Monday, April 13, 2015

Tan Dun’s Water Passion bathes all in excellence

By Douglas Neslund

Ten years ago, Maestro Grant Gershon and the peerless Los Angeles Master Chorale brought Chinese-born Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew” to Walt Disney Concert Hall. For a first reading, the near-operatic work electrified the audience (if water and electricity may safely be used in the same sentence). So when Water Passion was scheduled for reprise in the current season, a buzz developed around the weekend performances. As well it should have.

Carefully rehearsed over the past few weeks, the performance on Sunday was meticulously presented, with vocal soloists soprano-in-excelsis Delaram Kamareh and basso profundo-in-extremis Stephen Bryant dazzling in challenging roles that preclude nearly all potential soloists, given their respective tessituras alone. Stupendously high notes and long leaps not heard since Yma Sumac were the challenge, with Ms. Kamareh’s hands and arms dancing and text-shaping along. Mr. Bryant was asked to perform frequent Tibetan overtone throat and fry sounds, to one member of the audience a bit too frequently, especially at odd moments in the English text thankfully projected above the performers. His vocal production was prodigious and beautiful.

Also soloing to great effect were percussionists David Cossin, Theresa Dimond, John Wakefield and instrumentalists Shalini Vijayan (violin), Cécilia Tsan ('cello) and almost hidden behind the men’s chorus, Yuanlin Chen on the digital sampler.

Composer Tan Dun

Seventeen translucent bowls of water formed a cross on stage, and contained microphones to pick up the various hand slaps, what appeared to be tin cans bobbed on the water surface, and other sometimes bowed odd objects that created sound through the water. Each bowl was lit from below, with a color scheme to reflect various moods arising from the Passion story.

Throughout the work, Mr. Cossin, Ms. Dimond and Mr. Wakefield played in this watery world and were surrounded by kettle and bass drums, with Ms. Dimond having a set of chimes to play as well. Almost in traditional jazz format, Mr. Cossin was given a solo turn at one point, with astonishing adeptness with his bare hands, playing and perhaps inventing new rhythms along the way on what appeared to be miked gourds.

Regular patrons of Master Chorale performances have come to expect vocal perfection, and on this occasion, were richly rewarded with not only singing par excellence but also rock rubbing and banging, Tibetan bell tinkling, and during the brief thunder-and-lightning at the death of Jesus, realistic metallic thunder claps.

The absolute key to this enchanting evening was careful preparation. It was clear to those who witnessed the two decade-separated Passion performances that Maestro Gershon’s richly gifted subconscious right brain had been working through the many opportunities to bring light and maintain the translucence of the work, and devise a rehearsal plan accordingly. This was not a run-through, but a carefully thought-out process made public to a delighted audience, that rewarded all with an instant standing ovation, with protracted loud applause punctuated with “bravos” and shrieks one normally hears at a rock concert, demanding a five-bow after the tributary long silence that brought the work to a close, even after the stage lights came up. No one was even breathing. And no one noticed how quickly the 90-minute work sans intermission went.

Maestro Gershon

Master Chorale audiences of the future will be fortunate if composer Tan Dun’s Water Passion is once again scheduled in water-needy Los Angeles, and Maestro Gershon is still at the podium.


Photos courtesy of and Jamie Phan

Monday, April 6, 2015

New SDO General Director Cannot Curb His Enthusiasm

By Erica Miner

David Bennett’s creative spirit and seemingly limitless energy have caught the attention of opera aficionados worldwide over the last several years. On March 12, 2015, San Diego Opera announced that Bennett, who as Executive Director of New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera rose to the top of a short list of incredibly well qualified candidates, would be taking the reins of the company as their new General Director.

Previous to Gotham, Bennett was Managing Director of Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) of lower Manhattan, and Senior Consultant with Arts Resources International. His excitement and enthusiasm over his new post at SDO is as plentiful as the buzz surrounding him. Via phone from New York, he discusses exciting plans for SDO’s bright-looking future.

EM: David, the enthusiasm and anticipation here about your appointment as SDO’s new General Director are palpable. This feels like a perfect match. San Diego loves opera, and so do you, so we feel blessed. We are so excited here for your imminent arrival.

DB: Thank you for saying that. I am absolutely thrilled, beside myself, looking forward. I grew up in the Midwest, lived in Texas, then in New York for almost 15 years. It’s very exciting to take on another chapter in another part of the country.

