The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Want to hear the highest note ever sung at the Metropolitan Opera?

November 17, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is called the note that has never been sung before.

Not even at the famed Metropolitan Opera (below, first from outside and then from the stage over the orchestra pit) in New York City.

It is that high.

An A.

Waaaay up there.

And with no preparation, no working up to it, in the score.

Just BAM!! There it is.

You can hear more about it, and the discipline and preparation it takes to sing it, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But it gets sung in the new opera by Thomas Adès, “The Exterminating Angel,” which will be broadcast in area cinemas this Saturday afternoon and a week from next Wednesday in “Live from the Met in HD.”

Here is a story in The New York Times that has an audio sample:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-high-note-exterminating-angel.html

And here is a link to a story on NPR that also allows you to hear the note sung by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna (below, in a photo by Greg James), who has a special talent, a gift, for singing high notes and specializes in them:

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/10/563224351/soprano-aubrey-luna-makes-history-at-new-yorks-metropolitan-opera

And here is a link to Audrey Luna’s website:

http://audrey-luna.com

Finally, here is a link to a previous post this week with background and details about the Adès opera and its broadcast times and date. The New York Times’ senior critic Anthony Tommasini says “”The Exterminating Angel” should be the one opera you see this year if you only see one.”

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/classical-music-this-saturday-and-next-wednesday-live-from-the-met-in-hd-will-feature-the-thomas-ades-operatic-remake-of-luis-bunuels-film-the-exterminating-angel/


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann” proved a musical and theatrical delight from beginning to end. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs Saturday night

April 22, 2016
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a concert of music by Claudio Monteverdi, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin and others. Tickets at the door are $20 for the public, $10 for students. A free reception with the musicians follows at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor. For more information about the performers and the program, visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Ear’s good friend and knowledgeable classical music fan Larry Wells offered the following review of last weekend’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” by the Madison Opera. Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

I had been looking forward to Madison Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach (below) ever since it was announced.

Jacques Offenbach seated

The opera is a particular favorite of mine, and I’ve seen a number of productions in larger houses, most recently in Tokyo and most memorably a production at the San Francisco Opera 30 years ago with Placido Domingo and James Morris.

I was interested to see how Madison Opera would approach this somewhat theatrically difficult work, and Sunday’s performance was a delight from beginning to end.

First, the singing.

The cast was consistently strong, and each singer could be mentioned in a positive vein. So, I single out three who particularly stood out.

The star of the show, for me, was coloratura soprano Jeni Hauser (below, center, in white) as Olympia, the doll. Her vocal pyrotechnics were sensational. She would be a wonderful Zerbinetta, and I would enjoy seeing her tackle Baby Doe. She is a very funny physical comic actress, and she was simply wonderful.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Doll Olympia Jeni Hauser CR James Gill

Morgan Smith (below) as Hoffmann’s four nemeses was excellent possessing a strong, deep bass-baritone. As a side note, he is the second singer I’ve seen and heard recently in Wisconsin who will be featured in Tucson Opera’s upcoming premiere of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the other being Keith Phares who was in Florentine Opera’s recent production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers.” It will be conducted by Keitaro Harada, who is a talent to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith CR James Gill

The third standout was mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below) as Hoffmann’s Muse and attendant. She was outstanding vocally and fun to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Adriana Zabala The Muse JAMES GILL

Hoffmann was sung by tenor Harold Meers (below right, in suit).  For an exhausting role, Meers toughed it out and, when singing full voice, was resonant and lyrical.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Harold Meers on right CR James Gill

The production was set in a well-stocked bar, and Hoffmann’s series of bad choices in love appeared fueled by alcohol.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set CR James Gill

The set, from the Virginia Opera, and costumes were dazzling, particularly in the Giulietta act, which in a departure from the productions I’ve seen, was the third act. I felt that the change of the order of the acts made a lot of sense dramatically.

And I loved the use by stage director Kristine McIntyre of the Roaring Twenties theme – flappers and Charlestons, along with gondolas, fog and a bit of German Expressionism. Total fun.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Gondola CR James Gill

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith in cape CR James Gill

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was excellent throughout, and Maestro John DeMain is a treasure whom Madison is extremely fortunate to have. His sense of timing and dynamics is a wonder.

My favorite moment of the opera is the ensemble in the Giulietta scene “Hélas Mon Coeur,” and its performance Sunday nearly brought me to tears. In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear that music performed by Placido Domingo and the remarkable Agnes Baltsa.

So, bravo Madison Opera, for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the opera. I heard several people say that it was a long one — three hours — but for me the time flew.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reviews are subjective, for purposes of comparison here is a link to John W. Barker’s rave review that just appeared in Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/tales-of-hoffman-madison-opera/


Classical music: It’s easy but wrong to underestimate Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” It is literally fantastic but NOT light. It will be performed by Madison Opera on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Part 2 of 2.

April 13, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the historic Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature music for baroque and modern flute and strings  with Iva Ugrcic, Thalia Combs, Biffa Kwok, Joshua Dierigner, Mikko Rankin Utevsky, Andrew Briggs and Satoko Hayami. They will play music by Georg Philipp Telemann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Salvatore Sciarrino and Andre Jolivet.

By Jacob Stockinger

As The Ear posted yesterday, the Madison Opera will present Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” this weekend.

The production will be performed twice in Overture Hall of the Overture Center: on Friday at 8 p.m.; and on 
Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in French with projected English translations

Tickets are $18-$129. Student and group discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Overture Box Office, 201 State St., Madison, and by calling (608) 258-4141 or visiting www.madisonopera.org

For more information, here is a link to yesterday’s post with a plot synopsis and information about the cast:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/classical-music-jacques-offenbachs-fantastical-masterpiece-the-tales-of-hoffmann-will-be-performed-by-madison-opera-performs-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-here-is-part/

Today, The Ear asked the same questions to the two main figures in the production: Artistic and music director John DeMain and guest stage director Kristine McIntyre.

Here are their answers:

JOHN DeMAIN (below)

DeMainOpera

“Tales of Hoffmann” has the reputation of being a “lighter” opera. How justified and accurate is that opinion in your view, and what do you think explains it?

Hoffmann is Offenbach’s grand opus. I’ve never thought of this work as a light opera. To me, light opera has spoken dialogue and the music is distinctly lighter in nature, like operetta.

Where the confusion lies here is, for me, no different than with George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Both composers use popular resources, at times, to tell the story.

Hoffmann is a serious themed piece. Two people are literally murdered, and the mechanical doll is also destroyed. Hoffmann’s soul is condemned to hell, as his pursuit of love is rebuffed at every term. The devil is present throughout as well.

What Hoffmann is, however, is highly theatrical. Magic is present, as well as the supernatural. It is at times ghoulish and macabre, but always entertaining. The Olympia scene with party guests and a mechanical doll — at bottom in a YouTube video — is the lightest scene in nature, as Hoffmann is being duped at a social gathering.

Move into Antonia, and from the beginning the music is serious and profound with two thrilling trios. Giulietta, which has always been the sketchiest act, because of missing music and an incomplete libretto, nevertheless is thrillingly operatic in scope.

Hoffmann is very much like Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in design, particularly in the progression of Hoffmann’s loves, as embodied in the sopranos who sings all four roles. Olympia is coloratura, just like Violetta in the first act singing “Sempre libera.” Antonia is lyric, corresponding to Violetta in the second act, and Giulietta is the most dramatic, just as in the third act of the Verdi.

The beautiful final ensemble at the end of the Epilogue is also not the stuff of light opera. Offenbach, as a composer, is true to his musical style, but achieves the greatest depth of his writing in this wonderful grand opera.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 1

What would you like the public to know about the opera and about the musical aspects of the Madison Opera production including the singers, the orchestra and the score?

The orchestra highlights the drama at every given turn, literally changing tempos on a dime. Leitmotifs are used throughout the piece.

The music is wonderfully melodic, with the entire cast having beautiful arias, duets and trios. It has long been a favorite opera of mine because it so accurately portrays the story in vivid and unmistakable musical terms.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

KRISTINE MCINTYRE (below)

Kristine McIntyre 2016

Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” has the reputation of being a “lighter” opera? How justified and accurate is that opinion in your view, and what do you think explains it?

Well, “lighter” compared to what? Than Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking or Leos Janacek’s Jenufa, certainly. But it’s not a comedy either, and certainly any of the classic operatic comedies, such as Gioacchino Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville, feels perfectly frothy in comparison.

I think this is an easy opera to underestimate because the piece is so theatrical in its storytelling. But Offenbach (below) is actually exploring some very dark themes, as was E.T.A. Hoffmann before him.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tales are fantastical and highly imaginative, but they are also vivid and insightful examinations of human psychology. He exposes our darkest fears and how that darkness intrudes into our everyday lives and our attempts to find love and happiness. I think E.T.A. Hoffmann is particularly insightful at revealing the fragility of his male protagonists and their insecurities where women and love are concerned.

The Olympia act, for instance, is really about a young man’s fear that he has been deceived, that he’s been made a fool of — that he can’t trust the girl he loves and doesn’t know what’s real or what’s not.

The story on which it is based, “The Sandman,” is even more horrifying than Offenbach’s setting: the young man simply can’t get over having fallen in love with the automaton, believes his very human fiancée is actually a machine, tries to kill her and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself from a balcony.

Jacques Offenbach seated

So one should not confuse creativity in storytelling with a lack of seriousness. There is a great tradition, stretching back to the early 19th century, of writers of fantastical literature and science fiction asking some of the hardest questions about human nature and providing some of the most compelling insights.

That tradition now extends to film and we’ve spent some time in rehearsal talking about how movies like Blade Runner and Ex Machina explore some of the same issues.

Offenbach is a man of the theater and gives us music that is just as compelling and theatrical as the tales themselves. This music is fun to stage and listen to, but while Offenbach is entertaining us with his delightful French melodies, his main character, Hoffmann, has his heart broken three times, causes the death of his fiancée, becomes an alcoholic, murders a rival and loses his soul. So the opera definitely has its tragic side.

And we shouldn’t forget that Offenbach balances the fantasy of the tales with the framework of the Prologue and Epilogue and the completely recognizable, human story of Hoffmann’s doomed relationship with his girlfriend Stella. They’ve had a fight and he’s terrified of losing her. In the tales, he is actually telling us Stella’s story over and over again as he tries to make sense of what has happened.

The opera could easily end in tragedy and despair, but instead Offenbach offers us a glass of champagne and a balm for the human condition. (Below is the Roaring 20s set.)

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 3

What would you like the public to know about the opera and about the theatrical aspects of the Madison Opera production including acting, costumes, sets, etc.?

Almost everyone in our cast is doing their roles for the first time, so we’re having a great time in rehearsal exploring every moment of the piece.

This will be a very high-energy, inventive and creative telling of the opera. The production is updated to the 1920s, which is great fun – beautiful costumes and lots of wonderful inspiration from art and cinema of the period.

For instance, we’ve been looking at the paintings of Otto Dix, which capture the élan and decadence of the 1920s, and classic horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu to find the darker side of things for the Antonia act. It’s a very rich period visually and offers us a great deal of style as well as the chance to make something that feels very alive and fresh.

I think it will be very entertaining and also very moving.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 2


Classical music: UW alumna and opera diva Brenda Rae returns to wow the crowd with her virtuosic singing while the UW Symphony Orchestra puts its strengths on display.

September 29, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening night was hyped largely for the appearance of the brilliant young soprano Brenda Rae (née Kinkert in Appleton, Wisconsin).

Soprano Brenda Rae

An undergraduate in the UW-Madison School of Music, and participant in University Opera productions a few years back, she has since moved on, through the Juilliard School, to a burgeoning career in German opera houses. This concert was the climax of her weekend return here to help promote the funding of the UW voice and opera program.

To her considerable credit, she chose as her scheduled vehicle Reinhold Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, a rarely heard work that is quite fascinating.

Gliere uses the solo part in instrumental terms, as a vocalise, without words. The work might be described as a concerto for vowels and orchestra. It is meant to explore the sheer sound of the soprano voice, in all its possible colors.

