The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians, with dancers and guest vocal soloists, will perform a tragic Purcell opera and comic Bach cantata this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

April 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger’

This coming weekend the Madison Bach Musicians — an acclaimed local group devoted to period instruments and historically informed performance practices — will present a double bill that features the tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” by British composer Henry Purcell (below top) and the comic “Coffee” Cantata, BWV 211, by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom).

Both performances take place in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On Saturday, April 7, there is a 6:45 p.m.  lecture by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance.

On Sunday, April 8, there is a 2:45 p.m.  lecture by Trevor Stephenson followed by a 3:30 p.m. performance.

Purcell’s vivid and eloquent operatic masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas is based on the tragic love story told in Book IV of Virgil’s epic Latin poem “Aeneid”and is depicted in the 1815 painting (below) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

The performance of the Baroque opera uses a full baroque orchestra.

In addition there are three guest singers as soloists: Chelsea Shepherd (below top) as Dido; Elijah Blaisdell (below middle) as Aeneas; and Nola Richardson (below bottom) as Belinda.

Adding to the production are dance sequences, all coming together thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top in a photo by Luke Delalio) of the University Opera; Karen McShane-Hellenbrand (below middle) of the UW-Madison Dance Department; and Baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below bottom in a photo by James Gill).

J. S. Bach’s witty Coffee Cantata will add some mischievous fun to the program.

This work suggests that perhaps Johann Sebastian himself was a coffee enthusiast at a time when coffee was sweeping the Continent and often seen as a sinful new fad.  “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee….” sings Lieschen in an aria that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Bach even premiered and performed many of his works at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, which he frequented and which is depicted below in an 18th-century engraving by Georg Schreiber.

As usual, MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below) will offer his insightful and entertaining commentary on these two diverse masterworks in his lecture preceding each concert.

Tickets are $38, $35 for seniors and $10 for student rush tickets at the door if the concert is not sold out.

Advance tickets are available at the Willy Street Coops East and West. More information about the production and tickets can be found at madisonbachmusicians.org


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