The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Can the annual Handel Aria Competition be improved? Here are two modest proposals from a fan. What do you think?

June 13, 2018
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest posting by George Savage, a blog follower who is a self-described musical amateur. In his youth he sang in choirs and had a bit solo part of Morales in his college production of Bizet’s Carmen. Then, a long musical hiatus until his 60th birthday celebration, when he sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” black hat in hand, knees on floor.

Most of his adult life was spent teaching literature and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, specializing in the American Renaissance. To the extent he has stayed connected to the world of music, it is through his daughter Kelly Savage, who has a D.M.A in harpsichord from Stony Brook University and now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

By George Savage

As my bio indicates, I am a musical amateur, meaning simply that I am a lover (French amateur) of music. For the past three years, I have had this love rekindled through the annual Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wisconsin.

The vocal quality has consistently been high — especially this year! — and it is fun to vote for the Audience Favorite, even when the judges disagree with your assessment.

(Editor’s note: This year the Audience Favorite was mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, below top, while the three judges awarded First Prize to soprano Suzanne Karpov, below bottom. Here is a link to story about all the winners: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/classical-music-here-are-the-winners-of-friday-nights-sixth-annual-handel-aria-competition/).

My heartfelt congratulations go to Dean and Carol “Orange” Schroeder (below) for establishing this annual competition in 2013 and for the many supporters who have made this competition a success.

I have two modest proposals, though, for improvement, one minor and one major.

A minor proposal: Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of opera — and I know that some people reading this have that knowledge — you will not know the context of the arias.

I propose that the program notes contain a brief context for each of the arias. Alternatively, the singers – below are the seven finalists this year — could introduce their songs with a similar brief context.

A major proposal: As I listened this year to Handel piece after Handel piece after Handel piece, I wondered: “Could there be some variation?”

I started to think of other festivals that started with a single-artist focus but then gradually expanded, such as the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, or, closer to home, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Both summer theater venues began with a single focus – Shaw and Shakespeare — but then evolved while at the same time staying true to their precipitating muse.

There is still lots of Shaw at the Shaw festival and lots of Shakespeare at APT. The same is true of the Carmel Bach Festival, which started with Bach but now has expanded to include many other forms of classical music. The same holds true for the famous Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City, which continues to expand its repertoire beyond Mozart.

In that spirit, I wonder if the singers at the Handel Competition, back up by the period-instrument Madison Bach Musicians, could in future events sing two selections — the first an aria by Handel and the second a non-Handel Baroque aria of the singer’s choice.

I think many singers would welcome the expanded repertoire and the audience would appreciate the added variety. The judging would be murkier, but it would be a good kind of murky.

I hope these proposals will engender a discussion: Should the competition be tweaked, or should it stay the same?

Your thoughts on these two proposals would be appreciated as well as other suggestions of your own.


Classical music: Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical masterpiece “The Tales of Hoffmann” will be performed by Madison Opera on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Here is Part 1 of a two-part preview

April 12, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: The concert by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble that was scheduled for this Saturday has been CANCELED due to illness.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Madison Opera write:

Madison Opera will present two performances of  “The Tales of Hoffmann” by French composer Jacques Offenbach (below) this weekend.

Jacques Offenbach

The production will be performed in Overture Hall of the Overture Center on Friday at 8 p.m. and on
 Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in French with projected English translations.

Tickets are $18-$129. Student and group discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Overture Box Office, 201 State St., Madison, and by calling (608) 258-4141 or visiting www.madisonopera.org

This will be the company’s first production in 20 years of Offenbach’s masterpiece, which moves in a fantasy world. It offers showpiece arias for the bravura cast, the gorgeous “Barcarolle,” and a moving tribute to what it means to be an artist. (You can hear the famous and familiar Barcarolle in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

THE STORY

As he sits in a tavern, the poet Hoffmann drinks, smokes and encounters Lindorf, his rival for his current lover, the opera singer Stella.

He recalls how his nemesis seems to appear constantly in his life, and urged on by his fellow bar patrons, tells the three tales of his loves: Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll; Antonia, a singer who dies of a mysterious illness; and Giulietta, a courtesan who steals his reflection. His adventures take him from Munich to Venice, always accompanied by his most faithful love, his muse.

The opera ends back in the tavern, as Hoffmann’s muse consoles him and urges him on to the higher purpose of art.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 2

PRAISE AND BACKGROUND

“The Tales of Hoffmann is one of my absolute favorite operas,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “I love the music, the story, the myriad facets to the characters, and the fact that no two productions of this opera are identical. It has comedy, tragedy, drinking songs, lyrical arias, and even some magic tricks.”

Offenbach’s final opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann” premiered in 1881 at the Opera-Comique in Paris. The title character was based on the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, now most famous as the author of the original “Nutcracker” story; the different acts were adaptations of Hoffmann’s own short stories.

Offenbach was celebrated for over 100 comic operettas such as “Orpheus in the Underworld”; “Hoffmann” was intended to be his first grand opera. Unfortunately, he died before completing the opera, and other composers finished it. Over the past century, there have been many different versions of the opera, with different arias, different plot points, and even different orders of the acts.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“The Tales of Hoffmann, for me, is the perfect blend of great music and
 great theater,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera and the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “It’s particularly fun to conduct because the orchestra plays a central role in
the moment to moment unfolding of the drama, and Offenbach achieves this at the same time as he is spinning out one gorgeous melody after another.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

THE CAST

Madison Opera’s cast features a quartet of debuts in the leading roles. Harold Meers (below), who sang at Opera in the Park in 2015, makes his mainstage debut as Hoffmann, the poet.

Harold Meers

Sian Davies (bel0w) makes her debut singing three of Hoffmann’s loves – Antonia, Giulietta and Stella – a true vocal and dramatic feat. Jeni Houser returns to Madison Opera following her most recent role as Amy in Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” to sing the role of his fourth love, Olympia. She has also appeared here in George Frideric Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” and Stephan Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

Sian Davies

Baritone Morgan Smith makes his debut as Hoffmann’s nemesis, who appears in forms both sinister and comic.

Making her debut as Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse, who also turns out to be his Muse, is mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala.

Returning to Madison Opera as the four servants is Jared Rogers, who sang Beadle Bamford in Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd.” Thomas Forde, last here as Don Basilio in Giaocchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” sings the dual roles of Luther and Crespel. Robert Goderich, who sang Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd,” sings Spalanzani, the mad inventor. Tyler Alessi makes his debut as Schlemil.

Three Madison Opera Studio Artists round out the cast: Kelsey Park as the voice of Antonia’s dead mother and William Ottow and Nathaniel Hill as two students.

SETTING

Madison Opera’s production is set in the Roaring 1920s, with stylish costumes that are perfect for Offenbach’s fantasy that travels time and location.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 3

Kristine McIntyre (below), who directed Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” for Madison Opera, stages this complex story that has a vast dramatic scope.

Kristine McIntyre 2016

Tomorrow: Artistic and music director John DeMain and stage director Kristine McIntyre address the differences between the reputation and the reality of “The Tales of Hoffman.”


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