The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s updated Hollywood production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” proves a triumph on all counts. Plus, FREE Opera Scenes concert is Tuesday night

November 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy of Giuseppe’s Verdi’s “Falstaff” as staged by the University Opera. Performance photos are by Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

In the past few years I’ve seen Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” set in the Spanish Civil War, Wagner’s Ring cycle re-imagined as the history of cinema, and Puccini’s “Turandot” presented as a performance by a traveling circus.

Thus, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ set in 1930’s Hollywood seemed a reasonable reinterpretation, and so it proved at its final performance Tuesday evening by University Opera.

“Falstaff,” drawn from three plays by Shakespeare, is Verdi’s final opera and a rare comedy. More importantly, gone are his familiar forms of a recitative followed by an aria with lots of oom-pa-pa orchestral accompaniment, now replaced with a conversational style that to me shows Wagner’s influence. It just doesn’t sound like Verdi, but it certainly sounds good.

I felt that the whole evening was a triumph.

The sets were beautifully dressed, the costumes were excellent and the lighting was effective.

uw-falstaff-set-and-cast-michael-anderson

The UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith, played wonderfully, although from where I sat the sound was occasionally muffled.

Thank goodness a new music building is being built, and I trust that there will be a theater within it that will accommodate operatic performances. The current Music Hall has its limitations, one being that much of the orchestra was playing underneath the stage and another being that for some reason the theater’s temperature cannot be controlled. It was stiflingly hot during the performance.

As for the singing and acting, the cast I saw was uniformly strong. Falstaff, performed by UW-Madison faculty member Paul Rowe (below), was very robust and was particularly affecting during his act III soliloquy. The Ear mentioned to me his Oliver Hardy mannerisms, and once I noticed that I was constantly amused.

uw-falstaff-paul-rowe

Yanzelmalee Rivera as Alice was hilarious in her seduction scene and really came alive in Act III. Courtney Kayser as Meg was a compelling comic actress. Rebecca Buechel’s Mistress Quickly was an equally adept comic actress and had an excellent voice. Emily Weaver as Nannetta was a beautiful singer who shone in her third act moments as Queen of the Fairies. These four women had some outstanding ensemble moments, and I was constantly diverted by their antics as they outwitted the men.

Among the hapless male characters, Brian Schneider was a standout as Ford and the deep voice of Benjamin Schultz (below left, with Paul Rowe and Jiabao Zhang) made the minor character Pistola noticeable whenever he was on stage.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

But the voice of the evening belonged to tenor José Daniel Muñiz (below right) as Fenton. He excelled not only in his solo moments but blended extremely well with his paramour Nannetta (Claire Powling, below left).

uw-falstaff-jose-muniz-and-claire-powling

The outstanding ensemble work exhibited throughout the opera culminated in the grand fugue at the end of the opera, and the nearly full-house audience was blown away by those final moments. (You can hear the fugal finale, conducted by Sir George Solti, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The 1930’s Hollywood concept worked well. It seemed completely fitting and was undoubtedly more amusing than it would have been had the opera been set in the time of Henry IV.

“Well done” to the University Opera’s new full-time director David Ronis (below center) for his imagination and direction. I look forward to his production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” in early March.

uw-falstaff-david-ronis

And since this University Opera production and other events are being presented to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the exhibition of a First Folio at the Chazen Museum of Art, I want to put in a plug for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” which has almost exactly the same plot as “Falstaff” and is woefully underperformed.

I also want to draw your attention the FREE Opera Scenes concert by University Opera that will be presented this Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Featured are singers, with piano accompaniment, in scenes from: Charles Gounod’s “Faust”; Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea“; Giacomo Puccini‘s “La Rondine”; Leonard Bernstein‘s “Trouble in Tahiti”; Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”;  Dominick Argento’s “Postcard From Morocco”; and Marc Blitzstein’s”Regina.” 


Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


Classical music: Which political campaigns have used classical music?

August 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In the past, the music that political campaigns used was often jingles that reminded one of Madison Avenue advertising, even when they were composed by Broadway song master Irving Berlin.

These days, it seems to The Ear that most political campaigns use rock, pop or country music.

Sometimes folk music.

Never jazz.

And, one supposes, you will never hear the blues since that would be a pretty downbeat message for politicians.

But leave it to our friends at WQXR-FM, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, to offer some samples of political campaign music, including some that used classical music.

Ike campaign political campaigns and classical music

Donald Trump (below), the current Republican nominee for president, has tried to use the famous opera aria “Nessum dorma” (None Shall Sleep) from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini.

Donald Trump thumbs up

Fittingly, in the opera the moving and beautiful aria is sung by a prince to woo a Chinese tyrant or despot.

The Ear especially loved the way it was used so appropriately during the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. in the movie “The Killing Fields.”

Trump used one of the best versions available – sung by Luciano Pavarotti, one of which has 38 million hits and which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

But the Pavarotti estate refused to grant him permission to use it and asked him to cease and desist. Good for them.

Now Trump uses something in the public domain: the Overture to the opera “The Thieving Magpie” by Giachino Rossini.

Anyway, here is a link to the story:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/6-us-political-campaigns-set-to-classical-music/


Classical music: Broadway star and UW-Madison alumnus joins students for the University Opera benefit this Sunday afternoon.

January 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Students in the University Opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will perform a concert of songs and arias on this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 17, at 3:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison 900 University Bay Drive.

The concert will feature currently enrolled students as well as a 2008 alumnus, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek(below), who is at the Overture Center this week through Sunday playing the role of Gaston in a national tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek baritone

A reception will follow this Opera Props benefit concert that is intended to help support University Opera.

Admission is $25 per person with a $10 charge for students.

Several of the UW-Madison student singers have already been featured in October’s production of The Marriage of Figaro (below in photo by Michael R. Anderson ) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and some will appear in March’s University Opera production of Transformations, by Conrad Susa and poet Anne Sexton.

Marriage of Figaro dress rehearsal. Tia Cleveland (Marcellina), Joel Rathmann (Figaro), Anna Whiteway (Susanna), Thomas Weis (Bartolo).

Marriage of Figaro dress rehearsal. Tia Cleveland (Marcellina), Joel Rathmann (Figaro), Anna Whiteway (Susanna), Thomas Weis (Bartolo).

The singers will be accompanied by pianist Chan Mi Jean.

Joining the students will be Broadway star and distinguished University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek, who praises his operatic training for enabling him to sing as many as three performances a day on this demanding tour.

Recently appointed to “barihunk” status by one blog (below), he is something of a crossover singer too, singing romantic ballads while playing his guitar. These multiple talents provide the young singer with a busy career.

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as barihunkHere is the program:

Chacun à son gout (Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr.) – Meghan Hilker; Bella siccome un angelo (Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti) – Gavin Waid; Ici-bas (Gabriel Fauré) and Der Blumenstrauss (Felix Mendelssohn) – Talia Engstrom; Tu che di gel (Turandot by Giacomo Puccini) – Anna Polum; Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saens) – Rebecca Buechel; Largo al factotum (Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini) – Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek; Sous le dôme épais (Lakme by Leo Delibes) – Tyana O’Connor (below) and Meghan Hilker; Emily’s Aria (Our Town – Ned Rorem) – Nicole Heinen; On the Street Where You Live (My Fair Lady – Lerner and Lowe) – William Ottow; Ah, non credea mirarti (La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini) – Tyana O’Connor; Love’s Philosophy (Roger Quilter) – Anna Polum; The Lady is a Tramp (Rodgers and Hart) – Rebecca Buechel; Au fond du temple saint (Les Pêcheurs de Perles by Georges Bizet, sung by tenor Roberto Alagna and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel at the bottom in a YouTube video) – William Ottow (below) and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek.

Tyana O'Connor soprano


Classical music: Puccini’s gift for heart-touching melody allows both beginners and veterans to connect with his timeless operas in a way that has been largely lost in contemporary music, says John DeMain. He will conduct the Madison Opera’s production of La Bohème this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 ( below is the original poster from 1896 by Adolfo Hohenstein) at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world.

Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

La Boheme 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

For more information about the Madison Opera’s production and cast, read the Q&A that The Ear did with Kathryn Smith, the general director of the Madison Opera. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/classical-music-puccini-was-a-master-crafter-of-drama-says-kathryn-smith-the-madison-operas-stages-its-production-of-la-boheme-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

By The Ear’s reckoning, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), has spent close to 50 years in opera. He is the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and will conduct the singers, orchestra and choruses for the two performances of “La Bohème.”

He graciously agreed to share his experience and knowledge in an email Q&A with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

First of all, it’s a love story involving young adults trying to make it through their young years living from hand to mouth. They are college or post-college age, and are living life on the edge, enjoying great camaraderie, as college roommates enjoy to this day.

We have all lived through the tragedy of disease or plagues affecting various parts of the world in our own time. Mimi has tuberculosis, and we have seen how HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola have taken young lives in our own time, robbing people of the chance to live out their lives and loves. So, there is always some part of a story like this for people, both old and young, to connect with.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Once we enter into the world of Italian “verismo,”or realism, we basically have music that is timeless. The music vividly underscores the action of the drama in great detail from moment to moment.

