The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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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
4 Comments

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 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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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
2 Comments

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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