The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera gets a $20,000 grant from the NEA for its February production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”

December 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has some good news to share:

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $30 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017.

Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $20,000 to Madison Opera to support the Midwest premiere of Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird on Friday night, Feb. 10, and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 12, 2017.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-logo-for-maidson-opera

The Art Works category focuses on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.

“The arts are for all of us, and by supporting organizations such as Madison Opera, the National Endowment for the Arts is providing more opportunities for the public to engage with the arts,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Whether in a theater, a town square, a museum, or a hospital, the arts are everywhere and make our lives richer.”

Madison Opera will be only the second company to present Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, which premiered in spring 2015 at Opera Philadelphia (below, with Lawrence Brownlee in the title role on the right and the real Charlie Parker on the left). You can see and hear the trailer for the Opera Philadelphia production in the YouTube video at the bottom.

charlie-park-and-lawrence-brownlee

Set on the night that saxophone great Charlie Parker died, the opera begins with Parker returning in spirit to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. Family and friends blend in and out of his memories in an acclaimed new work that tells of his tortured, brilliant life “with a pulsing, jazz-infused score” (The New York Times).

Madison Opera’s performances take place in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and are directed by Ron Daniels and conducted by John DeMain.

The cast features Joshua Stewart, Angela Brown, Will Liverman, Rachel Sterrenberg, Julie Miller, Angela Mortellaro, and Krysty Swann.

“It is an honor to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and be recognized for our artistic work on a national level,” says Madison Opera General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). “The NEA’s funding will not only help us share this thrilling new opera with our region, but also support an array of Charlie Parker-related events, allowing true community engagement with the opera and its subject.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

In addition to the public performance on Feb. 10 and 12, 2017, Madison Opera’s “Extending the Stage” activities include “Jazz at the Opera Center,” a concert with Richie Cole and the Alto Madness Orchestra on Jan. 8; Opera Novice on Jan. 20; Opera Up Close on Feb. 5; “A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion” with the Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder and UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble on Feb. 9; and a variety of previews and presentations on Charlie Parker, jazz, and the opera at various libraries and retirement communities.

For more information on any of these events, got to: madisonopera.org.

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, go to arts.gov/news.

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 and presenting leading American opera singers alongside emerging talent.

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


Classical music: Madison Opera stages Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare

November 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera will present Charles Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.

It will be sung in French with English subtitles and will last about three hours with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130.

With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings the famous tragic tale of young love to vivid life.

Set in 14th century Verona, Italy, the opera follows the story of Shakespeare’s legendary star-crossed lovers. The Montague and Capulet families are caught in a centuries-old feud.

One evening, Romeo Montague and his friends attend a Capulet ball in disguise. The moment Romeo spots Juliet Capulet, he falls in love, and she returns his feelings. Believing they are meant for one another, they proclaim their love, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in Western literature,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “Gounod’s operatic version of it is equally beloved, and it’s exciting to present an amazing cast that brings such vocal and dramatic depth to their story.

“I’m also delighted that we are performing the opera the same weekend that Shakespeare’s First Folio goes on display at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Chazen Museum of Art, enabling our community to enjoy a very Shakespearean weekend.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Gounod’s operatic adaption of the tragedy of “Romeo & Juliet” premiered in 1867 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. While Gounod is now better known for “Faust,” “Romeo and Juliet” was a bigger success at its premiere, and has stayed in the repertoire for 150 years due to its beautiful music, genuine passion mingled with wit, and exciting fight scenes.

“Having conducted Gounod’s Faust so often, I’m thrilled to finally have the opportunity to conduct his romantic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera who will conduct the two performances.

“The vocal and orchestral writing is lyrical and downright gorgeous,” DeMain adds. “We have a glorious cast, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony.  What more could a conductor ask for!” (You can hear Anna Netrebko sing Juliet’s famous aria “Je veux vivre” — “I want to live” – in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

John DeMain full face by Prasad

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

John Irvin (below top) and Emily Birsan (below bottom) return to sing the title roles of Romeo and Juliet.  Irvin sang Count Almaviva in the 2015 production of The Barber of Seville, while Birsan returns from singing at Opera in the Park 2016 and Musetta in last season’s La Bohème.

john-irvin

Emily Birsan 2016

Sidney Outlaw, who sang at this past summer’s Opera in the Park, makes his mainstage debut as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.  Liam Moran, who sang Colline in last season’s La Bohème, sings Frère Laurent, who unites the two lovers in the hope of uniting their families. Madisonian Allisanne Apple (below) returns as Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

Alisanne Apple BW mug

Making their debuts are Stephanie Lauricella as Romeo’s page, Stephano; Chris Carr as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin; Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet; and Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of VeronaFormer Madison Opera Studio Artist Nathaniel Hill returns as Gregorio, while current Studio Artist James Held sings the role of Paris.

