The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Stage director Tara Faircloth talks about her staging of Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.” The Madison Opera performs it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are the hot topics of an old opera that is celebrating its bicentennial this year.

When you look around the world and see the struggle in fighting terrorism, religious intolerance and political tyranny as well as the difficult and thwarted stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, “Fidelio” — the only opera composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (below) — seems a timely and even inspired choice to stage.

Beethoven big

That is exactly what the Madison Opera will do in Overture Hall of the Overture Center this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in German with English supertitles.

Single tickets are $18-$125. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit the Overture Center box office.

Here is a link to more information, including a cast list and information about the production, which is based on the one done by the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit:

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

Fidelio Set John Grigaitis Michigan Opera Theatre

A Madison Opera staged premiere, “Fidelio” is “a passionate ode to freedom, and the triumph of love over tyranny,” according to a press release from the Madison Opera.

“To rescue her husband, a political prisoner, the noblewoman Leonore (below, played by Alexandra LoBianco) disguises herself as a man and works at the prison where she believes her husband is held. Beethoven contrasts the evil of Don Pizarro, who has ordered his enemy imprisoned and starved, with the inner strength and bravery that enables Leonore to rescue her husband.

“Ranging from breathtaking arias to stunning choral music, Beethoven’s score is truly sublime, with an ever-building dramatic intensity that leaves audiences exhilarated. The famous “Prisoners’ Chorus” is one of the most beautiful choral tributes to freedom ever written, and one of the reasons Fidelio has resonated across the centuries.

Fidelio Alexandra LoBianco Leonore

“Madison Opera performed Fidelio in concert in November 1986, but this is the first time the company has presented the opera fully-staged. Sung in German with German dialogue and projected English translations, Fidelio is the only opera Beethoven ever wrote, premiering in its final form in 1814.

“Fidelio is a truly great opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director. “It has both light and dark moments, with real emotion underlying the intense drama. Above all, the score is a masterpiece from one of classical music’s greatest composers.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Fidelio” also marks the start of Madison Opera’s 10th season in Overture Hall, whose exceptional acoustics have been a primary factor in the company’s growth and success.

“It is absolutely thrilling for me to finally have a chance to conduct Beethoven’s operatic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the Madison Opera’s Artistic Director and conductor who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “I have loved this music passionately for years, and can’t wait to perform this great work in the acoustic splendor of Overture Hall. We have a thrilling cast of singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, all up to the demands of the mighty Beethoven.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Pre-opera talks will be hosted by Kathryn Smith one hour prior to each performance.

Here is a background story, with more interviews, written by Mike Muckian that appeared in the Wisconsin Gazette.

http://www.wisconsingazette.com/music/fidelio-beethovens-struggle-madison-operas-reward.html

And here is an email Q&A that stage director that Tara Faircloth (below), who is making her Madison Opera debut, granted to The Ear:

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Can you briefly introduce yourself, with some background and current activities as well as future projects and plans?

A Georgia native, I make my home in Houston, Texas, in a 1935 Art & Crafts bungalow that I am slowly renovating and restoring. I work primarily in opera, and take special pleasure in my work with young people: I am a semi-regular director at Wolf Trap Opera, and the dramatic coach for the fine singers in the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

Some of my most beloved projects have been a beautiful (if I do say so!) production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Wolf Trap, a Dido & Aeneas with Houston’s Mercury Baroque in collaboration with the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, and a very recent production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse at Rice University. I am very much looking forward to a new production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Arizona Opera, and my first Le Nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, at the Atlanta Opera.

I like to create productions that are whimsical and humorous with intense moments of emotional connection.

How do you situate Beethoven’s “Fidelio” among other major opera and opera composers? What makes it special?

Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, a work that he re-wrote three times. It has been called a “secular oratorio,” and it is full of the passion that typifies so much of Beethoven’s work.

When listening to Beethoven’s music, I personally feel as if the score can barely contain all of the emotion he is trying to express, that it is stretched to its absolute limit, and somehow there is an underlying tension, a sense that if it were possible, he would want you to feel even more than he has been able to write down.

What is your overall concept of the opera? Do you see it as having to do with the Enlightenment and political movement toward democracy?

Fidelio has been subject to a multitude of interpretations since its inception. In many ways, the score is a blank slate: the characters are not described in great detail, there is no mention in the score of the exact political situation at hand, and even Florestan’s “crime” against Pizarro is not identified explicitly. Instead we have a story of brutal revenge versus great love: a universally appealing theme.

With its dream of a government free of tyranny, and the inherent worth of the individual man, Fidelio certainly has a very healthy dose of Enlightenment principles.

However, in many ways it may be seen as ushering in Romantic era ideals. It is full of sweeping emotional moments: perhaps the most famous is the Prisoners’ Chorus “O welche Lust” (at bottom in a YouTube video), which begins with an ecstatic appreciation of the beauty of a single breath of fresh air.

The fact that Beethoven gave the most beautiful music in the entire opera to a chorus of common prisoners shows us, I think, his belief that our connection to a higher power and our longing for freedom is inherent and universal to every man.

Does Beethoven’s opera hold lessons for today about current events?

As a director, I am not really one to look for lessons in our literature. Instead, I hope to engage our audience in a very human drama, to make them FEEL something and to connect with them. I think that experiencing music and drama in this way makes us more empathetic and open to other human beings, and that can only make the world a better place.

This is your debut in Madison. Do have impressions of the city, the opera and orchestra, either firsthand or through others?

I travel a lot for my work, and every time I have mentioned I will be in Madison, people simply gush about what a lovely place it is. In addition to the charming beauty of the city, I’ve noticed there seems to be a big focus on beer and cheese. So, basically it is heaven.

What you would you like to add or say?

Fidelio is an opera that is rarely performed. It takes massive forces: large orchestra, large chorus, and very large voices. I think we have quite a group assembled here, and hope your reading audience will take advantage of the opportunity to hear the work of one of the world’s most beloved composers.

 


Classical music Q&A: What music best celebrates Earth Day? Plus, 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 capital punishment. The Madison Opera will perform the opera this weekend on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

April 22, 2014
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Reader Survey: Today is Earth Day, founded by former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson. What piece of classical music best expresses the event for you? Tell us what you think by leaving a COMMENT.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s guest post is written by Michael Muckian (below), a long-time and award-winning Madison-based Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

The Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27, in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org for more information.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed. They will also attend opening night.

Composer Jake Heggie was a composer of art songs written for vocal luminaries such as Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone and others when he was approached by author Terrence McNally to compose the music for “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her work with death-row inmates. In the interview he gave me, he said the experience changed his life, both as a composer and as a human being.

Jake Heggie

As I understand it, “Dead Man Walking” was your first opera. What attracted you to the work?

It felt timely and timeless; very American, but universal; it’s about something that matters deeply; it had instant name recognition; it had the essential elements of a grand opera, plus the conflicts and emotions so large that it not only makes sense for people to sing, but it is the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house. I also felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away.

How did you approach the music for this opera?

The libretto by Terrence McNally (below) demanded a range of American styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel (You can listen to the YouTube video at the bottom for a sample.) The setting is the South, and that has its own musical landscape, too. Those are all styles and sounds familiar to me, and it felt natural to explore and weave them together. I think audiences will feel challenged at times, but also will feel included in this musical journey.

Terrence McNally

What were the themes you felt necessary to include in the opera? What are the key issues surrounding capital punishment, and how did you express them musically?

All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. It’s all about what people want and yearn for, what they are afraid of, what they have lost. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and love them for who they are.

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any themes in the opera touch you personally? In other words, did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides. I drew on my own personal experiences, of course, but part of my job as a theater composer is to empathize with each character and write truthfully for them, not to over-sentimentalize or trivialize their journey. For much of this opera, once I tapped into the musical world of the piece, it was a matter of listening to the characters and letting them sing to me, almost like taking dictation.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

This is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing “Dead Man Walking” change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

Opera literature is replete with stories of social injustice: George Frideric Handel‘s “Semele,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’sThe Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto” and “Otello”, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Benjamin Britten‘s “Peter Grimes” and Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd” for starters.

Most of the comic operas deal with some form of social injustice, too. That’s one of the reasons I recognized that Terrence McNally had an inspired idea in suggesting “Dead Man Walking” as an opera. It fits into the big trajectory of grand operas.

And, yes, the experience of researching and writing the opera challenged and changed me. I regret to say that I was one of the people who had never really meditated on the death penalty. I’d always thought of it in the abstract. But in dealing with it head on I came to understand that this is a deeply political and racial issue. It takes place in a very flawed and inequitable system of human beings making life-and-death decisions.

The death penalty is also the only punishment where we as a society repeat the very behavior we abhor. Think about it: we don’t rape the rapists, we don’t beat up the assailants, but we murder murderers. And we do this to show that murder is wrong.

Execution chamber

How did you interact with Terrence McNally? Was it libretto first, the music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

The story is always first. Before there are words or music, there’s the story, and everything has to be in service to the story. Sister Helen Prejean (below), on whose work the opera is based, made one request of us from the beginning — that the opera remain a story of redemption.

So we talked at length about how we wanted to tell the story – what parts of it moved and inspired us most. Where we were going to begin and where we were ending. Then he started crafting a libretto and I started writing music. There was much back and forth throughout.

Music changes everything, of course, and gives us insight into characters that words alone do not. When writing the music, I would discover that there were many things that we could describe with music alone – no words were needed. It went back and forth until we were finished.

Sister Helen Prejean

Where does “Dead Man Walking” fit within the canon of your other works? Does it mark your evolution from an art songs composer to an opera composer?

It was my first opera and I was 39 years old when it was premiered. I had written a great deal of music before Dead Man Walking, but composing the opera affected my style and sense of writing deeply. That’s when I finally figured out that I’m a theater composer, a storyteller. Everything since “Dead Man Walking” has been different from everything before — it’s a real demarcation point. I couldn’t have composed “Moby-Dick” (below) if I hadn’t composed “Dead Man Walking” 10 years earlier, that’s for certain, even though the styles of those pieces are vastly different.

Please be sure to credit Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

What do you hope audiences will take away from this opera?

I hope audiences will take away emotional perspective, that they will be open to giving themselves over to the drama and reflect on it as it unfolds. I hope they will feel changed in some way. That’s certainly why I go to the opera, to be moved and to feel somehow changed — like a new mark has been made on my heart.

 

 

 

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