Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nutcracker is Evergreen for Pacific NW Ballet Musicians

Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra -- Photo © Rodger Burnett
INTERVIEW: The Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet
McCaw Hall, Seattle

When Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his final ballet, The Nutcracker, he could not have anticipated its lasting power as a much beloved classic over the centuries. Premiered just the year before his death, the ballet that seems to be the least serious of the composer’s three celebrated ones (the other  two being the earlier Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) actually contains some of his deepest, most introspective ballet music.

It was in the 1960s, the decade after Balanchine’s first annual performance of his staging of the work, that the Christmas tradition of presenting the ballet began to take hold in the US outside of San Francisco and New York. This season is the second in which Pacific Northwest Ballet will present the Balanchine production of the ballet; but members of the PNB Orchestra have been playing the music for many years, some of them for decades. How does it feel to perform this glorious score year after year? I caught up with PNB Concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim, founding PNB Orchestra members, violinists Ingrid Frederickson and William Boyd, and Press Relations Manager Gary Tucker in advance of this season’s Nov. 25 premiere to explore the issue.

EM: Ingrid and William, you two are founding members of the PNB Orchestra. Is the orchestra a completely separate entity from the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera Orchestra, or is there any overlap in personnel between orchestras? 

WB: Those of us who have been in town have performed and do perform with other groups if we’re asked to. But yes, it is completely separate. 

IF: It used to be the Symphony. Then the Symphony got really busy after they moved into Benaroya and couldn’t keep doing the Ballet, so a new PNB Orchestra was formed. 

WB: It’s been about 26 years now. 

EM: As founding members, can you talk about how it all started, how it was decided to form a whole new orchestra? 

IF: It was complicated, because you couldn’t have everybody audition for their spot in a brand-new orchestra. I think they gave a certain number of points for how much you’d played as a sub at the Ballet. 

WB: In my case I was a member of the core Seattle Symphony when they were playing the Ballet. I was acting principal in 1980 when we went to Europe. So I had a lot of points in the second violins because I was principal. I automatically became a second violin player because I’d played with the Symphony for years. 

IF: Yes, I did too. They also took most of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, which was in Seattle for 35 years, which I played in. Joseph Silverstein was our guest principal conductor for many years. He was amazing to work with. They took the core of the Ballet from that group, so there were probably 15 of us that came into the Ballet. 

EM: And now you’re all about ballet. Let’s get into the “meat” of Nutcracker, starting with Michael. How long have been playing Nutcracker? Do you have any idea how many performances? 

MJL: I do. I actually keep a tally and I just check in before the season starts. I’ve done 227, which I’m sure is less than these guys. Compared to them I’m just an amateur [Laughs]. But I started in 2009, so I’ve done 7 seasons of Nutcracker

EM: I’ve played the piece at ABT and New York City Ballet, so I’m familiar with “repertoire fatigue.” Some people can’t get enough of it. Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote in The Official Blog of PNB that he never gets tired of Nutcracker. How do you keep it fresh? 

MJL: I think it certainly starts with the fact that it’s such great music. If you didn’t hear it 24 hours a day on TV, radio and commercials all the time in December, if you actually can separate that, just listen to the music, it’s really fantastic music. That’s where I start. Also my teacher, Josef Gingold, among the many great tips he gave me, one was that one day you’ll be a professional and there may be pieces you’re playing for the 200th time, you should always remember that for most of the audience it could be their first time hearing it. So you want to give it that kind of respect, the respect the music deserves. 

EM: So for you, after repeated performances that’s one of your foremost challenges. 

MJL: Not so much a challenge but more of a responsibility where the audience is concerned. 

EM: Ingrid and William, having been in the orchestra now these many years, I imagine you probably started right off the bat with Nutcracker, or did that come a little later?

IF: I think it was right off the bat. 

WB: When it was the PNB Orchestra it was right away, but we'd already been doing it for a number of years. 

EM: Do you have a sense of how many years that adds up to for you? 

WB: Well, starting in ‘79. But I don’t keep track like Michael. 

MJL: [Laughs.] 

IF: My stand partner for many years, Irv Eisenberg, who’d been assistant principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy and a member of the Philadelphia String Quartet, started playing when the orchestra formed here. He was in his 70s, sharp as a tack. We started keeping track on this music [shows Violin II part] so…1989. I can’t remember if we stopped at some point, but that’s what we were doing on our music. The part is rather battered [Laughs]. 

EM: There’s a difference between yours and the opera parts. We tend to write in or reinterpret words being sung on stage, little funny things. So, ’79 to ’89, even though you haven’t kept tally do you have an approximate idea …400? 

PNB Student Matinee -- Photo © Lindsay Thomas
IF: Oh, I think between 500 and 1,000. 

WB: I would think so, yes. 

IF: I don’t know if I want to know [Laughs]. 

EM: I’m just trying to get a sense of what it must be like. For me 200 La bohèmes were more than enough. 

MJL: If it was more than 25 years, and some years there were more than 40 performances, it was definitely more than 1,000. 

IF: We don’t have to do all of them. We have to do two-thirds. For example when my children were young I chose to do less. Now they’re grown up I do more. 

WB: when I was performing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and had a lot of conflicts, one year I took a complete leave from Nutcracker to do one of the Broadway shows. But I choose to do as many Nutcrackers as I can because it’s wonderful music, and as Michael said, we need to perform every single performance as if it’s the first time the audience has heard it. You have to keep that in mind. In the Broadway pit, I think I did 276 performances of Annie and every one was exciting because of the fun the audience was having. It’s the same music, but every single performance you just put your heart out because you want it to sound like a recording every time. 

EM: And it has to be perfect every time. Michael, tell us about the violin solo in Act 1, the Party scene and video. 

MJL: It’s an entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty that Balanchine put into his Nutcracker. It’s a nice chance to spotlight the music for a while without a lot of dance. It feels like a small movement of a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It’s got that kind of scope and form. It’s a wonderful piece of music, really beautiful. I’m very grateful to get the opportunity to play it. 

EM: That’s nice for you. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake have wonderful fiddle solos. I can’t wait to hear this one. Have you played this since your very first Nutcracker

MJL: No, last season was our first doing the Balanchine. I think I’ve done it 35 times [Laughs]. 

WB: And beautiful every time.

IF: For me that was sort of a turning point of making it much easier to get through Nutcracker, Mike playing the solo [Laughs]. 

EM: Spoken like a true violinist. So much more fun for you. Who else wrote fiddle solos like Tchaikovsky? Everything of his is concerto-like. 

WB: Yes, it makes it a lot more interesting. 

EM: Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote that as a kid he couldn’t get enough of listening to Nutcracker and now has a “mere” 400 performances of the work under his belt. The music does inspire you after all these years. In that regard, you seem a lot less jaded than my former colleagues in New York. 

MJL, WB, IF: [Laugh.] 

EM: I remember in New York the dancers jokingly referring to “P.M.S” - repeated performances as Parents, Mice Soldiers. I guess when you’re playing a Soldier it’s not quite the same as being in the corps of La Bayadère or Giselle. They get to joke around a little. Does your orchestra have any buzzwords or in jokes about doing all these performances? 

WB: Every individual has their own approach. As Michael said, there’s a responsibility to the little kids out there. 

IF: I could tell you one funny thing. When I was with Irv all those years, he would get quite bored, and he would think of ways to keep his attention going. One year he had planned a vacation to Puerto Rico, so I would turn the page and see a beautiful picture of a beach and aqua-colored water. That’s kind of how it got him through. Me, too. 

EM: It keeps it interesting. As great as the music is, at times it can get really repetitive. You need a little something to change it up. 

WB: I always look forward when a new oboe player or flutist comes in to hearing how they’re going to play, what they’re going to sound like, how it affects the orchestra. It’s a distraction but in a positive way. I have different stand partners, and we always move around. We never sit in the same place. Ingrid moves around a lot, which is great. So it’s different every time we play with a new stand partner. Unlike Michael, who has to sit with the same people. 

MJL: [Laughs.] 

EM: Tell me about your conductor, Emil de Cou. I wrote about him recently.

PNB Orchestra, with Emil de Cou -- Photo © Lindsay Thomas
MJL: He’s our music director and principal conductor. He’s fantastic. I don’t know what it was like before Emil, but I can tell you he is really one of the best conductors I’ve ever played under. He has an amazing clarity, which as you know you really need in the pit. For ballet, where the tempo can change depending who’s up there, you need someone who’s exceptionally clear in addition to being a fantastic musician. 

EM: Ballet is much more strict than opera, with all its rhythmic changes. With dance it has to be strictly in tempo. 

IF: Emil is also extremely energetic, and that really helps because there’s a certain point where you just think, am I going to make it through. Having someone stand up there and have all this energy is important. 

EM: That’s what separates the great ones. The conductor reflects all the energy coming from the physical movement on the stage. What about former Nutcracker productions? You’ve all played the Stowell/ Sendak before the Balanchine. Bill, you’ve played the one before that, the Lew Christensen. 

WB: I seem to recall that one was more classically oriented. 

EM: Even if you don’t see everything that’s going on onstage, do you still get a sense of liking certain things about a given production, or do you not feel that much of a difference in atmosphere between productions? 

WB: When you start something new there’s always a change in your mind set as to how you approach it. But what we get and produce to the audience comes from Emil. We rely on him. If he’s more excited about something, then we play that way. That’s what good communication between a musician and a pit conductor is. If we get a bad conductor, that does the opposite. 

EM: A good conductor has to be a good communicator. Michael, can you see some of what’s going on? 

MJL: You can’t really see the dancing, just little glimpses. Mainly it’s kind of fun to see bits of the new sets and costumes. It’s also exciting to see how the audiences has responded. With the Balanchine last year it was overwhelmingly positive. Then there’s always the fear that, oh, we’ve been doing the Sendak for 25, 30 years and how’s the audience going to respond to changing something that’s been such a part of the fabric of their holiday experience. But it was great. Everyone seemed really excited. I heard so many positive comments from audience members, how much they loved this new-for-us production. 

WB: There are a few parents, mothers especially, who say, “I grew up with the Sendak. I wanted my daughter to experience what I grew up with.” 

EM: Is it true that some people decorate the pit? I can’t quite picture that. 

WB: [Laughs] It’s Tom. He’s the decorator. He absolutely loves doing it. 

EM: What kinds of things? 

WB: Strings of lights that have thematic material, he hangs all around the music stand. So each stand has its own thematic representation. 

IF: Any kind of decorative thematic light that you can imagine. For example, our acting principal violist, Betty. Her stand gets Betty Boop lights [Laughs]. 

MJL: Our tuba player is a big Green Bay Packers fan, so Tom puts Packers lights around his music stand. Of course as soon as the show starts, those lights come off. 

GT: It builds over the run. He’s got several hundred different string lights. You can say, “Do you have alligators?” and he’ll say, “Well, as a matter of fact I do.” 

EM: No wonder it’s so much fun. The Pink Panther, how did he do that?

GT: That was during the "Nutty Nut" performances that happened once a year during the Stowell/Sendak production. Usually the Christmas Eve performance. The dancers and orchestra took some liberties - to put it mildly [Laughs].

IF: Tom found this Pink Panther outfit you could only get in London. My sister is a cellist there. She had to go get it and mail it here. One of the dancers wore it a few times. 

WB: The music is hilarious. Tom did most of the arrangements. Often it became part of what was on stage. The Pink Panther comes out and we play [Sings theme] and it fits in with whatever we’re playing, rhythmically and harmonically - a musical joke. And Emil keeping a straight face. 

GT: The snow scene there would be an enormous amount of snow. They’d empty the snow bags, there’d be this huge downfall. The dancers would throw it at each other. The audience just loved it.

'Nutcracker' corps de ballet © Angela Sterling

EM: And there’s also food themes? 

IF: One of the cellists is brilliant at coming up with a theme for the whole season and subthemes for each performance. Each section brings food to go along with that. People become extremely creative [Laughs]. Our bass section, four guys, all good cooks, it was a Nutcracker cadaver [Laughs]. All the organs were edible. I couldn’t eat it. 

WB: Sausages were the entrails. 

IF: It gets pretty elaborate. Mike, you've done yours several times. Korean food.

MJL: Not since the Balanchine, where I have to play the solo [Laughs]. When it's the second violins I don't eat lunch that day. I know it's going to be good.
IF, WB, GT: [Laugh.]
MJL: I need to talk to my section. 

EM: Let’s touch on the Overture. Arguably it’s the most difficult to play of Tchaikovsky’s three iconic ballet overtures, especially for the violins: very delicate and exposed passagework high up in the range, with no brass to hide behind. Do you think you get appropriate credit for playing this piece? 

MJL: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I do always appreciate the audience reaction to it. There’s often quite a bit of applause after the overture, and you can feel the love from the audience, which is nice. They acknowledge our role in the production. They’re proud to have a ballet orchestra like ours.  

Elizabeth Murphy © Angela Sterling
WB: Having been there before you, I felt the orchestra when we first started was tolerated. Now we’re part of the family of the Ballet. It’s not just dancers and a bunch of people down in the pit. It’s the orchestra and the dancers and dressers. It’s a family thing, an entity within itself. When they go to New York we go with. We really appreciate that. It really feels good to be a part of that inclusion. And the audience does like the orchestra. 

IF: At one point when we were starting they wouldn’t even mention the orchestra in reviews. People had to ask the papers to please at least say we’re part of the performance. 

WB: That there’s an orchestra. Live music. 

EM: Things have changed, then. 

WB: A lot. I think Emil has a lot to do with that, and the management now, the change in artistic directors. Everything is very nice to be a part of.

GT: The orchestra also came to us and said, “We want to have a presence at the table. We want to make sure we’re doing as much as we can to support the organization, and the organization is acknowledging the orchestra. It’s something that makes this organization special. They’re coming to see Nutcracker with a LIVE orchestra. 

WB: Here, we have our own orchestra, which nationwide can be somewhat unique.

EM: Indeed. I can see that Nutcracker is going to be loads of fun and not to be missed. Thank you all so much.

PNB performs Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at McCaw Hall Nov. 25 through Dec. 28.


Photo credits: Lindsay Thomas, Rodger Burnett, Angela Sterling

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pacific Northwest Ballet Shows Sophistication and Flair

Lesley Rausch
REVIEW: Brief Fling

Pacific Northwest Ballet
McCaw Hall, Seattle

The theme running through the sophisticated, contemporary triple bill now in repertoire for PNB is that of yearning. From the audacious fusion of classical and modern elements in Twyla Tharp’s Brief Fling, to the high art and drama of Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land, to Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, PNB’s dancers expressed panoplies of deep emotion: sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly.

Tharp’s Brief Fling is performed here with live music for the first time since its creation in 1990 for American Ballet Theatre. With a daring mix of the modern and the classical set against a background of ever-mysterious Scotland, the work depicts romantic yearning in a whimsical manner, set to a score by the late composer Michel Colombier and Percy Grainger.

The merging of the Baryshnikov and Tharp companies parallels the shifts between Scottish plaid-clad clan members and the impressively adroit Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand in tutu and male classical dance garb. This appealing duo executed the traditional classical steps, integrating subtle knee movements without missing a beat. Other soloists Rachel Foster, Sarah Ricard Orza, James Moore and Benjamin Griffiths kept the momentum lively and the pacing dynamic.

The choreography for Forgotten Land, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1981 by Jirí Kylián, marries the director’s Czech sensibilities with his impressions of a painting by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Gloomy, brooding, yet ethereal and fantasy-like, the work takes its inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Sinfonia da Requiem, and depicts the harsh but romantic elements of land and sea in Britten's East Anglia birthplace. Soloists Rachel Foster, Jerome Tisserand, Emma Love Suddarth, Steven Loch, Elizabeth Murphy and Seth Orza beautifully conveyed the gloomy, dismal atmosphere of Britten’s war torn country, with its constant overtones of death and destruction, via Kylián’s portrayal of the dark, somber tones of Munch’s painting style. Long, arched, sinewy movements, extended legs and arms, flowing white and red-black costumes all emphasized a different kind of yearning from that of Tharp’s tongue-in-cheek romantic dramedy: more tragic, more unrequited, and more aching than the more blatantly sexual desires portrayed in Brief Fling.

Elizabeth Murphy and Seth Orza
Balanchine was a mere 20 years old when iconic impresario Serge Diaghilev introduced him to the already legendary 48-year-old Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine admitted to being awed by the composer, 28 years his senior, and held immense respect for the older man, who was the same age as his father. At the time of their meeting, Stravinsky’s music was considered largely indecipherable to the modern ear. By the time Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky Violin Concerto for his groundbreaking 1972 Stravinsky Festival at New York City Ballet, the composer’s works were an integral part of classical music’s standard repertoire.

Of the more than 400 works Balanchine created in his legendary career, almost 40 of them were based on Stravinsky’s music. Stravinsky Violin Concerto remains among dancers the most popular of the 32 ballets Balanchine created for the Festival. Rightly so, as the ballet still leaps off the stage and into the spectators’ hearts with its ever fresh, arresting movements and eccentric charm, in a score that seems as if the steps were organically placed within the composer’s compositional framework.

The ballet contains not one but two Pas de Deux Arias, interspersed between the opening Toccata movement and the fourth, final Capriccio movement. Seth Orza, Noelani Pantastico, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand sparkled in the Toccata, deftly executing conventional leaps and entrechats, Russian-style arm movements and stepping on the heels, against the background of rhythmically diverse Stravinskian themes and sub-themes. In Aria I, Rausch and Tisserand pushed the Balanchine/Stravinsky envelope further with a more contemporary take on the composer’s famed neoclassical style, adding their supple athleticism to the modernism of the piece.

It is in Aria II that the romantic longing is portrayed, fragile and introspective. Pantastico and Orza worked beautifully together to communicate the final resignation of the couple, giving in to the inevitability of separation. The Capriccio, performed with explosive energy by the entire company, wraps the package with a golden ribbon of highly charged, sophisticated balletic witticism.

From left: Seth Orza, Noelani Pantastico, Lesley Rausch, Jerome Tisserand & Company
There is no doubt that, even with all the yearning portrayed in its two Pas de Deux, the work overall reflects Stravinsky’s quirky sense of humor. In a joint interview with the composer in 1964, Balanchine relates his impression of Stravinsky’s music at the time of their meeting as largely indecipherable to the modern ear, but later on so accessible that people would whistle it on the street. “Not always,” Stravinsky countered, laughing. “Maybe in the bathroom…because (there) they are absolutely safe.”

The Seattle audience of hardcore balletomanes appreciated Stravinsky’s humor, as well as the jocularity of Brief Fling: laughing, chuckling and tittering softly at the playful use of Scottish folk tunes and reacting audibly in all the other appropriate places. Clearly Seattle is a town where ballet is deeply valued, and Pacific Northwest Ballet is sure to continue to deliver the quality and variety that Green City needs and desires.


BRIEF FLING plays for seven performances only, November 4 - 13 at McCaw Hall.

Photo credits/permissions: Angela Sterling

Monday, November 7, 2016

Akhnaten Glows in Sun and Shade at LA Opera

Pharaoh Akhnaten ascends throne to address Egypt

REVIEW: Akhnaten

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

The lure of Ancient Egypt has influenced operas as varied as Mozart’s Magic Flute, Verdi’s Aida, and Massenet’s Thaïs, all great works. But the 1983 opera Akhnaten, composed by Philip Glass in the minimalist style he largely created, stands alone in its ability to depict that civilization’s timeless continuity. The mesmerizing work, as newly conceived and mounted last March in London by the English National Opera, was given its US premiere on Saturday evening by co-producer LA Opera.

One of three Glass “portrait” operas that chronicle history’s game-changers, Akhnaten is the second produced by the company and comes close on the heels of 2012’s successful Einstein on the Beach, with only Satyagraha (about Gandhi) remaining. Plucky Long Beach Opera may have gotten here first with a modest production in 2011, but LA Opera’s lavish version is literally over the sun. 

Akhnaten and Nefertiti
Directed by Phelim McDermott and conducted by Matthew Aucoin, with choral prep by Grant Gershon, Akhnaten featured superb singing by an ideal cast, orchestral work of taxing stamina, and a host of nimble jugglers. Nearly every element came together flawlessly. In the stellar array, Glass’ minimalist music emerged the biggest star. Endless orchestral repetitions, arpeggios, and slow-changing modulations, so often criticized by advocates of faster-paced operatic action, were here turned to advantage as they invoked the stability of a civilization that endured for three millennia, in part by resisting change. 

Yet change was the central concern of the 17-year reign of Akhnaten, the pharaoh who arrived at the mid-point of the long civilization and upended tradition by worshiping not Isis, Osiris and other gods, but solely the sun god Aten. In this version of his radical departure from a polytheistic Egypt, Akhnaten (the “son of Aten”) fires his corrupt priesthood, orders Egypt to practice monotheism, and moves his capital to a new location. Although this first known experiment with monotheism may have influenced its eventual adoption by nearby Semitic tribes, it didn’t last in Egypt beyond Akhnaten’s death, which it just may have prompted. 

Designed spectacularly by Tom Pye and lit with subtle flair by Bruno Poet in a dissolving and dazzling spectrum of glowing hues, the evening’s initial set suggested the inside of a vast tomb of uniformity and order. Vertically oriented and divided into a series of chambers, the set was lit with rich amber as the action began. Silhouetted figurines came to life on the face of the walls like living hieroglyphics. Movement was synchronized at the pace of the rising and setting sun, in conformity with the deliberate pacing of the music. Costumer Kevin Pollard amplified the wow factor with a kaleidoscopic array of historic Egyptian costumes. 

Egyptian jugglers
Spherical objects large and small reinforced Akhnaten’s obsession with the sun as the source of all animation. Those spheres could be juggler’s balls whose airborne flights mimicked the pulsing music -- juggling was an ancient skill of the Egyptians -- or they could be just one huge sphere dominating the stage as a vast solar object of veneration. The nine jugglers imported from the UK manipulated both balls and pins and never dropped a single one in three acts, maintaining the production’s magical spell.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought his experience as the ENO's Akhnaten to a method-acting tour de force that had him appearing for his initial purification ceremony in full frontal nudity, his body shaved of all its hair. Draped later in a massively ornate costume, he navigated it not only horizontally, but also up steep steps to commune with the sun and command his court. In later scenes, Costanzo's character displayed the androgynous features of a hermaphrodite. His luminous countertenor singing carried through the cavernous Chandler Pavilion with ease, all the more impressive considering the voice-type is a falsetto produced with only a portion of the male vocal apparatus. 

The Scribe who narrates
The only personality on stage to command a comparable vocal and dramatic presence to Akhnaten was the speaking role of the Scribe, performed by powerful bass-baritone Zackery James, whose thundering narration in English substituted for the usual supertitles and was mostly understandable to the audience. Although missed by some, I found the removal of the scrolling text liberating. Its absence, along with the LA Opera's quick reference guide between acts, allowed full stage immersion as the scenes unfolded.

Mellow-toned mezzo J’Nai Bridges joined Costanzo as his wife Nefertiti (yes, the famous one), their voices in the same mezzo range blending as naturally as their red-trained costumes. Stacey Tappan was Akhnaten's mother, Queen Tye, and Patrick Blackwell his father, Aye; Kihun Yoon the power-in-waiting General Horemhab and Zachary James the High Priest of Amon.

Notable scenes included the confrontation by the priests that opens the second act, the exquisite and serene duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti that follows, and the former’s hymn that closes this act. The fullest populated scene of the evening opened the third act, as the idleness and insularity of the royal family’s domestic life at home contrasted with the suffering of daily life outside the royal gates. Following this came the ritualistic separation of Akhnaten from his family, his six daughters having their long hair in matted tendrils gathered together and hauled off for slaughter by the masses. 

Akhnaten and Nefertiti's nuptial
The opera closed with a preview of pharaonic scenes to come, as Akhnaten’s son, the juvenile Tutankhamun (King Tut) was crowned in his iconic garb while the old religion was restored to the kingdom. In a final touch, almost tongue in cheek, the work’s epilogue had a modern-day group of archeologists preparing a display-case version of Akhnaten for a museum.

Aucoin's handling of the orchestra and the discipline of the musicians themselves was admirable, with minor opening night glitches quickly recovered to form. The score calls for lower strings only, with no violins. The sonority of violas, cellos, and basses, with added woodwind and brass colorations, created an aural glow fully in sync with visual elements. In combination with the stage action, they opened an enthralling window into a world of timeless antiquity.

Was Akhnaten a visionary whose monotheistic innovations spurred on Abrahamic religions? Or was he merely a strong-willed egoist whose power play on a corrupt priesthood was undone by his own neglect? This work suggests Akhnaten’s familial self-absorption led to the disarray, but it doesn’t answer the larger question of his impact on history. This much is sure: the depiction of Akhnaten's brief reign was one of the most effective stagings in LA Opera’s three decades and a high water mark in the ascendency of musical Minimalism.


Photos by Craig T. Mathew are used by permission of LA Opera.

Performances continue 7:30 pm on Nov. 10, 17 & 19 and 2 pm on Nov. 13 & 27.

Further information at LA Opera or (213) 972-8001.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Albuquerque's Opera Southwest in Lively Tancredi

Lindsay Ohse (Amenaide), and Heather Johnson (Tancredi)

Opera Southwest
National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque

Doomed lovers, warring families, invading armies, an incriminating letter and glorious bel canto thrilled in Gioacchino Rossini’s Tancredi. Albuquerque’s innovative Opera Southwest brought Tancredi back to life on October 23 under the baton of Maestro Anthony Barrese, who is also the Artistic Director of Opera Southwest. Tancredi had been a big hit in the 1800s, playing all over Europe, but it fell by the wayside until returned sporadically to the repertoire in the 1970s and 80s. Although the composer was not quite 21 years of age at the time of its composition, Tancredi was already Rossini’s tenth opera, and it was this work that launched his magnificent, if hectic career. Fully staged here, with singers from all over the US, Barrese has returned the masterpiece back to the spotlight.

The story centers around Amenaide, daughter of the powerful Argirio who lived in the city-state of Syracuse in the eleventh century. In an effort to combat common enemy Solimar, leader of the Saracen forces, Argirio pledges his daughter to the head of the rival family, Orbanzanno. Amenaide resists because she is in love with Tancredi, a knight defeated in battle and driven off his lands years before. He now returns from exile incognito, hoping to be reunited with Amenaide. She writes him a letter welcoming him back to Sicily but neglects to write his name on the title page, probably to protect him from discovery. The letter is intercepted and misinterpreted as having been intended for Solimar, the enemy, and for this traitorous act Amenaide is sentenced to death. The plot thickens but ultimately ends with the truth revealed and Tancredi and Amenaide united in a happy-ever-after ending, as was expected of such works in Rossini’s time.

Opera Southwest's production was staged in the work's original time period. The action takes place on rising platforms on either side of the stage and under projections of cut-outs taken from original Byzantine mosaics of religious images. The scenes, via projections, shifted unobtrusively but highly effectively from one scene to another. A master hand was apparent in the set design by Dahl Delu and ably lit by Daniel Chapman. There were minimal props, though the spears carried by the men of the two opposing families seemed welded to the hands of the chorus, limiting their movements for much of the show. One had to concur with comments from audience members about the circular pie-plate “armor” perched on the shoulders of Tancredi, armor that took on a distracting life of its own every time the singer moved. They need to go, along with the dinner-plate sized shield which the singer seemed only too happy to relinquish anytime he/she could.

Opera Southwest’s lead singers come from New York: mezzo soprano Heather Johnson sang the title role in the pants role of Tancredi. There is warmth and careful phrasing in her presentation of the music and its embellishments -- beautiful singing as it should be, without effort or strain. Johnson sang the hit aria "Di tanti palpiti" with tender feeling.

Soprano Lindsay Ohse sang Amenaide, a strong woman in any time period, easily managing the soaring challenges of the role – and there are many – in defense of her character's innocence. Her long aria in the second act brought to mind the final scene in La Donna del Lago where the winner takes all. Ohse opened up with more lyricism and relaxed into the role as the evening progressed. One wonders, in fact, why this opera was not titled "Amenaide" since the greater part and deeper introspection stems from her role. We understand why Rossini chose a soprano and mezzo for his leads when we hear the exquisite duets blending the two voices.

Another pants role is Roggiero, Tancredi’s squire, sung attractively by apprentice Chelsea Duval-Major. The role of the hapless father, Argirio, was sung by tenor Heath Huberg from Sioux Falls. Huberg’s voice has a clear timbre, but was a little challenged at the top of his range. He managed well the mood shifts from anger to sadness, a troubled father who first condemns and then seeks leniency for his errant daughter.

The powerful bass Matthew Curran sang Orbazanno, the war-mongering head of a noble family. It is he who accuses Amenaide of being a traitor, this after she rejected him as a husband. Curran has a forceful stage presence that is well suited to this role. Apprentice Madelyn Wanner sang Amenaide’s sympathetic friend, Isaura, with assurance and empathy. This is a difficult smaller role involving much hand-wringing and pleas for mercy for her headstrong mistress. One would have liked more vigor from the male chorus both vocally and physically in the way they stood, acted and reacted; they are playing warriors after all.

Barrese set a sprightly pace in the work's overture, a familiar stand-alone piece played by symphony orchestras worldwide. Small solos from woodwinds and trumpets wedded the action to the score. The conductor’s light but firm control allowed soloists in and out of the pit to shine. In the give and take between orchestra and stage, Barrese was always aware of the needs of his singers.

The score has the freshness and exuberance of youth. Many of the themes, ideas and musical events that followed Tancredi are readily recognizable in this melodramma eroica; there is predictability and comforting familiarity in Rossini’s operas, most of which we know today as comedies or opera buffa in the bel canto style. Tancredi may be a heroic melodrama filled with pure, lyrical passages but this opera is in no way harrowing. The heart of the work is the music and how well it is sung. Opera Southwest did not let us down.

This opera is known for two endings and Opera Southwest treated audiences to both. The premiere in Venice in 1813 was a major success using the required happy ending. A month after the premiere, however, Rossini created a tragic ending, aligning the opera with the ending of its source, Voltaire’s play Tancrède. In this, the Ferrara ending, Tancredi is mortally wounded and returns at death’s door to Amenaide. The truth is revealed. Argirio marries Tancredi to his daughter as Tancredi dies in his wife’s arms. Much cut’n’paste occurred in the score, back and forth over the years to accommodate the different endings. Nineteenth century Italy preferred the happy ending, while today the tragic one is more popular and in keeping with our expectations. It should be noted that the totally unpredictable tragic ending to this Rossini opera is as deeply touching as it is unexpected. As Barrese describes it, “Tancredi struggles to recite his text, his words broken apart as he quietly sinks into unconsciousness. Accompanied first by strings, the orchestra too starts and stops, eventually disappearing into hushed C major chords,” as the curtain falls on a sobbing Amenaide holding her dead beloved.

Barrese first presented the tragic Ferrara ending with great effect. When the final soft chords had died away along with the hero, he announced and then had the orchestra play the final minutes of the original Venice ending. In this version, Tancredi does not die, reconciliation is achieved, and the happy couple sang of their joy. That interesting double finale left the enthusiastic audience amused.

One goes to Rossini operas anticipating gorgeous bel canto in plots that do not stretch one too far, be they comedy or tragedy. In Opera Southwest’s production audience members left the theatre with a light step as they made their way in perfect fall weather to their cars parked alongside the serenely flowing Rio Grande river. For a few brief hours, all was well with the world as peace and harmony were restored to the strains of Rossini’s infectious score.


Final performance: 2pm, Sunday October 30, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque.

Photo by Lance Ozier used by permission of Opera Southwest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Seattle’s As One Tells Transgender Story Through Opera

INTERVIEW: Barbara Lynne

Seattle Opera, Seattle

On Nov. 11, 2016, Seattle Opera will present the Seattle and west coast premiere of a thoroughly contemporary work in a historical venue that recently has been contemporized.

As One, conceived and composed by Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, follows the journey of a young man who battles with gender identity, leads a divided existence, and ultimately resolves his inner and outer conflicts by becoming a woman. 

The work, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, will be performed at historic Washington Hall, an intimate venue long associated with Seattle’s vibrant multicultural arts scene. The cast consists of just two singers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano playing a single protagonist, accompanied by string quartet. Singers Jorell Williams and Taylor Raven, composer Kaminsky, award winning librettists Campbell and Reed, conductor John Keene, director L. Zane Jones and set designer G.W. Mercier all will make their Seattle Opera debuts. 

In a recent interview, Barbara Lynne Jamison, Seattle Opera Director of Education & Community Engagement and former manager of the company’s youth programs, shared her insights on this groundbreaking project and the social issues that it raises. 

EM: Barbara Lynne, you are clearly multitalented: a performing soprano, conductor, and music educator, and now a recipient of Opera America’s coveted Leadership Intensive Fellowship in the field of opera administration. I’m so impressed. 

BLJ: Thank you! I stay busy [Laughs]. 

EM: I can see that. How did Seattle Opera make the decision to produce this groundbreaking work? Did you have a role in bringing it to Seattle Opera? 

BLJ: We are doing this through our Community Engagement arm. I had been looking for some works that I thought would resonate with our community, particularly our younger, social justice oriented community members. We know that opera is thought of as a historical art form but we forget that it’s a living, breathing art form, which I think has led to its longevity. We do a lot of historical works on our stage and wanted to look at doing a few more updated works, particularly ones with social justice themes that could tie to new members of our community who might not see themselves in works on the stage of McCaw Hall at a “grand” level. We have a lot of Fringe Theatre lovers in this town, and there’s also a similar type of opera - chamber opera - a little more “fringe-y.” As One is quite a beautiful work. It’s short, it’s got very small forces, and it deals with themes that can help our audiences today relate, learn more about the community in which they live, and the other people that we have in our community. 

EM: I’ve only been living here a few months, but that’s my impression of Seattle, that it’s very alternative, very forward looking. I think you’re right that the opera company should reflect that demographic. 

BLJ: It’s part of our new mission that we’ve just adopted. The core of that mission is to reflect that community and be an integral part of it This work is part of that initiative, to take that very seriously and make sure we’re reflecting the entirety of our area and meeting those needs in an artistic way. I also hope it will find some empathy and feeling for our community in certain ways. I know our city has not been as painfully impacted by some divisive issues as other cities, but we do feel the pain of our country. We feel this kind of work can also bring us together. The arts have a way of doing that so powerfully. 

Barbara Lynne Jamison, photo Philip Newton
EM: What you’re describing is very forward looking, because it’s important to be looking to the future as far as opera is concerned. I’ve read that As One has been described as “a different kind of opera experience.” What are some of the characteristics that make this opera stand out from other operas? 

BLJ: Part of it is how we’re producing the opera. It’s not in McCaw Hall. There is no proscenium stage. We’ll be producing this in an environment that’s in a different part of the city that we at Seattle Opera have not served as much as some other areas. It will be at newly renovated historical Washington Hall, with the ghosts of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald - that very rich culture of jazz in the Central District, which historically has been a predominantly African-American community. Central District is undergoing quite a lot of gentrification right now, so it’s having some of its own difficulties, but we wanted to bring Seattle Opera into it, not in our typical way, but in the round. The action will be in the center of the hall, not on the stage. We’ll have seats all around and everybody will be very close to the action on the stage, only a few rows from it at the most. It’s a different way to think of opera, which we think of as this big, long stretch away from us, with an orchestra pit before we see the action. We don’t really get to see faces. Opera singers get to wear their hearts on their sleeves when opera is done in this intimate way. It will give us a different perspective on how music and drama play together to tell a story in an intimate way, not only a grand way as it does in Verdi, for instance. 

EM: The fact that it’s accompanied just by string quartet also contributes to the intimacy. 

BLJ: Right. All the forces are very small, just two singers playing one single role, two aspects of a single protagonist, and the quartet, very intimately created. We want to produce it intimately, too, and make sure everyone is really close to that story. 

EM: Why is this opera so relevant to the times in which we live right now? What social issues will the work raise among audiences? 

BLJ: We’re all searching to find ourselves in some way, we all have a journey, an awareness of finding ourselves at different points in our lives. Life, the whole process, is a journey. I hope we can find empathy with each other and realize that we’re all in this journey together. This journey happens to be represented by a transgender woman on the stage. But I’m hoping we can all be very much on that journey together during the course of this one 80-minute opera. It’s a journey we can all share - representative, not of every transgender person’s experience but one person’s journey. Right at curtain we’ll have a couple of transgender community members share their personal perspectives, so we can see that everyone’s journey is different and share that experience. We did something like that with An American Dream last year, an opera we commissioned. The story was about Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. 

EM: Who was the composer? 

BLJ: Jack Perla. Jessica Murphy Moo was the librettist. That was a community effort we made here. We had some eyewitnesses, people who lived during that time, speak before the opera started and give their personal accounts. Again, it was based in some reality but not our reality. This is an opera. Opera takes stories that are personal experiences out of the realistic and heightens them in a way in which we can all share an understanding. It’s not like a movie, where we can either fully relate or not; I think it pulls us in. 

EM: That’s a wonderful description of opera. 

BLJ: Yes. I think opera really brings everything to higher levels. Prior to the opera, when the doors open, we’re going to have some community partners’ tables downstairs, to help the entire community raise awareness of how we can be activists and allies for our transgender neighbors. The Pride Foundation, Greater Seattle Business Organization for the LBGTQ community, will be there. We’ll have a list of community partners that will be there with educational materials, ways to sign up and be more deeply involved in activism for our transgender and LBGTQ community. Then we’ll follow the performance with a discussion of any issues other than race, any questions we have, done in cooperation with our transgender partners, so that we’re not in any way presenting this work from our Seattle Opera perspective. We realize this is not our story to tell in the way I, Barbara Lynne Jamison, am not a transgender individual and cannot speak for somebody who is. What I can offer is the opportunity to bring healing and empathy to the community, that our transgender neighbors be the ones who speak for themselves and give them a voice and amplify that voice so that we can all be engaged together in a healing way. I don’t mean healing by transgender people but healing for our community to come together. 

Philip Newton
EM: That makes perfect sense. Given what’s been going on in our times right now, there’s a lot of that to be done. I think your mission sounds wonderful. How would you describe the opera’s music?

BLJ: Let me start with the libretto, the story itself. It’s so beautiful, written by Mark Campbell, who’s also done Silent Night. He’s a really active librettist in the opera community right now. Kimberly Reed is a transgender woman and a filmmaker. I think it’s important, especially for our transgender neighbors that their community be involved in the telling of the story. Kimberly was the quarterback of her football team. She’s been on Oprah telling more of her story. The two of them wrote this beautifully elegant, pithy libretto. Laura Kaminsky has a Seattle history. She used to be the Dean of Music here in Seattle at Cornish College of the Arts. The music is representative. Laura has used the viola to represent the spirit of Hannah, the protagonist, so it’s very symbolic in that way. 

EM: How was the cast chosen? 

BLJ: Seattle Opera thinks very deliberately about equity on our stage. We felt that going into Washington Hall we wanted to honor that. We wanted the two individuals to be similarly cast. So we actually did pay attention to the visual aspect, which opera doesn’t always do. Our stage director also wanted to bring in some undertones of Black Lives Matter and the higher percentage of black transgender women who are victims of violence. We wanted to highlight that transgender people of color are particularly afflicted by this issue of Black Lives Matter. This opera is becoming a work that’s being done throughout the country. Our singers are established, yet young. Taylor Raven, our Hannah, will be singing this role back east in February. She’s in Pittsburgh right now with their Young Artists Program. Jorell is doing a lot of great work throughout the country. They were chosen because they’re amazing singers and actors. We believed they would tell a convincing story and sing it beautifully. They were very eager to do it. Sometimes the acting of opera isn’t always at the forefront, but being an intimate story we wanted to find great acting singers to tell this powerful story in a powerful way. 

EM: Especially in a venue where you really can see their facial expressions. 

BLJ: Absolutely. It’s going to be a very intimate telling. No elaborate costumes or make up. Our stage director wanted to tell it very simply, let the story tell itself. 

EM: How do you think Seattle audiences will relate to Hannah’s struggles and her journey of self-discovery? 

BLJ: I think Seattle will relate very well. Seattle has a very long history of being very accepting and having community allied support and activism for the LBTGQ community. Every city has its own dynamic, but I believe Seattle has had this deep acceptance and support for our transgender neighbors for a long time. Our Ingersoll Gender Center has been around for about 40 years supporting our transgender neighbors. We’re excited that Seattle Children’s Hospital has just opened up a new wing to support transgender youth. So we have a rich history of social justice being a part of the fabric of Seattle. I think it will be very well received on that front. 

EM: This is groundbreaking work that you’re doing. 

BLJ: Yes. At the same time I think we all have a lot of learning to do about people. In this social media age when we think we know everything about everybody because it’s always popping up on our screens, we forget to just take time to reflect on the spirit of people. I think this opera will give us a few minutes to sit back and really settle with ourselves, to take us to that next level where we get to find commonality and learn about ourselves and our surroundings through the art form in a way you can’t do by watching television or even reading a book. That music really enriches our experience. Having all these things together along with the learning opportunities beforehand to engage on an activist level with our community partners, filling out the evening with a community discussion afterwards, getting to have a somewhat relaxed environment - we’re going to have a cash bar so people can have a drink-in-hand experience watching the opera - hopefully it will be a casual enough experience that we can let our guards down and yet let the reality of the opera and what that means for our learning about ourselves and others. I think that’s what art does in a way that other entertainment does not. Opera takes us to the level of exploration. I think Seattle opera audiences know that better than most cities in the US - very rich theatre town, we understand that here. This is a new way to think about opera for a lot of our community. We’re hoping that if they’ve been to an opera and didn’t think it was for them, they can give this a try to see opera differently, maybe give opera a new reputation. 

EM: I think for this century and beyond, that’s the key, to make opera relevant now and for the future. There’s nothing quite like opera. We want opera to be forever, and it should be. I think this new opera sounds like a great step in that direction. 

BLJ: We have to realize also, that opera has been here for so long because it was willing to evolve with the people, to change. Mozart broke boundaries, Monteverdi broke boundaries. Puccini broke his own boundaries. We put them all in one big lump, we see them all as opera. But at the time they were thinking differently about the art form. I’m really pleased to see Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kim Reed thinking about opera and helping to be part of that force that moves it forward and keeps it alive. I think that’s important for us to remember. 

EM: What are your, and the company’s, hopes for this opera’s impact? 

Seattle Opera
BLJ: I hope we will help people think differently about the opera and be able to relate to and find empathy through a transgender story. That’s really what I want people to walk away with. It’s a very limited run, only two weekends, and very small, just over 200 tickets a night, so we’re not going to have very many people, but we do hope that people who wouldn’t normally find themselves thinking of going to an opera will find through the music and story they have been changed in some way, walk away with a new understanding of themselves and the people around them, and relate to the humanity of it in a very real way. 

EM: Barbara Lynne, this has been so enlightening. I hope you will fulfill all your goals with As One, and I wish you all the best luck with the opening. 

BLJ: Thank you, Erica. That means a lot to us. 


As One premieres Friday, Nov. 11, at Washington Hall, and runs through Saturday, Nov. 19. Tickets are available online at

Photo credits: Seattle Opera, Philip Newton