Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Verdi's Falstaff in Ghostly Outing at Forest Lawn Cemetery

Zeffin Quinn Hollis as Falstaff in Pacific Opera Project production

Glendale, California
September 19, 2015

Review by Evan Baker

During the composition of his opera Falstaff in June of 1891, a good humored Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Arrigo Boito: "Pancione (“Big Belly”) is going crazy. There are days when he doesn’t move, but sleeps and is in a bad humor.  At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, causes a devil of a rumpus. I let him indulge his whims a bit; if he continues I’ll put on a muzzle on him and tie him up in a strait-jacket.”
Boito responded: “Evviva! (“Three cheers!”)  Let him run, he will break all the windows and all the furniture of your room—it doesn’t matter, you will buy some more. He will smash the piano—it doesn’t matter, you will buy another. Let everything be turned upside down, as long as the great scene is finished. Evviva! Give it him! Give it him! What pandemonium! But pandemonium as clear as sunlight!"

That same exuberance and energy -- minus the broken dishes and smashed piano but with a mandolin sacrificed in the ensuing mayhem -- resonated in the Pacific Opera Project's own splendid staging of  Verdi's final operatic masterpiece.

Staging the opera at the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale was a clever idea. An open-spaced alcove behind the compound's large theater conveniently houses a thick multi-branched tree with a perch for the tenor to sing his love aria and enough additional space for a small multi-level stage and a hidden chamber orchestra.

An audience of about 250 patrons gathered together around tables strategically laid out and provisioned with Italian salami, cheese, wine, and beer.  Before the performance, the Falstaff and Pistola characters casually ambled through the audience toward the stage, nonchalantly drinking beer from their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the low-brow brew appropriate for their status as low-lifers. With this, the stage, designed by Josh Shaw, was set for the action he also directed. Stephen Karr conducted the orchestra and provided a literary translation for the supertitles.

The production was straightforward, with the temptation for broad slapstick thankfully resisted.  All except Fenton wore red-diamond checkered costumes in Maggie Green’s designs, evoking shades of commedia dell’arte.  Ryan Shull’s lighting, particularly for the final scene in the forest, with its twinkling starlight cast upon the leaves of the tree, added to the evening's ambience.

Falstaff can be a difficult opera in both staging and musical performance. Much depends both on the soloists (who, on this occasion, sang splendidly) and, even more importantly, on its ensembles.  Two examples will suffice: in Act I, scene 2, the “backing and forthing” between the groups of merry wives (Alice, Nanetta, Meg, and Quickly) and the men who enter the stage after them (Ford, Fenton, Dottor Cajus, Pistola and Bardolfo). The famous fugue at the conclusion of the opera is another example of ensemble singing. More of the latter anon. Pages from the first edition libretto of 1893 (seen below) illustrate how the musical execution of the men and the women, each with texts separate from one another, must all interact at the same time:

Falstaff rises or falls on the performance of the title role. It is not enough that he merely sing the part; he must act the role with good comic timing, charm and musicality. Zeffin Quinn Hollis's Falstaff carried it weight well, moved the performance along with energy and without artificial gags. He sang with aplomb, especially his grand monologue, L’Onore! (“Honor!”). In the second act, Daniel Scofield's Ford sang his aria of vengeance (È sogno? O realtà? —“am I dreaming or is it reality?”) with rage and at the end dissected a roasted chicken with a frighteningly large knife.

A sly reference to the performance locale manifested itself when Falstaff, arriving to woo Alice, carried a funerary wreath—presumably “pinched” from a memorial on the grounds—instead of a bouquet of flowers; realizing the error of his ways, he hastily broke the wreath apart in favor of a handful of flowers.
The Merry Wives of Alice (Rebecca Sjöwall), Meg (Jessica Mirshak), and Quickly (Sharmay Musacchio) had a good time stuffing Falstaff into the large laundry basket while Ford huffed and puffed around the stage with outrage at the thought of his Alice committing adultery. Together with his cohorts of Cajus (Clay Hilley), Bardolfo (Kyle Petterson), and Pistola (Phil Meyer) they searched for the fat man, and at the requisite point in time, heard the distinct sounds of two loud kisses (so noted precisely by the composer in the score) emanating from behind the paravent, only to catch the young sweet lovers in the act, Nanetta and Fenton (Annie Sherman and Nadav Hart).  

During the final scene of the opera, at the “apotheosis” of the marriage of Nanetta and Cajus, together with a masked couple, a sly bit of humor appeared in the supertitles: with the removal the masks and veils, the couple reveal themselves as Nanetta and Fenton newly married, with a horrified Cajus “married” to Bardolfo.  The supertitles appeared thusly “I’ve married Bardolfo! / (It’s legal now!)” elicited a good round of laughter from the public. Whereupon followed the magnificent music of the ensemble singing the fugue finale led by Falstaff and his compatriots in a brilliant and rousing conclusion.

In another letter to Boito, Verdi wrote, "The strangest thing of it all is that I am working!  I am amusing myself by writing fugues!  Yes sir, a fugue… and a comic fugue, which would be in place in Falstaff!  You will say: 'But how do you mean, a comic fugue?  Why comic?'  I don’t know how or why, but it’s a comic fugue!"  It seems likely that the fugue at the conclusion of the opera, "Tutto nel mondo è burla" (All of the world is just a jest) was the very first music composed in the opera (and difficult for the entire ensemble to sing), written before Verdi even had the text in hand.  

