The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: Madison Opera offers preview events leading up to performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” on Nov. 2 and 4

October 13, 2018
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE 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 the following information to post:

The Madison Opera presents the classic double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo respectively, on Friday, Nov. 2 ,at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

“Cav and Pag” – as they are traditionally known because they are usually presented together — feature some of the most emotionally dramatic music in the repertoire, these two operas offer the ultimate portrayal of passion and jealousy on stage.

Both operas are set in rural Italy and follow characters whose human emotions lead to tragic endings. (The sets, below, used in Madison, come from the New Orleans Opera.)

Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) tells the story of Turridu, who has abandoned his lover, Santuzza, to rekindle an affair with his now-married former girlfriend. As Easter Sunday unfolds, Santuzza and Turridu engage in a battle of emotions that will end with violent consequences.

I Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) tells of a small theatrical troupe arriving in a village for a performance.  Nedda, wife of the troupe’s leader Canio, agrees to run off with her lover, Silvio, that evening.  Another troupe member, Tonio, tells Canio, who responds violently.

But the show must go on, and as Nedda and Canio enact the play-within-a-play, reality bleeds over onstage and tragedy follows. (You can hear the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” sung by Luciano Pavarotti in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“When people think of the phrase ‘Italian opera,’ it’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci that often come to mind,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director.  “The intense emotions of both the characters and the music they sing has never been equaled. I vividly remember the first time I saw Cavalleria and was overwhelmed by the power of it. I am so delighted to produce these operas in Madison for the first time in over 30 years, with this fantastic cast and production team.”

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (below) was written for a one-act opera competition in 1890. Based on a short story and play of the same name, it was an immediate smash hit, with 185 productions around the world within three years, making Mascagni an international icon of Italian music.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (below) wrote I Pagliacci two years later in direct response, hoping for a similar success with a one-act opera about real people caught up in an emotional web. Like Mascagni, he had an immediate success, and the two operas have been paired together intermittently for much of the 20th century.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Making her debut in the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana is soprano Michelle Johnson, who has been praised for her “extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation.”

Also making her Madison Opera debut is soprano Talise Trevigne in the role of Nedda in Pagliacci; Trevigne has received acclaim for her “luxuriant vocalism [and] unwavering commitment to character.”

Returning to Madison Opera are tenor Scott Piper(below top) in the dual roles of Turridu/Canio and baritone Michael Mayes(below bttom) in the dual roles of Alfio/Tonio. Piper was last seen in Madison as Cavaradossi in the 2013 production of Puccini’s Tosca; Mayes returns to Madison after his electrifying performance as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2014.

Rounding out the Cavalleria Rusticana cast are Kirsten Larson as Lola and Danielle Wright as Mamma Lucia, both in their Madison Opera debuts.

Pagliacci will also feature baritone Benjamin Taylor in his Madison Opera debut as Silvio and Madison favorite Robert Goodrich as Beppe.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct, after her highly acclaimed production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season.

Conducting this production will be Joseph Mechavich (below), who made his Madison Opera debut with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and most recently conducted Opera in the Park 2017. Says Mechavich, “Seeing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is the ultimate in an Italian operatic experience.  Audiences will have a visceral reaction to synthesis of music and drama.”

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci both have magnificent choral writing, from the celebrated Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana to the Chorus of the Bells in Pagliacci, as well as sumptuous orchestral music.

Rounding out the musical forces are the Madison Opera Chorus, members of the Madison Youth Choirs, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Events leading up to the opera can help the community learn more about Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Community preview will be offer an entertaining look at “reality opera” – the “verismo” school, which produced works like Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Cinematheque and Madison Opera will co-sponsor a showing of the 1928 silent film Laugh, Clown, Laugh on Oct. 22.  Opera Up Close provides an in-depth discussion of the operas, including a cast roundtable, on Oct. 28.

RELATED EVENTS

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); Saturday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall (http://cinema.wisc.edu)

FREE and open to the public; doors open 30 minutes before showtime

Lon Chaney (below), the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” plays Tito, a smiling-on-the-outside circus clown heading for heartbreak after he becomes smitten with the fetching Simonetta (Loretta Young). This reworking of the Pagliacci story offers a great showcase for the two leads and talented director Herbert Brenon. The silent film will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin and will be preceded by Acrobatty Bunny (1946), starring Bugs Bunny.

Opera Up Close; Sunday, Oct. 28, 1-3 p.m.; the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

$20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers

Join Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci.  General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss the composers and the history of these two pieces. Principal artists, stage director Kristine McIntyre and conductor Joseph Mechavich will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on these masterpieces.

Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders. Attend an entertaining half-hour introduction to “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” one hour prior to curtain.

Post-Opera Q&A: Friday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 4, following the performance in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders

You’ve seen the operas and loved them. But are you perhaps wondering about …?  Join General Director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performances to ask questions about what you have just seen.

More information — including a blog that has interviews with the cast members — is available at www.madisonopera.org


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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: Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” is a second-rate opera that got a first-rate production from the Madison Opera

February 12, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Rankin Utevsky. The young violist, baritone and conductor is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and conductor James Smith, plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and sings with the University Opera.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this past weekend’s performance of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” by the Madison Opera.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Also, his latest venture was the successful recent launch of the Impresario Student Opera at the UW-Madison.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill for the Madison Opera:

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

A great opera can be memorable in many ways. You might remember how you felt at the climaxes of the music, or walk out humming the Big Tune from the showstopper aria, or leave with an image fixed in your mind’s eye of the most dramatic moment in the first-act finale.

In an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini, you might remember all of these. But in American composer Mark Adamo’s debut opera, “Little Women,” there’s nothing to remember — no great moving moments, no thrilling stage pictures, no hummable tunes.

There are motifs, certainly, and recurring lines. But “Things change, Jo” (song by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom) can hardly hold a candle to “O soave fanciulla” in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the first-act Trio in Mozart’s “Figaro,” the parents’ sextet in Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking,” or the quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

It’s all technically correct, but it’s not great opera — neither great storytelling nor great music.

I left the Sunday performance by Madison Opera with the unshakeable feeling that Adamo’s score had been performed far better than it deserved.

Part of the problem is that Mark Adamo (below) is too clever for his own good. The libretto, from the classic 19th-century American novel by Louisa May Alcott, is stronger than the music — never quite moving, but full of evocative and witty phrases.

The music displays a clear command of naturalistic settings of the text, rising to peaks when it should and creating compelling atmosphere. But it always seems to pull back just when a lyrical melody might break forth, or when an emotional climax draws near.

Mark Adamo

Several times he uses the gambit of two conversations on stage at the same time, talking about the same things. But the pacing is never quite right, and the unison lines are predictable and trite rather than powerful. He lacks the confidence to let people talk over one another unless we’ve already heard half of the lines. (Whether the lack of trust is in the audience or stems from his own compositional skill is a matter of conjecture.)

The dramatic and musical tricks are all “correct” — Adamo knows his business — but none of them make an emotional impact, a point driven home by their success in last season’s “Dead Man Walking,” which employs all the same devices to far greater effect. When the opening scene came back at the end of the show, I was ready to walk out. Enough already!

It is a sad fact that the most moving part of the whole affair was only half Adamo’s — a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” (Do You Know the Land) thrown into the second act that almost approached melody, and tugged at the heartstrings in a way no other scene of the opera managed to do.

Beth’s death scene – below top with Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth (left) and Heather Johnson as Jo — was a close second, admittedly.

Little Women 143 Beth dies GILL

And the lovely wedding vow — below bottom with, from left, Alexander Elliott as John Brooke; Courtney Miller as Meg; Rick Henslin as Gideon March; Elizabeth Hagedorn as Alma March — was marred only by Rick Henslin’s intonation.

LIttle Women 101 wedding GILL

The minimal set cheated the opera out of the lush visual setting it deserved. If the realism of the story had been played up, with painted walls and structures, the human elements of the story might have been more believable in a setting that doesn’t feel as though a strong wind might knock it all down.

Little Women 58 GILL

Instead, a few flown-in flats with cheap-looking projections stood in for the occasional wall, and some rather cool shifting images on the scrim in front of the orchestra highlighted the apparent supernatural elements of the story — not that I thought there were supposed to be any in “Little Women.”

Little Women Jo 40 GILL

This is not to say the visuals were all misses — costumes, wigs, and makeup (Karen Brown-Larimore and Jan Ross) were excellent, particularly in establishing distinctive characterizations for the four sisters, who could easily have been hard to tell apart in a less careful production.

The ghostly vocal quartet that opens the opera — and haunts various scenes in the middle, although I’m told they were intended to be offstage — felt like nothing so much as discount Eric Whitacre: cascading clusters and whole-tone scales with no particular narrative purpose, illuminating nothing about the plot. I did find myself wondering if we were supposed to think Jo had gone insane, between that and the drifting projections on the set, but I’m sure that wasn’t the intended effect.

Despite all this, the voices themselves were superb, and married to strong acting skills to boot. Time and again Madison Opera has shown a knack for finding up-and-coming young singers with tremendous talent, and this cast was no exception.

The four Little Women themselves (below, from left, with Eric Neuville as Laurie; Courtney Miller as Meg, Heather Johnson as Jo; Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth; Jeni Houser as Amy), aided by sure-handed direction from Candace Evans, mustered warm, credible camaraderie and sisterly love.

They, and their paramours, baritone Alexander Elliot and tenor Eric Neuville, all displayed rich and even vocalism, with clear and precise English diction rendering the supertitles mostly superfluous.

Litlle Women 22 GILL

As the aloof Aunt March and the mother Alma, Brenda Harris and UW-Madison guest professor Elizabeth Hagedorn were secure and confident in their roles as well.

As the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer (below left, with Heather Johnson as Jo), Craig Verm’s accent faded in and out, but his aria, the aforementioned setting of Goethe’s famous “Kennst du das Land,” was the highlight of the show despite this.

Little Women 130 GILL

Guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison, led musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra capably through a score mired in complexity and made the result sound natural — not an easy feat.

Kyle Knox 2

I admire general director Katherine Smith (below) and the Madison Opera for taking a chance on contemporary American opera, and I dearly hope they do so again next season, and the season after that.

In a tremendously conservative industry, it takes guts to put on something by a living composer when everyone else is picking the safe options to sell out the house. And I’d rather see a contemporary opera and hate it than sit through a mediocre “Bohème” (though this fall’s “Bohème” by the Madison Opera was quite excellent).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Modern opera is a gamble, both for the box office and for the musicians. Sometimes you find “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes you don’t. I hope the next contemporary piece to grace the Capitol Theater stage is one for the ages, even if this one, well, wasn’t.

NOTE: For purposes of comparison, here are links to two other reviews of the Madison Opera’s production of “Little Women”:

This is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/madison-opera-little-women/

And this is the review by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes for Madison Magazine and now has his own blog WhatGregSays as well as monthly appearances on WISC-TV:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/madison-opera-stands-tall-for-little-women/

And here is a  link to an interview with Mark Adamo:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/classical-music-it-always-starts-from-the-singing-line-composer-and-librettist-mark-adamo-talks-about-creating-his-popular-opera-little-women-which-will-be-perfo/


Classical music: On the eve of Opera in the Park, Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith recaps the last season and previews the next.

July 23, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park marks its 14th anniversary this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side.

The annual FREE concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s extraordinary 2014-15 season and provides an appetizing preview of the 2015-16 season that celebrates writers and their inspirations.

Typically, Opera in the Park attracts over 14,000 people every year.

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 1 James Gill

This year, Opera in the Park stars soprano Eleni Calenos, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Harold Meers and local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, and features former Madison Opera Studio Artist Anna Laurenzo.

Here is a link to Kyle Ketelsen’s Q&A with The Ear:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/classical-music-local-opera-star-kyle-ketelsen-talks-about-returning-to-madison-operas-free-opera-in-the-park-this-saturday-night-and-why-he-continues-to-live-here/

Artistic Director John DeMain conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s 27 News “Wake-Up Wisconsin” anchor Brandon Taylor.

Opera in Park 2012 stage

“I love Opera in the Park,” says Smith, in a prepared statement. “It is by far the most important performance Madison Opera gives. The magic combination of thousands of people sitting under the summer night sky and our singers and orchestra performing beautiful music on stage creates something truly inspiring. It is a testament to Madison’s love of music – and love of being outdoors – that we have the highest per capita attendance of any such concert in the country.”

The program for Opera in the Park 2015 includes arias and ensembles from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which opens the 2015-16 season in November; Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” which will be performed in February; and Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which will be performed in April.

The concert will also offer arias and ensembles from such classic operas as Antonin Dvorak‘s “Rusalka,” Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” Arrigo Boito‘s “Mefistofele” and Georg Frideric Handel‘s “Semele.” Broadway hits from “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Wonderful Town” will round out the evening of music, which always includes one number conducted by the audience with light sticks.

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at the intersection of Mineral Point Road, west of Whitney Way. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted, but not sold in the park.

On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members are not allowed to leave items in the park prior to this time. The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 26, at 8 p.m.

Here are two links to help you find information about Opera in the Park.

For general information, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/park/

And for more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/park/cast/

For information about the next season, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2015-2016/

On the eve of the outdoor event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who is the general director of the Madison Opera – agreed to revisit the past season and talk about the upcoming season with The Ear.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season?

Our fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of August, but overall it has been a great year on all fronts. From the triumphant music of our first staged Fidelio (below, the prisoners’ chorus in a photo by James Gill) to the sold-out Sweeney Todd and the joyous The Barber of Seville, it was an immensely satisfying season.

Audience and critical response to each opera was strong, and often included some surprise that the individual enjoyed that particular show more than he or she had expected. It feels like we have proved in the past few seasons that we can produce consistently great opera across the spectrum. I am also encouraged by the new audiences we attract and the diversity of age range I see in our lobbies.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Can you rank each show in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?

It’s difficult to rank this season’s shows, because we know they drew very different audiences. For example, the audience at Sweeney Todd was definitely younger than the audience at Fidelio — the non-subscription performance in particular seemed to have an average age of 30 — and a number of people brought their young children to The Barber of Seville for their first opera.

In absolute numbers, the order would be Barber (below, in a photo by James Gill), Sweeney Todd and Fidelio, but there was not a wide gap between them.

The main thing I’ve learned with each successive season is that we are doing the right thing by having such a mix of operas. Some of our patrons love Beethoven, some only like comedy, and some were only interested (or very much un-interested) in Sweeney Todd.

By doing such a range, we serve a much wider audience than if we focused on only one segment of our audience. Hopefully this adds to the growing understanding that opera is not a monolithic art form.

Madison Opera barber of seville cast action

How and why did you choose the operas for next season? Why Puccini’s “La Boheme”? Why Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”? Does “Little Women” represent something of a departure for Madison Opera? Is there an umbrella concept or unifying theme to the season?

Choosing a season’s operas is a question of balancing the classic, the rare and the new; picking a range of composers and languages; and in general coming up with the “mix” that defines us.

We have not performed La Bohème in eight years, so it was time to bring back the greatest love story in opera. While some long-time opera-goers may have seen it many times, we also have many in our audience who have only come to opera recently, so this will be their first Bohème.

la boeme banner

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a brilliant piece that is both scarily large and immensely exciting to produce, packed with beautiful music and special effects. It happens to be a personal favorite opera not only for me, but also for John DeMain and Kristine McIntyre, our stage director. We look forward to sharing this literally fantastic work on the Overture Hall stage, as we have not performed it in 20 years.

tales of hoffmann banner

Little Women came out of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, to some extent. After the success of Dead Man Walking, many people — particularly those who were surprised by how much they enjoyed a 21st-century opera — asked me what we were doing next. I did not want another nine years to go by before we did another major American opera, but I also wanted a completely different story, so that it would not be a literal comparison.

Mark Adamo’s Little Women has been one of the most-performed American operas since its 1998 premiere; its basis in a story that has been beloved for generations makes it the perfect way to keep growing our American repertoire.

As is often the case, the season theme emerges after I’ve picked the operas. Next season turned out to be a season of writers: Rodolfo is a poet; so is Hoffmann. Jo March writes stories for magazines and is in fact the only writer we see succeeding in her craft during the opera.

That said, the unifying theme is the same one I strive for every season: Great operas that tell wonderful stories with enthralling music.

little women banner

What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions? Has it lived up to expectations?

Over the past two years, the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center (below) has played a major role in defining who we are. On a basic level, it is where we rehearse, fit costumes and have our offices. It is also where the singers hang out, give press interviews, do their laundry, cook the occasional meal, work on music for their next gig and bump into our trustees in the common areas.

Having our own space has enabled us to add programs like the free Opera Novice series and hold more workshops with our high school apprentices.