EM: And we are very lucky to have you in this particular chapter. It’s not every year that SDO names a new general director. I think it’s going to be a mutual admiration society. A wonderful way to begin. Will there be any pomp and circumstance when you officially take the reins on June 15?

DB: There’s some talk about ways to roll me out. I think they’re planning some fund raising opportunities, some new initiatives to try to introduce me to people. A couple of recitals are happening, Pat Racette and Ferruccio, both in the fall. So I will likely make some kind of a public statement, probably a curtain speech for the audience then. But I don’t think there’s any big action planned for my immediate arrival.

EM: “Roll me out,” that’s absolutely priceless. I’ll definitely make a note of that one. I interviewed Bill Mason a few months ago ( Have you been working with him, or are you planning to work with him, on the transition?

DB: I haven’t yet. I’ve been doing a little internal work with staff, but I’m planning on reviewing some of his thoughts, try to pick up on the work he did and make it move forward. A lot of that was how to take the season that was already planned under Ian and modify that to some degree, definitely try to build on that. About half of next season is already planned, so we’re finding ways we can take financial obligations already in place and perhaps produce opera in a more cost-effective way.

EM: As a former opera musician, I’m curious what it’s like to switch over from being a performing baritone to managing Dance New Amsterdam, then running Gotham Chamber Opera, and now to helm an opera company that performs in venues both large and small.

DB: I think many of us in the arts find our paths circuitous, hugely non-linear, so every chapter I’ve had in my professional career has informed the next chapter to some degree. I was a singer and a voice teacher, mostly standard repertoire. I did traditional opera and grew up loving it. Most of us are attracted to opera by first experiences with standard repertoire - the first bohème or Aida, the way it moved you. That’s always been a part of what I love about opera. I moved to New York and worked first as a consultant and then the job with Dance New Amsterdam. I was already an audience member, attending the Met and City Opera, but I also started seeing Gotham’s work because it was produced at a very high level, with talented singers, designers and directors. Gotham defines chamber opera as intended for small audiences or venues. I think there are other ways to define it. Sometimes people will take standard repertoire and cut the orchestra size or cut the chorus and call it chamber opera. That was not the decision Gotham made, so I was very interested in this way of producing unusual repertoire as if it was almost grand opera, beautifully and thoughtfully with very high artistic values. I really loved exploring different kinds of repertoire, audience development, and how unusual spaces can help illuminate works. What I’m excited about now is bringing all of that back together. I still have a passion for what we call traditional grand opera and repertoire. I haven’t been able to work in it for the past 10 years at Gotham, so I’m really looking forward to that, and thinking about how we produce what people think of as traditional repertoire in sometimes surprising ways - it might be different designers or younger directors or things that San Diego hasn’t seen yet.

EM: I’m intrigued by some of the ideas you’ve implemented at Gotham and curious to see how that’s going to play out here. You commissioned Nico Muhly’s opera Dark Sisters for a world premiere. Do you plan to commission contemporary works for SDO?

DB: Certainly. San Diego’s had experience with that, with Jake Heggie’s operas. The audience has reacted positively to Moby-Dick. Great Scott is coming up next season. Daniel Catán’s first US opera, Rapaccini’s Daughter, was actually premiered in San Diego. Daniel was Mexican, became an American citizen, and this was kind of homage to his Americanized home. San Diego might be involved in the production of his unfinished opera, Meet John Doe. It would be a beautiful story to have his first and last opera be shepherded to some degree by San Diego. I’ve also been approached by Fort Worth Opera to see if San Diego would be interested in joining the consortium of cities that have large Hispanic audiences in developing a new opera based on Frida Kahlo. That might be very interesting. We also have a history at Gotham of having partnerships with Opera Philadelphia, who commissions works for both their smaller chamber opera series and their larger theater. I think my relationships with companies like that will probably continue as I move to San Diego. There are so many opportunities to explore. What the right mix is going to be for San Diego we have to still determine, but I imagine commissioning will probably be on the table.

EM: Opera in the 21st century definitely is becoming more global and collaborative. At Gotham, you also collaborated with other New York City arts institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Repertory Theater. Do you foresee similar possibilities in San Diego?

