The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This weekend guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine solos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program

October 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) makes her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor.

The concert by the orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) opens with Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday night, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $19-$95. See below for details.

“There will be great discoveries in our all-Russian concert, starting with the MSO debut of virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a big, bold and beautiful work in its MSO premiere,” said MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). Lieutenant Kijé is sure to delight you with its wonderful melodies and infectious rhythms. Shostakovich has become a favorite with our audiences, and his ninth symphony is delightfully upbeat.”

Lieutenant Kijé is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia. The story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934, with music by Sergei Prokofiev (below). The plot is a satire on bureaucracy and is often parodied in fictional works making fun of bureaucracies, most famously in the form of the M*A*S*H television episode “Tuttle,” featuring a fictional captain of similar provenance. (You can hear the popular “Troika” episode in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many of the themes in Violin Concerto in D minor are evocative of the native Armenia of Aram Khachaturian (below). Although the folk melodies aren’t played explicitly, one can hear the Armenian roots through the oriental essence of the scales and the rhythmic range of the featured dances. The piece won the Stalin Prize in 1941, becoming one of Khachaturian’s favorites.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is entirely unlike his other symphonies. In fact, it completely disregards the expectations for its programmatic elements. Shostakovich’s prior two symphonies are thematically tied to the ongoing war, therefore the public presumed that the ninth symphony would be a grand culmination to Stalin and mark the end of World War II. Instead, the composer (below) produced a short, neo-classical work that generated an abundance of controversy.

ABOUT RACHEL BARTON PINE

In both art and life, violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) – who has performed in Madison before with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — has an extraordinary ability to connect with people.

Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classic and contemporary works, her performances combine her innate gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. She plays with passion and conviction, thrilling audiences worldwide with her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

A prolific recording artist, she has also championed the works of female composers and African-American composers.

Pine was also recently named the recipient of the Cedille Records Musical Partnership Award for her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. The Foundation was recognized as an organization that has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the classical music community in Chicago. Cedille noted the Foundation’s “support of the Chicago musical community’s most valuable asset — its musicians and composers.”

Pine was presented with the award by U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose son, Jim Ginsburg, founded Cedille Records. Pine began her Foundation in 2001 to provide instruments and instruction to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

You can read the Artist Story online about how Rachel Barton Pine overcame severe injuries and her own personal adversity to achieve her goals: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20-artist-story-rachel-barton-pine-overcomes-adversity/

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, retired MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msooct19programnotes.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.


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Classical music: On Saturday and Sunday, the Madison Savoyards and Central Wisconsin Ballet team up in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pineapple Poll” and “Trial by Jury.” Plus, the first Stoughton Chamber Music Festival starts Saturday

August 15, 2019
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ALERT: The two concerts of the first Stoughton Chamber Music Festival will take place on this Saturday afternoon, Aug. 17, at 3 p.m. and on Monday night, Aug. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Stoughton Opera House, 381 East Main Street. Admission is FREE with a suggested donation of $15.

Featured is music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, Samuel Barber, Edvard Grieg, George Gershwin and Paul Schoenfield as well as Norwegian folk music. The Ear did not receive details, but here is more information from a story in Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/events/stoughton-chamber-music-festival/

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Savoyards and Central Midwest Ballet Academy team up to present two of the less well-known works by Gilbert and Sullivan: the comic ballet Pineapple Poll and the operetta Trial by Jury (below, in a photo by Kat Stiennon).

The performances of the two one-acts are in the Mitby Theater at Madison College (formerly Madison Area Technical College), located at 1701 Wright Street on Madison’s east side, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Aug. 17, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 18.

Tickets are $30 for adults; $28 for seniors; and $15 for young people and students. Children 3 and under get in for free.

For more information, call the Mitby Theater Box Office at (608) 243-4000 or got to: www.TrialbyPineapple.com

The music director and conductor of the professional orchestra, who is making his debut with the Madison Savoyards, is Sergei Pavlov (below), who teaches at Edgewood College and directs the Festival Choir of Madison.

The “Pineapple Poll” choreography is by Marguerite Luksik (below) of the Central Midwest Ballet Academy.

