By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:
By Larry Wells
The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.
The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.
The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.
And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.
Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.
Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.
And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.
UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.
The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.
Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.
The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.
Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.
I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”
Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.
What are your suggestions?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)
Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:
Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.
Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.
Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.
“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”
The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
Tickets are $18 to $130.
“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.
For more about the production and cast, go to:
And also go to:
Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.
Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.
Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:
Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?
Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.
Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?
Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.
Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.
Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?
From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.
Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Opera will present its first-ever production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim (below) this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.
The company has built a new production of this American masterpiece — which is so popular that it was made into a 2007 film by director Tim Burton that starred Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. The powerhouse cast, Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra all promise to bring a very operatic theater score to life.
The show tells of the barber Sweeney Todd, who returns to the gas-lit streets of Victorian London after 15 years of unjust imprisonment to claim vengeance on those who wronged him. He is aided in his murderous activities by Mrs. Lovett, maker of some rather tasty meat pies.
One of Sondheim’s most renowned works, “Sweeney Todd” has a stunningly inventive score containing drama, macabre humor, lyrical purity and an unforgettable final scene.
“I love this piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It’s a true American classic, with a story that is simultaneously dark and comic, and music that ranges from beautifully lyrical songs like ‘Not While I’m Around’ (at bottom in a YouTube video ) to vaudevillian turns like ‘A Little Priest,’ all with some of the wittiest lyrics ever written.”
Although it premiered on Broadway in 1979 – winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical – “Sweeney Todd” has been a staple of opera companies since 1984, when Houston Grand Opera first staged it, followed a few months later by New York City Opera. With a score that is almost entirely sung, it has been described by Sondheim as a “dark operetta.”
That first Houston Grand Opera production was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who will conduct these performances.
“For me, it is a brilliantly composed work for the musical theater that has marvelous melodies, incredible lyrics, a unique and thrillingly fascinating story, and a climax that is the stuff of grand opera,” says DeMain. “I can’t wait to conduct our stunning cast in this masterwork for the lyric stage.”
Corey Crider (below top) and Meredith Arwady (below bottom) make their Madison Opera debuts as the vengeful barber and the ever-practical Mrs. Lovett. Crider has sung leading roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Arizona Opera, and the Castleton Festival. Arwady has sung leading roles with San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera.
Returning to Madison Opera are former Madison Opera Studio Artist Jeni Houser as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter; Daniel Shirley as the young sailor Anthony Hope; and Thomas Forde as the evil Judge Turpin. Three tenors round out the cast. Joshua Sanders, who has been singing with Madison Opera since high school, plays the innocent Tobias Ragg. Jared Rogers makes his debut as the menacing Beadle Bamford. Robert Goderich, a local theater and opera favorite, plays Sweeney’s rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli.
Performances are on Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.
The production will be sung in English with projected text.
Madison Opera is building a new production specifically for the Capitol Theater. Stage director Norma Saldivar, set designer Joseph Varga, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore, and lighting designer Hideaki Tsutsui are creating a world set in an Industrial Age factory, with the orchestra on stage to bring the action even closer to the audience.
“Building a new production allows us to take advantage of the Capitol Theater,” says Smith. “The gorgeous venue is ideally suited to this piece and it is exciting to create something new.”
Stage Director Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine) is Executive Director of the UW-Madison Arts Institute and a professor in the Theater Department, recently granted an email interview to The Ear:
Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?
I’m Norma Saldivar, and I am the stage director for the Madison Opera’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”
How does directing an opera differ from directing a play?
I know that you’d like me to say that there is some real difference in directing opera or straight theatre productions – and there are distinct differences. However, the work of the director remains the same.
I am a storyteller, a chief creative leader of a team of people who bring the story to life and three-dimensional form. There are differences in working with music that obviously involve expressing the intention of the composer, which means working with a conductor who brings to life and secures the intention of the composer and lyricist.
But ultimately, we all work to bring the story to an audience and to engage and entertain them.
In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” how does such a grim and gory or grotesque plot – about murdering men by slitting their throats and then baking their bodies into cannibalistic meat pies –- end up being an enjoyable and entertaining opera? Does being so over the top help or offer special challenges?
The story predates Sondheim and began in “penny dreadfuls” — these stories of suspense were very popular and connected to their audience in a way that so many contemporary suspense and horror stories do now for our audience.
I think there is a great deal of suspense in the story, in that as it unfolds an audience can’t believe their eyes or ears. The audaciousness is surprising and tantalizing –- and then there is also humor, heartbreak and love in the story. It is a different take on an age-old story of revenge.
What does Stephen Sondheim do in the libretto and music to overcome that kind of inherent handicap?
I don’t see the aspects of the genre — suspense and horror – as handicaps. There are other musical pieces – “Phantom of the Opera” is one – that make for great drama.
The music is the added character to the story.
Sondheim writes in one of his books that he was inspired by the movie music of Bernard Hermann – his work in horror films by Alfred Hitchcock fueled Sondheim’s work on Sweeney. But Sondheim is so brilliant that he integrates other musical genres in the piece to create a very specific effect. There are intricate pieces that pull us momentarily away from the suspense. Like any good storyteller, his music takes the audience on an unexpected ride.
What is your approach to staging it? Are there special things in this production that you would like the audience to take notice of?
I am a very visual director. I love that Sondheim himself talks about this piece being a movie for the stage. What a great challenge for the stage director to try and interpret quick cuts and split screens, or changes in time and location on stage. We have a great design team that provides me the tools and background to work with the singers to support the musical story and to work in visual harmony. Without the design team and singers — well, I wouldn’t have much.
The challenge with this piece in particular is the length of the story. It moves quickly, spans months of time, and exists in a theatrical and psychological platform all at once. It’s a terrific challenge for a director, production team and performers. All the nuances that have to play to make the story clear is what makes the challenge really interesting.
Is there anything else you would like to add or say about this work and this production of it — the cast, the sets, the costumes — for The Madison Opera?
It has been a pleasure to work with the extraordinary John DeMain and the entire Madison Opera family. From the administration to the designers to the principal artists to the lovely chorus to the folks building the show — what more can a director ask for? Everyone is top-notch and devoted to giving everyone the best show. I feel honored to be working with them — really honored.
By Jacob Stockinger
Political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are the hot topics of an old opera that is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
When you look around the world and see the struggle in fighting terrorism, religious intolerance and political tyranny as well as the difficult and thwarted stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, “Fidelio” — the only opera composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (below) — seems a timely and even inspired choice to stage.
That is exactly what the Madison Opera will do in Overture Hall of the Overture Center this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in German with English supertitles.
Single tickets are $18-$125. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit the Overture Center box office.
A Madison Opera staged premiere, “Fidelio” is “a passionate ode to freedom, and the triumph of love over tyranny,” according to a press release from the Madison Opera.
“To rescue her husband, a political prisoner, the noblewoman Leonore (below, played by Alexandra LoBianco) disguises herself as a man and works at the prison where she believes her husband is held. Beethoven contrasts the evil of Don Pizarro, who has ordered his enemy imprisoned and starved, with the inner strength and bravery that enables Leonore to rescue her husband.
“Ranging from breathtaking arias to stunning choral music, Beethoven’s score is truly sublime, with an ever-building dramatic intensity that leaves audiences exhilarated. The famous “Prisoners’ Chorus” is one of the most beautiful choral tributes to freedom ever written, and one of the reasons Fidelio has resonated across the centuries.
“Madison Opera performed Fidelio in concert in November 1986, but this is the first time the company has presented the opera fully-staged. Sung in German with German dialogue and projected English translations, Fidelio is the only opera Beethoven ever wrote, premiering in its final form in 1814.
“Fidelio is a truly great opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director. “It has both light and dark moments, with real emotion underlying the intense drama. Above all, the score is a masterpiece from one of classical music’s greatest composers.”
“Fidelio” also marks the start of Madison Opera’s 10th season in Overture Hall, whose exceptional acoustics have been a primary factor in the company’s growth and success.
“It is absolutely thrilling for me to finally have a chance to conduct Beethoven’s operatic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the Madison Opera’s Artistic Director and conductor who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “I have loved this music passionately for years, and can’t wait to perform this great work in the acoustic splendor of Overture Hall. We have a thrilling cast of singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, all up to the demands of the mighty Beethoven.”
Pre-opera talks will be hosted by Kathryn Smith one hour prior to each performance.
Here is a background story, with more interviews, written by Mike Muckian that appeared in the Wisconsin Gazette.
And here is an email Q&A that stage director that Tara Faircloth (below), who is making her Madison Opera debut, granted to The Ear:
Can you briefly introduce yourself, with some background and current activities as well as future projects and plans?
A Georgia native, I make my home in Houston, Texas, in a 1935 Art & Crafts bungalow that I am slowly renovating and restoring. I work primarily in opera, and take special pleasure in my work with young people: I am a semi-regular director at Wolf Trap Opera, and the dramatic coach for the fine singers in the Houston Grand Opera Studio.
Some of my most beloved projects have been a beautiful (if I do say so!) production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Wolf Trap, a Dido & Aeneas with Houston’s Mercury Baroque in collaboration with the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, and a very recent production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse at Rice University. I am very much looking forward to a new production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Arizona Opera, and my first Le Nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, at the Atlanta Opera.
I like to create productions that are whimsical and humorous with intense moments of emotional connection.
How do you situate Beethoven’s “Fidelio” among other major opera and opera composers? What makes it special?
Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, a work that he re-wrote three times. It has been called a “secular oratorio,” and it is full of the passion that typifies so much of Beethoven’s work.
When listening to Beethoven’s music, I personally feel as if the score can barely contain all of the emotion he is trying to express, that it is stretched to its absolute limit, and somehow there is an underlying tension, a sense that if it were possible, he would want you to feel even more than he has been able to write down.
What is your overall concept of the opera? Do you see it as having to do with the Enlightenment and political movement toward democracy?
Fidelio has been subject to a multitude of interpretations since its inception. In many ways, the score is a blank slate: the characters are not described in great detail, there is no mention in the score of the exact political situation at hand, and even Florestan’s “crime” against Pizarro is not identified explicitly. Instead we have a story of brutal revenge versus great love: a universally appealing theme.
With its dream of a government free of tyranny, and the inherent worth of the individual man, Fidelio certainly has a very healthy dose of Enlightenment principles.
However, in many ways it may be seen as ushering in Romantic era ideals. It is full of sweeping emotional moments: perhaps the most famous is the Prisoners’ Chorus “O welche Lust” (at bottom in a YouTube video), which begins with an ecstatic appreciation of the beauty of a single breath of fresh air.
The fact that Beethoven gave the most beautiful music in the entire opera to a chorus of common prisoners shows us, I think, his belief that our connection to a higher power and our longing for freedom is inherent and universal to every man.
Does Beethoven’s opera hold lessons for today about current events?
As a director, I am not really one to look for lessons in our literature. Instead, I hope to engage our audience in a very human drama, to make them FEEL something and to connect with them. I think that experiencing music and drama in this way makes us more empathetic and open to other human beings, and that can only make the world a better place.
This is your debut in Madison. Do have impressions of the city, the opera and orchestra, either firsthand or through others?
I travel a lot for my work, and every time I have mentioned I will be in Madison, people simply gush about what a lovely place it is. In addition to the charming beauty of the city, I’ve noticed there seems to be a big focus on beer and cheese. So, basically it is heaven.
What you would you like to add or say?
Fidelio is an opera that is rarely performed. It takes massive forces: large orchestra, large chorus, and very large voices. I think we have quite a group assembled here, and hope your reading audience will take advantage of the opportunity to hear the work of one of the world’s most beloved composers.