The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Starting Wednesday, the second LunART Festival will again spotlight women in the performing and creative arts. Here is the first of a two-part preview

June 2, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received a long and detailed announcement about the upcoming second LunART Festival. Here is Part 1 with background and participants. Tomorrow will be Part 2 with more information about new music and a schedule of events.

The LunART Festival is back for its second season from this Wednesday, June 5, through Sunday, June 9, and will continue its mission of supporting, inspiring, promoting and celebrating women in the arts.

The 2019 season brings 10 events to eight venues in the Madison area, providing accessible, high-quality, engaging concerts and events with diverse programming from various arts fields.

The festival will showcase over 100 artists this season, including many familiar local artists and performers as well as guest artists hailing from Missouri to Texas, Minnesota to Florida and as far away as Peru.

LunART’s inaugural 2018 season was a success on numerous fronts. From showcasing a wide variety of artists and arts disciplines to building lasting relationships and collaborations, LunART has distinguished itself from other arts events in Madison.

Both artists and audiences have commented that the LunART atmosphere is one of camaraderie, love and acceptance. Festival directors Iva Ugrcic and Laura Medisky (below right and left, respectively) have set this season to come back even stronger, with expanded dates and more diverse programming.

Like last year, the three ticketed evening gala concerts are centered on classical chamber music. Other art forms — including contemporary and aerial dance, poetry, spoken word and visual arts — are interwoven throughout the programs to create a unique atmosphere for performers, artists and audiences.

This year’s Grammy-nominated composer-in-residence is flutist Valerie Coleman (below), a former member of Imani Winds, who was described as one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music” by The Washington Post.

Coleman embodies LunART’s vision by challenging norms and being a strong advocate for diversity in the arts. Her rich compositional output infuses elements of jazz and African secular music into the Western classical tradition, creating a soundscape that honors both worlds. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Valerie Coleman playing her own composition “Fanmi Imen” at the 2018 convention of the National Flute Association.)

Coleman’s music will be featured throughout the festival among the works of other remarkable women who shaped music history, from Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi to Romantic composer Clara Schumann to living composer Missy Mazzoli.

Drawing from Madison’s rich arts scene and community, LunART 2019 features local artists including: former Madison poet laureate Andrea Musher (below); actor and theater artist Deborah Hearst; choreographers and dancers Liz Sexe and Kimi Evelyn; and aerial dancer Linda DiRaimondo.

Also featured are musicians from arts organizations such as Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Fresco Opera Theatre, Arbor Ensemble, Madison New Music Ensemble and Sound Out Loud Contemporary Music Collective. Under the direction of Edgewood College professor Kathleen Otterson, Madison’s only women’s choir ARTemis Ensemble returns in greater numbers and will present a work by LunART 2018 “From Page to Stage” alum Meg Huskin among others.

Visual art will have a stronger presence in the 2019 Festival. From May 11-July 7, Overture’s Playhouse Gallery will house “Women Against Hate United by Love,” a collaborative, traveling art exhibition and multi-step “anti-hate” campaign united against bigotry, intolerance and racism, created by J. Leigh Garcia (below), Rachael Griffin and Kelly Parks Snider.

A gallery reception on Wednesday, June 5, serves as LunART’s opening event, in which Snider will give a talk about the exhibit and her use of art to educate communities about targeted issues in the hopes of shaking up the status quo. This engaging and thought-provoking exhibit is meant to provide a meaningful and hopeful community experience for all who attend.

In collaboration with Studio 84 and ArtWorking, two nonprofit art studios specializing in the creative development of people with disabilities, the final Gala concert at First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Saturday, June 8, will showcase 40 artworks. This exhibit will feature 20 women artists whose works will be displayed, flanking the Atrium Auditorium stage as well as in the lobby.

Tomorrow: New music to be premiered, comedy and the full schedule of events


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Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
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ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: Civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. was the Abraham Lincoln of his age – a Great Emancipator. To celebrate his birthday, here is Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

January 18, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today we celebrate the birthday of the civil rights pioneer Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Ear thinks of him as The Great Emancipator of the modern age.

As the Abraham Lincoln of our age.

Just as Lincoln freed slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. (below) helped free so many members of different social groups from discrimination.

martin luther king 2

Blacks, of course.

But also women.

Latinos.

Asians.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Disabled people.

The poor.

The old and elderly.

So it seems fitting, then, to listen to Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

The Ear loves the way that the Gertrude Stein-like repetitions of Lincoln’s own words build into a moving testament of the need for both compassion and democracy – a combination that today’s right-wing freedom-spouting and Constitution-citing bigots might do well to cultivate.

So we can listen about one man and think about the other.

Here is a great version, in a YouTube video at the bottom, with actor Henry Fonda as the narrator. There are other fine versions, including one with Leonard Bernstein conducting and composer Aaron Copland speaking the narration. But this version is the one that most moves The Ear.

And please leave your COMMENTS about this offering or other music appropriate to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day for others to read.


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