.)

Acis poster

The Ear asked three of the principal movers — Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below top in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below middle in a photo by James Gill, who is  also music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, from which orchestra payers will be drawn) and guest stage direct David Lefkowich (below bottom) – to discuss the resurgence of Baroque opera and this production ins particular. (All photos are courtesy of the Madison Opera.)

Below are questions, which in some cases different people answered.

For tickets ($20, $50 and $69), call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. For more information, including tickets, a plot summary and notes about the cast and the production as well as an informative video, go to:

Here is the email Q&A that the three persons generously agreed to provide. Names clarify which response belongs to whom:

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

Acis David Lefkowich

Why did Handel’s operas fall out of favor for so long, and what explains their resurgence and rediscovery?

Kathryn Smith: There are a number of reasons – some to do with the fact that scores were not well-preserved at the time of Handel (below), so a lot of his music is lost or in fragments.  Also, Mozart so swiftly overtook Handel in terms of the dramatic shape of an opera, that early operas seemed old-fashioned and were just not of interest to people until the 20th century.

I think their resurgence has to do with the rediscovery of much of the music, the training singers now have in how to sing this music, and the fact that productions have become increasingly creative and entertaining, rather than mired in historical accuracy at all costs.

handel big 2

John DeMain: Handel’s operas and Baroque operas in general fell out of favor because we basically moved away from stories about gods and goddesses, as was the custom in those times, and moved to stories dealing with the human condition in the 18th century.

The rise of the peasant class against the aristocracy became an important part of operas development, as well as concepts of freedom and equality, and more recently, psychological considerations, as the understanding of the brain advanced in the early 20th century.

Modern stage directors have brought real creativity to the resurrection of these earlier operas, often by changing the time period to a more recent era, and by stressing the common humanity in these works, making them less remote to a contemporary audience.

Bottom line is still the incredible amount of gorgeous music (see YouTube video clip at bottom) that has drawn new audiences to hear these wonderful works in our own time.  “Acis and Galatea” is one of those works that we are so grateful to have in our canon of beautiful operas. (Below is a shot of setting up the set.)

Acis constructing set

Why did the Madison Opera choose to do its first Handel opera this season?

Kathryn Smith: We try to pick seasons of both classic pieces and ones new to our community.  In looking at the company’s history, it just seemed time to try an early opera, and Acis and Galatea fits beautifully into The Playhouse.  It’s also a good choice for a first Handel opera, with a charming story, English text and fairly short running time of only two hours.

John DeMain: We chose to do Acis because Madison Opera has never performed a Baroque work, and we thought this would be a wonderful beginning. It is under two hours in length, and has music reminiscent of his beloved “Messiah.”  It has always been a goal of everyone at Madison Opera to expand the company’s repertory. I think we are making great strides in that direction. (Below is a pastoral scenic backdrop.)

Acis scene model pastoral

Are there special challenges to staging the opera by Handel? To performing the vocal and instrumental music in it?

Kathryn Smith: The greatest challenge with Handel is that the music does not tell the story in the way that Verdi or Puccini does – the drama has to come from the staging, rather than the lyrics or orchestration.

For example, an aria may literally have only four lines of text, which the singer repeats over and over again, so the emotional content must be communicated via acting.  In comparison, operas like “La Bohème” are straightforward, with the music telling a lot of the story, and lyrics that communicate the story.

John DeMain: Vocally, all the singers in Handel operas must have the ability to move the voice. The tempos for most of the arias are fast, and both the coloratura demands and the ornamentation expected in the da capo sections of the arias take voices that have great agility. This applies to the lower male voices as well.

In later Verdi and Puccini, as well as Wagner, we think of the bass as a stentorian presence.  Not so in Handel, as we hear Polyphemus (below, played by Jeff Beruan) in “Acis” sing with great fluidity in his arias.

Acis Jeff Beruan 2 plays Polyphemus

David Lefkowich: Operas by Handel do present some interesting challenges.  The arias follow a pattern of A – B – A’ where the first part of the aria repeats at the end. The arias feel long, at times, and repetitive.

It also means there is not any new information being presented to the audience. This puts the onus on the performer to create musical choices that sustain our interest by way of ornaments in the A’ portion of the arias. It also allows the director to be very creative in presenting the same information, but in a variety of ways.

Also the information presented in the arias is usually pretty spare.  For example,  the first aria  by Acis (below, played by Daniel Shirley) in the show has the following text:

“Where shall I seek the charming fair?

“Direct the way, kind genius of the mountains.

“O tell me, if you saw my dear!

“Seeks she the groves, or bathes in crystal fountains?”

Four sentences are all that Acis has in his first aria to introduce himself and the conflict in Act 1.  If this were a Puccini opera, it would take about 30 seconds for him to sing these four lines.  In a Handel opera, it takes about three minutes.

Acis played by Daniel Shirley

How should audiences more used to Mozart and Rossini, to Verdi and Puccini and to 20th century works, approach Baroque opera? What are appropriate expectations?

John DeMain: People seeing a Baroque opera for the first time can expect an evening of fine singing and beautiful music.  The construction of Baroque operas is a little different from later music theater works.  The dramatic flow of the evening is different.

The basic musical unit is what we call the da capo aria. It is an aria that has a first part called the A section, and a second part called the B section.  Then the aria returns to the A section again for an entire repeat of that section.  It is tradition for the singer and orchestra to ornament in a more elaborate fashion the da capo or repeated A section.

This poses challenges for modern-day stage directors to keep the story going and maintain dramatic interest for the audience.  Fortunately, the tradition of Baroque opera allows for wide latitude in the story telling and use of movement, to create a wonderful entertainment for the eye as well as the ear.

Also, there are not the big ensembles traditionally found in later operas and far fewer duets and trios as well. Acis has beautiful choruses, a sprightly duet (below), and a haunting and unusual trio, but not a slew of them.

Acis and Galatea in rehearsal

Are there special things you would like audiences to know about this particular production of “Acis and Galatea”?

David Lefkowich: Absolutely!  There are several things I would like the audience to know about this production.  We decided to update this opera to World War I.  This gives us a time period that is recognizable to the audience.

Luckily, this updating does not change the story or the actions within, but gives the opera a recognizable shell we can more easily relate to and provides context for what we are doing.  In this production, Acis is a soldier returning from war.  This gives him credibility when he goes to attack Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

In this opera we have two types of characters.  Those that are human, like Acis, Damon (below top, sung by J. Adam Shelton) and the Ensemble, and those that have god-like abilities such as Galatea (below bottom, sung by Angela Mortellaro) and Polyphemus.

Acis J. Adam Shelton as Damonjpg

Acis Angela Mortellaro as Galatea

When characters have magical abilities on stage, there needs to be a way to show this to the audience.  We are using four dancers from Kanopy Dance (below) to help support the larger, magical ideas of Galatea and Poylphemus.  You will see these “nymphs” throughout the production, mostly in association with Galatea

Acis Kanopy rehearsing

As this opera has a dreamy, almost fairytale quality to it, so too will the staging.  Galatea is a water nymph, so the idea of water will play out in a variety of ways:  through the use of choreography; through lighting; and through some technical elements. (Below is a late-stage model of the set.)

Acis model of set

Kathryn Smith: This is a new production, designed for Madison Opera, so this is your only chance to see it.

Also, the production features all four of our Studio Artists (three in the Ensemble and one in the role of Damon); it’s the only production all four are in this year, although they are variously involved in the other operas.

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