The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Puccini makes us all bohemians. Madison Opera scores a big heart-rending success with “La Bohème.” The final performance is this afternoon.

November 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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 – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (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 preview review of this past weekend’s performance of “La Bohème” by the Madison Opera.

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

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” is perhaps the most beloved of all operas, adored by newcomers and veterans alike for its richly Romantic melodies, subtly shaded score and sheer vocal magnetism. (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

This weekend’s production anchors Madison Opera’s writer-themed season, which continues with Mark Adamo‘s “Little Women” in February and Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffman” (The Tales of Hoffmann) in April.

The famous numbers in “La Boheme” — the first-act arias “Che gelida manina” by the poet Rodolfo (Mackenzie Whitney) and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” by Mimi (Eleni Calanos), and the following duet “O soave fanciulla” in particular — are familiar showstoppers, and were well sung Friday night. (You can hear Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi sing the arias and duets in the YouTube video at the bottom. Can you not be moved?)

Boheme Madison Opera USE Mimi and Rodolfo GILL

But the indisputable star of this production was Maestro John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), whose flexible leadership in conducting united a remarkably even cast and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whose lush, supple sound filled Overture Hall to the rafters with a powerful reading of Puccini’s rich and colorful score.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

One was struck by the tightness of composition. For a composer often accused of pandering to popular tastes, sacrificing musical integrity for cheap emotional tricks, the score to “La Bohème” is densely motivic and self-referential.

As in Mozart or Verdi, the orchestra often represents the subtext or the emotional undercurrents of the scene, with snatches of remembered melody drifting throughout the drama. The only complaint must be that we sometimes heard a bit too much of this lovely orchestra, to the detriment of balance with the singers.

Among the cast, the sense of camaraderie between the members of the male quartet — Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline and Schaunard — was palpable, by turns rowdy and rambunctious and in the fourth act deeply moving.

Madison Opera Boheme cafe sceneJames Gill

Whether this was the result of some special chemistry between the singers (Dan Kempson, Mackenzie Whitney, Liam Moran, and Alan Dunbar) or something drawn out by director David Lefkowich (below), it brought the ensemble scenes to life marvelously, and drew the audience into the lives of the four friends quite powerfully.

David Lefkowich 2013

Dan Kempson (below) deserves special praise as the painter Marcello, a somewhat unsympathetic role, both for humanizing the jealous lover and for his rich and warm singing throughout the evening.

Madison Opera boheme Rodolfo GILL

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney brought a clear and smooth tone to the role of Rodolfo, shining brightest in ensemble singing.

Evan Ross, in the buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, brought humor, but not enough sound to be consistently heard over the orchestra, leaving the audience chuckling at his mannerisms and the supertitles rather than what he actually sang.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below), a favorite of local audiences and a UW-Madison graduate, who recently graduated out of the Ryan Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, made an excellent showing as the flirtatious Musetta, whose gentle side in the fourth act was extraordinarily poignant.

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

And Eleni Calenos’ Mimi (below, second from right) was both credibly fragile and vocally excellent, with warmth to spare and the ability to draw the audience into the intimate final moments of her life.

Madison Opera Boheme death scene

Sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City made subtle but evocative use of perspective, drawing the eye where it needed to be without drawing attention away from the action. (I was particularly fond of the Cafe Momus.)

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor scene GILL

The city beyond the garret was subtly shaded by Connie Yun’s lighting design. And Anthony Cao’s chorus, together with the Madison Youth Choirs, brought the necessary sense of spectacle to the outdoor scenes in Act II.

Madison Opera Boheme outdoor 2 parade GILL

All in all, despite some balance issues early on, the gorgeous playing of the orchestra alone makes this a production worth hearing, and the largely young cast brings Puccini’s “verismo” (realistic) masterpiece vividly to life.

It’s another feather in the caps of artistic director John DeMain and general director Kathryn Smith of the Madison Opera.

It is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. The final performance, with two intermissions, will be this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.


Classical music: On the eve of Opera in the Park, Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith recaps the last season and previews the next.

July 23, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park marks its 14th anniversary this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side.

The annual FREE concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s extraordinary 2014-15 season and provides an appetizing preview of the 2015-16 season that celebrates writers and their inspirations.

Typically, Opera in the Park attracts over 14,000 people every year.

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 1 James Gill

This year, Opera in the Park stars soprano Eleni Calenos, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Harold Meers and local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, and features former Madison Opera Studio Artist Anna Laurenzo.

Here is a link to Kyle Ketelsen’s Q&A with The Ear:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/classical-music-local-opera-star-kyle-ketelsen-talks-about-returning-to-madison-operas-free-opera-in-the-park-this-saturday-night-and-why-he-continues-to-live-here/

Artistic Director John DeMain conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s 27 News “Wake-Up Wisconsin” anchor Brandon Taylor.

Opera in Park 2012 stage

“I love Opera in the Park,” says Smith, in a prepared statement. “It is by far the most important performance Madison Opera gives. The magic combination of thousands of people sitting under the summer night sky and our singers and orchestra performing beautiful music on stage creates something truly inspiring. It is a testament to Madison’s love of music – and love of being outdoors – that we have the highest per capita attendance of any such concert in the country.”

The program for Opera in the Park 2015 includes arias and ensembles from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which opens the 2015-16 season in November; Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” which will be performed in February; and Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which will be performed in April.