Directing this traditional staging is Doug Scholz-Carlson (below), who directed Gioaccchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” and Benjamin Britten‘s “The Turn of the Screw” for Madison Opera. Scholz-Carlson is the artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival and has directed the original “Romeo and Juliet,” among many Shakespeare plays.

He will discuss the differences between staging “Romeo and Juliet” as a play and as an opera in another posting tomorrow.

douglas-scholz-carlson

For more information about the production, the cast and tickets, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/romeo-and-juliet/


Classical music: The Madison Opera triumphed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

November 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which will perform its fifth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website at (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of last weekend’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review of “Fidelio” by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera has done it again.

Perhaps it is a mark of Katherine Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) settling into her tenure as General Director.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Perhaps it is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s continual growth and development as a regional orchestra of versatility and repute.

Perhaps it is the luck of discovering singers at the outset of promising careers, whose success has not yet priced them out of the range of smaller companies.

Whatever the reason, last Sunday’s performance in Overture Hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, the monumental “Fidelio,” was a true triumph for what can only be regarded as a company going places.

Briefly, “Fidelio” is the story of a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy — “Fidelio” meaning the “faithful one” — to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is being wrongly held by his political rival, Don Pizarro.

When the King’s minister (Don Fernando sung by Liam Moran) announces a surprise visit, Pizarro (sung by Kelly Markgraf) decides to have Florestan killed to avoid the awkward explanation. At the last moment, Fidelio intercedes, and the arrival of Don Fernando saves the day.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra under artistic director John DeMain (below), in its usual reduced string complement, shone forth from the pit in more than its usual splendor this Sunday, with a firm, centered string sound and particularly powerful playing from the horns.

John DeMain conducting 2

Above it soared a cast of creditable balance, with a veritable jewel in the center: Alexandra LoBianco, in the title role of Leonore/Fidelio.

LoBianco, in her first turn as the titular trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, was beyond reproach in every way. Her captivating Verdian soprano that seemed equally at home in every moment of the opera, rendered with proper dramatic heft the imposing vocal challenges of the part, including a powerful lower register.

The moment when she steps forward at last to defend her husband from the evil Don Pizarro sent chills down my spine. It is hard to believe she has not sung this before; given how completely the role fit her.

Alexandra LoBianco as Fidelio-Leonore by James Gill

Of the others, Clay Hilley’s (Florestan) powerful tenor sometimes substituted steel for warmth in navigating Beethoven’s punishingly high writing — a forgivable flaw in a role whose characterization leaves little room for luxury. His opening scene (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” or “God! How dark it is here!”) at the start of Act II was nevertheless absolutely spellbinding.

Clay Hilley as Florestan CR James Gill

The chorus (below top and at the bottom, conducted by James Levine, in a YouTube video) was superbly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao (below), who has brought the group’s performance level up considerably in recent years. A timid beginning to the famed prisoner chorus “O welche Lust” was quickly surmounted, and more than made up for by the rousing “Heil sei dem Tag” in the second act.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Anthony Cao

Sensitive lighting by Christopher Maravich relieved some of the potential for monotony in a visually subdued staging, which featured sets from Michigan Opera Theater and costumes from the Utah Opera.

Both the sets and the costumes relied mostly on hues of brown. The sky showing above the walls of the prison shifted subtly to reflect the passage of time and the mood of the ensemble, providing as well a glimpse of the freedom held at arm’s length from most of the characters. The darkness of Florestan’s prison at the start of the second act was also evocatively rendered.

Fidelio set James GIll

The scene change from dungeon to daylight before the final scene was distractingly long — could we have had one of the three other overtures Beethoven wrote to this opera to fill the silence? Certainly the orchestra was one of the stars of this production; let them play on!