After Verdi completed Falstaff, he left a note inserted between the pages of the autograph full score, wistfully bidding farewell to one of his greatest creations: “Go, go old John…  Go on down your road as far as you can… Entertaining sort of a rascal, eternally true beneath different masks, in every time, in every place!! Go, walk on, walk on, Addio!” And on this path, old Sir John Falstaff entertained mightily that contributed to a rewarding performance from the Pacific Opera Project. It augurs well for their forthcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s backstage farce, Viva la Mamma.


Evan Baker can be reached at evanbaker@sbcglobal.net  and  www.opera-intros.com

Above photo by Martha Benedict, courtesy of Pacific Opera Project


Falstaff: Zeffin Quinn Hollis
Alice Ford: Rebecca Sjöwall
Ford: Daniel Scofield
Mistress Quickly: Sharmay Musacchio
Nanetta: Annie Sherman
Fenton: Nadav Hart
Dr. Caius: Clay Hilley
Meg Page: Jessica Mirshak
Bardolfo: Kyle Patterson
Pistola: Phil Meyer

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lacombe Melds Beethoven and Higdon with NJSO

By Erica Miner

This weekend, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Jacques Lacombe push the musical envelope by combining perhaps the world’s most iconic work with a piece by one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. 

Having conducted the Beethoven early in his very first season with the orchestra, Lacombe and the NJSO have a mutual history with the piece. Pulitzer prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon sets the tone for the Beethoven in her blue cathedral by creating an atmosphere of contemplation about the kinds of lofty ideals that Beethoven’s Ninth embodies. 

The impressive array of soloists for the Choral Symphony adds to the anticipation over the event. Barbara Shirvis, soprano, and Metropolitan Opera baritone Stephen Powell perform together frequently to rave reviews as a husband and wife team (http://www.laopus.com/2015/08/boston-landmarks-orchestra-serves-up.html). Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and internationally known tenor Jonathan Boyd complete the solo quartet. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller, adds their incomparable sound to the mix. 

The contrast between Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and Jennifer Higdon’s meditative blue cathedral will be fascinating to witness. Higdon, whose opera based on Charles Frazier’s bestseller, Cold Mountain, received wide acclaim at its Santa Fe Opera debut last summer, is one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. blue cathedral is one of Higdon’s most widely presented works, having seen 500 over performances since its 2000 premiere. Québecois Lacombe has appeared with celebrated orchestras and operatic soloists worldwide. Both Lacombe and Higdon shared a number of their insights about the upcoming program. 

Jacques Lacombe: 

EM: Programming Beethoven’s 9th and Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral together makes for a very unusual evening. What unites these two works in your mind? 

JL: We were looking for something different to open this program. The last time we did Beethoven’s Ninth was my first week with the NJSO in 2010; we performed Copland’s Canticle of Freedom and wove in famous speeches. So we had already done something special with Beethoven’s Ninth. I had known Higdon’s blue cathedral for quite some time and had always wanted to do it. Then, almost like a light bulb going off, I thought, what if we were to do this piece almost like an overture leading right into the symphony without intermission? In our programming meetings, others had never heard the piece before. So I went to play just a little bit of the recording to give them a taste, and people didn’t want me to stop! They immediately loved it. I think because it feels like the music creates this big cathedral space, feels sort of like a meditation. Jennifer plays around a lot with sounds, even with the physicality of sounds coming from different places. Toward the end, there’s a section in which we use Chinese bells, and you don’t know where the sound is coming from. It creates this impression, this mood that you almost lose sense of time. I feel that same way with Beethoven’s Ninth, regardless of how often I do it. It’s this monumental piece, an hour of music, yet when you finish you almost don’t remember where you started - you get wrapped up in it. So this pairing was interesting to me, and I think it will be powerful in concert. 

EM: I absolutely agree. You seem equally at home in symphonic and in operatic repertoire. Do you feel a leaning toward one more than the other? 

JL: No, I always try to find a balance because I find that both activities feed each other. It’s healthy for musicians to work with singers because you are constantly reminded of how natural music should sound - in my opinion, the best instrument is still the human voice. When I conduct orchestral works, I am inspired by [imagining] the way singers would approach any specific melody. Then, I like to think that because of all my work as an orchestra conductor, when I am in the pit conducing an opera or ballet, I see my role as not only accompanying the singers but also of making the orchestra almost another character in the opera. I bring my experiences to the symphonic stage and into the pit. 

EM: That is a wonderful perspective. What motivated you to launch the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute program to work with young composers? 

JL: It’s always very stimulating for the musicians and me to do new works. When you premiere a new piece, you feel this sort of ownership and a responsibility to the composer - even more so with young composers. I’m not a contemporary music specialist, but I’ve done quite a lot, and I’ve always approached those works with special care and preparation. So when I worked with the composers at the first Cone Institute, I tried to share with the four participants my experience and perspective from my job. Young composers always have a lot of ideas, and it’s important to learn the practical parts of composing for orchestra. We talked a lot about really taking the time to think about how you write and score certain passages, how to make sure all the notations are there, so you can save a lot of time in rehearsal. In professional life, you need to be extremely efficient. I hope they learned from our insights. It was fascinating to see the different personalities and wonderful composers. Chris Rogerson’s Night in the City really felt like a finished project, a huge accomplishment. So I wanted to give him his place in the NJSO’s regular classical season. I’m proud to have his work on the program for my final week with the NJSO, to show the attention we give to new music and young artists and composers. 

EM: Rogerson is indeed a promising young talent. You will soon assume leadership of the Bonn Opera. Which are your preferred operatic works? 

