The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Background discussions, lectures and documentaries lead up to Madison Opera’s production of the LGBTQ-themed, McCarthy-era opera “Fellow Travelers” on Feb. 7 and 9

January 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera continues its foray into 21st-century operas with Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers on Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

(Production photos below are by Dan Norman of the Minnesota Opera production, which is being encored in Madison. You can see and hear a preview of the Minnesota Opera production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The acclaimed 2016 opera is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. The “Lavender Scare,” in which suspected homosexuals saw their livelihoods and lives destroyed, has enveloped the U.S. government. (Below are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.) 

Against this backdrop, Timothy Laughlin, a recent college graduate and an ardent supporter of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, meets Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

The two men (below, Acosta on the right) embark on a relationship, tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit. Their friends and colleagues fill out a story of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions.

With a libretto by Greg Pierce that is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times and tells of the very human consequences of prejudice and fear, with compassion, nuance and incredible beauty.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text.

The performance will last approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

For more information, go to: www.madisonopera.org/FellowTravelers

Tickets are $26 to $118 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to the Overture Center box office at 201 State Street or call it at (608) 258-4141 or go online to www.MadisonOpera.org/Tickets

“When I saw Fellow Travelers, I knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison,” says Madison’s Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with the haunting music and the well-drawn characters, and the emotional impact at the end was even more powerful than I had anticipated. I am truly looking forward to sharing this modern masterpiece with our community.”

Peter Rothstein (below) directs this production in his Madison Opera debut. Rothstein, who received his MFA from the UW-Madison, directed Fellow Travelers for Minnesota Opera in 2018.

The Twin City Arts Reader called his production “equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.”

Making his Madison Opera debut as Timothy Laughlin is Andres Acosta (below), who performed this role to acclaim at the Minnesota Opera.

Ben Edquist (below), who debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, sings Hawkins Fuller.

Adriana Zabala (below, of Florencia en el Amazonas) returns as Mary Johnson, who works with Hawkins and is a friend and voice of conscience for him and Timothy.

Returning to Madison Opera are Sidney Outlaw (below top, of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) as Tommy McIntyre, a political insider, and Alan Dunbar (below bottom, in a photo by Roy Hellman, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in multiple roles, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and a government interrogator who puts Hawkins through a lie detector test.

Andrew Wilkowske (below) debuts in several roles, including Senator Potter and General Arlie.

Filling out the cast is Madison Opera Studio Artist Emily Secor (below top) as Miss Lightfoot, who works in Hawkins’ office; soprano Cassandra Vasta (below bottom) as Lucy, whomHawkins marries; and Madison Opera Studio Artist Stephen Hobe in five different roles.

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) conducts, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” is sponsored by: Fran Klos; Sally and Mike Miley; David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd; John Lemke and Pamela Oliver; Sharyn and Carl Stumpf; and Dane Arts. Community events are sponsored by The Capital Times.

RELATED EVENTS

In addition to the two performances, Madison Opera offers several events to allow deeper exploration of the opera and its historical background.

They include a free discussion of the “Wisconsin Dimension” of this period in history at the Madison Central Library and a free showing of The Lavender Scare documentary at PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

OPERA NOVICE: WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY

This Friday, Jan. 17, 6-7 p.m. FREE and open to the public at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street

New to opera? Not sure how you feel about modern opera? Come to the Madison Opera Center for a short, fun and informative evening, led by General Director Kathryn Smith.

Learn about some of the new American operas that are shaping the operatic landscape in the 21st century, including Fellow Travelers. Studio Artist Stephen Hobe (below) will sing an aria from Fellow Travelers, and there will be plenty of time for questions. It’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

FELLOW TRAVELERS: THE WISCONSIN DIMENSION

This Sunday, Jan. 19, 3–4:30 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at the Madison Central Library, 201 West Mifflin Street

 Join us for a discussion of how the Lavender Scare and its fallout was felt in Wisconsin, led by R. Richard Wagner (below top), activist and author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History (below middle), and Susan Zaeske (below bottom), a UW-Madison campus leader in the arts and humanities who has taught an experiential-learning course on LGBTQ history.

THE LAVENDER SCARE– Documentary Screening

Friday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at PBS Wisconsin, 821 University Avenue

PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television) presents a screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to tell the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the film was praised as “a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary… vivid, disturbing and rousing” by the Los Angeles Times. The screening will be followed by a discussion.