The interplay of the various leitmotifs manipulates our emotions, leading us to enjoy a good laugh at the interplay of the guys, or Musetta’s outrageous carrying on to make her “ex” jealous and win Marcello back. Then the music engages us in the great sadness of losing Mimi to her disease and robbing Rodolfo of his loved one ( in the final scene below from a production by the Houston Grand Opera, which John DeMain used to head before coming to Madison).

Our great film composers and composers of musical theater all learned from Puccini how to connect the emotions of the drama to the music and vice-versa.

HGO La Boheme

HGO La Boheme

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

Puccini’s output as a composer was limited both in scope and in number. He focused primarily on opera and gave us 12 works in that form. To this day, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca remain in the top echelon of opera’s most popular works.

Puccini (below) labored over each of his operas for long periods of time, rewriting to get these pieces as close as possible to perfection, creating librettos and music that soars emotionally, melodically and harmonically. His Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Turandot and even parts of Butterfly are great examples of Italian Impressionism.

But while Bohème has a few touches of impressionistic harmony, most of the opera stays within a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary.

I think we appreciate more than ever Puccini’s capacity to write unforgettable melody that goes to the very core of our being. Indeed, we lament that most contemporary scores can’t achieve that, and therefore, they don’t have the same relationship with our audiences today. (You can hear that in the arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma Izzo in a YouTube video at the bottom. Listen for when the audience applauds Pavarotti singing a high C.)

puccini at piano

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

I would like to encourage people who have never been to an opera to come and see La Bohème. There are still people out there who don’t know that we have English titles over the stage that simultaneously translate the opera into English.

The acts are not long, the drama flows at almost the same rate of time as it would if it were just spoken without music. And the young stunning cast we have assembled will thrill young and old alike.

This, like Carmen or Madama Butterfly, is the perfect opera for a first-timer. For the rest of us, it is a chance to thrill once again to one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for the operatic stage.

 


Classical music: Music critic Alex Ross praises Tom Cruise’s use of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in the new “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” movie.

August 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger.

Looks like it’s going to be a hot and humid weekend.

Just the kind of weather to go see a movie in an air-conditioned cinema.

If you are an opera fan, you might want to consider seeing Tom Cruise and the latest offering in the “Mission Impossible” franchise -– “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (below) — which features a central opera scene (below).

Puccini opera and Mission Impossible

That is the opinion of the prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below), who writes for The New Yorker magazine. And many consider Ross the best music critic in the U.S.

Alex Ross 2

In his essay or review in the Aug. 11 issue, Ross traces the use of opera in various movies — including in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” and in the thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock. Ross argues that Tom Cruise really stands out in the way he does justice to Puccini’s “Turandot,” including the great and popular tenor aria “Nessun dorma.” (Heard at bottom in a YouTube video, with 33 million hits, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti, who made the aria his signature.)

Here is a link to the review by Alex Ross that is well worth reading:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/finally-a-non-embarrassing-classical-music-scene-in-a-blockbuster-movie

Enjoy!

And leave a comment telling The Ear if you agree with Alex Ross.


Classical music: Is American tenor Bryan Hymel the new King of the High C’s after the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the very active Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez?

March 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

For tenors, High C’s are the brass ring on the carousel of opera.

The late great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the very busy Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez both earned fame and fortune with their singing of the astonishing nine high C’s in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera “La Fille du Regiment.”

In fact, Florez repeated the same nine high C’s as an encore and it brought down the house.

But it seems there may be another King of the High C’s in the making.

He is a native of New Orleans (isn’t that fitting?) and he is America tenor Bryan Hymel (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta for Warner Classics), who was recently featured on the terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” for NPR (National Public Radio).

You will surely be hearing more about him. The 35-year-old Hymel has already made his debut at the famed Metropolitan Opera, where he has sung in “Les Troyens” by Hector Berlioz — a role he also sang at the Royal Opera House in London. And he will open the Met’s 2018 season in “Samson and Delilah” by Camille Saint-Saens.

Bryan Hymel CR Dario Acosta Warner Classics

Here is a link to that story by Tom Huizenga. It is complete with sound samples from Hymel’s debut album “Héroïque” — in particular the difficult aria “Asile héréditaire” from the opera “William Tell” by Giachino Rossini — and the CD features a total of 19 high C’s. That led Huizenga to proclaim: “This is why we listen to opera!”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/02/25/388783314/bryan-hymels-hefty-high-cs

The Amazon.com reader reviews of the new all-French album (below, with an audiovisual clip of the behind-the-scenes recording process) not only praise Hymel for his high C’s – and C-sharps and even D’s — but single out the quality of his singing.

