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
4 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

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 7th annual Schubertiade at the UW-Madison is this Sunday afternoon and will explore the influence of Beethoven on Schubert

January 23, 2020
3 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, is the seventh annual UW Schubertiade – named after the evening gatherings of friends (below) where the composer Franz Schubert performed and premiered his own music.

This year’s theme, given that 2020 is the Beethoven Year, is the immense influence that the older Beethoven (below top) 1770-1827) had on the younger Schubert (below bottom, 1797-1828).

The event will begin with a pre-concert lecture by UW-Madison Professor of Musicology Margaret Butler at 2:15 p.m. in the Rehearsal Hall at the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art.

Then at 3 p.m. in the 330-seat Collins Recital Hall in the same building, the two-hour concert will take place.

The concert will close with the usual custom. The audience and performers will join in singing “An die Musik” (To Music). (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by legendary German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and legendary British accompanist Gerald Moore.)

A reception will follow the concert in the main lobby.

For more description of the event plus a complete program and list of performers – who consist of UW-Madison graduates and musicians including soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below top) and mezzo-soprano Alisanne Apple (below middle) as well as the Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Rick Langer) – go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/our-annual-schubertiade/

At the site, you will also find information about buying tickets – general admission is $20 with free student tickets on the day of the concert is space is available – and about parking.

The event was founded by and continues to be directed by wife-and-husband pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) who also sing, accompany and play works for piano, four hands.

Lutes sent the following introductory remarks: “Ever since Martha and I presented the first of our annual Schubertiades back in January 2014, we’ve looked for ways to keep our all-Schubert birthday parties fresh and interesting for our audience.

“From time to time we contemplated introducing another composer – maybe even switching our allegiance from the immortal Franz to another of our favorites: perhaps a “Schumanniade.”

“This time, with six years of all-Schubert behind us, we thought we would do the obvious and finally unite Schubert with the composer who probably meant more to him than almost any other – Beethoven, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated this year.

“Once Beethoven moved permanently to Vienna at age 22, he soon became famous and eventually was regarded as the greatest of the city’s composers.

“Schubert, who was born in Vienna five years after Beethoven’s arrival, grew up hearing the older master’s works, often at their premieres. As his genius flowered early, Schubert was often challenged and inspired by Beethoven’s music.

“We bring together these two giants who lived in the same city, knew the same people, attended the same musical events, perhaps met or quite possibly didn’t.

“Yet Beethoven’s presence and example guided Schubert in his own road toward the Ultimate Sublime in music. Our concert of “Influences and Homages” features works where the musical, if not the personal, relationship is there for all to hear.”

Lutes also supplied a list of the song titles in English translation:

“Ich liebe dich” – I love you

“Der Atlas” – Atlas

“Auf dem Strom” – On the River

“Der Zufriedene” – The Contented Man

“Der Wachtelschlag” – The Quail’s Cry

“Wonne der Wehmut” – Joy in Melancholy

“Kennst du das Land?” – Do You Know the Land?

“An die ferne Geliebte” – To the Distant Beloved

“An die Freude” – Ode to Joy

“Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” – Scene from Hades

“Elysium”

“Nachthymne” – Hymn to the Night

“Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” – Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament

Have you attended a past Schubertiade (below, in Mills Hall)?

What did you think?

Would you recommend it to others?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Is it piano neglect? The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music should take better care of the piano used for student concerts. Plus, Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain gets raves for conducting an opera in Washington, D.C.

February 21, 2016
7 Comments

ALERT: Did you wonder what Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain was up to since the MSO concerts last weekend used a guest conductor?

Well, the hometown maestro was guest conducting a week-long production of Kurt Weill‘s opera “Lost in the Stars” for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

A number of  critics didn’t particularly like the opera itself, which is based on the famous anti-apartheid novel “Cry, the Beloved County” by Alan Paton, and some criticized the theatrical aspects of the production.

But music director and conductor DeMain received praise for his part.

Here are links to various reviews:

http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2016/02/15/review-lost-in-the-stars-at-wno-2/

http://dctheatrescene.com/2016/02/15/lost-in-the-stars-from-washington-national-opera-review/

There is more praise in a mention on Page 2:

http://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwopera/article/BWW-Review-Washington-National-Opera-Takes-On-A-Bit-of-Broadway-With-LOST-IN-THE-STARS-20160215

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/lost-stars-on-stage-for-washington-national-opera/2016/02/13/308dea84-d219-11e5-88cd-753e80cd29ad_story.html?tid=a_inl

By Jacob Stockinger

Calling it piano abuse it would be a stretch. That sounds too accusatory and too sensational.

But calling it piano neglect certainly seems justified and fair.

When The Ear attended some recent student recitals, he noticed the unfortunate treatment of a concert grand piano in Morphy Recital Hall, on which many students perform their degree recitals.

From a distance, and under the glare of stage lighting, the piano (below) seemed more or less OK.

Morphy piano 1

But when he went up close, The Ear saw just how chewed up the wood was in so many places.

Morphy piano 4

Now some wear-and-tear seems normal, especially for a piano that gets so much use for solo recitals and chamber music. And truth be told, it probably plays pretty well and is maintained in good shape internally.

But the outer condition of this piano nonetheless seemed as if it had indeed been neglected over the years — though maybe there are other reasons.

There were eye-catching scrapes and gouges that just look junky.

Now The Ear knows that the talented piano technician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is very busy. After all, there are a lot of pianos to tune and regulate.

And The Ear also knows that budget cuts are presenting challenges to the School of Music and its staff.

But that seems all the more reason to take care of the pianos the school has. The likelihood of replacing it with a new one seems little to none.

After all, these days a Steinway concert grand Model D sells for pretty close to $125,000.

If you had a car worth that much, you would surely not neglect its maintenance and upkeep. So why would you do it to a piano, especially one that gets so much use and is in the public eye so frequently?

So on the eve of more student degree recitals, which will only increase as the end of the spring semester draws closer, here is The Ear’s plea:

Please use the padded covering that can protect the piano when it gets moved, and try to be careful about bumping or scraping into things that can cause permanent damage.

Also, if there are times that the piano’s finish gets marred, please use that specially made piano dye to restore the ebony finish and please repair any chipped keys, which are plastic not ivory, by the way.

The Ear doubts other instruments — strings, brass, woodwinds — would be allowed by their owners to fall into such a state.

If you doubt all this or think it is overstating the case, here are some close-up photos that The Ear took.

It hurts The Ear to see such a fine instrument neglected and deteriorate. He assumes that the students who use it feel the same way – and he hopes the public does too. Owning such a fine musical instrument imposes a certain responsibility on the owner, and it should be repaired.

Morphy Piano 2

Morphy piano 3

Morphy piano 5

Morphy piano 6

Morphy piano 7

Is The Ear being too hard or fussy?

He would like to know what students who play the piano and what other audience members think.

Use the COMMENT section to let him know.

The Ear wants to hear.


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