The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: What music best celebrates Earth Day? Plus, 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 capital punishment. The Madison Opera will perform the opera this weekend on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

April 22, 2014
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Reader Survey: Today is Earth Day, founded by former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson. What piece of classical music best expresses the event for you? Tell us what you think by leaving a COMMENT.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s guest post is written by Michael Muckian (below), a long-time and award-winning Madison-based 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.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

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 projected text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org for more information.

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: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed. They will also attend opening night.

Composer Jake Heggie was a composer of art songs written for vocal luminaries such as Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone and others when he was approached by author Terrence McNally to compose the music for “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her work with death-row inmates. In the interview he gave me, he said the experience changed his life, both as a composer and as a human being.

Jake Heggie

As I understand it, “Dead Man Walking” was your first opera. What attracted you to the work?

It felt timely and timeless; very American, but universal; it’s about something that matters deeply; it had instant name recognition; it had the essential elements of a grand opera, plus the conflicts and emotions so large that it not only makes sense for people to sing, but it is the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house. I also felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away.

How did you approach the music for this opera?

The libretto by Terrence McNally (below) demanded a range of American styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel (You can listen to the YouTube video at the bottom for a sample.) The setting is the South, and that has its own musical landscape, too. Those are all styles and sounds familiar to me, and it felt natural to explore and weave them together. I think audiences will feel challenged at times, but also will feel included in this musical journey.

Terrence McNally

What were the themes you felt necessary to include in the opera? What are the key issues surrounding capital punishment, and how did you express them musically?

All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. It’s all about what people want and yearn for, what they are afraid of, what they have lost. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and love them for who they are.

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any themes in the opera touch you personally? In other words, did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides. I drew on my own personal experiences, of course, but part of my job as a theater composer is to empathize with each character and write truthfully for them, not to over-sentimentalize or trivialize their journey. For much of this opera, once I tapped into the musical world of the piece, it was a matter of listening to the characters and letting them sing to me, almost like taking dictation.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

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

Opera literature is replete with stories of social injustice: George Frideric Handel‘s “Semele,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’sThe Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto” and “Otello”, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Benjamin Britten‘s “Peter Grimes” and Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd” for starters.

Most of the comic operas deal with some form of social injustice, too. That’s one of the reasons I recognized that Terrence McNally had an inspired idea in suggesting “Dead Man Walking” as an opera. It fits into the big trajectory of grand operas.

And, yes, the experience of researching and writing the opera challenged and changed me. I regret to say that I was one of the people who had never really meditated on the death penalty. I’d always thought of it in the abstract. But in dealing with it head on I came to understand that this is a deeply political and racial issue. It takes place in a very flawed and inequitable system of human beings making life-and-death decisions.

The death penalty is also the only punishment where we as a society repeat the very behavior we abhor. Think about it: we don’t rape the rapists, we don’t beat up the assailants, but we murder murderers. And we do this to show that murder is wrong.

Execution chamber

How did you interact with Terrence McNally? Was it libretto first, the music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

The story is always first. Before there are words or music, there’s the story, and everything has to be in service to the story. Sister Helen Prejean (below), on whose work the opera is based, made one request of us from the beginning — that the opera remain a story of redemption.

So we talked at length about how we wanted to tell the story – what parts of it moved and inspired us most. Where we were going to begin and where we were ending. Then he started crafting a libretto and I started writing music. There was much back and forth throughout.

Music changes everything, of course, and gives us insight into characters that words alone do not. When writing the music, I would discover that there were many things that we could describe with music alone – no words were needed. It went back and forth until we were finished.

Sister Helen Prejean

Where does “Dead Man Walking” fit within the canon of your other works? Does it mark your evolution from an art songs composer to an opera composer?

It was my first opera and I was 39 years old when it was premiered. I had written a great deal of music before Dead Man Walking, but composing the opera affected my style and sense of writing deeply. That’s when I finally figured out that I’m a theater composer, a storyteller. Everything since “Dead Man Walking” has been different from everything before — it’s a real demarcation point. I couldn’t have composed “Moby-Dick” (below) if I hadn’t composed “Dead Man Walking” 10 years earlier, that’s for certain, even though the styles of those pieces are vastly different.