The concert will also offer arias and ensembles from such classic operas as Antonin Dvorak‘s “Rusalka,” Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” Arrigo Boito‘s “Mefistofele” and Georg Frideric Handel‘s “Semele.” Broadway hits from “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Wonderful Town” will round out the evening of music, which always includes one number conducted by the audience with light sticks.

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at the intersection of Mineral Point Road, west of Whitney Way. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. 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 are not allowed to leave items in the park prior to this time. The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 26, at 8 p.m.

Here are two links to help you find information about Opera in the Park.

For general information, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/park/

And for more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/park/cast/

For information about the next season, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2015-2016/

On the eve of the outdoor event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who is the general director of the Madison Opera – agreed to revisit the past season and talk about the upcoming season with The Ear.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season?

Our fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of August, but overall it has been a great year on all fronts. From the triumphant music of our first staged Fidelio (below, the prisoners’ chorus in a photo by James Gill) to the sold-out Sweeney Todd and the joyous The Barber of Seville, it was an immensely satisfying season.

Audience and critical response to each opera was strong, and often included some surprise that the individual enjoyed that particular show more than he or she had expected. It feels like we have proved in the past few seasons that we can produce consistently great opera across the spectrum. I am also encouraged by the new audiences we attract and the diversity of age range I see in our lobbies.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Can you rank each show in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?

It’s difficult to rank this season’s shows, because we know they drew very different audiences. For example, the audience at Sweeney Todd was definitely younger than the audience at Fidelio — the non-subscription performance in particular seemed to have an average age of 30 — and a number of people brought their young children to The Barber of Seville for their first opera.

In absolute numbers, the order would be Barber (below, in a photo by James Gill), Sweeney Todd and Fidelio, but there was not a wide gap between them.

The main thing I’ve learned with each successive season is that we are doing the right thing by having such a mix of operas. Some of our patrons love Beethoven, some only like comedy, and some were only interested (or very much un-interested) in Sweeney Todd.

By doing such a range, we serve a much wider audience than if we focused on only one segment of our audience. Hopefully this adds to the growing understanding that opera is not a monolithic art form.

Madison Opera barber of seville cast action

How and why did you choose the operas for next season? Why Puccini’s “La Boheme”? Why Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”? Does “Little Women” represent something of a departure for Madison Opera? Is there an umbrella concept or unifying theme to the season?

Choosing a season’s operas is a question of balancing the classic, the rare and the new; picking a range of composers and languages; and in general coming up with the “mix” that defines us.

We have not performed La Bohème in eight years, so it was time to bring back the greatest love story in opera. While some long-time opera-goers may have seen it many times, we also have many in our audience who have only come to opera recently, so this will be their first Bohème.

la boeme banner

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a brilliant piece that is both scarily large and immensely exciting to produce, packed with beautiful music and special effects. It happens to be a personal favorite opera not only for me, but also for John DeMain and Kristine McIntyre, our stage director. We look forward to sharing this literally fantastic work on the Overture Hall stage, as we have not performed it in 20 years.

tales of hoffmann banner

Little Women came out of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, to some extent. After the success of Dead Man Walking, many people — particularly those who were surprised by how much they enjoyed a 21st-century opera — asked me what we were doing next. I did not want another nine years to go by before we did another major American opera, but I also wanted a completely different story, so that it would not be a literal comparison.

Mark Adamo’s Little Women has been one of the most-performed American operas since its 1998 premiere; its basis in a story that has been beloved for generations makes it the perfect way to keep growing our American repertoire.

As is often the case, the season theme emerges after I’ve picked the operas. Next season turned out to be a season of writers: Rodolfo is a poet; so is Hoffmann. Jo March writes stories for magazines and is in fact the only writer we see succeeding in her craft during the opera.

That said, the unifying theme is the same one I strive for every season: Great operas that tell wonderful stories with enthralling music.

little women banner

What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions? Has it lived up to expectations?

Over the past two years, the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center (below) has played a major role in defining who we are. On a basic level, it is where we rehearse, fit costumes and have our offices. It is also where the singers hang out, give press interviews, do their laundry, cook the occasional meal, work on music for their next gig and bump into our trustees in the common areas.

Having our own space has enabled us to add programs like the free Opera Novice series and hold more workshops with our high school apprentices.

On a financial level, revenue from the parking ramp in particular is an increasingly important part of our budget, as it is not dependent on donors or ticket sales. On a community level, having our rehearsal hall regularly used by groups such as CTM, Theatre Lila, and Capital City Theatre shows that we truly are part of the larger artistic fabric of Madison. The Center was designed to be a home on many levels, and we are well on the way to achieving that dream.

Madison Opera Center interior

What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park?

I am always grateful for the enormous number of people who make Madison Opera possible. Opera has never been cost-effective, and our patrons, volunteers, artists, production teams, and staff are all committed to sharing this glorious art form with everyone from the 2,000 teenagers at our student matinees to the 15,000 people at Opera in the Park.

Our season ends with this summer’s Opera in the Park this Saturday, which is always the perfect way to finish the year. This summer is the concert’s 14th year – which means that 2016 will be the 15th year, a milestone that was perhaps unthinkable when we started in Garner Park in 2002.

We have the highest per capita attendance for such an event in the U.S., which is a strong testament to the greater Madison community’s love for what we do. I won’t reveal the repertoire for this summer’s concert yet, but we have four amazing soloists and plenty of light sticks (below), so I hope everyone has the date on their calendars.

Opera in the Park 2014 light sticks


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