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: The Karp family turns in a memorable and moving 40th annual Labor Day concert that also took listeners back in time

September 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you missed the free 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert on Tuesday night in Mills Hall, you missed more than music. You missed the kind of event that makes for long and precious memories.

Sure, you can nitpick the program and the performers, who also included daughter-in-law violist Katrin Talbot (below right) and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below left), who performs with the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You could ask, for example, which cello transcription worked better – the Violin Sonatina, Op. 100, by Dvorak or the Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96, by Beethoven. (The Ear votes for the Dvorak.)

And you could also ask which performer stood out the most. (The Ear thinks that is the great-grandmother and matriarch pianist Frances Karp playing in a Mozart piano quartet. At 90, Frances still possesses beautiful tone, the right volume and balance, and the necessary technical chops. They say there is nowhere to hide in Mozart, but Frances Karp did need any place to hide. Her Mozart was, simply, sublime.)

But, in the end, those kinds of questions and critiques really seem beside the bigger point.

What mattered most was the sheer enjoyment of hearing a family perform live some wonderful music by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Schumann (the passionate Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, Op. 70, played by Lynn Harrell in the YouTube video at the bottom).

And what mattered more as The Ear thought about it was the kind of time travel the concert involved.

There were two kinds, really.

One had to do with having watched the various performing Karps – clearly Madison’s First Family of Music – over four decades. It was touching to realize that The Ear has seen cellist Parry Karp, to take one example, evolve from son to husband to father to grandfather. And through it all, the music remained.

In today’s culture of short attention spans, that kind of constancy and persistence — through the inevitable ups and downs of 40 years — is something to celebrate, admire and cherish.

Time travel happened in another way too.

The Ear first watched Frances Karp accompany her son Parry (below top), then watched son Christopher Karp accompany his older brother Parry (below bottom). And it called to mind the days when – before radio or recordings – families made music together in their homes.

Historically, that’s how many great composers and much great music got started. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn played piano duets with their gifted sisters, Nannerl and Fanny, respectively. Jean Sibelius played duets with his sister. And there were surely many more. Hausmusik, or “house music,” played a vital role.

And this is how it felt at the traditional Karp family concert. We felt invited into a loving, close and gifted musical family who were performing as much for each other as for the audience.

We could use more of that.

The musical and the familial mixed so beautifully, so convincingly, that all one can say after the event is “Thank you” with the ardent wish to hear them again next year.


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Master pianist Richard Goode performs music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Alban Berg in a MUST-HEAR recital this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

He may not have the instant worldwide name recognition and box-office appeal of, say, Lang-Lang or Martha Argerich.

But in The Ear’s book American pianist Richard Goode (below) is nonetheless a superstar.

That is because Goode is a chameleon in the best sense.

Whatever he plays — live or on recordings — feels as if someone with a deep understanding and a natural affinity for the unique qualities of that specific composer and work is at the keyboard.

His Bach always sounds so Bachian. His Mozart always sounds so Mozartean. His Beethoven always sounds so Beethovenian. His Schubert always sounds so Schubertian. And his Brahms – for which he won a Grammy – always sounds so Brahmsian. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Goode discuss how he deliberately chooses a selective repertoire that he can return to again and again.)

Whenever you hear Goode, you come away thinking, “Now that is  how the composer meant his music to sound.” Goode just disappears into the music.

Goode, who co-directed the venerable summertime Marlboro Music Festival for 14 years until 2013, always puts himself at the service of the music, never the other way around as so many other firebrand virtuosos do.

Goode, a shy man who collects books and fine art, is not given to flamboyance or theatrics. His interpretations always seem exactly right, never exaggerated and weird but both beautiful and emotionally convincing. He is, in short, a complete musician — recitalist, soloist in concertos and chamber music partner — and not just a great pianist. His is a quiet, self-effacing virtuosity.

You get the idea.

And you can sample such superlative musicianship for yourself this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. when Goode returns to perform a varied recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This is a performer and a program that no serious fan of the piano – professional or amateur, teacher or student — should miss.

On the program of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, are: a selection of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Alban Berg’s Sonata No. 1; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, which Goode, who has recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, says is his favorite; the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1, and the Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, by Chopin.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will deliver a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m.

Tickets run from $20 to $47.

Here is a link to more background and information about obtaining tickets:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/richard-goode-piano/


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