JL: I have a lot of different tastes. I love French operas, and I grew up listening to Puccini and have always loved Italian opera. I eventually got into German repertoire, works by Wagner and Strauss; I’ve done Russian and Czech repertoire - I love to perform Janáček and would like to do Dvořák’s Rusalka. Classical operas, by Mozart for instance, are such strong ensemble pieces that having a strong team lets you present those works in the best way. I’ve had great pleasure working with the bel canto repertoire recently. With the right cast - I recently did La Favorite by Donizetti with Juan Diego Flórez in Monaco and Paris - it can be just incredible. I also like to explore less-performed works, so I’m quite flexible. 

Jennifer Higdon: 

EM: Since its premiere in 2000, over 400 orchestras have performed blue cathedral. To what would you attribute its remarkably universal appeal? 

JH: I’ve had the privilege of attending many performances of blue cathedral, and I’m touched by the number of audience members who thank me for writing the work and describe a personal experience they can relate to what they’ve heard. Others have talked about how exciting it is to hear a contemporary work that touches listeners on a purely emotional level. I’ve heard similar comments from musicians and conductors, and I hope that the work continues to touch listeners at a very basic human level in dealing with death and life. 

EM: I have no doubt whatsoever that its positive effect will continue. Santa Fe Opera is renowned for its premieres of contemporary works. What was it like to have your first opera premiered there? 

JH: It was an incredible experience to see my first opera go to the stage. Nothing can prepare you for all of that’s involved in producing an opera, and I have an even deeper respect for singers who can traverse giant pieces of scenery while acting and singing! 

EM: Do you plan on writing more operas? 

JH: Since I’ve just finished revisions for the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain, I’m a bit exhausted and can’t imagine doing anything else at the moment! However, yes, I do see more opera projects in the future. 

Concert tickets are available online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476). 

Photos used by permission of: Fred Stucker, J. Henry Fair 

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Patricia Racette is a Diva for All Opera Houses

By Erica Miner

Patricia Racette has established a unique and familiar presence in opera houses and on concert stages worldwide. The award-winning soprano is not only known for her portrayals of Puccini and Verdi heroines, but also is admired for her ability to perform more than one role in those operas. For example, she has sung both Mimi and Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème as well as both Blanche and Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Racette has also famously created roles in a number of world premieres of American operas. 

On Nov. 14, Racette will diverge from her usual operatic diva-dom to perform a program of cabaret and jazz favorites for San Diego Opera (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/Racette?portal=true), accompanied by Craig Terry, who performed in recital with Stephanie Blythe last season (http://www.laopus.com/2014/12/stephanie-blythe-channels-kate-smith.html). 

EM: Patricia, I’m quite sure I played your 1995 debut at the Metropolitan Opera when I was a violinist there. Very few degrees of separation! Welcome back to SDO. We’re thrilled to have you here. 

PR: I can't wait!!! 

EM: Tell us about your background. What was your journey from your native New Hampshire to the world’s greatest opera houses? 

PR: I have always said that I “happened into opera.” My intention was to pursue a jazz/cabaret career. I attended the University of North Texas in Denton (via bus from New Hampshire), where they have always had and continue to have a wonderful jazz program. Long story short, they did not offer a “vocal jazz” degree at the time, so I was obligated to take “classical” voice lessons. My voice teacher nabbed me and convinced me via Suor Angelica and Renata Scotto that my path to opera was born! 

EM: You’ve become known for portraying tragic opera roles such as Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Are these among your favorites, or are there others you love even more?  

PR: I am currently in London performing Katerina in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - now added to my favorite role list! Tosca, Lady M, and Salome now vie for top billing on my “favorite” list - such wonderful and complex women are always an allure to my dramatic AND musical sensibility. 

EM: As a “singing actress” do you feel one is more important than the other? Which roles do you find most challenging from an acting perspective? 

PR: No, I feel that my affinity for the operatic art form insists on the duality - LIVE performance is my passion, and both aspects deserve equal measure in my book. Honestly, from an acting perspective, I used to find portraying weak, oppressed women to be a unique challenge for a contemporary woman, and yet I soon realized that there is human experience in all of it - my human experience included! And the gorgeous Puccini and Verdi and Janáček that those roles brought to my life are irreplaceable. That may sound lofty, but what I really mean to say is that with my new repertory that “weakness of character” is sinking by the wayside as Salome, Tosca, Lady M and now Minnie (La Fanciulla del West) take hold! 

EM: Now for SDO you will diverge from the above to perform jazz and cabaret standards. What motivated you to create this very different “Diva on Detour” program? 

PR: It has to be restated that my very first love of singing was cabaret and jazz - not opera. Opera came into my life many years later (and I am of course thankful for it) but truly, singing cabaret is like returning home. I say it on the recording of the album, but it IS the truth! And the whole premise of the recording is that is WAS live, in person… as I really don't love the aspect of distance from my audience that studio recording entails. 

EM: What details might you reveal about the songs you will perform? 

PR: I believe our program is a wonderful combination of eclectic and interesting “story telling” pieces. There are well-known gems and a few darker secrets as well. I hope that's both cryptic and enticing! 
EM: It is indeed. You’ve performed many new operas, including several by Tobias Picker. What attracts you to these new works? 

PR: First and foremost, the opportunity to have a say in how music is written, how drama is realized - that's an overwhelming gift of immediacy. Certainly I like to put an “original stamp” on whatever role I sing, but when I am the one who gets to create the aural and dramatic experience of a character from literal beginnings - fabulous. 

