The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

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

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s FREE 17th annual “Opera in the Park” takes place this Saturday night in Garner Park

July 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s annual Opera in the Park (below) celebrates its 17th year on this coming Saturday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side, near West Towne Mall.

The annual FREE and family-friendly concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s 2017-18 season and provides a preview of the 2018-19 season.

A Madison summer tradition that often attracts over 15,000 people (below, in a photo by James Gill), Opera in the Park is an evening of music under the stars that features selections from opera and Broadway.

This year’s Opera in the Park features four soloists: soprano Elizabeth Caballero; soprano Brenda Rae; tenor John Lindsey; and baritone Levi Hernandez.

Caballero (below top) and Hernandez (below bottom) recently starred in Madison Opera’s acclaimed production of “Florencia en el Amazons” last spring.

Lindsey (below) is making his debut, and will return to the company as the Prince in Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka in April, 2018.

Rae (below) is also making her Madison Opera debut. She did her undergraduate work at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music before going on to the Juilliard School and an international career. She is singing Cunegonde in Candide at Santa Fe Opera this summer, and is performing at Opera in the Park in between performances there.

The four soloists are joined by the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by James Gill), conducted by Gary Thor Wedow (below bottom), who has guest conducted Opera in the Park before.

The evening is hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and WKOW-TV’s 27 News co-anchor George Smith (below).

Opera in the Park  is the most wonderful and most unique performance we give at Madison Opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). “We have beautiful voices performing music from many centuries in many languages, while thousands of members of our community relax together under the same night sky. It truly shows how music and opera can connect us. I am so grateful to all of our supporters for enabling us to produce this free concert every summer, harnessing the community-building power of music.”

Opera in the Park 2018 features arias and ensembles from Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, which open the 2018-19 season in November; Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which will be performed in February; and Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka, which will be performed in April. (You can hear the beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka — a signature aria for superstar soprano René Fleming — sung by Frederica von Stade, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also includes selections from La Bohème, Turandot, La Sonnambula, The Marriage of Figaro, El Niño Judío, La del Soto del Parral, My Fair Lady, Candide, On the Town, and more. For a complete list of repertoire on the program, which is subject to change, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/oitp/

As always, this evening will include one number conducted by the audience with light sticks (below).

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at an intersection with Mineral Point Road. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots across the street.

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 may not leave items in the park prior to this time.

The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 22, at 8 p.m.

While Opera in the Park is free to attend, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals.

Sponsors of Opera in the Park 2018 are:  the BerbeeWalsh Foundation, the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, the Evjue Foundation – the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Hooper Foundation, MG&E Foundation, Johnson Bank, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Bank and Trust, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.

Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida are media sponsors for this community event.

RELATED EVENT: Prelude Dinner at Opera in the Park 2018 is on Saturday, July 21, at 6 p.m. in the park under a tent.

This annual fundraiser to benefit Opera in the Park helps support Madison Opera’s free gift to the community. The event includes dinner catered by Upstairs Downstairs, VIP seating at the concert, a complimentary light stick, and a reception with the artists following the performance. Tickets are $145 per person or $1,100 for a table of eight. More information is available at www.madisonopera.org

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire featuring leading American opera singers and emerging talent.

A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three annual productions in addition to the free summer concert Opera in the Park and a host of educational programming.


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