DB: There are lots of possibilities. SDO leadership is allied with a lot of the cultural institutions here, which is very exciting. San Diego is a sophisticated enough city artistically that I think there are opportunities for organizations to engage in ways that mean more than just one organization hiring another, like the Opera hiring the Symphony, but really coproducing. We’ve had preliminary conversations with the Symphony about that. I intend very quickly to have a conversation with the Old Globe. The outdoor theatre would be a lovely place to produce opera, perhaps based on a Shakespeare theme. We haven’t begun those discussions but those are just our dreams, my first glance of thinking about opportunities out there. In New York, we’ve had partnerships that manifested in a variety of ways. Sometimes 50-50 partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we split the expenses and revenue literally right down the middle, to other kinds of partnerships where we carry the majority of the burden of the production, and they might carry part of the expenses of the venue. You get expanded audiences because you pick up audiences of both cultural institutions. You also get this sense of what the organization is within the community that is increasing the civic impact for the opera company as opposed to just being itself inside the theatre. Because of that you have the potential of attracting all kinds of supporters and audiences. Those are things I’m really looking forward to exploring.

EM: You have other programs at Gotham, such as Composer-in-Residence and Internships. Is any of that on your slate for San Diego? Do you plan to implement certain other highly successful programs?

DB: Possibly. The Composer-in-Residence program is a very interesting relationship we have with Opera Philadelphia and another organization, Music Theatre Group, which are the three organizations that co-commissioned Dark Sisters. Out of that could come relationships that could foster young composers. Not a commissioning program, just a way to provide tools for young composers that when they come out of a three-year program they have the skills they need to have major impact on the field of opera. I don’t know if we would replicate something like that in San Diego, but I know young composers coming out of such programs and I think we could take advantage of that. There’s something wonderful about having a composer being part of an institution, which makes new music part of the DNA of the organization. That could have a really profound impact on San Diego. At SDO we’ll continue to produce grand opera but also other things. It will be interesting to find out what that mix is going to be. Of course things will change within the first couple of years. Next year is pretty much going to be three grand operas and some recitals. In the fall I think we’ll start to produce perhaps a little chamber opera, perhaps zarzuela, all kinds of things. There are great opportunities to engage the Hispanic community, too.

EM: Did SDO’s remarkable rebirth and growth over the past year make an impression on you?

DB: One of the things that attracted me to the possibility of this position was that the organizations that had been very successful have been those that have dug really deep within the community and found a way to have impact. Some of that has already happened in San Diego because the community has spoken so loudly in saying, “This Company is an asset we want to keep.” Finding a way to develop the company in such a way that it builds on that energy and excitement, really taking advantage of that, is the challenge and opportunity, and has to be harnessed quickly because that energy can dissipate fairly quickly. We need to jump on that immediately when I get there, to ascertain and talk quickly with the community and learn what the community wants.

EM: How do you envision SDO’s community impact, both short and long term?

DB: In the short term there’s rebuilding, making people feel confident about the health of the organization. Not abandoning the things people love about SDO and making sure we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water - traditional opera, but less of it. Then trying to have a sense of really defined stabilization. The Kroc Fund, which has been virtually spent down, was providing a lot of the cushion to the company over the past decade or so. Finding a way to life size the organization so it can operate, do beautiful and artistic work, and grow some new things - it’s going to take a few years to find the right combination of things that can be sustained and can also be its basis for sound financials. So next season will look a little bit like what we’ve been this season, but the following season I imagine you’ll see a production of something new, though not radically new, on the main stage. Another year down the road we might see main stage repertoire looking a little different.

EM: It certainly sounds different but I think that’s the kind of change we’re all looking for here. What do you feel are the three most important things SDO should focus on over the next five years, between now and 2020?

DB: The most important thing is finding ways to engage the community for maximum impact. Developing the feeling that the company is a really important part of the community that’s deeper than it has been - a community asset with deep civic impact, reaching a broader spectrum of the community than in the past, serving their needs, but not abandoning what was done. Next, rebuilding and feeling like the community sees the company is headed on a plan toward stabilization and fiscal soundness, that we will have permanence for fifty or more years. Third is exploring ways to be curious, investigating new things artistically that have benefit for the company. I think all three of those stick together. Finding new ways and new things to produce certainly is a part of how you build community impact. You’re speaking to repertoire that means something to a part of community that hasn’t been reached before. They all go together, but I think community impact is the most important part of it.

EM: That sounds like an excellent plan. Thank you so much, David, for sharing so much wonderful information with us.

DB: It was my pleasure.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Friday, April 3, 2015

Crafty Stephen Cohn Premieres in Pacific Palisades and Pasadena

Composer Stephen Cohn with wind players in 'Aria for Winds' at Shumei Hall

Review by Rodney Punt

Most composers would be happy to have one commissioned work premiered in a year. Los Angeles based composer Stephen Cohn has enjoyed two in the L. A. area just this past month. The first (March 17) was Aerial Perspectives, for flute, viola, cello and piano as part of the ongoing Chamber Music (Pacific) Palisades series. The second (March 29) was Aria for Winds, for a quartet of winds that concluded the Clyde Montgomery concert series at Pasadena’s Shumei Hall.

Today’s composers often favor extra-musical associations to brand their work. John Adams, for instance, expands minimalism’s boundaries into topical socio-political horizons. His namesake John Luther Adams presents himself as the sonic equivalent of the Alaska wilderness. Thomas Adès loves to play naughty with the English classics. Call the tendency high-class music’s version of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.”

Cohn’s style, by contrast, is today’s answer to the intense craftsmanship of eighteenth century composers like J. S. Bach and Joseph Haydn. His works don’t in any way sound like those of the Baroque or Classical eras, but, like them, they treat elements of music as intellectual exercises, constructing and deconstructing thematic material from all sides in a variety of tempos and keys. They may possess colorful titles, but they are really all about their own organic construction.

An old-fashioned sort of modernist, Cohn has as much fun slicing and dicing musical motifs as a cat rolling in catnip. Recent examples of his brainy-but-fun scores include Sea Change (2011) and American Spring (2012), both premiered at Shumei, the former now a hit within art music circles, and making the rounds of festivals at home and abroad. Cohn’s latest two works explore further potentials of his characteristic style.

Aria for Winds is, as Cohn describes it, a “joyful gigue in 5/4 time.” Traditional gigues are in 6/8 time. Thinking in terms of dance, the latter would be one foot for three under-beats and the other for three under-beats. Cohn’s rhythm, however, has the first foot with TWO under-beats and the second with three. The off-kilter playfulness feels peg-leg.

The work’s main theme (a melisma around a G-note introduced by the flute) introduces itself slowly, but is soon off on a wild romp with a plunge into frantic pacing (Cohn’s term: a “shock cut”). The tune turns upside down, is rhythmically augmented and diminished, and dwells in varying harmonies. Its three sections contrast outer movement extroversion with an inner pensiveness. Cohn nods to the kind of jokes Papa Haydn played on his audiences when his bassoon enters well into the work on the same high C-note that famously launched Igor Stravinsky’s Sacra du Printemps, raising the eyebrows of audience recognition.

Aria for Winds wisely employs only the four most nimble winds, giving the mellow French horn the day off. Catherine Baker (flute), Zach Pulse (oboe), Kelsi Doolittle (clarinet), and Alex Rosales (bassoon) -- associated with USC’s School of Music  -- had their work cut out, but deftly conveyed both the work’s craftsmanship and its complex charms.

The Shumei program was joined by equally fine performances of two other wind pieces that worked well with Cohn’s piece: Francis Poulenc’s spicy Sextet for Winds and Piano, Op. 100, and the most well-known work of the otherwise neglected late nineteenth century composer, Ludwig Thuille, whose Sextet for Piano and Woodwinds in B-flat Major, Op. 6, was charming in its retro-Schumanesque way. Another historic curiosity was Franz Liszt’s luxuriant, forward-looking piano arrangement of Beethoven’s early song, “Adelaide.” Pianist Hedy Lee lent superb virtuosity to the super-charged fantasy of anachronistic harmonies and deliciously padded chords.

The earlier performed Aerial Perspectives at Chamber Music Palisades was written for flute (Susan Greenberg), viola (Scott Woolweaver), cello (Sarah Rommel), and piano (Delores Stevens). The work’s rondo-like construction, with its initial theme an alternation between the notes E and G, is expanded and varied in melodic content, instrumentation, tempo and rhythmic scale. The rondo theme, the main protagonist in this story, commences a musical journey and meets other themes, returning to reflect upon them. But it never quite returns the same. Perhaps more than any recent piece of Cohn, a seeming emotional struggle expresses a desire to breakaway from restraining bonds. The rondo form always brings its theme back home, but here it is charged in some extra-musical way as if for the better.