EM: Beautifully put. Do you plan on creating any new roles in the future? 

PR: I am always open to new compositions - honestly, and humbly, I do receive a number of scores to peruse. I take the responsibility of these projects - past and potentially future - very seriously. There are YEARS of work that go into the “gestation and birth” on the parts of so many participants - certainly the composer and librettist, but also the companies and patrons that put their love of the art form and their MONEY behind making new works a reality. 

EM: Is there anything you’d like to add? 

PR: I smile to think that you were in the pit in 1995, as my Met debut - and subsequent 20 years there! - are among the most prized experiences of my life! 

EM: Thank you so much for that - and for your fabulous responses. See you at the Balboa Theatre next month! 

Premiere tickets to Patricia Racette’s “Diva on Detour” can be purchased at http://www.sdopera.com.

Photos used by permission of: Devon Cass, Lisa Cuscuna

Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Friday, October 23, 2015

Jake Heggie, Part 2: Opera Now and in the Future

By Erica Miner

EM: Is there a plan to record Great Scott

JH: We’re working on it for the premiere production in Dallas. Hopefully then it would be ready in time for San Diego, which would be very exciting. 

EM: Everybody’s so psyched here. First of all, to have David Bennett on board, who’s already accomplished a great deal. I interviewed him recently. He’s just a delight, and so committed, as is Carol, and everyone else, to make all of this work. It’s nothing short of a miracle. 

JH: I feel the same way. Amazing, isn’t it? 

EM: It’s going to be a celebratory season this year, and to have your opera as part of it is wonderful. 

JH: I feel really good about it. We worked very hard to get it right. Now we’ll have a rehearsal and performance period in Dallas, and I can make some changes if I need to after that to make sure it’s in top shape for San Diego. 

EM: When it comes to composing operas, you’ve done some based on true stories, some on novels, and Great Scott, which is totally original. What kinds of story do you like to base an opera on? Do you have any preference? You’re writing another one, I believe. 

JH: Yes, I’ve got It’s a Wonderful Life in just a year and a half. I have to start writing that, don’t I? [Laughs] Of course it’ll get done, not a problem. I look for stories that tell transformative, emotional journeys, have big emotional worlds, feel very relevant and true to the times we’re living in - even though they might be of a different time - have a sense of real intimacy with larger forces at work, where there’s some kind of social injustice and inequity happening that needs to be conquered or addressed. I find historically that’s the formula for a lot of successful operas. If you look at Marriage of Figaro or Butterfly or Traviata, all of those elements are in there. I also have to have a very specific location in mind. The physical environment of where the opera takes place is very key - the “sound world.” 

EM: Wonderful Life is such a timeless story. Can you tell us more? 

JH: It’s for Houston Grand Opera and opens in December of 2016. The libretto is by Gene Scheer, based on the movie of course, and Gene has sort of invented a whole new world to tell that story on stage. We wanted not just to try to put the movie on stage - that would be pointless. We came up with some exciting inventions, a very special way of telling it. It’s going to be done in the smaller theatre in Houston, about 1,000 seats, then at San Francisco Opera in the big hall. So it’s got to be a very flexible piece. Gene and I want to write it so that someday down the road community centers or smaller opera companies can do it. I want it to be flexible enough to do in many size houses in different ways. 

EM: Do you plan on focusing mainly on opera in the foreseeable future? Do you have other types of projects planned? 

JH: I have a lot of projects I get asked for, but the opera house really is my house - my home. It’s where I feel comfortable and confident and I get to explore these big human stories and dramas and collaborate with extraordinary people, great talented artists and administrators and other people who are passionate about it and support it. It’s like working with a great big family - the family you love [Laughs] and enjoy being with all the time. I could never have imagined my life like this. I get asked to do a lot of choral work, symphonic, chamber, vocal work, but opera is where I’m happiest. 

EM: Certainly your passion has been well demonstrated so far, and we look forward to a lot more of it in the future. Would you speak to the future of opera in this country? How do you see things going for opera? 

JH: I see it moving in a very positive direction. Lots of smaller companies are popping up. There’s great passion to do this work. In outlying communities where people might not be able to get to the big opera house, I see these smaller places not only doing standard works but also very interested in supporting new work. I think there’s more new opera being written today than at any time in recent history in this country. It’s really remarkable. When I wrote Dead Man Walking it was one of four or five new operas that year. Now 15 years later it’s dozens, all shapes and sizes. I find that very inspiring. It means people are looking for ways of doing this - new venues, new locations. I think what people are responding to is getting closer to the actual drama of it. That’s what you can do in these smaller houses - get very close to the actual human drama and then prepare for the big community experience of being in the big opera house. This is a really extraordinary time of transition. There’s this explosion of new work. 

EM: So you feel optimistic that things are beginning to turn around. 

JH: Incredibly optimistic. And we have extraordinary young singers like never before, who are eager to do new work. 20 years ago great young singers might not have been interested in that. They just went to standard rep. Now we have young singers who only want to do this work. Young directors and conductors, pianists, designers, all kinds of people coming up are just fired by what can be done in the opera world that can’t be done anywhere else. 

EM: It’s composers like you who are evoking this interest of young singers and love for contemporary opera amongst operagoers. Each one is feeding the other’s passion.

