The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “Long Love the King!” Madison Opera’s successful production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” is an auspicious beginning to the tenure of its new general director Kathryn Smith. But the opera needs some Great Moments.

October 30, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You could view the Madison Opera’s decision to stage Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” as a great choice for Halloween week, when disguised truth is celebrated. You could also view the Verdi opera, full of political intrigue and betrayals, as an apt choice during a presidential election  campaign.

But surely the best way to see it is as an auspicious beginning to the tenure of the company’s new general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). True, she was here for last season, but that was to implement the plans draw up by her predecessor Allan Naplan.

With this successful production we now get to see Smith as her own woman.

And clearly Smith is interested in taking the Madison Opera level to a new level. Why else would she open the season with the Madison Opera premiere, in half a century, the neglected Verdi opera, which she says is one of her favorites? And why else would she slate the Madison Opera’s premiere production of a Handel opera (“Acis and Galatea”) for January? Smith is out to leave her mark.

The houses from the performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds were smaller than expected or hoped for, but they were very enthusiastic. A company spokesperson said that probably had to do with so many other activities going on and with the political season upon us.

Still, there was much to like about the production, and I, like so many others, had fun. (All production photos below are by Madison photographer James Gill, taken for the Madison Opera.)

Here are do some things about “A Masked Ball” that appealed to The Ear.

I liked the pre-opera background talk given by Kathryn Smith. In the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, she told a packed house about the place of “A Masked Ball” in Verdi’s output and traced the struggle by Verdi (below) with political censors to arrive at a plot that would satisfy them. After all, regicide – the killing of a king — was not something that the royal houses of Europe took lightly, encouraged or forgave shortly after the French Revolution.

I liked the excellence and evenness of the cast. All of the leads and secondary roles, including the energetic servant Oscar (played by Caitlin Cisler) and the fortune-teller Ulrica (Jeniece Golbourne) showed strong voices with excellent pitch, wide ranges, fine diction and power to project. But most of all, they showed balance. And evenness is something to cherish in an ensemble production.

William Joyner (below), who also sang in the Madison Opera’s production last season of Philip Glass‘ “Galileo Galilei,” excelled as the Swedish King Gustav III:

Here he is in a pivotal scene, getting his fortune told by Ulrica:

Hyung Yun (below left) was terrific as the king’s friend and betraying assassin Anckarstrom, while Alexandra LoBianco (below right) was terrific as the courtier’s wife and would-be adulterous Amelia:

I liked the staging by Metropolitan Opera veteran Kristine McIntyre (below). Her idea was clearly to serve the opera, not some bizarre idea of novelty. So the stage direction matched the sets, the costumes and the score. It did not call attention to itself, which is another of way of saying it served the opera, not dominated it.

I liked the sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the costumes. They were luxurious enough to capture the sense of an 18th century royal court, but also simple enough and period or historical enough not to push the production into some postmodern meaningfulness. (The photo below is by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I especially liked the gallows set.  Its contrasting Gothic starkness played well as a context for the theme of a betraying love and the doom it entails. Love can indeed be a deadly noose (below), as King Gustav and Amelia will soon discover:

I found myself listening closely and paying special attention to the orchestra and I liked the way the orchestral accompaniment was superbly handled by players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below). It was precise and balanced. Never did the pit overwhelm the singers.

Most of all, especially in its solo passages I found myself impressed with Verdi’s instrumental writing. Verdi possessed a command of counterpoint and orchestration, punctuated with sharp rhythms and converging lines. He knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted. I realized just why the “Force of Destiny” Overture and other orchestral excerpts by Verdi are popular. Take away the voices — not that you would want to — and what is left is still great music.

I liked the way the Madison Opera Chorus handled the crowd scenes. They seem blended and just as even as the secondary soloists and leads. I did find some of the hip-hoppy choreography by Madisonian Maureen Janson a bit awkward – I almost always do – but I really couldn’t tell whether that was because of period-appropriate dance steps; because the dancers simply felt a bit awkward; or because the choreography was a bit contrived and self-conscious.

While I liked the singing, I still came away more a fan of Puccini (below) than of Verdi. A day later at home, I can’t recall a tune from “A Masked Ball.” The score always seemed promising, but the Great Moment never materialized. In that respect, evenness was unfortunate, not laudable. The opera needed some stand-outs. It needed memorable tunes, the kind you hear and remember from “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the plot. If this opera were just a play or movie, it would B-grade, too predictable and even stereotypical. Verdi was smart in other operas when he borrowed from Shakespeare, a master of human psychology, or even Victor Hugo for his librettos.

But that’s show biz — and the prolific but reliable Verdi.

Local critics universally praised the Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” But each one discovered different points to make. That speaks well for the production.

Here is a sampling:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review, which makes an excellent point about smaller regional opera companies, for Isthmus:

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for his Madison Magazine blog ”Classically Speaking”:

Here is a link to Rena Archwamety’s review on for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a link to the review by Mike and Jean Muckian for their Brava magazine blog “Culturosity”:

Now you be the critic and tell us what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “Galileo Galilei” proved a timely, well told tale of truth-telling during the endless demagoguery of presidential primaries and the growing number of anti-evolution science-deniers.

January 31, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Thank you, Madison Opera. We needed that – especially given today’s Florida Republican primary.

We needed to be reminded of what true intelligence and  truth-telling are.

I am talking about the Madison Opera’s production, with four sold-out performances, of Philip Glass’ chamber opera “Galileo Galilei.”

To be honest, it is not the best work by Glass (below) I have ever heard, even though it dates from 2002 and is mature Glass that has its appeal. But because the opera has never been recorded or put on DVD or film, it is a terrific choice to stage to mark the composer’s 75th birthday, which happens to be today—coincidentally, the same day as the hotly contested Florida Republican primary.

Plus, it is the Madison Opera’s first foray into Glass, or into minimalist opera for that matter – a brave move that deserves to be praised and repeated perhaps with other Glass works or maybe something by John Adams.

But that is just one way in which this production of “Galileo,” which I saw Sunday afternoon, has proved timely.

It also was a success in that it marked four successive years of sold-out mid-winter performances for operas done in smaller venues of the Overture Center like The Playhouse and Promenade Hall. Previously, the Madison Opera staged Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land,”  Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” (below) and Kurt Weill‘s “Threepenny Opera.”

Clearly, there is a market for the smaller, less common works. It would seem these smaller and more experimental winter productions are here to stay, and I applaud that heartily. I can’t wait to see what the next season brings.

Finally, I also found the production timely on another count.

It tells the story of the Renaissance Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (below), who explored the heavens with his telescope and who defended the heliocentric, or Sun-centered, model of the universe at a time when the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church – using the Bible as an inerrant source — insisted on the Earth-centered model of the ancient Greek Ptolemy.

So this was the tale of a genuine, authentic truth-teller; the story of someone who, as the Quakers say, spoke Truth to Power, who championed facts over faith. True, he recanted his revolutionary thoughts under threat of torture and death, and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and with the guilt of knowing he was right for speaking out and wrong for recanting.

But still, there is something inspiring in the 10 scenes of the opera that trace the trajectory of Galelio’s quiet but inquisitive heroism from youth and middle age to old age with the death of his daughter and the persecution by the Church. There is something I find reassuringly modern and also challenging about using The Scientist — and the Scientific Method — as hero.

That in itself made the production unforgettable for me since these days it is good to be reminded that what is democracy but a form of science, of peer-reviewed government, if you will. Without democracy, science is stifled. Without facts, and based only on faith, democracy degenerates and withers.

But free inquiry does not mean a free license to distort and tell untruths.

Some men and women don’t seem to know the difference between truth and truthiness. Galileo did.

But to listen to news reports right now, and for the rest of this year, is to be barraged with slanders, distortions and outright lies from all the candidates, including Barack Obama, but especially from Mitt Romney (below) and Rick Santorum to say nothing of the defeated Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Politics just isn’t as intellectually honest as science. 

Still, the most odious to me is Newt Gingrich (below). He styles himself a smart man and deep thinker, and he is educated through a doctorate. But he seems smart only in some kind of pompous and smarmy, conniving and self-promoting way. Best I can tell, he is not an intellectual in the way that genuinely deep thinkers and open-minded explorers are. That is the take-away lesson of “Galileo” for me, at least at this particular time and in this particular place.

As for the production itself, there was much to praise — and to justify the standing ovation it received. The set by Barry Steele was quite inventive and effective in using projections of Renaissance gardens and celestial maps, though the blurry soft-focus eventually became more distracting than any sharp focus might have been.

The 13 musicians, most from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Kelly Kuo (below), performed very well. Glass’ music is much harder to play than it sounds. It isn’t their fault, after all, that too much of Glass sounded the same with a kind of repetitive jackhammer aesthetic that either you take to or you don’t. I’ve heard better scores from Glass. This one could have used a few melodic lines or motives for the individual characters.

Among the singers, many of whom played multiple roles, tenor William Joyner (below right, in  a photo by James Gill) and baritone John Arnold (below left) stood out as the older and younger Galileo, respectively.

Local talents, including Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below, second from right in a photo by James Gill), Allisanne Apple (second from left) and Jennifer DeMain – curiously, all mezzo-sopranos – acquitted themselves well and dependably. (Saira Frank is on the far right.)

I also liked the effective scenes with the Inquisitors, the Cardinals and the Pope, where the singing and acting seemed in balance.

I found the mood-setting costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore a good match to the story and setting. And I liked the engaging staging by A. Scott Parry (below) up until that last five minutes, when the singers doffed their costumes for street clothes and did some silly Matisse-like Zodiac dance around the old but vindicated, if now lame and blind, Galileo before they traipsed off stage, arms waving in the air, and passed by the audience as they sang some monotonous  ta-taaa–ta-ta-taa of the score. It all seemed too much like a bad Be-In from the 1960s. Even the singers seemed uncomfortable and awkward with the finale, as if they were being asked to chant Hare! Hare! Krishna! Krishna!

Galileo, both the man and the opera, fared very well for the most part but deserved a better end. Staying in character and in the Renaissance period seemed much preferable to me.

But there is certainly room to disagree. Here are some other reviews for you to compare mine with:

John Barker’s review for Isthmus, for example, focuses more on the production and less on the context:

Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square gives you a good sense of the technology that was used:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is Bill Wineke’s exceptionally honest and candid review for Channel 3000:

Classical music news: This Saturday the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “Space Place” will offer FREE background to the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of Philip Glass’ opera “Galileo”

January 9, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The “music of the spheres” may be old metaphor, but it is also a new reality in which classical music and astronomy mix, especially in opera.

Increasingly, it seems like scientists are the equivalent of artist-heroes in the 19th century. They now have the makings of dramatic opera, at least in the 20th century. Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” about J. Robert Oppenheimer come immediately to mind. And I am sure there are others.

But one of modern operas scientists-heroes is Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, below), the same 16th century Italian pioneering astronomer whose discoveries about  sun-centered solar system were banned by the Roman Catholic Church and who drew the attention of the playwright Bertolt Brecht when he wrote his play “Galileo,” with famed actor Charles Laughton in the title role.

Minimalist composer Philip Glass (below), who turns 75 on Jan. 31, also wrote an opera in 2001 about “Galileo.” And that opera is what the Madison Opera will stage Jan. 26-29 in the Overture Center’s Playhouse. (It is a singular production, since you will not find a recording or pictures from previous productions of Glass’ “Galileo.”)

For information about the opera, the cast, the times and date of performance, and tickets, visit:

You will notice that the Madison Opera is offering an Up-Close preview for “Galileo” on Jan. 22 from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Lecture Hall of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center. Admission is $20. Here is information about that:

But perhaps even more intriguingly, the Madison Opera and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Space Place, located at 2300 South Park Street, are teaming up to offer a FREE event that explores the discoveries and legacy of Galileo. (A page  from his notebooks is below.)

The program is called “Galileo’s Heavens” and will take place on this Saturday, Jan. 14, at 4 p.m. Space is limited, and the deadline for reservations is this Wednesday.

Reservations can be made online at or by calling Madison Opera at (608) 238-8085.

The opera company hopes to have several singers from the cast there.

Here is a capsule description:

“The adventurous and curious are invited to learn more about Galileo’s work and inventions through a special event hosted by UW Madison’s Space Place.

“Tour the Space Place exhibit hall, receive an introduction to Galileo’s amazing discoveries from Space Place Director, and UW astronomer Dr. James Lattis (below).

“View Jupiter (below top) and Venus (below bottom) through a telescope from the Space Place observation deck (weather permitting).

“In addition to these free activities, you can try your hand at invention and continue astronomical observing at home by purchasing a Galileoscope telescope kit, which Space Place will help you assemble.

“The event (hot cocoa included) is free; the Galileoscope kits are $20 each (cash or check only).

The reservation deadline is this Wednesday, January 11.

The relevant websites to visit for information about the “Galileo’s Heavens” event are:

UW Madison Space Place website:

If you want to know more about the “Galileo-scope” telescope that attendees can build, visit:

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