As with many of Cohn’s pieces, augmentation and diminution (varying speeds) and changing rhythms are prominent. As the composer describes it, “The offering of material in different rhythmic scales and orchestrations gives an overview of its meaning, hence an 'aerial perspective'.” The title of the work seems to clue in, perhaps, an uplifting intention to bravely face whatever path lies ahead.

These main points registered in performance, but the balance too strongly tilted in favor of the piano over the flute, and, it must be said, ensemble rhythms were occasionally unsteady on Aerial’s maiden flight. With time and a little more familiarity, however, the work could prove to be one of Cohn’s most compelling.

Cohn is a careful musical craftsman, and his pointillistic scores can have the look of Augenmusik (“eye-music”) about them, in both graphics and formal plan. On first hearing, tricky rhythms and dense lines fly by so quickly, the ear struggles to fully absorb them. When seen in score, the composer’s intentions are more quickly clarified and the ear subsequently hears them. For those who don’t read scores, repeated performances will surely bear fruit, as with all music worthy of the name.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bryan Hymel on French Opera, Physiology, and Stamina

By Erica Miner

Praised by NPR as the “new king of the high C’s”, touted by the French media as the “new hero of French opera…without equal”, tenor Bryan Hymel’s rapid rise is being followed by opera mavens worldwide. French conductor Emmanuel Villaume describes Hymel’s voice as having the qualities of “great agility, brilliant top...full-bodied…like no other these days.” Winner of the 2013 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for his performances in Les Troyens, Robert le diable, and Rusalka at London’s Royal Opera House, and also the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award for his Troyens debut there, the New Orleans native brings his youthful passion and remarkable fort ténor to the opera stage worldwide. 

EM: I’m so impressed with what I’ve been reading and hearing about you. Your upcoming schedule is mind-boggling. 

BH: Yes, it’s a little crazy but I’ve survived. I have a month or so to recharge the batteries. Right now I’m kicking back. It’s 82 degrees in New Orleans. 

EM: Your newly released first solo album for Warner Classics, Héroïque (éroïque-French-Opera-Bryan-Hymel/dp/B00P97SHNQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421077330&sr=8-1&keywords=bryan+hymel+heroique&tag=smarturl-20), received five stars on Amazon. Congratulations! When did the album release? 

BH: A few weeks ago. It was a great experience. As I’m sure you know, trying to get a major label behind you and take a chance was a huge hurdle in and of itself before we even recorded anything, let alone a program like this - it’s all rib-eye steaks or big entrées. [Laughs] You have to take into consideration not just how the record will play from beginning to end but how individually the tracks might be interesting to people on things like Spotify, Pandora, Google Radio and iTunes. 

EM: It’s a whole different experience to record now with all the various media that have cropped up. Being an artist is not what it used to be. 

BH: It’s more complicated. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the artist, especially your first CD, to put something out that is impressive, representative and also beautiful - its own little work of art. It was right before the baby was born when they had agreed and we started talking about what the project was going to be, and she’s now 16 months. [Laughs] It started off mainly being a CD of Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Rossini, but they decided they wanted more composers for a CD of 65 minutes, so we found a lot of other options. 

EM: Any plans for another recording? 

BH: It’s a 3-recording deal, so If everything keeps going well hopefully will have three total. We’re trying to decide if we will stay with this French heroic one or do Donizetti or some of the other Verdi. I want to do something in Italian, where there’s a niche I will be able to step into. 

EM: I’m certainly looking forward to that. I saw the video ( where you’re recording an aria from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Pardon me for asking, but exactly how many high C’s do you sing in that aria? 

BH: That’s a tricky one. There’s ten between the aria and cabaletta, if you do both verses You have to do both to get the one more High C than the nine in La Fille du Regiment

EM: And you make it sound so easy! 

BH: Oh, thank you. We were trying to decide if we were going to do two verses because it’s the same music and every second has to count. In the end we decided it was just more fun to do it the way it was presented. The trend right now is to do things more the way they were written and be as faithful to that as we can. In a recording you might sacrifice some of the excitement of the opera house. In arias like the one from Les Troyens I sang it literally the way I would have in the show, but really true to the French style. For instance at the end of the aria when I sing, [Sings] I hold that last note as long as I can and then take a breath. Emmanuel (Villaume, the conductor) was like, “This is not very French.” [Laughs] 

EM: Do you consider Guillaume Tell, written in French by Rossini, French or Italian repertoire? Do you feel more comfortable in one or the other? 

