The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The new opera “Fallujah” is based on the Iraq War. Will the Madison Opera or the University Opera be interested in staging it? Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear “Carmina Burana” performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Read three rave reviews.

May 1, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Carmina Burana” in the MSO’s spectacular season-closing program. Read three rave reviews by local critics:

Here is what John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/big-orchestra-monuments/

Here is what Greg Hettmansberger wrote for Madison Magazine and his blog WhatGregSays:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/farewells-to-a-season-and-some-friends/

And here is what Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/concert-review-mso-offers-spectacular-finale-to-season-with-respighi/article_3ac27a49-8212-5983-855b-245dd011deef.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Who says you can’t mix art and current events?

Especially if the current events also count as history, which has often been an inspiration for fiction and art.

Iraq and Afghanistan — the United States’ longest wars — are back in the news again making big headlines. And PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a story that never goes away.

But not all of the news has to do with politics, suicide bombings, increased troop commitments and fierce fighting in a civil war.

It also has to do with art.

Specifically, opera — that potent combination of theater and music.

The Long Beach Opera commissioned and recently premiered a new chamber opera based on the Iraq War and PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), and us based on the life and work of U.S. Marine Christian Ellis . It is called “Fallujah” and it is the first such opera to be written. (A photo below is by Keith Ian Polakoff for the Long Beach Opera.)

You can hear librettist Heather Raffo and composer Tobin Stokes discuss the opera in the YouTube video at the bottom.

fallujah iraq opera Keith Ian Polakoff Long Beach Opera

It makes The Ear wonder if it might find its way into an upcoming season of the Madison Opera, which tends to use its smaller winter productions to stage works that are newer, smaller, more adventurous and more exploratory.

Or maybe the University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music might find it a good choice for a student production?

Anyway, here is a fine write-up that you can find on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/18/470973622/an-iraq-war-opera-finds-a-vein-of-empathy


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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