On a financial level, revenue from the parking ramp in particular is an increasingly important part of our budget, as it is not dependent on donors or ticket sales. On a community level, having our rehearsal hall regularly used by groups such as CTM, Theatre Lila, and Capital City Theatre shows that we truly are part of the larger artistic fabric of Madison. The Center was designed to be a home on many levels, and we are well on the way to achieving that dream.

Madison Opera Center interior

What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park?

I am always grateful for the enormous number of people who make Madison Opera possible. Opera has never been cost-effective, and our patrons, volunteers, artists, production teams, and staff are all committed to sharing this glorious art form with everyone from the 2,000 teenagers at our student matinees to the 15,000 people at Opera in the Park.

Our season ends with this summer’s Opera in the Park this Saturday, which is always the perfect way to finish the year. This summer is the concert’s 14th year – which means that 2016 will be the 15th year, a milestone that was perhaps unthinkable when we started in Garner Park in 2002.

We have the highest per capita attendance for such an event in the U.S., which is a strong testament to the greater Madison community’s love for what we do. I won’t reveal the repertoire for this summer’s concert yet, but we have four amazing soloists and plenty of light sticks (below), so I hope everyone has the date on their calendars.

Opera in the Park 2014 light sticks


Classical music: Baritone Will Liverman talks about the fun of playing Figaro in the Madison Opera’s production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” this weekend.

April 20, 2015
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EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this post made the error of calling Will LIVERMAN by the wrong name of Livermore. I apologize for the inaccuracy.

By Jacob Stockinger

For the first time in 12 years and the first time in Overture Hall, the Madison Opera will present “The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini (below) at 8 p.m. on this Friday, April 24, and at 2:30 p.m. on this Sunday, April 26, in Overture Hall.

Rossini photo

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18-$125. Student and group discounts are available. For tickets and more information, call the Overture Center box office at 201 State St., Madison, at (608) 258-4141 or go to www.madisonopera.org

One of the earliest romantic comedies, “The Barber of Seville” tells how Figaro, the title character, helps Count Almaviva and Rosina outwit the latter’s guardian, bringing about a wedding in the final scene.

Multiple disguises, love notes passed in secret, and even a music lesson are used to bring the young couple together. Since its first performance in 1816, Barber has been an international hit, with Figaro’s aria “Largo al factotum” becoming perhaps the most famous opera aria of all time.

“The Barber of Seville” was one of the first operas I fell in love with,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), general director of the Madison Opera. “Rossini’s musical brilliance is unique, and the way the music literally sparkles is one of its most enduring characteristics. It’s a genuine pleasure to share one of the all-time great operas with our community.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

This will be the first time John DeMain, the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, has conducted “The Barber of Seville” in Madison, and he considers it a perfect conclusion to the company’s 10th anniversary in Overture Hall.

“The effervescent strains of Rossini’s scintillating score should be especially vibrant in the glorious acoustics of Overture Hall,” says DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad). “It will be like drinking musical champagne.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

A dynamic young cast brings this witty comedy to life. Emily Fons, a Wisconsin native who debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2012, returns for her first main stage role with the company. These will be her first performances of Rosina, a role she sings later this summer at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and next season at Pittsburgh Opera.

Making his debut opposite Fons is tenor John Irvin, a recent graduate of
the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago — which is now headed by former UW-Madison School of Music professor and professional soprano Julia Faulkner. Irwin also sang Count
 Almaviva for Lyric Opera’s family performance.

Another recent Ryan 
Opera Center graduate, baritone Will Liverman, makes his Madison Opera debut as the illustrious barber Figaro, a role he has previously sung at the Utah Opera and in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s family performance.

Two Madison Opera favorites return in key roles. Alan Dunbar, whose most recent appearances were in “Dead Man Walking” (below, third from right) and the Overture 10th Anniversary Celebration, sings Rosina’s guardian, Dr. Bartolo. Thomas Forde, who sang Judge Turpin in Madison Opera’s recent “Sweeney Todd,” sings Don Basilio, the music teacher and purveyor of gossip.

Dead Man Walking with  (from left) Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck

Madison Opera Studio Artist soprano Chelsea Morris (below) sings her first principal role as Berta, and baritone Trevor Martin makes his debut as Fiorello. Directing this traditional staging is Doug Scholz-Carlson, who directed “The Tender Land” and “The Turn of the Screw” for Madison Opera.

Chelsea Morris soprano

“I am thrilled with this cast,” says Smith. “Rossini requires a lot of vocal teamwork, and it’s exciting to produce the opera with singers who are perfectly matched to their roles and to each other.”

Will Liverman (below) recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:

Will Liverman

Can you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

My name is Will Liverman, and I hail from beautiful Virginia Beach, Virginia. I graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois for my undergraduate degree and finished with a Master’s degree at the Juilliard School. I recently completed the Ryan Opera Center program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Have you sung the role of Figaro before? How have you changed or developed it? If the role is new to you, what do you find most appealing and most challenging about it?

I have only sung this role twice before. The more that I sit with this role, the more that I think it’s imperative to show that Figaro is a man with a good heart. There’s more to Figaro than just wanting money from the Count Almaviva and only looking after himself. I think he really enjoys helping people and he takes pride in that.

Will Liverman Figaro

Is it fun to play Figaro? 

Figaro is a TON of fun. First of all, comedy is my favorite thing to do onstage and The Barber of Seville is the essence of an opera comedy. It’s fun because there are so many different comedic bits to play in each scene. The music is exciting to sing, and it’s a satisfying show to perform.

What do you think explains the popularity and longevity of Rossini’s opera ever since it was first performed in 1816 in Rome? Why should the public today go see and hear it?