BH: Rossini, being Italian but writing for the French, obviously knew that style. What may be a bit tricky is the setting of the French words. Italian is more straightforward. Of the Rossini and Verdi I’ve sung, they’re probably one foot in French, one foot in Italian. When you hire a Rossini or a Verdi to come over and write you a French opera, they are writing in a different style. When you ask a Michelangelo to come back later and paint something impressionistic, it would still be him as the artist, but pointing in a certain direction. Opera being a multinational and multi-linguistic art form, once you develop your own perspective of different kinds of music, then you can have a real opinion about whether it’s Italian or French. 

EM: It sounds like you feel equally comfortable in both.

BH: Absolutely. There are different challenges. What makes French more difficult than Italian are vowels. The closed “u” and “e” are very tricky to get your throat around. I think people say, “It sounds so easy in your voice,” because I figured out a way to keep it open in my throat and closed in my mouth in the pronunciation. It’s tricky to separate those two things because you think the voice and throat are all one. That’s true from a strictly organic point of view, but your tongue and your jaw are the articulators that make the vowels and consonants specific and clear. If you let that creep down in your throat you end up getting a very tight “e.” It’s taken me a lot of time to figure out how to do that. With Italian the throat is always open and even on an “e” vowel the composer would write it differently. (Gilbert) Duprez, who did his vocal studies in Italy, knew how to approach that, and I think this is what led to His full-chested high C that made it different and exciting, singing the way the audiences in Paris had not experienced before, certainly in their own language. 

EM: You received high praise from Paris Soir as having the potential to become “the greatest fort ténor since Georges Thill. Would the phrase “French heldentenor” accurately describe your voice?

BH: [Laughs] I think it’s funny, the way people term themselves. Georges Thill, probably the most famous French tenor of recent history aside from Alagna, also trained in Italy, but people don’t realize it - they just say, “He’s French.” In Italy Thill studied bel canto style. To be the reigning tenor of the French repertoire, as in Robert le diable, he had to be a marvelous singer. But it’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of throat, the way it’s constructed. Whatever it is about the Italian sound that makes a singer sound Italian there’s something physiological there. I think Georges Thill’s voice was a little lower than mine from the recordings of his I’ve heard. But I don’t think the French have a heldentenor. It’s such a German word, and those Wagnerian roles are a good step or step and a half lower than the French ones. A lot of French people don’t even like Berlioz because they think he’s too bombastic and kind of crazy and out there. For me I love it. Berlioz has been so good to me because what he wrote fits my throat. 

EM: The role of Enée in Les Troyens is infamously difficult to sing. As a Met Opera violinist I heard many tenors struggle with it. Could you describe your experience in your debut at the Met with this role? 

BH: It was amazing. It was still fresh in my mind as I had done eight performances and one concert performance for the Proms in London. So I spent a lot of time with that role which I already had known because I did it in Amsterdam. It’s not marathon-long but it’s really difficult. We had seven weeks of rehearsal in Amsterdam - two months to work on Troyens in a low-pressure situation. It’s also a role where I can identify with the character and vocally. From a singer’s point of view I could treat it like a comfortable shoe or a glove that you just put on. There’s not one moment I stress over the night before when I’m lying in bed thinking, “Oh man, I hope this part goes well tomorrow.” [Laughs] 

EM: It must take a lot of stamina because of the heaviness of the orchestration and the amount of sustaining that you have to do. In these longer and heavier roles, is stamina important? 

BH: Although Troyens stretches over 5 ½ hours, my role itself is not that long, probably about the same amount of time as in the Duke in Rigoletto, though you probably have more high notes. [Laughs] I timed it out in London. If you pace it right, like an athlete would, you’re warmed up, you give what you need to give, and then you turn it off. You can’t keep your energy up for that hour and a half between leaving the stage in the first part and coming back for the second part. Once you go on in the second part then it’s like starting a real opera. You’re on stage almost the whole time including the ballet and ensembles. That’s the trickiest part, because you’re onstage for a good 45 minutes even when you’re not singing. Through eight performances in London I learned a lot about the role and myself. 

EM: Sounds like you were really primed by the time you got to the Met. 

BH: In London after seven performances of Robert le diable right before I went to the Met, I had been so disciplined about rest. When I arrived at the Met I couldn’t have asked to be in better shape. Or a better place. 

EM: Is there any special challenge in learning and performing such infrequently done roles as Robert le diable, Edgar and L’Africaine

BH: Robert was really difficult and tricky. When Covent Garden came to me they said to take six months and learn it and make a decision to do it or not. With a major house like that it was a luxury. I took it to my teacher and he said, “You can do this, but I’m afraid you might get pigeonholed in the ‘freak’ tenor repertoire, and that would be a shame because there are other things you can do.” I decided to just go for it. What makes it difficult is you have to get three or four really top-notch singers, two different kinds of sopranos, and a bass with a two-octave range, and adequate rehearsal time. That’s the biggest reason why it doesn’t get done. L’Africaine is probably a little bit easier. It’s not as long as Robert le diable and probbly doesn’t require the same amount of voices. People gripe about Meyerbeer and say it’s very stylized. That may be true in some ways but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. There was a time when Rossini was not being done so much at the big theaters. 

EM: Is there any German repertoire in your future? 

BH: I’m probably going to do a Meistersinger in about three years. Of the German roles this one is high, but the character of Walter is a young guy. My voice won’t be ready for the heavy Wagnerian repertoire at that point, but I can sing the prize song with a youthful, beautiful romantic sound as opposed to just being loud. 

EM: And you don’t have a Ring orchestra to sing over. 

BH: Exactly. The other Wagner’s are equally high but brutal. If I get there, fine. If not… It’s hard to say what your voice is going to do 10 years from now. It’s hard enough to say what your voice is going to do five years from now. Plus there’s all the Italian repertoire, which lies a bit higher. For me right now the higher I go the more comfortable it is, and I think the more success it has. As you were saying, in the CD it sounds easy. My manager told me, “Sometimes you just need to look like you’re trying a little bit harder. That’s what makes it exciting from the audience standpoint. The crowd wants to see you sweat a little bit sometimes.” [Laughs]

Photos used by permission of Dario Acosta
Courtesy of Warner Music Group
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Monday, March 16, 2015

“China” Comes to San Diego Opera

By Erica Miner

San Diego Opera has much to celebrate. This week came the announcement that after an exhaustive search, David Bennett had been appointed as the new General and Artistic Director of the company. Then this weekend, in a bold move, SDO premiered a production of John Adams’ most frequently performed opera, Nixon in China

Those of us old enough to remember the actual event in question, Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking voyage to China in 1972, watched this “back to the future” version of this historical occurrence on the opera stage with mixed emotions. On one hand, there’s no denying the supreme importance of Nixon’s reopening of relations with the Asian power. Nonetheless, having lived through the Nixon years, the less savory memories are not easy to ignore. The opera, after all, premiered in 1987, forty-five years after Nixon went to China but only thirteen years after he resigned in disgrace from the presidency.

That said, the music of Adams brilliantly depicts this account of the beginnings of the transition from “Red communism” to the Communist-based capitalism that thrust China into economic greatness. Further, the production as a whole, heightened by the dazzlingly poetic writing of librettist Alice Goodman, compellingly portrayed that famous handshake felt ‘round the world, which ultimately gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “détente.” 

Adams’ firmly tonal music proves that timing is everything. The luxury of writing tonal music was not allowed to Leonard Bernstein in the mid-twentieth century; he was composing at a time when, according to Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, to be considered a serious composer by those in academia, writing tonally was out of the question. To Adams’ great fortune, at the time he first began to compose, writing serial music was no longer de rigueur. Adams’ characteristically repetitive patterns, though an integral characteristic of the so-called minimalist movement of composition technique, are overlaid with melody, thus creating an auditory vision of China’s surreal atmosphere in the context of true events, which is replicated in music that is entirely tonal. 

The production, designed by Allen Moyer and marking the directing debut of James Robinson, smartly portrayed the divergence between east and west and American vs. Asian, contrasting the diplomacy of heavy lifters Kissinger and Chou-En Lai with the niceties between Chairman Mao and President Nixon. From the moment the “Spirit of ‘76” (or perhaps more appropriately, the “Spirit of ‘72”) lands on the runway, the music reflects both the spectacle and the bizarre aspects of the events in question, and the stylized but effective direction keeps the contrast between pageantry and intimate moments believable and real. 