OPERA UP CLOSE: FELLOW TRAVELERS

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1-3 p.m.; FREE for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers; and $20 for non-subscribers; at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

Join the Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Fellow Travelers. General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss many aspects of the opera, including the historical events that provide the story’s backdrop, the novel on which it is based, and how this 2016 opera swiftly spread across the country.

Principal artists, stage director Peter Rothstein, and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this acclaimed 2016 work.

PRE-OPERA TALKS

Friday, February 7, 2020, 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 9, 2020, 1:30 p.m. FREE to ticket holders at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center

Join General Director Kathryn Smith one hour prior to performances for an entertaining and informative talk about Fellow Travelers.

 


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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: The critically acclaimed vocal group Cantus sings about four kinds of love at the Stoughton Opera House this Saturday night. The Stoughton High School Concert Choir is a special guest performer.

March 30, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received word about an intriguing and appealing performance this weekend:

On this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., Cantus (below top, in a photo by Curtis Johnson), the critically acclaimed, nine-voice men’s vocal ensemble based in the Twin Cities, will perform at the Stoughton Opera House (below middle and bottom), known for its historical restoration and its fine acoustics.

Cantus Railing Clustered

Stoughton Opera House ext

StoughtonOperaHouse,JPG

Love has been the inspiration for artistic expression since the dawn of time. It is such a complex idea that the ancient Greeks broke it down into four different kinds: romantic, familial, friendly and unconditional or spiritual love.

Weaving together repertoire and interstitial remarks, Cantus regards this unquantifiable emotion from all sides.

The program spans multiple historical eras and cultural traditions.

It features music by Francis Poulenc, Edvard Grieg, Ludwig van Beethoven and Bobby McFerrin.

Each of those works is paired with newly commissioned works exploring each of the four loves (romantic, familial, friendly and spiritual) by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang (below top, in a photo by Peter Serling) as well as Roger Treece (second below), Joseph Gregorio (third below) and Ysaye Barnwell (below bottom).

david lang CR peter serling

Roger Treece

Joseph Gregorio

Ysaye Barnwell

The program brims with Cantus’s trademark programming juxtaposition, including pairing the Beach Boys’ “Their Hearts were Full of Spring” with  “Wedding Qawwali” by the Grammy Award- and Academy Award-winning Indian composer A. R. Rahman (below) and Michael McGlynn’s setting of the traditional Gaelic “Ceann Dubh Dilis (Her Sweet Dark Head)” in a set about romantic love.

A. R, Rahman

While seemingly disjointed on its face, the variety of repertoire throughout blends seamlessly and highlights the universality of Love – our greatest and most fragile gift.

For more information about Cantus, including biographies, photos, videos and audio samples, visit this link:

http://www.allianceartistmanagement.com/artist.php?id=cantus&aview=dpk

Here is a YouTube video about the program, with musical samples, to be performed in Stoughton:


Classical music: St. Paul Chamber Orchestra gets a new, first-rate hall to perform in.

March 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

For a couple of years, the music news coming out of the Twin Cities has been pretty negative. It involved labor strife, personnel strife and economic strife.

But now something welcome and promising, in addition to the resurgence of the Grammy-winning Minnesota Orchestra under Finnish-born conductor Osmo Vanska, has emerged: A new state-of-the-art and unusual hall (below) as the musical home in Ordway Center for the acclaimed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -– where the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director and the Madison Opera’s Artistic Director John DeMain once served as an associate conductor.

And, of course, a lot of Madison-area residents travel to the Twin Cities to see the sights and maybe hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, the orchestra performs Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, with former music director Pinchas Zukerman conducting.)

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

So important is the new hall as an event that The New York Times sent out a critic to file a review. Here it is:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/arts/music/review-st-paul-chamber-orchestra-opens-its-new-concert-hall.html?_r=0


Classical music: Music by four Wisconsin composers will be sung by the Festival Choir of Madison this coming Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society.

March 3, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Festival Choir of Madison (below) will perform a program of music called “Wisconsin Sings!”

Festival Choir of Madison at FUS

The concert features new and recent works by four composers with strong Wisconsin ties.

The program includes:

“Four Mystical Poems” by Eric William Barnum (below).

Eric William Barnum

“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “Make Me a Dream” (a world premiere finished just a few weeks ago) by Jerry Hui (below), a UW-Madison School of Music graduate who now teaches choral music at UW-Stout and who also performs early music with the Madison-based group Eliza’s Toyes.

Jerry Hui

“Under Your Feet” and “And Dream Awhile” by Blake Henson (below).

blake henson

Adoramus Te, Sanctus Parvulus” by Zach Moore (below)

Zach Moore horizonital

There will be a pre-concert Lecture at 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $9 for students, $15 for general admission and $12 for seniors.

Tickets are available at the door or at: http://festivalchoirmadison.org/Season1415/tickets.htm

Here is the origin of the program, as the choir director Bryson Mortensen (below), who also teaches at the UW-Rock County, explains it:

Bryson Mortensen (1)

“A few years ago, I attended a conference in the Twin Cities where there was a concert composed entirely of pieces by living Minnesota composers.

“After leaving the concert, I thought, “surely Wisconsin could do the same!”

“Since then I have been digging up pieces and meeting composers in Wisconsin who could contribute works to the program.

“After all these years, we have put together a concert that presents the music of four composers who live in, have studied in or come from Wisconsin.

“From the nationally and internationally recognized music of composers like Blake Henson, Jerry Hui and Eric William Barnum to the young and blossoming composer Zach Moore, the concert presents a variety of styles and moods that make for a great evening together.”

For more information about the Festival Choir of Madison, here is a link to the choir’s homepage:

http://festivalchoirmadison.org

In the YouTube video below, you can hear the Festival Choir of Madison singing the Low Mass by French composer Gabriel Fauré:

 


Classical music: A video of UW-Madison violinist Eleanor Bartsch serenading two elephants at Circus World in Baraboo with Bach goes viral — and makes a National Public Radio blog.

September 9, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This isn’t the first time that one or both of the extremely talented violinist Bartsch sisters — Alice (below top) and Eleanor (below bottom), who come from the Twin Cities — have made news and generated headlines during their time as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, or even in the time following graduation.

Alice Bartsch

Eleanor Bartsch

But it may well be the first time that the event and headline went national, or even international.

Here’s the situation: Eleanor Bartsch played two gigs of the famous and beautiful Concerto for Two Violins by Johann Sebastian Bach with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top). (This  spring her sister Alice left her position as concertmaster of the Middleton Community Orchestra.) One concert, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, went well and without incident.

Then, she and her concerto partner, violinist Tim Kamps (below bottom) — who also studied at the UW-Madison and who is a member of the Kipperton String Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra as well as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — moved on to Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

Tim Kamps playing

Just as an aside, Bartsch decided to use some of her warming up time, her practicing and rehearsing, to go serenade two of the elephants at the world-famous headquarters of Circus World with her part of the Bach concerto. The elephants started swaying in time and it was all captured on video and then posted on YouTube.

Eleanor Bartsch and elephant closeup

The Ear was put onto the elephant-violin encounter and its video – which runs under one minute and has been called “adorable” and “cute” by some viewers  — by a close friend and loyal reader of this blog.

But then the word spread like – well, like an elephant stampede. The video has gone viral with almost 2 million hits since August 24.

And of course someone who knows animals pointed out that the way the elephants were swaying was NOT really their way of dancing happily to the Bach rhythms and tune. It was instead a pitiful sign of what happens to animals in captivity when the are subject to obsessive compulsive behavior. Or perhaps what happens when they are in Musk (like heat or rut) and ready to reproduce. Or when they are ready to attack.

Some viewers even said it amounted to distress or animal abuse.

Here are the original videos:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/08/29/a-woman-plays-bach-on-the-violin-to-swaying-elephants-is-this-cute-or-cruel/

And then: VOILA

The outstanding blog Deceptive Cadence, put together by NPR or National Public Radio, linked that video to four other memorable and unusual music videos -– and included the objections from animal-lovers.

By the way, the other four videos are also well worth a look and a listen.

Here is a link to the more comprehensive NPR story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/05/345593233/five-new-classical-videos-you-need-to-see-to-believe

You can decide for yourself.

But somehow The Ear can empathize with those who do not like to see caged animals since I am among them. But I surely do not consider hearing violin by Bach as insult added to injury.

Make up your own mind – and let us know: WHAT DO YOU THINK? Thumbs up or down?

The Ear wants to hear.

And for the record and your listening pleasure, as they say on radio, here is a link to a great performance – WITHOUT elephants — of the same Bach Double Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman:

 

 


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