JH: It’s the only reason to do it, because you’re passionate about it and care about it. There’s no rational reason why opera should exist. [Laughs] It’s expensive, time consuming. Yet in some shape or other it has always existed. We’ve always told stories through music and rhythm and movement, and what we know as western opera has only been around for a few hundred years and in different forms before that. There is great passion regardless of the fact that it’s expensive and people who invest in it are giving money because they believe in it. They’re not getting anything back other than satisfaction and enjoyment of hopefully many people having a human, deep, reflective and meditative experience that at its core is incredibly emotional. 

EM: Do you think a lot of the smaller companies are going to be able to exist and continue because there are so many great young singers out there? 

JH: Absolutely. And we have many of them in the Bay Area. There must be 5 or 6 smaller companies here that do opera outside of the SFO and they all use wonderful singers and do terrific productions. In New York you can’t even count how many small opera companies there are now. And they do productions in very intimate spaces. So a whole audience that didn’t have opera or theatre in school now gets very close to the drama. It’s that kind of singing that might be the “Aha” moment they were looking for. SDO, Opera Philadelphia were touch and go for a while but I think that may be the key, an untapped gold mine that perhaps will help this turnaround. I get asked about the future of opera from young singers a lot. I say, “You’re the future of opera. So you need to make those bold choices and reinvent it. Take what you love and take it somewhere else, be creative with it.” It’s such a versatile art form. The future for opera, as in so many art forms, is in the young people - not just those on stage but those who are coming to the performances. 

EM: Opera may only have been around a few hundred years, but it looks like now it’s going to regenerate into something entirely special in a different way. 

JH: I hear older people who love opera say, “I’m just so worried, it’s not going to be done this way anymore.” I’m like, “No it won’t, but we don’t do it the way they did it a hundred or two hundred years ago either.” So it’s going to look and be different 50 or 100 years from now, but it will be here. 

EM: Amen. I have one non-operatic question to ask. You’ve written a song cycle about 19th century artist Camille Claudel. I’m fascinated with her story. What inspired you to write that piece? 

JH: I saw the movie Camille Claudel when it came out in 1989, and from that moment I thought I wanted to do something musically with the story. A few years ago I was asked to do something for voice and string quartet, and managed to convince Joyce DiDonato to be part of it. I thought it was a great opportunity to explore Camille Claudel, so I worked with Gene Scheer. He created texts that combined Claudel’s sculptures and life, and it turned out to be an incredibly meaningful project. It gets done quite a bit. Joyce did it at Carnegie Hall recently, Princeton and the Barbican in London and has plans to take it elsewhere. Other singers are doing it too, and we have a beautiful recording of it. It’s a really powerful piece and it just seemed right to explore that because again, it’s so big emotionally and tells a very difficult and human journey. I just felt like there was a lot to explore. 

EM: I agree, and it’s such a feminist story - so relevant. It certainly inspires me a great deal, being a woman and an artist in this day and age. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Claudel. 

JH: She went through so much brutality and suffering. All she wanted to do was to be taken seriously as an artist - a woman artist, not a French artist. She was born at the wrong time. 

EM: It was impossible to separate those things at that time, and even in these times. Jake, is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up? 

JH: Just that I’m so excited to be coming back to San Diego with another new opera. I could never have imagined that. [Laughs] And especially when it looked like the company might close. The people running the company now are heroes of mine. Carol Lazier is a real hero, and I think David Bennett is just extraordinary. The whole team at SDO, I just believe in them so much. I’m excited for the SDO audience and hopefully new audience members to experience Great Scott. It’s not going to be like anything they’ve experienced in the opera before.

EM: As I wrote in my interviews with David (http://www.laopus.com/2015/07/david-bennett-starts-his-sdo-journey.html), (http://www.laopus.com/2015/07/david-bennett-part-2-new-seasons-new.html), as soon as he came into the office the atmosphere became so light, like the stars all aligned and everything was right. We thank those stars everyday that things happened the way they did, and we’re absolutely thrilled that you’re going to be here and bring this wonderful piece to us. I can’t thank you enough. Thank you so much for spending time with me, and for bringing Great Scott to the SDO stage. I look forward to seeing you again, shaking your hand and congratulating you. JH: It was my pleasure, Erica. I appreciate your wanting to write about it. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Composer Jake Heggie Roots for the Home Team

By Erica Miner

Jake Heggie has a unique background (http://jakeheggie.com). He not only speaks with intelligence and humor, but a physical disability spun his life into a direction he never could have anticipated. I met the composer in advance of his 2012 Moby-Dick premiere at San Diego Opera and was delighted at the chance to interview him this past summer about his exciting new opera, Great Scott, which premieres at Dallas Opera on Oct. 30 and at SDO May 7, 2016 (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/GreatScott). Here, the talented, exceptionally articulate San Francisco-based composer discusses opera, football and the struggle that goes on between sports and arts. 

EM: I was reading about your commissions and all the things you’re involved in. It’s totally insane. How do you keep your equilibrium? 

JH: That’s a very good question. [Laughs] It’s a daily struggle to make sure there’s balance, but personally I just feel so fortunate to be able to do something I love so much that I don’t complain about being too busy. It’s about finding balance and joy. I love what I do and I’m very lucky to be busy doing it. There will be a time when I won’t be so busy [Laughs]. 

EM: Doing what you love is all-important, and being as successful at it as you are is impressive to say the least. When you were working at San Francisco Opera, in something unrelated to composition, were you already an opera lover? 

JH: I had an appreciation for opera. I think I had become closer to it because in Los Angeles after I had lost the use of my right hand for a while from playing the piano and I was doing administrative stuff I actually had time to go to the opera for the first time in my life, and L.A. Opera was doing some amazing productions. I’d been lucky enough in my early 20s to see Jon Vickers do Peter Grimes and Frederica von Stade do Cenerentola. I turned pages for great singers when I was a student at UCLA - recitals by Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto and Monserrat Caballe, Tatiana Troyanos, Kiri Te Kanawa. It was an amazing experience. 