The collaboration of Adams and Goodman is a winner for both soloists and ensembles. Dialogue between the main characters, both in earnest and with the two world leaders’ cryptic jests, is intensified by vigorous musical repetitions, with Mao’s personal Greek chorus repeating his pronouncements in a manner evoking a Chinese Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. 

It can’t have been easy to portray real historical figures so soon after the actual events occurred, by Adams’ music comes off as entirely appropriate for these personages. From the very beginning, Adams’ repetitions in sound enhance Goodman’s luminous language so brilliantly that they become not just words but an evocation of the historical happenings. 

The strong cast of singers worked exceptionally well together. The tessituras, especially for Mao and Madame Mao, were extremely high and taxing, and the sheer power required of all of the soloists felt daunting. Alone and together they gave a formidable performance. 

Baritone Franco Pomponi’s Nixon, his SDO debut, admirably carried the weight that the real character must have felt on his shoulders. Vocally robust and dramatically convincing - he portrayed the ex-president’s mannerisms and gestures down to every detail - Pomponi was a clear audience favorite. His characteristic “Victory” gesture during his curtain call received apt appreciation from them. 

In her SDO debut as Pat Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova handled the demands of the role with expertise, beautifully negotiating the frequent high notes and providing the amounts of volume needed while maintaining vocal loveliness. Her character portrayal of the obedient yet determined president’s wife was engaging. 

Chad Shelton gave an excellent debut as Mao Tse-Tung. He negotiated with impressive power a fiendish tessitura that might have caused vertigo in another tenor, while portraying Mao’s characteristic quirky humor with great appeal. 

As Madame Mao, Kathleen Kim (  dazzled the audience with her pyrotechnics and dramatic command of the Chairman’s strong-willed but devoted wife. From her very first entrance, Kim made her presence known with boldly executed high notes and unflinching gestures.

Chen-ye Yuan, debuting as Mao’s partner in crime Chou En-Lai, provided the perfect foil for Shelton. Chen-ye portrayed his character with subtlety and grace, always with consistently pleasing vocality. Patrick Carfizzi’s debut as Kissinger was well sung, but the role, regrettably, was limited. One would liked to have heard more from him. As Mao’s secretaries, Sarah Castle, Buffy Baggott and Jennifer DeDominici were appropriately officious and sang well, separately and together.

Charles Prestinari’s spectacular chorus was eminently deserving of their solo bow at the beginning of the curtain calls. The writing for chorus was just as difficult as that of the soloists, and these admirable choristers managed to sing the relentless battery of high notes without sounding strained or forced, as well as bring off the staging with both high drama and humor.

The expertise in 21st century operatic repertoire that conductor Joseph Mechavich demonstrated in 2012’s Moby-Dick has surely increased exponentially as portrayed in his rendering of John Adams’ complex score. Mechavich showed great command and sensitivity throughout, both controlling and supporting the orchestra in their task of performing parts that were most intricate and difficult.

Debut director Robinson’s staging was creative, unusual, and perfectly fitting for the out of the ordinary situation in which the characters find themselves. His keen insights into the idiosyncrasies and foibles of this cast of eccentrics came off as appropriately oddball yet true-to-life.

The choreography of Seán Curran, assisted by Nora Brickman, was one of the highlights of the evening. Though closely reflecting the original event’s Chinese extravaganza, the dance presentation in Act 2 was dramatic and audacious and performed with great virtuosity: a true example of high art, technically and interpretatively.

Paul Palazzo’s stunning lighting, almost a character in and of itself, played a huge part in the success of the production. Especially effective were the characters’ shadows juxtaposed against the audacious but appropriate red of Moyer’s  dramatic backdrops. The clever use of TV monitors added to the overall bold effect, tying together the splendid set design, lighting and stage direction.

Nixon in China was a gutsy choice for this company. Whether the historical triumph it portrays was Nixon’s or Mao’s will always remain in question. Election year politics have only grown more obvious in the last forty years, and Mao’s unanswered query posed at the end of the opera may or may not be answered by history.

What was clear on this opening night was the triumph that was San Diego Opera. As it must have been a privilege for those journalists who were allowed to cover Nixon’s world changing voyage to China, so it was for those who covered this auspicious SDO premiere. Nixon’s sincere thanks to everyone for doing their part in this momentous occasion superbly symbolizes SDO’s inspirational teamwork and solidarity.

Performances continue through Mar. 22. (

Photos used by permission of Ken Howard/ San Diego Opera

Erica Miner can be reached at: