The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New Orleans seeks to once again become an American opera capital with an emphasis on diversity

May 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

When you think of opera in America, chances are good that you think of New York City with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Houston Grand Opera; the Santa Fe Opera; and countless other opera companies in many major cities.

And when you think of New Orleans, you understandably think of jazz.

But the truth is that for a long time, New Orleans was an American capital for opera, more important than many of the other cities mentioned above.

Consider the fact that the first opera performed in the United States was performed in New Orleans in 1796. And that at one point, New Orleans was home to five opera companies.

Plus, the opera that was performed there in the past brought racial, cultural and gender diversity to an art form that often lacked it and was largely Euro-centric. (You can hear the company sing “We’re Goin’ Around” from ragtime great Scott Joplin‘s opera “Treemonisha” in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Now some singers and others (below) have formed an organization – OperaCreole — with the aim of correcting racism and restoring New Orleans’ reputation for opera,  especially that of the many African-American and Creole opera composers who were native to New Orleans.

A fine story, with an illuminating interview, recently appeared on NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/28/530085480/a-new-orleans-company-shines-a-light-on-operas-diverse-history

Another excellent story, with more focus on repertoire and history, appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-small-step-toward-correcting-the-overwhelming-whiteness-of-opera

And here is a link to OperaCreole’s own website with more information about the company and its productions:

http://www.operacreole.com

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Classical music: The well-named Nonesuch Records turns 50 –– and keeps being a pioneer in music from budget baroque, electronic music and contemporary classical music to folk, ragtime, rock and world music.

September 14, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you judge solely by the size of an operating budget and the number of albums released in a year, Nonesuch Records surely does not rank among the industry titans like Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Sony Classical.

But what the label does, it does exceptionally well.

Of late, I am especially taken with Nonesuch because they feature two of my favorite pianists -– Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk (below) –- and of one my all-time favorite singers, soprano Dawn Upshaw, as well as the great Kronos Quartet.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Here is a link to the label’s website with forthcoming releases and a list of recording artists:

http://www.nonesuch.com

In addition, I find the sonic engineering Nonesuch provides is also top-notch. Much as I loved the old Emerson Quartet, when it moved from DG to Sony, it received inferior sonic engineering that favored an echoing or overly resonant ambient sound. Myself, I prefer a clean and close-up microphone that lets my own living room provide the performance space acoustics.

Anyway, I was listening to National Public Radio Wednesday afternoon last week and heard this terrifically informative report on the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch, which is based in New York City and the anniversary of which is being celebrated with special concerts and special releases.

The story particularly emphasized the foresight of the label’s longtime top boss Robert Hurwitz (below, on the left next to Kronos violist Hank Dett and producer Judith Sherman, who also recorded the world premiere commission of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.)

Using his own taste and instinct, Hurwitz anticipated the best-selling popularity of electronic music, Cuban music, ragtime music and many other genres. (Below in an interview he did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that can be found on YouTube.) One person, it seems, can make a huge difference.

211033-D162

I do wish Hurwitz had offered a fuller explanation of why the wonderful and cheap budget recordings of Baroque music and early music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s and 1970s -– the ones with the great art on the covers and the ones that hooked so many of us on relatively littkle-known works as well as masterpieces –- have not been remastered and reissued on CD.

Old Nonesuch cover

But in any case, the NPR story provided a fascinating look at how a record company continued to expand and branch out – not by following listeners’ tastes and desires, but by ANTICIPATING them. It is kind of like what happened with Sony and the success of the Walkman.

Some things you just cannot judge by polls and surveys, no matter what the branding and PR experts say. They take personal vision and leadership and risk-taking. That is what the Nonesuch way.

Anyway, here is the link to the NPR story. I hope you find it compelling as The Ear did.

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/10/347155810/nonesuch-at-50-a-record-label-without-borders

 

 


Classical music Q&A: “Dead Man Walking” is morally complex and dramatic, not didactic, work — neither “issue art” nor a “lecture opera” — says librettist and dramatist Terrence McNally. The Madison Opera will perform it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 24, 2014
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Avenue, features “Kassia and Friends” -– music for two sopranos, piano, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The program includes music by George Frideric Handel, Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitman, Alessandro Melani, Thomas Pasatieri and Eric Whitacre.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post, an interview with the award-winning playwright and opera librettist Terrence McNally, is by guest blogger Michael Muckian (below). He is a long-time 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.

This weekend, 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 project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

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: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

Terrence McNally rose to fame as a playwright, musical theater writer and eventually, an operatic librettist. His best-known works are “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Corpus Christ,” “Master Class” and the musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” He is the winner of four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and numerous other honors. “Dead Man Walking,” written in collaboration with composer Jake Heggie, is one of his first operas.

Terrence McNally

What attracted you to “Dead Man Walking”? How hard was it to adapt Sister Helen Prejean’s work?

I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political, social — that would engage a contemporary audience. I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.

The libretto is based on the idea of her life, not an actual character she dealt with. It is not based on the film, either. Joseph de Rocher and his mother are my creations. The opera is a response to the book and obviously resonates with memories of the film but it is not an adaptation of either one, the way that, say “Ragtime,” is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

What were the key themes you felt necessary to include in the opera?

The opera is about forgiveness. The issue of the death penalty is for the audience to wrestle with for themselves after they have experienced the opera. That said, it’s not an “issue” piece of art. It’s about love and forgiveness and facing the truth. (Below is a photo by James Gill of Daniela Mack playing Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes playing  Joseph DeRocher in the Madison Opera’s upcoming production.)

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any of themes or experiences in the opera touch you personally? Did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I think any intelligent American has a complex response to organized religion, our legal system and our own relationship to the less fortunate members of American life. Sister Helen (below) is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system AND an activist for reform and have a huge and loving heart. She is one of my role models.  It is an honor — and challenge — to emulate and to know her.  Jake (Heggie) and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.

Sister Helen Prejean

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

I still wrestle with it. Intellectually and morally, it’s easy to be against it. But some crimes are so heinous my knee-jerk response still surprises me. Writing this libretto set me on a journey that is still unfolding.

How did you interact with Jake Heggie (below)? Was it libretto first, music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

We had many long discussions before I sat down alone to write the first draft and then we talked about that.

Jake Heggie

How does “Dead Man Walking” stand as a tale of redemption? Are there any victors in this story, or is everyone a victim?

I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer those questions for themselves. This is not a lecture opera. It’s a human drama. We want people to think and feel. I love the ending. The mechanical sounds of the Death Machine followed by an a cappella human voice. I don’t think the orchestra plays for the last several minutes. I’d call that pretty fuckin’ innovative. (You can hear the Prelude and Prologue to “Dead Man Walking” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

What lessons can be learned from the opera?

That unconditional love and the truth shall set you free.

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