You can hear that strong, pitch-accurate and seemingly effortless quality in one of The Ear’s favorite tenor arias: “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini, which Hymel signs with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.


Classical music Q&A: Meet opera director David Ronis who makes his local debut in the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” this Friday night in Music Hall with additional performances on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night.

October 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that the longtime director of University Opera William Farlow retired last spring. While no permanent successor has been named yet, the impressively qualified David Ronis, from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), was chosen from a national search and is serving as a guest director this academic year.

Ronis (below, seen talking to the cast on stage) makes his University of Wisconsin-Madison debut this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, with a production of British composer Benjamin Britten’s comic opera “Albert Herring.”  (The opening scene from a Los Angeles Opera production can be heard at the bottom in a YouTube video.) Additional performances are on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

Albert Herring Rehearsal

Tickets are $22 general admission; $18 for senior; and $10 for student. They are available at the door and from the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office or call (608) 265-ARTS (2787)/ Buy in person and you will save the service fees.

Here are links with more information about the opera and about Ronis, including a fine profile interview done by Kathy Esposito, the public relations and concert manager at the UW-Madison School of Music:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/david-ronis-theatrical-emphasis/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/david-ronis/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/university-opera-presents-brittens-albert-herring/

And here is a link to David Ronis’ personal website:

http://www.davidronis.com

Finally, here is the email Q&A that David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) gave to The Ear:

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

Can you give readers a brief introduction to yourself, including when and how you started learning music, your early training and formative experiences, your major professional accomplishments and some personal information like hobbies and other interests as well as current and future plans for your career?

I grew up on Long Island, did my undergraduate degree (a B.F.A. in Voice) at Purchase College, and have lived in Manhattan ever since. I studied both piano and voice as a kid and, in high school, was very much involved in musical theater. After graduating from Purchase, I supported myself by doing a lot of professional choral singing.

Soon after, I started getting hired to sing character tenor roles in opera companies in U.S, Europe and Asia, which I did for a number of years. One of the highlights was being a part of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place/Trouble in Tahiti when it was done at La Scala Milan, the Kennedy Center and the Vienna State Opera.

At one point in the mid-’90s, when I had less than a full year of regional opera work, I started auditioning for Equity musical theater jobs and was cast in the Los Angeles company of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

In opera circles, I was considered to be a “good actor.” But, to forgive myself (and others), I didn’t really know from good acting! In LA, my new colleagues and friends were actors, as opposed to singers and musicians, and I started seriously questioning my own (lack of) acting technique. After three years of doing Beauty –- in both LA and on the national tour -– I went back to New York, got into in a heavy-duty acting class, and started working in spoken theater, TV commercials (I have some very funny stories about that), and independent films, as well as continuing to sing in opera regionally.

My work in theater completely changed my perspective on stage work in opera and I found myself newly critical of much of the operatic acting I saw.

One day, my friend Paul Rowe (below) –- who teaches voice at the UW-Madison — was in New York hanging out at my apartment (this is very vivid in my mind) and he said something like, “David, you should put this together. You’re now an accomplished actor as well as a singer and you have a pretty unique perspective on how one affects the other.” Bingo!

Paul Rowe

Long story short: I started teaching Acting for Singers classes, doing small directing projects, and very soon got hired at Queens College to direct the Opera Studio. Almost immediately, this transition from performing to teaching just felt right.

I was hired as an Adjunct Lecturer at Queens with only a bachelor’s degree, and decided that I should probably have at least a master’s. So I enrolled in a terrific M.A. L.S. (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) program at a de-centralized SUNY school, Empire State College. The M.A.L.S. was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It is a self-designed, inter-disciplinary research degree in which the candidates have to articulate their areas of academic inquiry and pursue them by creating individual courses and working with tutors. Over 2 ½ years, I wrote about 300 pages of material focused on operatic acting and production, research that I still regularly call upon in my teaching.

What are my principal influences? I’d say that my principal acting teacher, Caymichael Patten, is a big one. Cay’s a terrific, tough teacher who tells it like she sees it. She has an uncanny knack for “being inside your head –with you.” I learned a huge amount from her and, in many ways, have modeled my teaching on Cay’s. I also have a number of friends – all opera directors working in academia as well as professionally, who are on the same page as I am as far as operatic acting training. They’ve been big influences too -– Stephen Wadsworth (below, who teaches at the Juilliard School) and Robin Guarino, to name just a couple.

As for the future, who knows? I’ve actually never been one to have a detailed life plan. I’ve been very fortunate that opportunities have come my way and I’ve just followed my nose. I do know one thing -– that my passion for directing and teaching seems to be growing (if that’s even possible) and that I very much enjoy working in a university environment.

stephen wadsworth

As an East Coast native, how do you like the Midwest, Madison and the especially the UW-Madison?

I’ve spent plenty of time in the Midwest, mostly working. So I “get” the Midwest and I’m comfortable here. I’m finding what “they say” about Madison to be true -– that it’s a pretty unique place within the Midwest — culturally, politically, intellectually.

I think these are things that make people who are kind of East Coast-centric, like myself, feel more at home, when “home” means lots of intellectual and artistic stimulation. What’s not to like about a city where everyone reads the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine and goes to the Madison Symphony Orchestra!

Madison at sunset

Why did you choose “Albert Herring” by Benjamin Britten (below top) to do this semester and “The Magic Flute” by Mozart (below bottom) to do second semester? Have you staged them before? What would you like audience members here to know about your productions of them?

I make repertoire decisions based on a variety of factors. This year, we needed to do a piece with small orchestral forces in the fall and a full orchestra show in the spring.

I also like to do shows that involve a good number of students. Both the Britten and the Mozart fit those descriptions.

Also, the “who do we have at school” factor is big. We need to do operas that we can cast well from the student population.

And, most importantly, I consider the educational value of various shows. Albert Herring is not only a great piece of music and theater, but there’s so much that the students learn from working on it. The roles are difficult, both vocally and musically. And since it’s a big ensemble show, students are challenged to develop their ensemble singing and acting skills. So far, I’m very pleased with the results.

Benjamin Britten

I’ve directed The Magic Flute before. We’re going to do a version of a production I did some years ago that locates the drama vaguely in a South Asian environment. Flute, for all of its brilliance, is kind of a dramaturgical mess. Who are the truly good and bad guys/gals? Where do we start and where do we end up and what do each of the characters learn for having gone on the journey?

My take on the story very indirectly alludes to a conflict between East (Sarastro) and West (Queen of the Night), and attempts to examine the two opposing forces on the most basic, human level – even if they are iconic figures. Why makes the Queen tick? Why did Sarastro “steal” her daughter and why is he “holding her captive?” These are the questions that intrigue me.

Mozart old 1782

Was there an Aha! Moment – a work or performer, a concert or recording – that made you realize that you wanted to have a professional life in music and specifically in opera?

My Aha! moment? OK, you’re going to think I’m a nerd. As a high school senior, I took a philosophy elective in which I was reading people like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. At the time, I was obsessed with an LP called “The Genius of Puccini” -– essentially excerpts from operas by Puccini (below) –- which I would play over and over again in my room. I recall going into my parents’ room one night, with record blaring in the background, and ranting on about what I was reading and how it described exactly what filled me up like nothing else. (Cue the big ensemble from the first act of Turandot). From that moment, it was all downhill!

puccini at piano

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

I’d just like to encourage people to come to both University Opera productions. We’ve got a terrific cast for Albert Herring, not to mention an incredibly talented and articulate young conductor in Kyle Knox (below)– Kyle is truly someone to keep your eye on.

Kyle Knox 2

We’ve been having so much fun during rehearsals – laughing a lot! I firmly believe that spirit transfers across the proverbial footlights.

If any of your readers are hesitant (perhaps because they tend to respond to 19th century Romantic pieces and might be reticent to go to an opera with which they’re not familiar), I can confidently say that Albert Herring is a very accessible piece –– extremely entertaining and, at times, quite moving. The physical production is coming along –- all in all, I’m very excited about the show.

Albert Herring Rehearsal

 

 


Classical music news: Did opera composer Puccini find inspiration – or even steal melodies – for his famous Asian stories from a Swiss music box?

June 24, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Composers have long been known for finding inspiration in all sorts of places. Sometimes they rework the material; sometimes they just appropriate it outright.

The sources range from folk songs and folk dances to borrowings from their own works, which Bach and Handel did often.

Now research suggests that perhaps the popular Puccini (below), who along with Verdi and Wagner makes up the Holy Trinity of opera – found inspiration for “Madama Butterfly” and even the unfinished ‘Turandot” in a Swiss music box.

The 1877 music box has Chinese tunes that Puccini might have listened to. It is located in the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. Here is a view of one of the tune sheets:

Take a look and read the story from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/arts/music/puccini-opera-echoes-a-music-box-at-the-morris-museum.html?pagewanted=all


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