EM: That might elicit just a little bit of love for opera, yes? 

JH: I didn’t really love the opera until I saw this Wozzeck that Simon Rattle conducted at L.A. Opera back in ’89 or ’90, a storybook Cosi Fan Tutte, David Hockney’s Frau Ohne Schatten production and Tosca with Maria Ewing - Domingo was supposed to conduct but the tenor on stage got sick so Domingo ran up and sang the whole performance - one of those magical moments. Then I moved to San Francisco, which is really an opera town. I got the job there, and all of a sudden was really immersed and had an extraordinary affection, developed a real closeness to it. I felt it sort of rattling in my bones everyday, shattered to my core. 

EM: How would you describe your position there? 

JH: My job was the best apprenticeship you could have imagined for someone who was going to write an opera. I never knew I was going to write an opera - I just had an appreciation everyday for the experience. I wasn’t thinking, this will inform my work when I write an opera. I wasn’t thinking I would ever write an opera. So my job as a PR marketing writer was to get to know every single part of that opera house, what was going on, the administration, wig, costume and scenery, props. Taking the soloists for interviews, working with conductors, sitting in on rehearsals, going to a lot of performances when I was there to cover for the press, getting to know the press and managers and donors. The whole gamut of what’s involved in the opera. I felt like Cinderella - or “Cinderfella” [Laughs]. It was just this magical time. Around that time I got the use of my right hand back to play the piano, and I started composing again. I wrote songs for these great singers, and they loved and wanted to do them. Lucky for me Lotfi Mansouri was the impresario and general director, an extraordinary person who was willing to take a chance on a complete unknown and give a major opera commission to the guy who was the PR marketing writer [Laughs]. 

EM: He introduced you to Terrence McNally. What was that first meeting like? 

JH: I was a nervous wreck. Terrence was very busy, in the process of moving from his place in Chelsea, so when I got there he was packing up records and books and was writing the book for the musical Ragtime. He was very nice, just preoccupied. I brought with him an idea for an opera, because Lotfi wanted to do this French comedy that he really loved and Terrence McNally could not have been less interested [Laughs]. We hit it off fine. He liked my music. About a year went by. I was still at my desk job, thought he didn’t want to do the project. Lo and behold he just called me out of the blue one day - Renée Fleming had told him he had to do an opera with me - and he said, “I really want to do this piece with you.” I was bowled over. All of a sudden the air was rattling with possibilities. But he wasn’t interested in comedy. He wanted to do a big American drama. It took a while to find the idea. We kept throwing things back and forth. Then he said he was walking down the street one day and the thought of Dead Man Walking just floated into his head. That’s what we went with. Lotfi didn’t get his comedy but he did get a very powerful American drama. [Laughs] 

EM: It’s had a very potent effect on everyone who’s seen it. 

JH: Yes, remarkable. I had no idea it would be so well received or that it would go on to have the life that it has seen. It’s already had about 45 productions internationally, and many scheduled into the future. You can’t predict that kind of thing. It’s a combination of things. I think the music welcomes people in while still challenging them and giving them a real theatrical experience - great beauty and wrenching drama. Terrence McNally wrote a magnificent libretto, beautifully paced and structured. 

EM: He’s a magnificent writer. It’s also a story that resonates with our times. 

JH: Very relevant and pertinent. It’s one of those universal stories that will always grip people because it’s about things we deal with all the time - issues people grapple with. It’s very popular in countries that don’t have the death penalty. They don’t see it as a death penalty opera, but a powerful human drama. 

EM: How did the story for Great Scott come into being? It seems not based on anything except McNally’s and your inspiration together. 

JH: We had been thinking about doing another opera together. He was supposed to do the libretto for Moby-Dick, and had to withdraw early on for personal reasons. Gene Scheer did a magnificent job of working with that. Dallas Opera asked me to do my next opera. I really wanted it to be a piece for Joyce (DiDonato). Terrence initially proposed this really dark drama that [Laughs] I didn’t want any part of. I said, “How about we find something very relevant today but also has great heart but also great fun. Something where we can laugh as well as cry.” His eyes lit up, and he took it as a big challenge and invented this whole world. Joyce was very excited about and committed to it. He thought about Dallas as well, and the things that matter there, and the dilemma the arts are in, between the performing arts and popular culture, how performing arts have been sidelined from popular culture over the years. Every town has this duality of sports and arts and the struggle that goes on between those two. I think that really set his mind on fire. He came up with this great idea, a celebration of opera - a depiction of the struggles we all go through when we love the arts and want to sacrifice so much for them, and really what is the payoff for all that sacrifice. It also addresses the idea of, “Why do we keep doing these two- and three-hundred-year-old operas? Why aren’t we doing new work only? What is the validity, what is the relevance for that?” He pulls all those ideas into question in this grand story. It’s very challenging to write, I think harder than anything I’ve written before, because it’s not based on anything, it’s completely original. We didn’t know what it was till we heard it in workshops. We constantly were rewriting, redoing, tinkering and changing characters, adding different dimensions to them, or to the story or plot, moving whole scenes around. It was very challenging because I write everything by hand, so it’s not just a matter of flipping something on the computer, it’s rewriting from the beginning. 

EM: No cut and paste. 

