The Well-Tempered Ear

New Life for “The Great Gatsby”: John Harbison’s “Roaring ‘20s” opera has its European premiere this month in Dresden, Germany

December 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s good friend, Sarah Schaffer, who works with composer John Harbison, writes:

Many Madisonians were among those who travelled to New York City in 1999 for the world premiere of John Harbison’s opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which is based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of renowned conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary there. (Below, from the original production, are the late tenor Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Gatbsy (Hadley) and Daisy (Upshaw)

The work has since been presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Boston and at Tanglewood by Emmanuel Music, and, in a reduced orchestra chamber version, by Opera Parallele in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival.

A suite from the opera, commissioned by conductor David Zinman, was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Maestro John DeMain here in 2010.

And of course, John Harbison and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, are best known in Madison as the artistic directors of the fiercely imaginative annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in their refurbished barn near Sun Prairie just before Labor Day each summer.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

Now, the first European performance of “The Great Gatsby” will take place at Semperoper (below) in Dresden, Germany from this Sunday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 21. It will be presented in English, with German surtitles.

semperoper dresden exter

Semperoper interior

Preceding the first performance, Semperoper is offering a preview event where two film versions of “The Great Gatsby” will be shown: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and the 2013 Baz Luhrman version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.

According to Semperoper, “The opera blends modern classical music with jazz and swing to paint a thrilling portrait of a debauched and decadent society, where double standards clash with idealism. European audiences can now enjoy this work for the first time.”

John Harbison directing Gatsby

Wayne Marshall is music director, Keith Warner stage director, with dramaturgy by Stefan Ulrich, and set design by the late John Engels, whose stunning and evocative work was seen last spring in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The Passenger, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s powerful opera about how the horrors of Auschwitz impact people’s lives in the present.

Wayne Marshall, renowned interpreter of the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and other 20th-century American composers, serves as music director.

In making a new production of The Great Gatsby, Director Keith Warner does not adopt an “update” strategy, often seen in recent European productions.  Instead he goes directly to the period, the American mid-1920s, making its excesses, its excitements, and its cloak of impending doom the essential color of the opera. (below is the party scene.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Party Scene

In the upcoming Dresden production, tenor Peter Lodahl makes his Semperoper debut in the role of Jay Gatsby. For more information, visit: www.peterlodahl.co

Daisy Buchanan will be performed by soprano Maria Bengtsson. For more information, visit: www.mariabengtsson.com

A complete cast list and production personnel can be found at https://www.semperoper.de/en/whats-on/schedule/stid/Gatsby/60545.html

A brief video regarding the launching of Gatsby at Semperopera can be found at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7x_dVimgYg

While not without its detractors, over the years and through its many productions Gatsby has garnered significant praise from some of the most respected critics and publications.

With such an iconic and thoroughly American novel, story and music as its origin and soundscape, it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Gatsby’s eagerly anticipated European premiere will garner across the pond.

Harbison Great Gatsby 2

Europeans, very conversant with the Fitzgerald novel, tend to emphasize the role of class more than American readers.  Warner uses a number of theatrical devices to starkly outline the attitudes and surroundings of the Wilsons, the working-class couple so crucial to conflicts within the story.

The racist and elitist rants of Tom Buchanan, perhaps more comfortably folded into his familiar character by American fans of the book, emerge in stark outline in Warner’s conception.

 


Classical music: Puccini’s gift for heart-touching melody allows both beginners and veterans to connect with his timeless operas in a way that has been largely lost in contemporary music, says John DeMain. He will conduct the Madison Opera’s production of La Bohème this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 12, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 ( below is the original poster from 1896 by Adolfo Hohenstein) at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world.

Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

La Boheme 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

For more information about the Madison Opera’s production and cast, read the Q&A that The Ear did with Kathryn Smith, the general director of the Madison Opera. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/classical-music-puccini-was-a-master-crafter-of-drama-says-kathryn-smith-the-madison-operas-stages-its-production-of-la-boheme-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

By The Ear’s reckoning, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), has spent close to 50 years in opera. He is the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and will conduct the singers, orchestra and choruses for the two performances of “La Bohème.”

He graciously agreed to share his experience and knowledge in an email Q&A with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

First of all, it’s a love story involving young adults trying to make it through their young years living from hand to mouth. They are college or post-college age, and are living life on the edge, enjoying great camaraderie, as college roommates enjoy to this day.

We have all lived through the tragedy of disease or plagues affecting various parts of the world in our own time. Mimi has tuberculosis, and we have seen how HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola have taken young lives in our own time, robbing people of the chance to live out their lives and loves. So, there is always some part of a story like this for people, both old and young, to connect with.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Once we enter into the world of Italian “verismo,”or realism, we basically have music that is timeless. The music vividly underscores the action of the drama in great detail from moment to moment.

The interplay of the various leitmotifs manipulates our emotions, leading us to enjoy a good laugh at the interplay of the guys, or Musetta’s outrageous carrying on to make her “ex” jealous and win Marcello back. Then the music engages us in the great sadness of losing Mimi to her disease and robbing Rodolfo of his loved one ( in the final scene below from a production by the Houston Grand Opera, which John DeMain used to head before coming to Madison).

Our great film composers and composers of musical theater all learned from Puccini how to connect the emotions of the drama to the music and vice-versa.

HGO La Boheme

HGO La Boheme

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

Puccini’s output as a composer was limited both in scope and in number. He focused primarily on opera and gave us 12 works in that form. To this day, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca remain in the top echelon of opera’s most popular works.

Puccini (below) labored over each of his operas for long periods of time, rewriting to get these pieces as close as possible to perfection, creating librettos and music that soars emotionally, melodically and harmonically. His Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Turandot and even parts of Butterfly are great examples of Italian Impressionism.

But while Bohème has a few touches of impressionistic harmony, most of the opera stays within a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary.

I think we appreciate more than ever Puccini’s capacity to write unforgettable melody that goes to the very core of our being. Indeed, we lament that most contemporary scores can’t achieve that, and therefore, they don’t have the same relationship with our audiences today. (You can hear that in the arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma Izzo in a YouTube video at the bottom. Listen for when the audience applauds Pavarotti singing a high C.)

puccini at piano

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

I would like to encourage people who have never been to an opera to come and see La Bohème. There are still people out there who don’t know that we have English titles over the stage that simultaneously translate the opera into English.

The acts are not long, the drama flows at almost the same rate of time as it would if it were just spoken without music. And the young stunning cast we have assembled will thrill young and old alike.

This, like Carmen or Madama Butterfly, is the perfect opera for a first-timer. For the rest of us, it is a chance to thrill once again to one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for the operatic stage.

 


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