Each production has the potential to be something completely different in terms of how it’s staged and who’s singing in the cast. That can be said about other operas as well but The Barber of Seville is essentially a showcase for singers and you get to laugh out of your chair while you’re at it! In addition to Barber being one of the most well-known operas to the general public, it has endless amounts of comedic moments that a director can use.

In your interpretation, what aspects of Figaro’s character do you emphasize and why?

Figaro is three steps ahead of everyone in this piece and in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. It’s important that comes through in every way, because being a cunning man with a plan is simply what he does and how he is able to help everyone.

What would you like to say about the famous showstopping “Largo al factotum” aria in terms of singing it and its universal appeal? (NOTE: You can hear it sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

There isn’t much to be said about it. The aria speaks for itself, and it’s the most famous aria tune out there. My job is to not mess it up and at the same time make it my own!

What else would you like to say about your role, about the opera or about this production?

This production is going to be fantastic! I say that because when you’re able to laugh a lot in rehearsal at how funny the staging is -– and you’re one of the folks performing –- you know the audience is going to enjoy it even more. At least, I hope they do!

 


Classical music Q&A: In the run-up to Madison Opera’s 13th annual FREE Opera in the Park this Saturday night, general director Kathryn Smith talks about the past season, the upcoming season, the new opera center and the outdoor concert.

July 23, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night will bring the Madison Opera’s 13th annual FREE outdoor Opera in the Park. (Sunday is the rain date.)

opera in the _park_010

It is a massive and complex event to stage, from choosing the right food vendors to supplying enough porta-potties and glow sticks.

The music starts at 8 p.m. and runs about two hours in Garner Park, on Madison‘s far west side off at the intersection of Mineral Point and Rosa Roads. It features four guest vocal soloists or singers, plus John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of the Madison Opera and the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducting members of the Madison Symphony and the Madison Opera Chorus.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The event is a chance for the opera company to preview the new season as well as to offer tried-and-true tidbits and hits, and even to offer some popular and classic Broadway show tunes.

It generally attracts more than 10,000 listeners — the record is about 14,000 — who can dine informally outdoors and then listen to the music.

For more details about Opera in the Park, here are some links:

This overview includes park hours and rules plus a schedule and address and affiliated events:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/park/

The repertoire or program that includes music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giacchino Rossini, Giacomo Puccini, Gaetano Donizetti, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Franz Lehar, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet (including the famous “Toreador Song” from “Carmen,” which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom), Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rogers:

http://madisonopera.org/uploads/PDFs/Opera%20in%20the%20Park%202014%20repertoire.pdf

This link features the biographies of the guest singers:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/park/index.aspx?ID=332

In the run-up to the event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the Madison Opera’s general director, agreed to a Q&A for The Ear. She covered the past season, the upcoming season and Opera in the Park as well as the role of the new Opera Center that is located only a block away from the Overture Center for the Arts in downtown Madison.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season? How does it compare to past seasons and your expectations?

This was artistically one of our strongest seasons ever. Although it is only my third season –- and only the second that I planned –- I have heard from a number of long-time patrons that Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (below, in a photo by James Gill) was one of the greatest operas in the company’s history, and we all agree it was an artistic turning point.

That was my hope in programming the opera -– in my grant application to the NEA, I referred to it as “a stake in our artistic ground” -– so it is gratifying that it exceeded even my own goals in its impact.

Dead Man Walking near end James GIll

I was also very proud of Puccini’s Tosca, as doing the classic operas well is the best way to make sure they thrive, and that The Daughter of the Regiment, by Gaetano Donizetti, was so well received. The latter was our first midwinter show in the Capitol Theater in five years, and its success lets people know that our February show is an important part of our offerings.

tosca on ramparts mad op

madison opera daughter 6 chorus, abreu, cislin, apple, Douglss Swenson as Hortensius James Gill

Our fiscal year doesn’t end until August 31, so it is too early to say definitively where we will end financially. We had some challenges this year, as we learned the costs of running the new Madison Opera Center (below) and saw ticket buyers lean toward less expensive tickets. But it has in general been a strong year, and we hope that our supporters will help us finish the fiscal year in the black.

Madison Opera Center

Can you rank the shows in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?

The Daughter of the Regiment was in a smaller theater, so it sold the best in terms of percentage of house, but Dead Man Walking was the best-seller in terms of number of tickets, slightly outselling Tosca. In fact, it outsold everything we have done but Don Giovanni in recent years, and even outsold operas like Faust and The Flying Dutchman — something I do not think anyone would have predicted for a 21st century American opera in Madison.

The main thing I learned from the season is to take chances.

Dead Man Walking was far from a sure thing: We lost many subscribers because of it, but single ticket-buyers, including a number of first-time opera-goers, made up the difference. I know that many people attended Dead Man Walking thinking they would not care for it, so it is a tremendous achievement that so many people were blown away, ranking it as one of the greatest artistic experiences of their lifetimes. There is no way to plan for that success, but if a company only offers Carmen and Madama Butterfly, it will never find the world beyond it.

The season also solidified a trend that every arts group in the U.S. is seeing: Last-minute ticket buying is now the norm. We sell around 20 percent of our tickets in the week before a show opens, regardless of the show’s title or what time of year it plays.

That is simply how arts ticket buying works these days, and I am guilty of it, too. So while it is nerve-wracking for me as a producer, it is something we need to learn to accept, rather than panic about.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions?

The Opera Center, which officially opened only nine months ago, was designed to be both our administrative and artistic home, and it was certainly that. Apart from being a beautiful facility in which to work, it enabled us to do more outreach activities and hold multiple rehearsals simultaneously.

For example, during Dead Man Walking, John DeMain could work with cast members on music in the downstairs studio while Kristine McIntyre was staging the opening fight scene upstairs.