JH: No cut and paste. [Laughs] 

EM: Football and opera generally are not thought of as belonging in the same universe. You’ve managed to bring those two concepts together. 

JH: They are together all the time. A lot of sports fans go to the opera and a lot of opera people love sports. We think of them as these separate entities, yet they are both events that involve a community of devoted people who care passionately about them. I’ve been at our opera house in San Francisco where it’s the same night as, for example, when the Giants were in the World Series, and at intermission or breaks during the performance they put the score up on the supertitles. They had TVs around the opera house that at breaks you could go out and watch what was going on. It was so exciting. It really brought a different kind of energy to the opera house, like we were all rooting for the home team, not just the baseball team but the opera company, too. We’re all rooting for our home teams. 

EM: That’s so true.

JH: And there are different kinds of quarterbacks. Like Arden Scott, this great opera singer, is the quarterback for this company and she has to be on her game and perform at top level. She’s carrying the whole evening the same way a quarterback does in the Super Bowl. There’s a lot of pressure on that guy, you know. [Laughs] 

EM: Hearing that, I don’t think I’m ever going to see and hear opera the same way again. How did bringing Great Scott to San Diego Opera come about? Last year when all the difficult stuff was happening here, once in a while we’d say for comic relief, “You know, Jake Heggie should really write an opera about this.” 

JH: Isn’t it amazing? This is how prescient Terrence is in his work. He really sees where things are. In this story there’s a young, hungry Eastern European soprano who wants to be super famous, and manages to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. He thought of that long before Renée Fleming actually sang the national anthem there, or Joyce sang it at the World Series. He anticipated that, he tells the future. He’s kind of amazing. [Laughs] When the whole situation with SDO was going down, I thought, “Wow, this is more timely and relevant than ever.” I was of course concerned that, what if the company fails, or does survive but doesn’t have the resources to continue with Great Scott, how sad that would be. But Carol Lazier is a real hero. She wanted to make sure that collaboration went forward. She’s an amazing lady. 

EM: I call her our “Opera Angel.” 

JH: She is. There’s a character very much like her in Great Scott, Winnie Flato, performed by Frederica von Stade, who runs the opera company and is the big champion for it, puts her heart and soul into making sure it goes forward. I’m so glad that person and all these unsung heroes will have a voice in Great Scott

EM: That’s going to cause a great deal of joy and a lot of emotion here, too. Have you met with any of the other big stars singing in San Diego yet? 

JH: I’ve met with Anthony Roth Costanzo (plays The Stage Manager). Michael Mayes (Wendell Swann) is very close to me. I have never worked with Isabel Leonard (Arden Scott in San Diego; Joyce di Donato plays the role in the Dallas premiere). We’ve known each other for years. I’m going to see the Cold Mountain premiere (Santa Fe) in a few weeks, so we’ll catch up. I’m sure I’ll be in touch with her before the San Diego production. Nathan Gunn (plays Sid Taylor) I’ve known for years and I’ve written songs for him but never a role. He’ll be doing it in Dallas as well. And Flicka. Joyce El-Khoury (plays Tatyana Bakst) I’ve heard great things about but never met her. I’m very excited to work with her.

EM: It sounds like a wonderful cast. We’re so excited about it. 

JH: I’m so glad to hear it. The conductor in San Diego, Joseph Mechavich, was our hero in Moby-Dick. He was so great in that production. I know he did Nixon in China there as well. 

EM: When it comes to contemporary opera he is absolutely outstanding. 

JH: I’ve also heard him do bel canto work. Great Scott takes a conductor who not only has solid chops with opera but also in musical theatre, and especially bel canto because of course there’s a bel canto opera within the opera. It’s a wonderful, weird combination of skills that are required of the conductor. If it’s someone who’s only immersed in classical music or only immersed in contemporary music or musicals it’s going to be problematic. It has to be someone who really has the full range. Joey’s got that. 

Next, Part 2: Opera Now and in the Future 

Photos used by permission of the Artist 

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Monday, October 19, 2015

CD Review: Judith Clurman Conducts in the Holiday Spirit

By Erica Miner

In her two splendid holiday CDs, Cherished Moments: Songs of the Jewish Spirit (2014) and Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas (to be released Oct. 30, 2015), distinguished conductor Judith Clurman (www.judithclurman.com) displays the impressive skills of her Essential Voices USA (EVUSA) (www.essentialvoicesusa.com) ensemble with inspiring effect. Available in plenty of time to prepare one’s psyche for the arrival of the holiday season, listeners both religious and nonreligious will feel moved by the genuine emotion elicited by these deeply touching recordings on the Sono Luminus label. 

The Emmy and Grammy nominated Clurman, whose stellar musical accomplishments include projects with Harvard University, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music, has generated wide acclaim for her achievements with EVUSA. In these albums she conducts with verve and sensitivity, showing her versatility and producing a musical wave that washes over the listener in songs that produce the warm feelings associated with the repertoire and the season. The ensemble itself, which performs regularly at Carnegie Hall, is comprised of professionals and volunteers of the highest caliber and is exemplary of the pinnacle of vocal performance. 

Cherished Moments, compiling several centuries of Jewish sacred and folk-based music, demonstrates Clurman’s closeness to the Jewish faith developed over a childhood brought up in the music of the synagogue of her childhood. The mix of traditional songs in multiple moods and tones, handsomely adapted arranged by Clurman and some laudable colleagues, are beautifully sung with sweet yet profound emotion and gorgeously homogenous choral sound, offering a generous sample of the spirit Clurman is hoping to portray. 

