The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

https://arts.wisc.edu/2019/02/15/into-the-woods/

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/12/27/opera-theatre-sondheim-into-the-woods/

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-and-university-theatre-sondheims-into-the-woods/2019-02-22/

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/#additional

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

https://theatre.wisc.edu/2018/10/18/into-the-woods-cast/


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

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

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6


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