It also became a home away from the hotel for the artists, particularly on Dead Man Walking, which had a large cast, emotionally intense scenes, and long rehearsal days. They cooked in the kitchen, used the music library, and set up their laptops in our offices.

We were even able to let Michael Mayes’ dog, Pete, hang out in the Opera Center, so cast members could play with him on their breaks. That is very much what I wanted the Opera Center to be and why it is designed the way it is, so it was gratifying to see it used that way.

For example, below are photos of Dead Man Walking stars (below top, Michael Mayes, who sang Joseph De Rocher, and Alan Dunbar, who sang Owen Hart) on a break from rehearsals, playing their guitars in the Michael Klos Music Library of there Opera Center; and of Michael Mayes and his dog Pete (below bottom), who also seems to be singing as part of a photo shoot in our costume shop downstairs.

Michael Mayes and Alan Dunbar singing

Michael Mayes and Pete

Will next season bring any major changes to the Madison Opera?

Next season is about building on the major changes of the past year -– the creation of the Madison Opera Center, which allows us to do more education programs such as Opera Novice, which proved very popular in its first iterations this year; the continued expansion of the repertoire; and a strategic look at how to build upon our recent success for the future.

How and why did you choose the operas for next season?

I aim for balance with every season: a mix of pieces with different plots by a variety of composers, with at least one classic piece and at least one Madison Opera premiere.

It has been 12 years since we last performed The Barber of Seville, so it was time to share this classic comedy with our audiences. For a new generation of opera-goers, our production might as well be a world premiere; I certainly remember the first time I heard Barber and discovered the glories of Giacchino Rossini (below).

Rossini photo

To balance Barber, we wanted something more serious and not-as-classic. Madison Opera did a single performance of Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven (below) in concert 28 years ago, but has never staged the opera. Although it is Beethoven’s only opera, he was far from a rookie composer, and the score is just brilliant, with a powerful storyline and a truly moving choral ode to freedom.

Beethoven big

Our middle piece, Sweeney Todd, is both a Madison Opera premiere and an American classic. Although it premiered on Broadway, it has lived in the opera house since 1984, when the Houston Grand Opera performed it, conducted by John DeMain. Both witty and tragic -– it has a higher body count than any opera we have performed recently –- the stunning score by Stephen Sondheim (below) requires powerhouse voices to sing, and we certainly have them in this production. Plus it is a delight to produce it with the full orchestra, rather than the reduced version many Broadway productions use. I look forward to offering Madison yet another side of what opera can be.

stephen-sondheim-aa58e636211efdc134e6540533fff5cc52c73909-s6-c30

After I set the season, I noticed two things that no one will believe are coincidences: We are following up one opera set in a prison (Dead Man Walking) with another (Fidelio). And The Barber of Seville follows “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which is Sweeney Todd’s subtitle. None of this was deliberate, but it will perhaps make good marketing.

What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park this summer?

I am tremendously grateful to everyone who has been involved with Madison Opera in the past year. We have done so much, from building the Madison Opera Center to the vast amounts of outreach that led up to Dead Man Walking. There were literally hundreds of people who supported us, performed with us, and joined us for education events, and none of this would have been possible without them.

I am also, of course, very much looking forward to Opera in the Park on this coming Saturday, July 26. It is truly a highlight of what we do, and we have four exciting soloists this year: Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top), Wallis Giunta (below second), Sean Panikkar, (below third) and Kelly Markgraf (below fourth), as well as our wonderful Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. It will be a great night. You won’t want to miss it!

Jamie-Rose Guarrine Peter Konerko

Wallis Giunta

Sean Panikkar CR Kristina Sherk

Kelly Markgraf

 


Classical music: We are all “Dead Men Walking.” After the tears come the thoughts, as The Ear takes in the Madison Opera.

May 1, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

To my ears and eyes, the reviews were justifiably unanimous: The Madison Opera scored an unqualified artistic success with the two performances of its production last weekend of composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Terrence McNally’s opera “Dead Man Walking.” (Below, in a photo by James Gill, is the penultimate scene, as the shackled convicted killer prepares for his execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola with the prison warden, prison guards and prison chaplain.)

Dead Man Walking near end James GIll

In case you missed those reviews or have forgotten what they said, here is a link to Mikko Utevsky’s review for this blog, along with links to other reviews by John W. Barker fo Isthmus and Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/classical-music-review-madison-operas-dead-man-walking-packs-an-emotional-punch-that-will-leave-you-changed-it-is-that-good-the-last-performance-is-this-afternoon-at-230/

I agree with what all that those discerning reviewers said. But my purpose for writing today is different.

After taking in the powerful musical drama, which stands out and above the Madison Opera’s many previous successes, I found “Dead Man Walking” powerful but also thought-provoking.

It deserves a second later and more considered look, and that is what this posting is. After the tears – and many, if not most, in the audience left with wet faces – came the thoughts. These are mine:

I now understand even better why a prosecutor and a judge in Madison both told me that if Wisconsin had capital punishment, they would no longer practice criminal law. I find I am in complete agreement with them.

The death penalty is just too iffy and wrong  — when the Illinois governor suspended it, Death Row had a wrongful conviction rate higher than 50 percent — too discriminatory and too inhumane. It is simply not worthy of us. Crime does not justify crime.

One particularly touching moment in the opera when was one victim’s father (seated far left in the photo by James Gill of victims’ families witnessing the execution of Joseph De Rocher, who killed the young man and raped and killed the young woman) says that the death of the murderer will not bring him peace about the loss of his daughter.