The stage director of “Trial by Jury” is J. Adam Shelton (below).

PROGRAM NOTES

Here are some program notes provided by The Madison Savoyards:

In an age of international copyright and patent tension, Pineapple Poll ballet suite is an intriguing story. The composer, Arthur Sullivan, had died in 1900. The 50-year copyright moratorium on his music expired in 1950, but his librettist partner, W.S. Gilbert, died in 1911. So in 1950, the leading 20th-century conductor, the late Sir Charles Mackerras (below), could only use the work of the former to create a new work in their honor.

From this legal oddity came the only ballet based on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan (below) and, according to The Times of London, one of the best loved of English ballets. It was first performed in the United States in 1970 by the Joffrey Ballet in New York City; and, most recently, in El Paso, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Livermore, Sarasota and Northampton, Mass.

The music for Pineapple Poll,as a suite, has been played in numerous venues in the U.S., including a performance with band director Mike Leckrone at the UW-Madison in 2008 and at the UW-La Crosse in 2015, thus indicating a strong Wisconsin interest in the music alone.

From its opening notes leaping off the pages of Mikado, Pineapple Poll is a vigorous listen and a visual delight. Clement Crisp of the Financial Times called it, “that rarest of delights, a true balletic comedy.” The National Association for Music Education had identified it as a model piece for elementary school children. In 2003, Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed that, in its pairing with Trial by Jury, “if there’s ever been a Gilbert and Sullivan show for people who don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan, this is it.”

Trial by Jury contrasts with the non-verbal Pineapple Poll, showcasing Gilbert’s lyric style in songs that tell the Victorian tale of marital promissory breach with the resulting farcical trial ending in marriage. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s second collaboration and established their successful reputations. (In photos by Aimee Broman, below top shows Thore Dosdall playing the defendant Edwin (at left) getting the feeling that the jury is not on his side. Below bottom shows the plaintiff Angelina, played by Megan McCarthy).

The Central Midwest Ballet Academy’s Marguerite Luksik and Michael Knight have created original choreography for Pineapple Poll, and performances will feature students from the Academy’s pre-professional level.

In contrast to the tragic-dramatic plots of traditional ballets, the lighthearted nature of Pineapple Poll appeals to a broader audience. Pineapple Poll presents a combination of balanced spectacle and the challenge of experimental work.

Yoked to Trial by Jury, the two productions spark social and artistic novelty, critique and entertainment.

It is worth noting that the performances this weekend are a new collaboration between two homegrown Madison troupes. The Savoyards have been performing every summer since 1963, while Central Midwest Ballet has been active since 2015.

Here is an example of the Sullivan operetta tunes patched together in the Opening Dance of “Pineapple Poll.” (You can hear the Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom):

    1. The Mikado, Opening Act 1.
    2. Trial By Jury, “Hark, the hour of Ten is sounding.”
    3. The Mikado, “So please you, sir, we much regret” (“But youth, of course, must have its fling. . .”
    4. Patience, “The Soldiers of our Queen.”
    5. Trial by Jury, “He will treat us with awe” (“Trial-la- law”).
    6. The Gondoliers, “Good Morrow, Pretty Maids” (orchestral accompaniment).
    7. Trial By Jury, “Hark, the hour of Ten is sounding.”
    8. The Mikado, “So please you, sir, we much regret.”


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” meets “The Sopranos” when an all-female mob gets even in Fresco Opera Theatre’s new show this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights

March 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information about what promised to be another unusual take, perfect for the age of the MeToo movement, on the standard opera repertoire from Fresco Opera Theatre.

The show takes place on this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in Promenade Hall of the Overture Center. Dinner table seats are $50 and other seats are $35.

We are doing a production called the “The Sopranos: Don Giovanni’s Demise,” which is our re-imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

We feature an all female-mob, who put a hit on “The Don.” And who can blame them? “The Sopranos” is the story of a score settled, and a scoundrel silenced. Don Giovanni is a rat, who has pushed the family too far. And the family has put out a hit on him.

“This is a fun production, which retains the music of “Giovanni,” but with a slightly different take using 20th-century Mafia imagery. (You can hear the dark and ominous Overture to the “Don  Giovanni” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“We have a strong cast, featuring Ryan White as Don Giovanni, Erin Sura as Donna Elvira, Katie Anderson as Donna Anna, Ashley McHugh as Zerlina and Diana Eiler as Leporello. We are excited to have Vincent Fuh as our piano accompanist, and Melanie Cain will be directing.

“We will have limited seating on stage, which will be tables on which meals will be served, adding to the ambiance. Fresco is very excited to present our interpretation of this classic tale, including the timeless music.”

Adds director Melanie Cain:

“I’ve always been intrigued with the way Mozart portrayed female characters in his operas. They are daring, courageous and bold. He also was not afraid to give the women who were from the non-privileged classes, such as his spunky maids, the task of fixing all their bosses messes and oftentimes saving the day.

“Don Giovanni” resonates so well in today’s social landscape. The idea of women uniting to take down the males who take advantage, suffocate and demoralize the female gender runs through the core of this opera.

“What better way to portray a bunch of strong women than to have them run the male dominant world of the mob? As I was thinking about the look of this show, I came across the art of Tamara de Lempicka, a painter of the Art Deco era, best known for her portraits of powerful women. She was a brave, strong-willed openly bisexual artist who wasn’t afraid to be herself at a time that wasn’t accepted.

“Not only will you hear some vivacious female singers, you will see many of Lempicka’s works displayed throughout the production, which really resonates not only with this show, but in the way I like to create opera: “I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.””

For tickets and a plot summary, here is the link to Overture Center:

https://www.overture.org/events/sopranos?fbclid=IwAR280iCL1zZLagO31ke0AUXYrYtrDHlr2cMyRaPzksrg8HaL4cK3FEg-mQ8

And for more information about Fresco Opera Theatre, here is link to its home page:

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com/?fbclid=IwAR0_Oq62sQ2I41z79HMYlnm7XDmMFqZKKiButDW5OmWa4kUX5oOH02SJ6Ws


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

https://arts.wisc.edu/2019/02/15/into-the-woods/

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/12/27/opera-theatre-sondheim-into-the-woods/

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-and-university-theatre-sondheims-into-the-woods/2019-02-22/

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/#additional

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

https://theatre.wisc.edu/2018/10/18/into-the-woods-cast/


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: What should — and shouldn’t — the #MeToo movement mean for women in the opera world?

June 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is clear now that just about all aspects of life and culture in the United States are being affected more and more by the #MeToo movement that seeks to expose, punish, correct and prevent sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual abuse and gender inequality in general.

But what does that mean specifically for the notoriously patriarchal and misogynistic opera world – meaning for the operas themselves and their themes, plots, characters and composers as well as for the people who put them on?

How, for example, should one now think of “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? (The womanizing Don Juan is seen below in a production of “Don Giovanni” by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A recent discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) covered many dimensions of the problem, and The Ear found what was said fascinating although he didn’t agree with everything.

One Italian production went so far as to change the ending of a famous and popular opera – Bizet’s “Carmen” — in order to redeem the doomed heroine.

That seems excessive to The Ear, something that recalls the 17th-century writer Nahum Tate who rewrote the tragedy “King Lear” by Shakespeare to give it a happy ending. (You can hear the original ending of “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom. The 2009 production by the Metropolitan Opera features Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca.)

It brings up the question: How far should one go in imposing contemporary values on the past? And does rejecting an artist also mean rejecting that artist’s work?

Read the edited transcript or listen to the entire 8-minute discussion for yourself. Besides the female host (Lulu Garcia-Navarro), three women – two singers (Aleks Romano and Leah Hawkins) and one administrator (Kim Witman) – ask questions and give their opinions and thoughts.

Here is a link to the story that was posted on the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/27/614470629/my-voice-should-be-heard-metoo-and-the-women-of-opera

Then decide what you think you would like to see done to address the concerns of the #MeToo movement in the opera world, and what is allowed and not allowed to you.

And let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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