Please be sure to credit Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

What do you hope audiences will take away from this opera?

I hope audiences will take away emotional perspective, that they will be open to giving themselves over to the drama and reflect on it as it unfolds. I hope they will feel changed in some way. That’s certainly why I go to the opera, to be moved and to feel somehow changed — like a new mark has been made on my heart.

 

 

 

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Classical music: Easter Sunday is a fitting time to think about death, forgiveness and redemption — and about the Madison Opera’s upcoming premiere production of Jake Heggie’s famed opera “Dead Man Walking” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is Easter Sunday — a day when Christians and many others around the world think about the spiritual meaning of death, redemption and forgiveness. That also makes it an appropriate time to think about certain pieces of music — say, the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach — and certain operas. 

Take, for example, the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking.”

Later this week, The Well-Tempered Ear will feature interviews that arts critic Mike Muckian did with “Dead Man Walking” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. (Below in a photo by James Gill are Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the convicted killer facing execution Joseph DeRocher.)

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

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

But on this special day, to whet your appetite and set the stage, so to speak, with basic facts, here is an official press release:

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

Sets and costumes come from the Eugene Opera’s acclaimed production in Oregon.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

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 carry a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language; it is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

The production is a Madison Opera and Upper Midwestern premiere, and “Dead Man Walking” is cathartic and humanizing, set to a stunning American score that ranges from hymns to zydeco.

With a libretto by Terrence McNally, “Dead Man Walking” is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, which also served as the inspiration for the critically acclaimed 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

The opera tells of a nun’s journey as the spiritual advisor of 
a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s death row. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that the San Francisco Chronicle says, “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption.”

At bottom is a YouTube video of the production by the Houston Grand Opera, where Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain worked before coming to Madison 20 years ago) with Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade and Philip Cutlip in the title roles.

Dead Man Walking is, for me, unquestionably one of the greatest operas ever written,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “When I saw it in 2002 at New York City Opera, I was completely blown away by its music, its dramatic power, and the sheer theatrical intensity that seared particular scenes in my mind for a decade. I am thrilled to produce it in Madison with this stunning cast, and particularly honored that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean are coming to Madison for opening night and to speak with our community the evening before.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Dead Man Walking” also has special significance to conductor and Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Harper Fritsch), who has a long history with the opera.

“From my very first encounter with “Dead Man Walking” at its 2000 premiere in San Francisco, I knew it was an opera for the ages, and one that I wanted to conduct and present to an ever-widening audience,” recalls DeMain. “I was fortunate to be able to create the second new production of the work, and conduct it in Orange County, Detroit, New York City, and its first international production in Australia.

“In every instance, this new opera connected viscerally with its audience for all the right reasons. It was a powerful, immensely moving drama with lyrical, memorable music, and a fine libretto. The playwright, Terrence McNally, knew exactly how to handle a sad and tragic situation with pathos, great humanity, and a wonderful sense of humor. “

John DeMain casual opera by Harper Fritsch

Maestro DeMain encourages local audiences, whether long-time devotees of opera or completely new to the art form, to experience “Dead Man Walking.”

“It is deeply spiritual, deeply moving, and deeply human with a score steeped in the American vernacular including the blues, which is so appropriate to New Orleans and the protagonist’s world,” he says. “This is a real opera that works the way all operas that we cherish work. Powerful arias, duets, and ensembles, sung by a variety of characters, all of whom we can identify with. I assure our Madison audiences that this is a riveting evening, a great moment in our history, and an occasion not to be missed.”

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Classical music: The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music opens a very busy week with an FREE oboe recital and a PUBLIC opera master class on Monday. Plus, today is the last performance of the Mozart Requiem by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and UW student pianist Hailey O’Neil will fill in for a Beethoven Sonata Competition winner at this afternoon’s FREE recital.

April 6, 2014
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ALERTS: University of Wisconsin-Madison piano student Hailey O’Neil, who won an Honorable Mention, will fill in for the injured winner Oxana Khramova at the Beethoven Sonata Competition winners’ FREE recital today at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall. O’Neil will play the lovely “Pastoral Sonata, Op. 28, by Beethoven.

For more information, visit:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/classical-music-the-three-winners-of-the-29th-annual-beethoven-sonata-competition-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-are-named-and-will-perform-a-free-concert-on-sunday-afternoon/

Of course the Beethoven Sonata concert unfortunately conflicts with the last performance (at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center) by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem and Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” with organ soloist Nathan Laube, all under the baton of guest conductor Julian Wachner. Here is a positive review by critic John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42448&sid=16e141d4e100c8abeb61a0720e30e06d

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow, Monday, April 7, opens a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

It starts with opera and chamber music for oboe, then expands to include contemporary music by guest artists from the University of Iowa’s acclaimed Center for New Music; piano and string music” the Adagio from Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 22; Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in Flat Major; and Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet by the UW’s Perlman Piano Trio and guest performers (all below in a photo by Katherine Esposito) ; three performances by the University Opera of Hector Berlioz’ opera “Beatrice et Benedict”; and one performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion”’ done by the UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra under conductor Beverly Taylor.

For full details, go to www.musc.wisc.edu and click on Events Calendar.

perlman trio 2014 2 Esposito

Here is how the week starts out:

METROPOLITAN OPERA STAR SUSANNE MENTZER

On Monday from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. in 1321 Humanities Building, opera star mezzo-soprano 
Susanne Mentzer (below) will be offering a master class to UW-Madison voice and opera students

Susanne Mentzer 1

This event is free and open to the public. Mentzer will be working one-on-one with students, performing a signature aria for the class, conducting a “Q&A session, and staying to meet and greet all attendees.

Mentzer is in Madison to perform as Mrs. Patrick DeRocher in Madison Opera‘s production of “Dead Man Walking,” conducted by Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera maestro John DeMain, April 25 and April 27 in Overture Hall. For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/dead_man_walking/

Internationally known mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer enjoys a significant opera, concert and recital career of over 30 years. She has appeared on four continents at nearly every great opera house and with every great orchestra. She has been a guest artist at the Metropolitan Opera (below) in leading roles since 1989.

metropolitan opera 1

Her extensive discography includes over 25 CDs of opera and oratorio. She has recorded two recitals she often performs in concert: “The Eternal Feminine,” a recital of music by women composers (Koch International Classics), which includes the premiere of Libby Larsen’s “Love After 1950” with her long-time pianist, Craig Rutenberg; and her personal favorite, “Wayfaring Stranger” (Erato), a collection of international folksongs arranged for voice and guitar with Grammy Award winning Sharon Isbin.

She also received a Grammy nomination for her work as Colombina in Busoni’s Arlecchino. She is on the recent releases of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and “Plump Jack” by Gordon Getty. Mentzer appears on DVDs of “The Tales of Hoffman” (Opéra de Paris), Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (La Scala), and Grammy-nominated “The First Emperor” by Tan Dun (Metropolitan Opera), and Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (Metropolitan Opera).

She has appeared numerous times on PBS as part of the “Live from Lincoln Center” and “Live from the Met” programs and Live From the Met satellite cinema broadcast. Mentzer is a mentor to young singers. She recently relocated to the San Francisco area where she teaches privately after 12 years in academia as a Professor at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and DePaul University in Chicago. She has also served as faculty at the Aspen Music Festival and School and has been a guest teacher at the San Francisco Opera Merola program, the Castleton Festival and frequently gives master classes in conjunction with her engagements.

To read more about Susanne Mentzer, go to her website, www.susannementzer.com.

susanne Mentzer

OBOIST KOSTAS TILIAKOS

On Monday night, at 7:30 in Morphy Recital Hall, pianist Christopher Taylor and flutist Stephanie Jutt will accompany Kostas Tiliakos on oboe and English horn in his only solo recital on the Faculty Concert Series this year.

Admission is FREE and open to the public.

kostas tiliakos 2013

His program will consist of works by composers Minas Alexiadis, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Theodore Antoniou, Jurgis Juozapaitis, and Thea Musgrave.

A native of Athens, Greece, Kostas Tiliakos (below in a photo by Katherine Esposito) has been principal oboist in the Greek National Opera Orchestra in Athens since 1997. Previous to that, he held the position of Solo English Horn for eight years.

An avid lover of contemporary music, Tiliakos has been a member of the Hellenic Ensemble for Contemporary Music since 1990 and has premiered and recorded works by contemporary composers, many of which he was a dedicatee.

He has also recorded solo and chamber music works on Wandelweiser (Germany), Lyra and Irida Classics (Greece) and has been broadcast on radio and television throughout Europe.

Internationally, he has appeared as soloist throughout Europe, Africa, Canada and the U.S. During his time in Greece, Kostas was a sought-after music journalist and editing consultant with Lambrakis Press SA and 4pi Special Editions, the two largest publishing organizations in Greece. Kostas studied Biology at Athens University and holds a BA in European Cultural Studies.

He received his Masters of Music from UW-Madison under Marc Fink where he was a Paul Collins Wisconsin Distinguished Fellow. His principal teachers have included Marc Fink, Claude Chieulet, Didier Pateau. He has also studied with Paul Dombrecht and Hansjörg Schellenberger.

Most recently, Kostas was selected for the position of Visiting Associate Professor of Oboe at UW-Madison. The Ear understands that he has been renewed to do the same next academic year.

 

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Classical music: The Madison Opera has a lot to celebrate at its 12th annual FREE “Opera in the Park” concert on this coming Saturday night.

July 11, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

By any account, The Madison Opera has had a great year and can rightfully celebrate a lot of things at this Saturday night’s 12th annual FREE outdoors concert Opera in the Park in Garner Park on the far west side of Madison.

Opera in Park 2012 stage

(The park will open at 7 a.m. with blankets, chairs, food and glass-less beverages alcoholic and non-alcoholic are allowed; free parking is provided; the concert, featuring the company’s artistic director John DeMain conducting soloists and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Youth Choirs, starts at 8 p.m.; the rain date in Sunday.)

John DeMain conducting 2

Here is a link to information about the Opera in the Park concert, which includes Broadway musical theater as well as opera. (For the program, click on “Synopsis” – which, since there is no plot, should really read “Program”:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2012-2013/park/

So, just what will the Madison Opera be celebrating?

Let’s start with the mammoth undertaking of putting together the Opera in the Park for a dozen years. It takes a lot of research, hard work planning, to say nothing of a lot of loudspeakers and porta-potties, to bring off an event that draws more than 10,000 people.

Then there is last season.

While there were few total sell-outs, attendance was very good and the Madison Opera scored both artistic and financial successes with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” (the first Handel opera, or masque, the company has staged, below in a photo by James Gill) and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

acis gill galatea set

Then, as usually happens with Opera in the Park, the group will be previewing and celebrating its upcoming season, which features Puccini’s famously melodic “Tosca”; Donizetti’s bel canto, tenor-busting work “La Fille du Regiment, ”known for its show-stopping nine high C’s (in a famous  YouTube video at bottom with tenor Juan Diego Florez); and Jake Heggie’s dramatic and timely “Dead Man Walking” (bel0w).

Here is a link to the brochure for next season:

http://issuu.com/madisonopera/docs/1314brochure/1

Dead Man Walking

After two seasons of programming, General Director Kathryn Smith (below) – who gives wonderfully witty, accessible and informative pre-concert talks — is finally getting to leave her own stamp on the opera season, and it is a recognizable stamp that announces she will be eclectic and mix the old and new, the classic and popular masterpieces with lesser known works.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Here is a link to the next season:

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

But there are other things you many not be aware of.

For one the Madison Opera received a $25,000 grant from OPERA America’s Building Audiences for Opera program. It was one of only 13 opera companies chosen out of 67 applications nationwide to receive such a grant.

And perhaps mostly invisibly but most importantly, the Madison Opera has moved its headquarters from the old Neckerman Insurance Building on Monroe Street to the new headquarters, the Madison Opera Center, near the Overture Center at 335 West Mifflin Street.

Madison Opera Center

This major project also has storage space for sets and costumes that is nearby to Overture Hall and The Playhouse where the Madison Opera stages its shows during the regular season. It is one more sign of the growth, maturity and success of the Madison Opera.

Here is a link that allow you take a virtual tour of the new facility and to learn about it:

http://www.madisonopera.org/about/opera_center/


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