Dead Man Walking victims families James Gill

That said, I have to add that the opera is not really about capital punishment and the death penalty. It is about love. To be sure, it is not about the romantic or erotic kind of love. It is about “agape,” that more spiritual kind of love that is embodied by Sister Helen Prejean in her relationship with the convicted murderer, and in his with her. It is about the truest, most Christian kind of love -– and I say that as a person who is not at all religious.

If you had to pick one line about what the opera is all about, it would be when spiritual advisor Sister Helen Prejean asks convicted murder Joseph De Rocher to look at her face while he is being executed. “We all deserve to have the last face we see in this world be the face of love.”

In our final moments, isn’t that what we all want and hope for?

Dead Man Walking  Who will walk with me? James Gill

In that sense, I thought later, we are all of us “dead men walking.” We may not know the date, time and reason for our “execution.” And we may not know whether the “death chamber” will be our bedroom, our car, our home, a hospital room, a hospice room or someplace else.

But make no mistake: Mortality is the human condition, and we never or rarely accept it as deserved. Except for severe pain or disability, we all want more and we all die protesting our death and the death of our loved ones. (Below are Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean.)

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

And talk about being art imitating reality – or, as Oscar Wilde said, reality imitating art! And that is another key to the universality of “Dead Man Walking.”

Even as I am writing this, on the radio and in other media are two stories about capital punishment. One is a botched execution of Clayton Lockett that was done with a “new” and unexplained cocktail of lethal drugs cocktail, in Oklahoma. The other is story about a Wisconsin woman who is asking the parole board to pardon the killer of her daughter because she has experienced forgiveness. And, she adds, “forgiveness is not for the criminal, for the other person, but for ourselves.”

That could be right out of “Dead Man Walking,” which may indeed be “issue art” but is hardly a “lecture play” or a didactic treatment of capital punishment. It is a human story, in which all characters are victims of one kind or another.

Which is also why it is hard to accept the fact that “Dead Man Walking” is now 14 years old. It seems as current, as relevant, as today’s news headlines do — or even as tomorrow’s headlines will, and headlines for a long time to come.

Execution chamber

And that takes me to another thought.

So much traditional opera, from George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, is historically based on successful drama and plays, sometimes novels or short stories, often by celebrated and successful or popular writers like William Shakespeare, Pierre de Beaumarchais, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, or from folk-lore and myth, like Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

But maybe, just maybe, the secret to successful and powerful, emotionally moving contemporary opera, is to rely on controversial non-fiction, to ground the story in reality.

I am generally not an opera fan. Too much of the drama and too many of the plots seem silly or contrived to me. But if you are lucky, the music is strong enough to overcome that handicap. Yet too much contemporary opera lacks that kind of powerful music.

Now I was knocked out by “Dead Man Walking,” but I can’t claim to have walked out of Overture Hall in the Overture Center humming any tune that lingered.

Still, I found Jake Heggie’s very textural and atmospheric music convincing, involving and compelling. True, I kept thinking that Heggie (below), like much of Giuseppe Verdi and especially Wagner, often has a better way with instruments than with voices – at least to my taste.

Jake Heggie

So in all modesty, I want to suggest that Heggie should extract a half-hour long symphonic suite from this opera score for orchestras to perform. It could be much the way composer Daron Hagen distilled an instrumental suite from “Shining Brow,” his operas about Frank Lloyd Wright that was premiered by the Madison Opera. Or Richard Strauss’ sublime suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Certainly, the music has a range of tone from the eerie, fluttering harmonies at the opening up to the powerful rhythms and loud sounds of the death scene climax and finale. Just listen to the excerpts from a production by the Sydney Opera in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Such a suite would also help “Dead Man Walking” reach as large a public as possible – and I would sure like to see that happen.

I also would like to know if others who heard the score agree about that. So leave your opinion about that — or other matters — in the COMMENT section.

There are other things to say.

Terrence McNally (below) is a master librettist, with a refined and practical sense of pacing that includes comic relief. The scene where Sister Helen is caught speeding in a car is not unlike the porter scene in “Macbeth” or the gravedigger’s scene in “Hamlet.” It adds to the humanness of the story and the characters. With such relentless intensity at hand, we need an occasional break.

Terrence McNally

Here are links to the insightful interviews with both composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally that freelance writer Michael Muckian did for this blog:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

I would also add that rarely has a cast struck me as so superbly matched in terms of quality of singing and acting. The production was the very model of ensemble work –- and I include in my plaudits the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below top, in a photo by James Gill) and its artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below middle, in a photo by Prasad) as well as the Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians, the many solo singers, the Madison Opera Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the stage director Kristine McIntyre (below bottom).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Kristine McIntyre color

I also found the spare sets, on loan from the Eugene Opera in Oregon, appropriate and ingenious in the way they used chain link fencing and metal bars.

What else can I say? Only that at the end of my life, when I am adding up the greatest musical experiences I have ever had, this production of “Dead Man Walking” will rank right near the top.

This blog’s reviewer Mikko Utevsky called the opera life-changing. I would only add that is also life-affirming.

So The Ear says: Thank You to all who made it possible.

You gave us art that we need, not just art that we want.

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Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” packs an emotional punch that will leave you changed. It is that good. The last performance is this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Don’t miss it. Plus, here are links to other rave reviews.

April 27, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber  Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. For more information, visit: http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org  He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here: www.disso.org.

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center. The last performance is today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $18-$108.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

“The Truth will set you free.”

Here, then, is The Truth:

There are no words for art like this. None suffices. The English language is inadequate when tasked with depicting an experience of the kind to which “Dead Man Walking” belongs.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

I was speechless for a long time after the final curtain, even when I finally stopped crying openly — those who know me can appreciate how rarely I am at a loss for words. The nearly full house reacted similarly, with a prolonged stunned silence before the clapping started and then built into a standing ovation. Then the whole house rose to its feet in unison when Michael Mayes took the stage for a bow.

However, I promised a review, and so a review there shall be, insofar as words can express what must be said.

The opera — musical drama would be a more appropriate term – by composer Jake Heggie (below top) and librettist Terrence Nally (below bottom) is a masterwork on the scale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” or Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in every respect deserves to stand by their side in the repertory.

If anything, the opera is more deeply human than anything in the canon I have yet seen or heard. The libretto is skillfully crafted, capturing every character in life-like depth. Its score is masterful, propulsive, colorful, and powerfully moving, with influences from Mozart, Wagner and George Gershwin apparent. Remarkably, for a composer’s first opera, it balances to the stage apparently without effort. 

Here are links to previous posts with interviews featuring composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

Jake Heggie

Terrence McNally

Not a note is lost from either orchestra or cast, for which joint credit should also be given to Artistic Director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad) and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, who fill the pit.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The singing is world-class. Baritone Michael Mayes lives and breathes the role of death-row convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher, portraying his inner demons with true clarity and conviction. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean for the first time (not that anyone would know) balances faith, doubt, and forgiveness with poignancy and eloquence.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

Susanne Mentzer is heartbreaking as DeRocher’s loving mother, and Alan Dunbar is equally so, standing out from the excellent quartet of the victims’ parents (with Jamie Van Eyck, J. Adam Shelton, and Saira Frank). Baritone Erik Larson, appearing as the motorcycle cop who stops Sister Helen for speeding, is also memorable, providing one of the only moments of levity in an otherwise powerfully dark show, and Karen Slack (below top) as Sister Rose exhibits powerful vocal skills and a capacity for comfort and mercy. (The photo, below bottom, shows, from left, Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck.)

Karen Slack 2

Dead Man Walking with  (from left) Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck

The brilliant stage direction by Kristine McIntyre (below) brings the whole production to life against the starkly effective scenery from the Eugene Opera in Oregon. The costumes, lighting and sound design are simple and successful.

Kristine McIntyre color

It would take too long to list every singer in the cast deserving of recognition, or every technical and visual aspect worthy of acknowledgement. But there is not a single weak link, and the whole company shows a total commitment to their art, from the last member of the chorus up through the principals, the orchestra, the director, Maestro DeMain, and General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), to whom eternal gratitude is due for having the courage and vision to bring this work to the Madison stage.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

This is opera. This is art. This is human expression at its most direct, at its most powerful, at its most deeply touching.

Go see “Dead Man Walking.”

You will come away changed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Madison Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” production has received other rave reviews. For purposes of comparison, here are links to others:

Here is the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42616&sid=f94c056bdd9b4be709a6a60deca6c020

John-Barker

Here is the review be Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Dead-Man-Walking-Conquers-Another-City/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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Classical music Q&A: “Dead Man Walking” is morally complex and dramatic, not didactic, work — neither “issue art” nor a “lecture opera” — says librettist and dramatist Terrence McNally. The Madison Opera will perform it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 24, 2014
3 Comments

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Avenue, features “Kassia and Friends” -– music for two sopranos, piano, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The program includes music by George Frideric Handel, Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitman, Alessandro Melani, Thomas Pasatieri and Eric Whitacre.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post, an interview with the award-winning playwright and opera librettist Terrence McNally, is by guest blogger Michael Muckian (below). He is a long-time Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

This weekend, the Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

Terrence McNally rose to fame as a playwright, musical theater writer and eventually, an operatic librettist. His best-known works are “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Corpus Christ,” “Master Class” and the musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” He is the winner of four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and numerous other honors. “Dead Man Walking,” written in collaboration with composer Jake Heggie, is one of his first operas.

Terrence McNally

What attracted you to “Dead Man Walking”? How hard was it to adapt Sister Helen Prejean’s work?

I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political, social — that would engage a contemporary audience. I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.

The libretto is based on the idea of her life, not an actual character she dealt with. It is not based on the film, either. Joseph de Rocher and his mother are my creations. The opera is a response to the book and obviously resonates with memories of the film but it is not an adaptation of either one, the way that, say “Ragtime,” is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

What were the key themes you felt necessary to include in the opera?

The opera is about forgiveness. The issue of the death penalty is for the audience to wrestle with for themselves after they have experienced the opera. That said, it’s not an “issue” piece of art. It’s about love and forgiveness and facing the truth. (Below is a photo by James Gill of Daniela Mack playing Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes playing  Joseph DeRocher in the Madison Opera’s upcoming production.)

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any of themes or experiences in the opera touch you personally? Did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I think any intelligent American has a complex response to organized religion, our legal system and our own relationship to the less fortunate members of American life. Sister Helen (below) is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system AND an activist for reform and have a huge and loving heart. She is one of my role models.  It is an honor — and challenge — to emulate and to know her.  Jake (Heggie) and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.

Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking” is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing he opera change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

I still wrestle with it. Intellectually and morally, it’s easy to be against it. But some crimes are so heinous my knee-jerk response still surprises me. Writing this libretto set me on a journey that is still unfolding.

How did you interact with Jake Heggie (below)? Was it libretto first, music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

We had many long discussions before I sat down alone to write the first draft and then we talked about that.

Jake Heggie

How does “Dead Man Walking” stand as a tale of redemption? Are there any victors in this story, or is everyone a victim?

I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer those questions for themselves. This is not a lecture opera. It’s a human drama. We want people to think and feel. I love the ending. The mechanical sounds of the Death Machine followed by an a cappella human voice. I don’t think the orchestra plays for the last several minutes. I’d call that pretty fuckin’ innovative. (You can hear the Prelude and Prologue to “Dead Man Walking” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

What lessons can be learned from the opera?

That unconditional love and the truth shall set you free.

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