The soloist (below) is heard in the slow first movement blending into a handsomely melodious Late Romantic orchestral sound, while the second movement tests a coloratura’s virtuosity in suggesting meaning through inflection rather than words.

Brenda Rae in Gliere

It is an extraordinary work, both lovely and clever, and too few sopranos have opportunities to try it out. Inevitably, though, there was the big-hit opera aria as an encore, no less than Violetta’s grand effusions in Act One of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Brenda Rae (below) sang it as a true diva, to tonal and dramatic perfection. But it also served to point up the kind of operatic style that Gliere was suggesting, and affectionately spoofing, in his concerto.

Brenda Rae in Verdi

There was far more than just vocal display to this concert, however.

The opening item was no less than Claude Debussy’s challenging tone poem La Mer. The work calls for both skilled playing and artful leadership. Conductor James Smith gave another demonstration of his capacity to draw wonders from his student players — unfolding and blending the kaleidoscope of instrumental colors that Debussy manipulates variously in each of the three movements.

UW Symphony violins 2015

Though some of the audience (mostly students, I think) walked out at the intermission — more interested in performers than in music, I fear — the bulk of the audience that remained was treated to another of maestro Smith’s wonders, if not miracles. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed work, is a fiercely difficult and draining affair.

Smith and his students sounded like confident pros in a probing, powerful performance of this piece, one of the truly great orchestral scores of the 20th century. I think this performance will be found to stand up well against impending competition, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays the same work in its October program. (Don’t miss that!)

UW Symphony cellos 2015

Here we have “Madison’s third orchestra” – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra being the other two — making a blazing trail of its own in the direct wake this past weekend of the MSO’s own magnificent September concerts.

Oh, how blessed musically is Madison for those who take the trouble to benefit from it all!


Classical music: Here is music to greet Fall, which arrives today. Plus, up-and-coming coloratura soprano Brenda Rae returns to her alma mater UW-Madison from this Friday through Sunday to raise money for University Opera.

September 23, 2015
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ALERT: Autumn is here. The Fall equinox arrives today at 3:31 a.m. CDT. If you are looking for some appropriate music to listen to, here is a good selection — complete with audio samples – from Minnesota Public Radio:

http://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2014/09/23/classical-music-for-fall-autumn

Plus: The long-term weather prediction is for a warm Fall , according to the Web site Accuweather. Here is a link:

http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/warmth-to-continue-in-midwest/52475030

By Jacob Stockinger

Attention all opera fans!

Here is a press release for you from the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music, written by concert manager and publicity director Kathy Esposito:

“Gazing at herself in a bewitched mirror, she is obsessed with her radiant beauty; she caresses her own face and simpers at an imagined lover.”

“That would be the Appleton, Wisconsin coloratura soprano Brenda Rae (below) in the Seattle Opera’s February production of George Frideric Handel’s “Semele,” in which she was described by Opera News as “sensual,” “dazzling” and “moving.” (You can see a clip in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soprano Brenda Rae

Brenda will be on the UW-Madison campus September 25-27 as part of a larger three-day fund drive to put University Opera -– which has existed at UW-Madison for 57 years, but which relies mostly on ticket sales and donations to finance productions -– on a secure financial footing.

For a more detailed biography of Benda Rae, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/soprano-brenda-rae-with-the-uw-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a link to a story about Brenda Rae and the University Opera written  by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/music/dollars-bring-new-era-to-university-opera/article_677707d4-fbd6-5dfd-acf6-f50525ae73c4.html

On Friday, there will be a FREE and PUBLIC master class in Music Hall from 5 to 7 p.m.

On Saturday, two special donor events are planned: the first, a VIP dress rehearsal followed by a private University Club reception for event sponsors.

For more about level of sponsorship and the fundraising drive visit:

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com

And on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, a ticketed public concert ($25 for adults) will feature Brenda Rae singing Reinhold Gliere’s rarely heard Concerto for Coloratura Soprano, accompanied by the UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith. Also on the program are scenes and an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” and “Symphonic Dances” by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The two events are part of a fund-raising drive that honors opera alumna Karen K. Bishop, who passed away in January. We hope you will consider becoming a supporter of University Opera by sponsoring this event and attending one or more performances.


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