The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Wednesday marked 60 years since contralto Marian Anderson became the first African American soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.

January 9, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is a good day to think about the American singer Marian Anderson (below).

marian anderson

Maybe you think that opera is progressive, or at least more progressive than, say, orchestras or societies at large.

Do you think that the famed Metropolitan Opera (below, in its newer building at Lincoln Center) in ethnically diverse New York City has been especially progressive and pioneering?

metropolitan opera 1

Met from stage over pit

Well, think again.

Maybe in some things.

But not in race relations.

Here is a story from NPR (National Public Radio) about the 60th anniversary of the debut of contralto Marian Anderson’s at the Met. She was the first African American soloist to appear at the Met.

And that was on Jan 7, 1955.

That appearance came almost 20 years after she performed the historic 1939 outdoor recital (below) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. That event, done to great critical acclaim and before a huge public crowd, came about because First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of President FDR, procured permission for Anderson to sing at the memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson the use of Constitution Hall because of her race. It was broadcast nationally on the radio.

anderson

At the Met, Anderson performed the role of the sorceress Ulrica (below, from the photo archives at the Met) in “Un ballo in maschera” (A Masked Ball) by Giuseppe Verdi.

marian anderson in 1955 at Met  Verdi un ballo en maschera

Anyway, the 60th anniversary celebration of that historic Met performance came this past week, on Wednesday.

Here is the NPR story that even has sound snippets of Anderson’s singing:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/01/07/375440168/marian-andersons-groundbreaking-met-opera-moment

And here is a YouTube video of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial that was broadcast as part of a series by public television or PBS on its Newshour:

 


Classical music: “Long Love the King!” Madison Opera’s successful production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” is an auspicious beginning to the tenure of its new general director Kathryn Smith. But the opera needs some Great Moments.

October 30, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You could view the Madison Opera’s decision to stage Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” as a great choice for Halloween week, when disguised truth is celebrated. You could also view the Verdi opera, full of political intrigue and betrayals, as an apt choice during a presidential election  campaign.

But surely the best way to see it is as an auspicious beginning to the tenure of the company’s new general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). True, she was here for last season, but that was to implement the plans draw up by her predecessor Allan Naplan.

With this successful production we now get to see Smith as her own woman.

And clearly Smith is interested in taking the Madison Opera level to a new level. Why else would she open the season with the Madison Opera premiere, in half a century, the neglected Verdi opera, which she says is one of her favorites? And why else would she slate the Madison Opera’s premiere production of a Handel opera (“Acis and Galatea”) for January? Smith is out to leave her mark.

The houses from the performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds were smaller than expected or hoped for, but they were very enthusiastic. A company spokesperson said that probably had to do with so many other activities going on and with the political season upon us.

Still, there was much to like about the production, and I, like so many others, had fun. (All production photos below are by Madison photographer James Gill, taken for the Madison Opera.)

Here are do some things about “A Masked Ball” that appealed to The Ear.

I liked the pre-opera background talk given by Kathryn Smith. In the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, she told a packed house about the place of “A Masked Ball” in Verdi’s output and traced the struggle by Verdi (below) with political censors to arrive at a plot that would satisfy them. After all, regicide – the killing of a king — was not something that the royal houses of Europe took lightly, encouraged or forgave shortly after the French Revolution.

I liked the excellence and evenness of the cast. All of the leads and secondary roles, including the energetic servant Oscar (played by Caitlin Cisler) and the fortune-teller Ulrica (Jeniece Golbourne) showed strong voices with excellent pitch, wide ranges, fine diction and power to project. But most of all, they showed balance. And evenness is something to cherish in an ensemble production.

William Joyner (below), who also sang in the Madison Opera’s production last season of Philip Glass‘ “Galileo Galilei,” excelled as the Swedish King Gustav III:

Here he is in a pivotal scene, getting his fortune told by Ulrica:

Hyung Yun (below left) was terrific as the king’s friend and betraying assassin Anckarstrom, while Alexandra LoBianco (below right) was terrific as the courtier’s wife and would-be adulterous Amelia:

I liked the staging by Metropolitan Opera veteran Kristine McIntyre (below). Her idea was clearly to serve the opera, not some bizarre idea of novelty. So the stage direction matched the sets, the costumes and the score. It did not call attention to itself, which is another of way of saying it served the opera, not dominated it.

I liked the sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the costumes. They were luxurious enough to capture the sense of an 18th century royal court, but also simple enough and period or historical enough not to push the production into some postmodern meaningfulness. (The photo below is by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I especially liked the gallows set.  Its contrasting Gothic starkness played well as a context for the theme of a betraying love and the doom it entails. Love can indeed be a deadly noose (below), as King Gustav and Amelia will soon discover:

I found myself listening closely and paying special attention to the orchestra and I liked the way the orchestral accompaniment was superbly handled by players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below). It was precise and balanced. Never did the pit overwhelm the singers.

Most of all, especially in its solo passages I found myself impressed with Verdi’s instrumental writing. Verdi possessed a command of counterpoint and orchestration, punctuated with sharp rhythms and converging lines. He knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted. I realized just why the “Force of Destiny” Overture and other orchestral excerpts by Verdi are popular. Take away the voices — not that you would want to — and what is left is still great music.

I liked the way the Madison Opera Chorus handled the crowd scenes. They seem blended and just as even as the secondary soloists and leads. I did find some of the hip-hoppy choreography by Madisonian Maureen Janson a bit awkward – I almost always do – but I really couldn’t tell whether that was because of period-appropriate dance steps; because the dancers simply felt a bit awkward; or because the choreography was a bit contrived and self-conscious.

While I liked the singing, I still came away more a fan of Puccini (below) than of Verdi. A day later at home, I can’t recall a tune from “A Masked Ball.” The score always seemed promising, but the Great Moment never materialized. In that respect, evenness was unfortunate, not laudable. The opera needed some stand-outs. It needed memorable tunes, the kind you hear and remember from “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the plot. If this opera were just a play or movie, it would B-grade, too predictable and even stereotypical. Verdi was smart in other operas when he borrowed from Shakespeare, a master of human psychology, or even Victor Hugo for his librettos.

But that’s show biz — and the prolific but reliable Verdi.

Local critics universally praised the Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” But each one discovered different points to make. That speaks well for the production.

Here is a sampling:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review, which makes an excellent point about smaller regional opera companies, for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=38122

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for his Madison Magazine blog ”Classically Speaking”:

http://iwww.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/October-2012/Madison-Opera-Has-a-Ball-Unmasking-Verdi/

Here is a link to Rena Archwamety’s review on www.madison.com for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/concert-review-madison-opera-s-a-masked-ball-elegant-understated/article_eb6f680c-204a-11e2-a29e-001a4bcf887a.html

Here is a link to the review by Mike and Jean Muckian for their Brava magazine blog “Culturosity”:

http://culturosity.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/madison-operas-a-masked-ball-is-masterful/

Now you be the critic and tell us what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music Q&A: Former Metropolitan Opera stage director Kristine McIntyre talks about Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” which opens the Madison Opera’s new season this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

October 22, 2012
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This is Kathryn Smith’s second season as general manager of the Madison Opera. For more about her and her impressive background, here is a link to a story that appeared last week in The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/stage-presence-impressive-career-guides-opera-director/article_99138d7a-1935-11e2-86c9-001a4bcf887a.html

But the Madison Opera’s 51st season will also be the first season that Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) herself has selected and put together. Last year, she ended up being responsible for the three operas that her predecessor, Allan Naplan, chose before he left for the Minnesota Opera, from which he has since unexpectedly resigned. (Sorry, The Ear has no update. Can anyone out there help with news of Naplan?)

Smith’s inaugural season is an impressive one. It that starts this coming weekend with Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” (“Un Ballo in Maschera”) in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.; then moves on to the Madison Opera’s first-ever Handel opera, “Acis and Galatea” Jan. 10-13; and concludes with Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni” on April 26 and 28  before going on to Opera in the Park on July 13 for a peek at next season.

Tickets to “A Masked Ball” are $18-$118. Call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Here are links to the Madison Opera’s website and to the page for “A Masked Ball” where you can find a lot of information about the various productions (casts, sets, program notes) and the organization and its history plus an opera blog:

http://www.madisonopera.org

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2012-2013/masked_ball/

Maestro John DeMain (below), the artistic director of the Madison Opera who also specializes in opera and conducts it around the US and world, will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he also heads.

Stage director Kathrine McIntyre (below) recently gave an email interview to The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career?

I fell in love with opera when I was 16 and decided pretty young that I wanted to be an opera director. My educational background is English literature and theater, so my process is to really delve into both the text and the psychological reality of the characters.

I began my opera career at the San Francisco Opera and then worked at the Metropolitan Opera (below) for 8 years where I directed revivals of Verdi and Rossini and assisted on new productions. I left the Met in 2008 in order to focus on my own directing work, and now I direct all over the country. I’ve been fortunate to split my career between working on new and recent works and many new productions of classic opera repertory.

Where do you place “Un Ballo” in Verdi’s overall output and in the history of opera?

“Ballo” comes just after the period we refer to as Verdi’s middle years – after he composed “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto” so he was at the height of his dramatic and musical skills. It was a period in which he was also obsessed with Shakespeare and had spent years trying unsuccessfully to turn King Lear into an opera.

All of that impacts “Ballo” –– it is a very skillful piece, brilliantly constructed and so well characterized. Verdi (below) really pushed many of his composition ideas to the edge in “Ballo,” particularly his amazing ability to mix light and dark elements in the same scene. You could write a treatise just on his use of laughter throughout the piece. He took a lot of chances in “Ballo” and it’s a shame that it’s not done more in this country because it’s really extraordinary and very, very satisfying, both musically and dramatically. (See McIntyre’s further comments about “Ballo” as a neglected masterpiece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What do you see as the relevance of the opera – its plot, characters and music — to today’s public?

On one level, “Ballo”  (the set is below, in a photo by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City) is about a classic love triangle: a man falls in love with his best friend’s wife. That’s certainly a timeless theme.

But at a larger level, it’s also about the conflict between public and private life, between duty and emotion. It’s about the nature of leadership, in this case about kingship, and it asks, “What duty does a sovereign or leader have to those he leads?”

Those are profound questions that we are still trying to answer. So Verdi is telling both a human story and exploring big themes –- in that way, the work is really Shakespearean in scope, and like a great Shakespeare play, it’s universal.

What specific aspects of this particular production or interpretation would you single out to the pubic as noteworthy or unusual and why?

This is going to be a very dramatically satisfying production. We have a cast who are not only great singers, but also great actors who are deeply invested in the dramaturgy of the piece. And amazingly, they are all doing their parts for the first time, so the energy of discovery and exploration will be a huge part of the production.

Ballo” takes great actors because the characters are much more complex and realistic than in many other operas of the same period. The piece is also based on a true piece of history and I always think it’s fascinating when real life is elevated to the level of grand opera.

What would you like to say about working with the Madison Opera and this production?

I’m thrilled to be back in Madison doing this opera, which is one of my favorites and one I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. I live in Portland, Oregon, so I actually feel very at home here in Madison. I’m having a great time working with the chorus, the local singers and the dancers who are in the cast.

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

If anyone is on the fence about opera, or about Verdi, then I think this is the piece for you. It has great music that will be extraordinarily sung, but it’s also very powerful dramatically – and really entertaining. Verdi never lets the story or music lag, so the piece just tears along and suddenly you are at a masked ball and it’s all about to go horribly wrong. It is a real evening of music theater.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” again hits all the right notes – outdoors.

July 24, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera started “Opera in the Park” 11 years ago to advertise, and build audiences for, its regular winter season.

(The next season, by the way, includes Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni and Handel‘s “Acis and Galatea,” the company’s first Handel opera and first baroque opera, perhaps opening the door to Gluck, Vivaldi and of course more Handel. For more about next season and for the Madison Opera blog, go to www.madisonopera.org.)

But along the way, something happened.

The event has morphed into a more or less independent concert that has taken on a life of its own. And what a life it is, now a highpoint of the increasingly busy summer classical music season in Madison. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

Consider that, despite the threat of rain and heat, a record-setting almost 14,500 people turned out Saturday to the hilly, amphitheater-like Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, to hear this year’s edition of the annual event. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

They weren’t disappointed. Far from it. Over two hours, they consistently cheered and at the end gave a standing ovation – and even seemed disappointed when an encore wasn’t forthcoming.

The public isn’t always right. But this time it was.

I started to put check marks next to items on my program when I felt the selections were outstanding. Before long I realized that there were just too many checks to single each one out for comment.

So let me hit some highlights.

Who isn’t grateful to hear the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the rarely performed and Puccini-like Prelude and “Hymn to the Sun” from Mascagni’s “Iris” — think “Turandot” or “Madame Butterfly” — or Verdi’s boisterous and infectious “Anvil Chorus” from “Il Trovatore”?

Who could fail to be charmed by mezzo Emily Pons and bass Matt Boehler and the perfect physicality of their suitably seductive duet of “La Ci darem La Mano” between Zerlina and Don Juan from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”?

Who could resist soprano Caitlyn Lynch (below, in a photo by James Gill) in those fabulously ethereal high notes that float high above the mundane world in her dream aria “Chi Il Bel Sogno di Dretta” from Puccini’s “Rondine”?

Who would not be impressed by tenor Russell Thomas (below, in a photo by James Gill) in “La Donna e mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”? He is the Ethel Merman of tenors, possessing a big – make that huge – and beautiful voice. True, he lacks some subtlety and his stage manner is a bit stiff, as was Luciano Pavarotti ‘s. But the crowd loved him and sensed they were hearing The Real Deal when it comes to grand talent for grand opera. This man is going places far beyond the loud echoes he created in the vastness of the park.

There were tender moments too. Madison Opera’s congenial general director Kathryn Smith paid tribute to the company’s co-founder Roland Johnson, who died recently and then the crowd waved light sticks to the lovely and calming Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman.”

Here is a link to a video of that tribute:

http://www.peterpatau.com/

Matt Boehler also turned in two other great moments where he matched voice and stage manner: As Leporello (below in a photo by James Gill), the servant who recites the list of 2,067 conquests by Don Juan – showing that even more than the seductions the immorality is in the cataloguing, the writing down and depersonalizing of the love-making and the love-object. And then he easily switched gears and got into character in the Gilbert and Sullivan tongue-twisting patter song “”Modern Major General.”

The Hollywood sampling of four selections was based on love – the word and the concept – and to The Ear it did not intrude too much on the more serious opera works. It fact, the songs — especially “Be My Love” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” helped set the mood in the cool and clear night. Who doesn’t like a little romance with their beauty?

And then everyone seemed spellbound and moved by the concert’s finale, the large cast (below, in a photo by James Gill) singing “Let Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Lenny knew about rough days and difficult lives. It’s hard to argue with either the music or the lyrics in his take on Voltaire’s famously metaphorical line “We must cultivate our garden.”

If operatic music is the garden, the Madison Opera certainly cultivated it with great results on Saturday night.

Of course, much of this should come as no surprise.

Some audiences love the “Best Of” format. True, real opera fans crave the drama and plots, the costumes and sets. But many of us go for the music — and that is what we got.

This year’s crop of top-notch artists — there wasn’t a weak or unpleasant voice among them — showed no lack of pedigree. When introductions were made for the various singers, names like The Met, Covent Garden, the Santa Fe Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera and the New York Philharmonic got tossed about.

How lucky Madison is to get to hear so many of these voices before the world at large does. Choose right and choose early, it seems, and you can afford the best talent before it becomes famous and unaffordable. So the standing ovation (below) was well deserved.

Guest conductor especially deserves to be singled out for high praise. Gary Thor Wedow (below, in a photo by James Gill), who substituted for the Madison Opera’s artistic director and usual conductor John DeMain, has long experience at various opera companies and now teaches conducting at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. And you could tell he loves what he does: As he conducted without a baton and with complete mastery, you could see him mouthing the words to just about everyone’s part. This is an expert.

Were there flaws or imperfections, dissatisfactions or mistakes? Sure.

It would have been welcome to hear at least a sample from next season’s Handel opera instead of a different one.

Probably the biggest problem was the sound system, especially depending on where you were sitting. Overall, it still seems to need some refining for clarity and balance.

But sound problems seem endemic to stadium-like concerts. Those same problems also plagued the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square for a decade or more. You begin to think that amplification in big outdoors spaces simply can’t ever be perfect because every ear wants something different out of it.

Nonetheless, the talent came through and the beauty survived, especially on what turned out to be such a perfect evening, who could ask for anything more?

Well, opera is an art and so there are many points of view about it. So here are so other critics’ takes on this year’s Opera in the Park.

Here is freelancer Rena Archwamety’s review for 77 Square, the Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/opera-in-the-park-serenades-and-seduces-with-songs-of/article_60dbced8-5d8b-5b74-95fb-26815f34b69b.html

And here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=37316&sid=41aee9bd30f1129a320857dbc5cf9790

What did you think of Opera in the Park 2012? What did you enjoy and what did you find to be the highlights? Be a critic. Leave a comment. And I will leave you with an oh-so-difficult but oh-so-beautiful song we heard live at Opera in the Park 2012.


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,211 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,099,367 hits
    November 2019
    M T W T F S S
    « Oct    
     123
    45678910
    11121314151617
    18192021222324
    252627282930  
%d bloggers like this: