The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Thursday night brings FREE concerts of orchestral, wind and piano music at the UW-Madison – including recognition of construction workers who built the new Hamel Music Center

December 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is an extraordinarily busy week for classical music, as the past week of postings has demonstrated.

But there is always room for more, especially at the University of Wisconsin Mead Witter School of Music as the semester winds down.

Take the concerts on this Thursday, Dec. 5.

UW SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and UW WIND ENSEMBLE

At 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in Mills Hall) and the UW Wind Ensemble (below bottom) will join forces for a FREE concert.

The concert will be under the two groups’ directors and main conductors — Oriol Sans (below top) and Scott Teeple (below bottom), respectively.

The program features the Symphony “Circus Maximus” – which ends with a blank gunshot — by the contemporary American composer John Corigliano (below top); “Fratres” (Brothers) by the popular 84-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt with UW violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below bottom, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) as soloist; and “The Pines of Rome” by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi.

You can hear “Fratres” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Billed as a “Builder Appreciation Concert” for those men and women who worked on constructing the new Hamel Music Center, there is also a pre-concert reception starting at 6:30 p.m.

Admission is free and no tickets are required.

PIANO DEPARTMENT RECITAL

Also on this Thursday, the UW-Madison piano department with present a collective recital.

It takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the smaller Collins Recital Hall of the Hamel Music Center.

So far, no performers or pieces on the program have been listed on the School of Music’s website.

 


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offers FREE concert tickets to furloughed federal workers

January 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Restaurants, food banks, retail stores and other organizations have responded with compassion and generosity to victims of the ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Here is an announcement of a timely move that The Ear thinks is terrific news for budget-strapped workers who have to cut back on entertainment or discretionary expenses. It should be a model for other local groups as well as statewide, regional and national arts presenters.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) is offering free tickets to furloughed federal workers for the Masterworks performance on Friday, Jan. 25, featuring the young cello prodigy and sensation, Miriam K. Smith.

Fresh from performances with the Cincinnati and Louisville symphonies, Smith (below) will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. (You can hear her perform a violin and cello duet by George Frideric Handel and Johan Halvorsen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

If you want to know more about Smith, go to her website: https://miriamksmith.com

A forgotten gem by Domenico Cimarosa, Overture to The Secret Marriage, will open the concert, and the performance concludes with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, the sunniest of his even-numbered symphonies.

The concert, under the baton of WCO music director Andrew Sewell, will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.

If you are a furloughed federal employee, you can call the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offices at (608) 257-0638, and mention your place of employment. Best available tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets are limited to two per person.

Others who want to attend this concert can find information about the soloist, the program and tickets at: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-4/


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Classical music: The Winter Concert Series by the Madison Youth Choirs next Saturday and Sunday feature the theme of “Resilience” with guest artist Tony Memmel

December 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

This semester, the Madison Youth Choirs welcome guest artist Tony Memmel, a singer-songwriter and guitarist whose story of ingenuity and resilience will inspire young singers and audience members alike.

Born without a left forearm or hand, Memmel (below) taught himself to play guitar by building a homemade cast out of Gorilla Tape, and has become an internationally acclaimed musician, thoughtful teacher and ambassador for young people with limb differences. (You can hear Memmel talk about  himself in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, and Sunday afternoon, Dec., 9, at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street, Memmel will join the Madison Youth Choirs in a Winter Concert Series called “Resilience” because it focuses on the ability to overcome challenges both visible and invisible, and along the way discover the limitless possibilities that exist inside each of us.

Here is the schedule:

Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:00 p.m. – Purcell, Britten, Holst and Ragazzi choirs

Sunday, Dec. 9, at 4:00 p.m. – Choraliers, Con Gioia, Capriccio, Cantilena and Cantabile choir

Tickets will be available at the door, $10 for general admission; $5 for students 7-18; and free for children under 7.

These concerts are generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from our sponsors, American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported by the Madison Arts Commission and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

About Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.

Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

For more information about supporting or joining MYC, go to: https://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

HERE IS THE COMPLETE REPERTOIRE OF THE MYC 2018 WINTER CONCERT SERIES “RESILIENCE”:

SATURDAY, DEC.  8, at 7:00 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs with Tony Memmel

“Clenched Hands, Brave Demands” by Tony Memmel

“Though My Soul May Set in Darkness,” text by Sarah Williams, composer unknown

 Purcell

“Who Can Sail” Scandinavian Folk Song, arr. Jeanne Julseth-Heinrich

“Hine Ma Tov” Hebrew Folk Song, arr. Henry Leck

Britten   

“Jerusalem,” poem by William Blake, music by Sir Hubert Parry

“This Little Babe” from A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Holst

“Keep Your Lamps,” traditional spiritual, arr. André Thomas

“Out of the Deep” by John Wall Callcott

“Shosholoza,” Traditional song from Zimbabwe, arr. Albert Pinsonneault

Combined Boychoirs

“Angels’ Carol” by John Rutter

Tony Memmel

Selections to be announced

Ragazzi

“Wie Melodien” (Op. 5, No. 1) by Johannes Brahms

“The Chemical Worker’s Song” by Ron Angel, arr. after Great Big Sea

“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” by Abbie Betinis

Combined Boychoirs with Tony Memmel (below)

“America to Go” by Tony Memmel

SUNDAY, DEC. 9, at 4:00 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Combined Girlchoirs with Tony Memmel

“Clenched Hands, Brave Demands” by Tony Memmel

Choraliers

“Be Like a Bird,” Text from Victor Hugo, music by Arthur Frackenpohl

“Art Thou Troubled” by George Frideric Handel

“Blustery Day” by Victoria Ebel-Sabo

Con Gioia

“Bist du bei mir” by Johann Sebastian Bach from “The Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach”

“I Heard a Bird Sing” by Cyndee Giebler

“Ask the Moon” from Three Settings of the Moon by Ron Nelson

“I’ll Overcome Someday” by C.A. Tindley

“We Shall Overcome” arr. by Marie McManama and Con Gioia

“i shall imagine” by Daniel Brewbaker, text by e.e. cummings

South African National Anthem by E.M. Sontonga and M.L. de Villiers

Capriccio

“Resilience” by Abbie Betinis

“Be Like the Bird” by Abbie Betinis

“Esurientes” from Magnificat in G minor by Antonio Vivaldi

“And Ain’t I a Woman!” by Susan Borwick, adapted from a speech by Sojourner Truth

Tony Memmel

Selections to be announced by Tony Memmel

Cantilena

“Vanitas vanitatum” by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

“Chant for a Long Day” by Stephen Hatfield

“Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten”(from BWV 78) by Johann Sebastian Bach

“The Storm is Passing Over” by Charles Albert Tindley, arr. Barbara Baker

Cantabile

“Ich weiss nicht”(Op. 113, No. 11) by Johannes Brahms, text by Friedrich Rueckert

“Widmung” (Op.25, No. 1) by Johannes Brahms, text by Friedrich Rueckert

“I Never Saw Another Butterfly” by Charles Davidson

Combined Choirs with Tony Memmel

“America to Go” by Tony Memmel


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