The staging by director Tara Faircloth (below), in her Madison Opera debut, maintained interest and rewarded careful attention with choice details, though the melodrama and confrontation scenes in the dungeon were rather weak.

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Neither of these sapped the sheer power of Leonore’s unveiling, or of the 11th-hour trumpet call announcing the arrival of Florestan’s savior (below left, with Don Pizarro below right)  — moments that were absolutely electrifying and worth the price of admission on their own — but they did slow the pace of the act.

Fidelio     left Don Fernando and right is Don PIzarro CR James Gill

Unfortunately, the staging seemed to dodge the political difficulties of the plot, focusing merely on the abstract notion of “freedom” without exploring the implications of Don Fernando’s benevolent proclamations in the final scene.

In the current political climate, I would have hoped for a stronger thesis here — surely Beethoven (below) the revolutionary would have something to say today!

Beethoven big

For the most part, these are quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent production of which the Madison Opera can be justifiably proud. I left the hall feeling uplifted, and I look forward to the rest of the season.

 


Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” packs an emotional punch that will leave you changed. It is that good. The last performance is this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Don’t miss it. Plus, here are links to other rave reviews.

April 27, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber  Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. For more information, visit: http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org  He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here: www.disso.org.

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center. The last performance is today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $18-$108.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

“The Truth will set you free.”

Here, then, is The Truth:

There are no words for art like this. None suffices. The English language is inadequate when tasked with depicting an experience of the kind to which “Dead Man Walking” belongs.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

I was speechless for a long time after the final curtain, even when I finally stopped crying openly — those who know me can appreciate how rarely I am at a loss for words. The nearly full house reacted similarly, with a prolonged stunned silence before the clapping started and then built into a standing ovation. Then the whole house rose to its feet in unison when Michael Mayes took the stage for a bow.

However, I promised a review, and so a review there shall be, insofar as words can express what must be said.

The opera — musical drama would be a more appropriate term – by composer Jake Heggie (below top) and librettist Terrence Nally (below bottom) is a masterwork on the scale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” or Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in every respect deserves to stand by their side in the repertory.

If anything, the opera is more deeply human than anything in the canon I have yet seen or heard. The libretto is skillfully crafted, capturing every character in life-like depth. Its score is masterful, propulsive, colorful, and powerfully moving, with influences from Mozart, Wagner and George Gershwin apparent. Remarkably, for a composer’s first opera, it balances to the stage apparently without effort. 

Here are links to previous posts with interviews featuring composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally:

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/

Jake Heggie

Terrence McNally

Not a note is lost from either orchestra or cast, for which joint credit should also be given to Artistic Director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad) and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, who fill the pit.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The singing is world-class. Baritone Michael Mayes lives and breathes the role of death-row convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher, portraying his inner demons with true clarity and conviction. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean for the first time (not that anyone would know) balances faith, doubt, and forgiveness with poignancy and eloquence.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

Susanne Mentzer is heartbreaking as DeRocher’s loving mother, and Alan Dunbar is equally so, standing out from the excellent quartet of the victims’ parents (with Jamie Van Eyck, J. Adam Shelton, and Saira Frank). Baritone Erik Larson, appearing as the motorcycle cop who stops Sister Helen for speeding, is also memorable, providing one of the only moments of levity in an otherwise powerfully dark show, and Karen Slack (below top) as Sister Rose exhibits powerful vocal skills and a capacity for comfort and mercy. (The photo, below bottom, shows, from left, Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck.)

Karen Slack 2

Dead Man Walking with  (from left) Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck

The brilliant stage direction by Kristine McIntyre (below) brings the whole production to life against the starkly effective scenery from the Eugene Opera in Oregon. The costumes, lighting and sound design are simple and successful.

Kristine McIntyre color

It would take too long to list every singer in the cast deserving of recognition, or every technical and visual aspect worthy of acknowledgement. But there is not a single weak link, and the whole company shows a total commitment to their art, from the last member of the chorus up through the principals, the orchestra, the director, Maestro DeMain, and General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), to whom eternal gratitude is due for having the courage and vision to bring this work to the Madison stage.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

This is opera. This is art. This is human expression at its most direct, at its most powerful, at its most deeply touching.

Go see “Dead Man Walking.”

You will come away changed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Madison Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” production has received other rave reviews. For purposes of comparison, here are links to others:

Here is the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42616&sid=f94c056bdd9b4be709a6a60deca6c020

John-Barker

Here is the review be Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Dead-Man-Walking-Conquers-Another-City/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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Classical music: How hard is it to sing nine high C’s? Tenor Javier Abreu talks about the feat he will perform in the Madison Opera’s premiere production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” this weekend.

February 3, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Opera performs its premiere production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. The opera will be sung in the original French with English surtitles. The sets come from an acclaimed production by the Virginia Opera (below):

Madison Opera Daughter of the Regiment Virginia Opera song of the regiment

Tickets are $25-$107 with student and group discounts available. They are available at the Overture Center box office, 201 State St., Madison, WI; by calling (608) 258-4141; and by visiting http://www.madisonopera.org

As a Madison Opera press release says: “ “The Daughter of the Regiment” is a sweet romantic comedy, with vocal pyrotechnics and beautiful melodies interlaced with charm and humor.

“The plot is simple: Marie, an orphan who was raised by the 21st Regiment, is in love with Tonio, who joins the army so he can marry her. When Marie’s new-found aunt takes her away from her beloved regiment, she despairs. Fortunately, all ends happily ever after.

“I adore this opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below), Madison Opera’s general director. “Sometimes all we want from a night at the opera is entertainment, and  ‘Daughter’ delivers. I fell in love with the show’s music years ago, and it’s a pure delight to bring this work to Madison Opera for the first time in the company’s 53-year history. It’s a perfect show for everyone, from opera novices to opera omnivores, from 8-year-olds to 88-year-olds.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“At last we are bringing Donizetti’s comic masterpiece to our audience, with its scintillating score and adorably zany plot,” says John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s artistic director who will conduct the performances. “I’ve so loved my encounters with this opera in the past and so look forward to Madison’s first outing with such a marvelous cast, the Madison Opera chorus, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This is the way to  escape from any winter doldrums.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Appleton native Caitlin Cisler, who charmed audiences as the page Oscar in A Masked Ball and at Opera in the Park last season, returns to Madison Opera as Marie.

Tenor Javier Abreu, described by Opera News as “a natural Rossini singer,” makes his local debut as the high-C-prone Tonio. Nathan Stark, who was a chilling Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” last season, displays his comic side as Sulpice, one of Marie’s many “fathers.”

Local favorite Allisanne Apple (below) returns as The Marquise of Berkenfield. She is joined by Douglas Swenson as Hortensius. Christopher Apfelbach plays a Corporal, Katrina Brunner is The Duchess of Krakenthorp, and Robert Goderich is a Peasant.

Alisanne Apple BW mug

David Lefkowich (below), who directed Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” here in 2013, directs this traditional staging, set in the Tyrol around 1820.

David Lefkowich 2013

The opera is also one which many tenor careers – occluding those of Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez — have been built because of the nine high C the tenor must sing.

To find out more about such athletic singing, The Ear used an email interview to talk about it with tenor Javier Abreu (below):

Javier Abreu color mug 1

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career? When did you start music lessons and how did you get into opera?

I started singing when I was a child in Catholic school. My parents were involved in church choir, and I started picking it up then. As I started getting into my teen years, and my voice started changing, my mom decided to let me take some voice lessons, to make the transition a little easier. I was interested in singing pop at that point, but my voice teacher made sure I know how to breathe, and not to push my voice to its limits.

I didn’t get into opera until I was a sophomore in college. I was in the university choir, and a lot of my friends were doing it. I wanted to see what it was all about. I had a fantastic voice teacher during my undergrad years, and some really talented coaches. I feel very fortunate to have had the formative years that I had.

La Fille du Regiment” is famous as a career-building opera for tenors, thanks to the 9 high C’s in “Ah, mes amis.” Luciano Pavarotti (below top) and Juan Diego Florez (below bottom) whose exciting show-stopping performance can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) come immediately to mind. How hard is do you find to sing those high notes and how successful have you been with the aria?

I started working on the aria at the age of 22. I knew it was something I wanted to sing at some point, but I decided to not take it lightly. The great thing about this role is that can be sung by many types of tenor. Everyone has their own strength to showcase.

That said, having the C’s in the aria is always essential.  I find that I need to treat this aria like any other piece. It’s just one more aria with a few high notes.  Giving too much importance to the fact that it’s high puts too much pressure on the moment.  It is, after all, only 60 seconds of a 2-1/2 hour show. There’s plenty of show left after that.

Luciano Pavarotti

Juan Diego Florez 2

What makes singing the high C’s so hard – the pitch, the length of the notes and breathing, whatever?

Tessitura certainly plays a big role in making this aria one of the most challenging in the repertoire. There is a certain finesse that bel canto requires, which takes plenty of effort. Add to that the fact that most roles don’t demand such fireworks from the tenor in such a short period of time.

The tenor in a Rossini opera will be required to sing plenty of C’s, but they are spread out through the show. The mere fact that it happens in such a short period of time requires from the tenor a certain stamina and control, making this sort of a specialized role.

What are the challenges of Donizetti’s “bel canto” style, versus say Baroque or Verismo opera, for you as a tenor and for the whole cast?

It is hard to compare all of these styles, because they are so different, though one is informed by the other. If we go chronologically, baroque certainly informed the bel canto style.  The beauty of lines, and the exposed vocal fireworks transitioned from the baroque into the bel canto style very smoothly. Verismo came later, as an answer to what had come before.

The focus in bel canto – of “beautiful singing” — is the beauty of line, and the finesse from passage to passage. It’s the great combination of vocal prowess, and story telling.  As a singer, I get to showcase what I do best, and cadenzas tend to be tailored to the specific abilities of the singer.

That is one of my favorite things about bel canto. It’s a great collaboration between, singer, stage director, maestro, and orchestra.  It can be some of the most thrilling theater-music combination there is.

What makes this opera popular with audiences in general? The happy endings? The characters? The plot? The impressive and accessible lightness of the bel canto style? Some other element?

People like light stories.  Add to that the fact that Donizetti was a masterful composer, and chose librettos that appealed to the masses. Who does not want to see the “good ol’ boy” get the girl?

There is a complexity to the show that is present in the great masterpieces by Donizetti (below). There are very light moments, in which you feel like you are in an operetta, in juxtaposition with moments of great sadness that are reminiscent of his great serious works. This show brings a lot of the elements that made Donizetti a master of his time.

donizetti

How would you compare your role and this particular interpretation of it to other roles and to what other tenors have done with yours?

What I love about live theater and opera is the fact that every person interpreting a role is going to bring something different to it. To me, comparing two tenors singing the same role is like comparing two different beers. While they have many of the same kind of qualities, they will never be the same.

That’s what makes it interesting to me. Every interpretation is informed by the single individual who gets to perform it at any given time.

What us your sense of the ensemble spirit in the cast and production so far? Is there anything you s want to say about the Madison Opera and this production? (Below is a set from the Virginia Opera’s production that will be used.)

One of the best things about this show is the fact that it has a small cast. That allows us to really get to work with each other in a more intimate way, and form bonds that make the show more interesting.

This production is a lot of fun, and each of the cast members has their own quirky take on their role.  That has made it more exciting, and hopefully it will translate as more fun for the audience.

As an audience member, I always enjoy a show in which the filial love of the cast is palpable. It makes a comedy really shine. Our director and conductor have done a great job at trying to use our individual strengths, and showcase them through out the show. It is full of tender moments, and I’m so excited to be a part of it. I think Madison will really like this beloved classic of the opera repertoire.

Madison Opera Daughter of the Regiment Virginia Opera singing lesson image 2

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Classical music Q&A: What makes for a good villain? Baritone Nmon Ford talks about playing Scarpia this weekend in the Madison Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

October 29, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Few villains in opera are as villainous and hated by audiences as Baron Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s  ever popular “Tosca.” (At bottom is a very popular YouTube video  with over one million hits, that features soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing the opera’s most famous aria, done by Tosca, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amor” (I lived for art, I lived for love).

So The Ear thought it might be interesting and informative to ask baritone Nmon Ford what it takes to play a good villain on stage. He plays Scarpia, who tortures and kills for love, in this weekend’s two performances of the Madison Opera’s production of “Tosca.” (Below is a YouTube video of the “Te Deum” aria from “Tosca” that Ford sang at the Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” preview last July.)

Performances are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. “Tosca” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles. Maestro John DeMain will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The stage director is A. Scott Parry, who returns to the same company where he directed acclaimed productions of Philip Glass’ “Galileo” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Soprano Melody Moore sings the title role of Tosca, and tenor Scott Piper sings the role of her lover Mario Cavaradossi.

Tickets are $18-$121. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 for information and reservations. The show runs 2 hours 45 minutes with two intermissions. For more information about the production and the entire opera season, visit:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/tosca/index.aspx

It is a special production as it will also give Madison audiences their first chance to sample Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith in her first foray here into Puccini, one of the great staples of the opera repertoire.

The handsome  articulate and charismatic Nmon Ford (below) – whose robust and unabashed physicality is featured regularly on the blog “BariHunks” — generously gave The Ear an email interview that comes after a link to his own website with details of his biography and career:

http://www.nmonford.com/home.html

Nmon Ford

What is it like to play The Bad Guy or The Villain? What is the best part and what is the least favorable part of playing such a role, the part you like and the part you dislike?

It’s a great deal of fun because I gravitate toward proactive characters that energize plot development, which the Bad Guy generally does. He’s usually the source of conflict, and therefore the source of forward motion in the story.

The best part is that the roles are written to reflect this sort of dramatic propulsion, which makes them vocally and dramatically more substantial; there’s more meat on the bones, so to speak.

Since villains normally aren’t constrained by rules, the roles themselves involve more freedom of interpretation, whereas a romantic lead is pretty much onstage the way he is the book, script, play, or score.

Moreover, my personal sense of justice is always served since most villains end up dead by the end of the opera, so I feel even more liberated to take their evil natures as far outside the box as possible.

The worst part is … well, as long as the role is reasonably well-written, there really isn’t a bad part.

Nmon Ford half face BW evil

Are there other singers or stars whose bad guys you admire? Do you have a special personal take on Scarpia for this production?

Joe Morton (Eli Pope) in the TV series “Scandal.”  He’s clearly in it to win it; I see an Emmy in his future.

I see Scarpia the way he’s described in Sardou’s play:  elegant, cultured and extraordinarily dangerous. Unless both his class and his depravity are represented, he becomes a boring caricature rather than the multifaceted figure he is.

joe morton as eli pope in scandal-2

For you, how does Scarpia compare to specific famous villains in opera? Have you played others and do you have favorites to sing or to listen to?

I’ve sung Iago, Tonio, Emperor Jones, Wotan, Macbeth (below, for the Long Beach Opera) and Don Giovanni.  (The last three may not fit everyone’s definition of a villain, but they are definitely not good guys in my book.)

The main difference between Scarpia and other villains I’ve sung is that he makes no effort to disguise his nature; in fact, he’s a proud bully and everyone knows it. The other characters try to maintain at least a patina of decency, except for Wotan and Emperor Jones. So far, my favorite is either Iago or Scarpia, with Wotan a close third for his gorgeous music.

Nmon Ford Macbeth Long Beach Opera

Are there secrets or tricks to making such a portrayal convincing and effective musically and dramatically?

My number one rule is “never settle”:  however ruthless, mean, melancholy, violent, calculating or obsessed the character is on paper, that’s exactly what goes onstage. It’s not my job to make excuses for them, so I don’t.

I embody these characters as “anti-heroes,” rather than villains. They often possess the same traits as heroes — commitment, strength, drive, passion — but they’re dealing with some sort of internal psychological structure or conflict that renders them morally ambivalent.

One thing I always do — it’s just my thing — is to find something funny in any role I play, no matter what it is. Whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally comical, it’s my benchmark for the role’s humanity. (Below is an informal portrait of Nmon Ford by Guy Madmoni.)

Are there contemporary or modern real-life figures whom Scarpia represents -– perhaps Vladimir Putin or Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? 

Offhand, I can’t think of anybody whose behavior is sufficiently both violent and psychosexual to qualify.

Nmon Ford  Photo Guy Madmoni

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Come see the show.  It’s gonna be GOOD!


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