Such songs as Enosh and Oseh Shalom evoke introspection and deep thought, as do the lovely melodies of V’erastich Li, nicely spun by tenor Michael Slattery. M’chalkeil Chayim, an instrumental interlude, will elicit heartfelt sentiment especially in those who are linked with the Jewish spirit. 

As a centerpiece, the Songs of Freedom cycle conjures the atmosphere of Chanukah celebrations with unique arrangements of tunes that Jewish children have sung for countless generations. Oh Chanukah is especially engaging, rejoicing the season with a lively Klezmer background. Circle of Life, another multitrack cycle with baritone Cantor Bruce Ruben as soloist, captures the introspective aspects of the Jewish experience. Al Hanissim, commissioned by Clurman from prominent American composer Paul Schoenfield and based on the traditional Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, combines virtuoso Brahms-like piano writing with rhythmically dynamic vocal lines. 

Holiday Harmonies adds rising young operatic singers as guest artists to charming arrangements of such favorites as Angels We Have Heard on High, Oh Holy Night and Merry Christmas Wishing Well. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who “rocked the house” portraying Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, interprets Silent Night with touching sensitivity and fullness of voice. Likewise, in Reger’s The Virgin’s Slumber Song, Barton soothes the soul with her fluid, gently rocking quality. Maureen McKay, currently singing the soprano lead in Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, floats tones angelically in Jennifer Higdon’s Love Came Down. McKay and Barton collaborate to bring the cycle a lively close to with the ever-popular We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Pianist Tedd Firth and harpist Stacey Shames accompanied the two singers with great delicacy and perceptiveness. The orchestral accompaniments provide a firm backing on both recordings, with fine instrumental playing that supports beautifully yet never sounds forced, meshing perfectly with the vocal lines. 

All in all, Judith Clurman has assembled a beautiful musical tapestry woven of superbly performed songs that will help create a memorable holiday season. 

EVUSA/Judith Clurman; Label: Sono Luminus LLC. Produced by David Frost 

Photo used by permission of: Frank Wang

Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Young Artists Symphony Orchestra “Resurrected” at Debut

YASO, Angeles Chorale, soloists in Mahler at UCLA Royce Hall. [All photos: David Johnston]

Review by Rodney Punt

Five months ago it didn’t even exist. Yet with the inaugural concert of its first season last Sunday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the Young Artists Symphony Orchestra (YASO) became not only the newest musical ensemble in town, but also a musical force to be reckoned with.

Alexander Treger conducting
The brainchild of Alexander Treger, an icon of the Los Angeles musical scene who serves as its Artistic Director, the YASO’s mission is to mentor the next generation of young musicians (ages 15-26) for professional careers in orchestras and ensembles around the world. A host of local citizens comprise its new board of directors, led by Ellen Whittier who has known and admired Treger for years.

A single work was on the inaugural program, Mahler’s massive “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Tackling such a work at its first outing signaled there would be nothing timid or tentative about the orchestra’s artistic ambitions. The symphony is one of the longest and most difficult in the repertoire, with its orchestra augmented, as was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, by a chorus and vocal soloists. 

Dramatically enhanced by poetry from the Romantic era, the work takes the human soul on a psychoanalytic quest (you could call it musical "scream-therapy") from a funeral of haunted memories, through disillusionment and despair, to an ecstatic affirmation of a life resurrected in heavenly bliss. It was just the sort of thing to animate youthful enthusiasms, and in this instance it set them afire.

Arrayed to the very last inch across the breadth of the stage, the massed forces seemed a musical equivalent to the likes of a Normandy invasion. A pre-concert announcement had proclaimed the combined performers -- 104 musicians, 100 choral singers, two vocal soloists and conductor -- to be the largest grouping ever assembled on the stage of Royce Hall. With the rich history of music programs at UCLA, it was a declaration to ponder. The ensuing sonic catharsis, a fortunate combination of youthful orchestral vigor and mature vocals, quaked Royce’s storied acoustic from its depths to its rafters.

Given the first movement’s already sweeping rhetoric (at one point it was actually a separate tone poem), Treger emphasized balance and control over fussy details. He would pay more attention to the expressive byways of the next two movements, a memory-laden Ländler and a sardonic scherzo. Niké St. Clair’s velvet mezzo led the way out of the existential crisis in the Urlicht (Primal Light) fourth movement; its text, excerpted from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is a plea for heaven. In the long fifth movement's catharsis, the mature-voiced Angeles Chorale (John Sutton, Artistic Director) reinforced soprano Amanda Achen’s sweet assurances in a hybrid poem based on a Klopstock stanza extensively amended by Mahler himself.

Overall a stunning achievement, the performance was all the more remarkable given it was a first for this orchestra. With a nod to the current baseball season, the YASO hit one out of the park with its first at bat.

YASO cello section

WHAT: Inaugural Performance of the Young Artists Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Treger, Artistic Director & Conductor
Amanda Achen, Soprano, Niké St. Clair, Mezzo-Soprano
Angeles Chorale, John Sutton, Artistic Director

WHEN/WHERE: Sunday, October 11, 2015, 7 pm at UCLA Royce Hall, Los Angeles

PROGRAM: GUSTAV MAHLER, Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”)

FUTURE PROGRAMS: During its 2015-16 season, YASO will present three other free concerts at Royce Hall on Sunday, December 6, 2015, Sunday, February 28, 2016, and Saturday, April 23, 2016. Featured repertoire will include Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, Lutoslawski’s Little Suite, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll
, and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances.