Friday, October 9, 2015

Seattle Opera Captures Exotic World of ‘Pearl Fishers’

By Erica Miner

October 17 marks the much-anticipated opening of Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les Pêcheurs de Perles). Often viewed as a youthful neglected endeavor hovering in the shadow of Bizet’s hugely popular Carmen, Pearl Fishers nonetheless boasts some of the composer’s most sensuous and compelling music, as well as a story that depicts the perilous existence of the death defying Pearl Fishers of ancient Ceylon.

According to Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang, once it was decided to mount Pearl Fishers, the 2005 San Diego Opera production designed by recently named DBE Zandra Rhodes and directed by Andrew Sinclair was the clear choice. Though the opera takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at an undetermined time in the distant past, Lang was quite taken with the stylized fantasy element and vibrant colors of Rhodes’ design.

In advance of the opening, cast members Maureen McKay, Elizabeth Zharoff and Anthony Kalil and choreographer John Malashock (all making their Seattle Opera debuts) weighed in on their respective roles in the production.

Starring as Léïla, the goddess-like priestess who is the apex of the opera’s love triangle, Maureen McKay ( finds that performing roles in diverse styles and languages “Is like going to a museum and experiencing Renoir for an hour and then walking over to the Goya section for the rest of the day.”

The insightful singer likens stylistic differences between, for instance, Mozart and Bizet to visual artistry. “Their brush strokes are different but the medium is the same. Singing both of these styles requires a very clean and clear technique and strict observance of the composer’s markings.” McKay believes the challenge of performing a lesser-known opera like Pearl Fishers as opposed to the composer’s universally known Carmen lies in persuading audiences to come see and hear the work live. “It is a story of complex love, forbidden desire, and forgiveness,” she says. “The vocal lines are stunning, the harmonies complex, and the choir and dancers are quite moving.” Having been deeply touched by the music as a young artist, she is convinced that the audience impact will be stunning.  “Especially with Andrew Sinclair and his team's beautiful rendering.”

In addition to being one of the world’s most prominent rising young sopranos, Washington State native Zharoff ( also is a composer of multimedia music, and has sung a plethora of opera repertoire of diverse periods and languages, including Morning Star by contemporary composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

Zharoff describes the particular challenges of singing Léïla’s main aria as “incredibly different from any other French aria I've sung.” Since Sinclair has her singing the aria from her bed, Zharoff opts for a “peaceful, dreamy, and slightly erotic” character, which necessitates throwing inhibition to the wind. Compared to other French heroines such as Marguerite and Micaela, Léïla must be “completely lost in the moment of the dream, and let all resistance and nerves slip away.”

Tenor Anthony Kalil (, who plays one of Léïla’s two suitors, comes from an unusual background for an opera singer. Four years ago he was working in Seattle for the Sherwin Williams Paint Company, traveling throughout the Northwest to train workers on how to use wood finishing products, when he suddenly found himself in the prestigious Lindemann Program at the Metropolitan Opera and has since garnered attention from opera enthusiasts.

Having focused largely on Italian repertoire thus far, the role of Nadir in Seattle’s Pearl Fishers is Kalil’s first full role in French. “I have always loved French opera. I find the language to be extremely beautiful and very friendly to the voice,” he says. Kalil finds the dramatic challenges of this role similar to those of others in the operatic firmament. “Dramatically, I just try to bring what I bring to every role, an open mind. Working with new directors and conductors as well as singers, allows me to challenge myself in new ways.”

Choreographer John Malashock (, a familiar artistic presence as a San Diego resident, originally choreographed this production in 2004. “One of the greatest pleasures of the production is the reunion between Andrew, Zandra and I,” he says. According to Malashock, dance has a more integral role in this production than in other French opera productions, although the score and libretto only call for dance in one section. “In a normal world, dance might play less of a role in The Pearl Fishers than it does in Carmen. But in this production we put a tremendous amount of dance into it. This is one of the ‘danciest’ opera productions you’ll find anywhere,” Malashock says. Unlike most operas, where dance is “a diversion that’s dropped in,” he adds, “Here it really helps tell the story, and carry the emotion of the village.”

Though he works closely with designer Rhodes, who has some of the dancers wearing animal masks in the big Act 3 ensemble, Malashock works more closely with director Sinclair on integrating dance into the production. “But on a very practical level, working with Zandra to understand how she was costuming people definitely influenced some of the choreographic decisions,” he says. “Just in terms of how much of the bodies are exposed, or how restrictive the costumes were, it was important to know early on what she was doing.”

Using dance to help advance the story substantially energizes the production, Malashock says. “It never gets bogged down for any length of time. People will be quite astonished to see how different it is from the way ballet usually is.” Coincidentally, the Met Opera, which has not done Pearl Fishers for 100 years. also is performing the opera this season. “Not our production. Shame on them,” he says, laughing.

Malashock’s dynamic choreography, Rhodes’ vivid designs, Sinclair’s energetic direction, and the fresh voiced debuting singers all collaborate to help make this creative, captivating production of Pearl Fishers a must-see event for Seattle audiences. Performances run Oct. 17-31 (

Photos used by permission of: Ken Howard, San Diego Opera, Seattle Opera, Elise Bakketun (McKay, Zharoff, Kalil, Malashock), (Rhodes)
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Derrick Spiva Gets 2-For-1 Premiere: In Concert, On CD

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra opened its season with a new work by Derrick Spiva called ‘Prisms, Cycles, Leaps.’
(Photo by Hannah Arista)
By Rodney Punt 
LOS ANGELES – Record high temperatures ushered in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new season at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a serendipitous synching with the evocative climate zones of Prisms, Cycles, Leaps by composer Derrick Spiva, in a world premiere opener performance on Sept. 20. The event coincided exactly with the digital release of the same work, on the Orenda label, by a group called Bridge To Everywhere.
The L.A.based Spiva, who trained at UCLA and Cal Arts, is enjoying a weeklong residency with LACO through New Music USA’s “Music Alive” grant program. His Prisms, Cycles, Leaps embraces the modernist techniques of his teachers (a who’s who of local talent), but its character is derived from Spiva’s incorporation of diverse elements of folk music traditions from West Africa, India, Persia, and the Balkans.
Derrick Spiva's 'Prisms, Cycles, Leaps' has been recorded.
The 14-minute work left a beguiling impression of exotic colors and rhythms that included hand clapping in the percussion section and, across the stage, from two violinists. A throbbing pulse, de rigueur these days, fused together the bevy of irregular meters and the sometimes over-spiced aural mélange. After the boisterous first section, suggesting an African take on Copland’s El Salon México, the mood slackened in the second, with LACO’s sinewy double reeds evoking a kind of Hindustani hypnosis. The final section briefly refreshed the intensity before introducing a chorale-like tune that concluded with a walk down a major scale and a brass riff that evaporated with an eerily ascending whisper of the strings.
The essence of eclectic, Spiva’s Prisms, Cycles, Leaps seemed not so much a stand-alone piece as an atmospheric mood-setter for more to come. In fact it serves that purpose (listen at above right) in the album of works by Spiva that Orenda has just released.
For more of this review on Classical Voice North America, see here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A New Orchestra is Born thanks to Krzysztof Penderecki

It may seem far away but I'm sure we'll soon hear more of the young Polish musicians! Piotr Beczala also came from Poland.... 

And for the new orchestra of talents the conductor is American.

by Ewa Gorniak Morgan

We are lucky to create the Santander Orchestra!!!

Playing music together, as an orchestra, is one of the most wonderful experiences one can have. We are truly lucky. When the audience hears us playing straight from our hearts, engaged – they will return home convinced that they have just experienced the most exceptional moments of their lives. This is our common goalYou are in a unique situation: thanks to the Santander Orchestra, you are supported by many people who stand by your side and say: Conquer the world. Show your talent. This is what Maestro John Axelrod said to the young musicians who met for the first time at Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Luslawice.

The first meeting of the Santander Orchestra, which took place at the weekend of 19 to 21 September was both an introduction to intense orchestra workshops and the concert tour.
 Young people in Poland receive excellent technical training and their education stands at a very high level. However, they are not that good at managing their own careers. With the selection of exquisite teachers and the system of additional training, we want to first of all change the way of thinking of the young musicians, show them how many career paths are open to them in Poland, Europe and in the world, and encourage them to make a step forward, says Adam Balas, the Director of the Centre.

During this first meeting the young musicians got to know the names of the six tutors who would help them perfect their skills:
Roland Greutter (violin), the first concertmaster of the German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg; Julia Gartemann (viola), Berliner Philharmoniker; Robert Nagy (cello), leader of the cello section in Wiener Philharmoniker; Daniel Ottensamer (clarinet), soloist of Wiener Philharmoniker; Markus Maskunitty (horn), soloist of many symphony orchestras, professor at Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover; Arkadiusz Górecki (trombone), musician cooperating with Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

During the tour and concerts conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki and John Axelrod, Gábor Boldoczki will perform the composer’s Concertino for trumpet. He will also prepare the brass section of the orchestra. Moreover, the orchestra will cooperate with one of the participants of the International Chopin Piano Competition as the special soloist. The name of the person will be revealed in October, which is when the soloist will receive the special award sponsored by the Santander Orchestra and join the young musicians on their tour. All of this would not be possible without the substantial financial engagement of Bank Zachodni WBK. We feel a natural need for synergy between our business activity and investing in local communities, says Katarzyna Meissner, Public Relations Manager at Bank Zachodni WBK. When the project’s concept was being created a year ago, we wanted it to help us promote the value of teamwork, creativity and the courage to act. Today, seeing the musicians work with John Axelrod, I have no doubt that the plan succeeds.

Look out for them:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

René Barbera Strikes Another Harmonious Chord for SDO

By Erica Miner

Since the day tenor René Barbera’s North American debut recital for San Diego Opera was first announced, the anticipation has kept Facebook and Twitter buzzing. After his extraordinary  performance at SDO’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert last April ( local opera aficionados have hoped and wished to see and hear him again. 

Last night those hopes were fulfilled, as Barbera enchanted the Balboa Theatre audience with his charm, talent, and sheer polish and beauty of his voice. Every moment, every note, provided sheer joy and pleasure. No matter whether he was singing to the audience from left, right or center stage, his enormous, gorgeous sound reached every corner of the hall: a kind of tenor Surround Sound. 

Barbera has come a long way from playing a rock on stage in Hansel and Gretel, the opera that originally initiated his affection for that art form. Already a recipient of several high profile operatic awards, he has established himself as a leading tenor in the bel canto repertoire. Recently he sang for the first time two roles that helped cement his reputation as a major presence: Iopas in Berlioz’ Les Troyens (San Francisco Opera) and Giannetto in Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Italy). 

In his gracious introductory speech on stage, new SDO General Director David Bennett praised Barbera’s talent. Barbera, who clearly is in love with opera (, validated his affection in this concert program, a delectable tasting menu of beloved Italian, French, and Spanish favorites and zarzuela, spiced with a dash of Argentinian zest. The result was a cornucopia of operatic delights. Whatever the repertoire, Barbera made it look and sound easy, producing a vibrant, effulgent tone with seemingly effortless fioratura cascading from his voice, all with crisp enunciation in whatever language. 

Fresh from the Rossini Festival, Barbera started off fearlessly, with Vieni fra queste braccia from Gazza Ladra, an aria that for a tenor is like climbing Mount Everest without a carabiner. Barbera tossed off high “D”s like they were mere croutons atop a salad, whetting everyone’s appetite for the main course. But first, as appetizers, he served up four delicious Bellini art songs, performed with sensitivity and delicacy. Listening to Barbera interpret these paeans to the joys and sorrows of love would make even those for whom this composer is not a favorite (this writer among them) an instant fan. 

The entrée came with Bizet’s heartbreakingly beautiful Je crois Entendre Encore from Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Despite the difficulty of the language and tessitura, his French diction was impeccable and he showed no sign of strain, floating the difficult high notes with exquisite delicacy, his velvety tone staying consistent from top to bottom. 

Barbera added Spanish flavor to the mix with three of Fernando Obradors’ most popular love songs, ranging from sentimental to sensuous. Barbera was utterly comfortable in the language and tone of the selections. He made optimum use of his ability to spin long legato lines in the two longer pieces and displayed his fiery temperament in the vivacious final number.

Ending the first half with Gaetano Donizetti’s Ah! Mes amis…pour mon âme from La Fille du Régiment provided a sure fire hit, and exceeded expectations for an audience that had witnessed Barbera’s performance of the work at SDO’s April concert. Having proved he could accomplish the feat with ease and aplomb, Barbera savored every moment; his gasp-worthy rendition was even better this time around. The audience’s cheers were deafening. 

Post-intermission offerings consisted of panoplies of luscious desserts, opening with Basque-Spanish zarzuela composer Pablo Sorozábal’s No puede ser. This excerpt from his most popular and operatic zarzuela La Taberna del Puerto, aka Romance Marinero (Nautical Romance), affords a tenor the perfect opportunity to show the passion and beauty of his voice and is frequently performed by the world’s iconic tenors. Barbera held his own among them, rendering the bittersweet piece with the passion of Domingo and the elegance of Kraus, rocking the audience on the sea waves of the imaginary fishing port in which the work is set. It’s no wonder that Barbera was awarded First Prize for zarzuela at Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2011. 

Barbera then  drizzled  on some 20th century piquancy with Alberto Ginastera’s Cincos Canciones Populares Argentinas. The tenor further showed his remarkable versatility in these songs, which varied from lightning fast to introspective. He followed with a generous dollop of sinfully rich whipped cream in the perennial favorite Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, which he sang as though it had been written expressly for him. 

Capping the program were sprinkles of art songs from Paolo Tosti, Reveriano Soutullo and Juan Vert, perennial crowd pleasers - Rossini's La Danza and Augustin Lara's lilting Granada - and a gigantic cherry on top: an encore of La Donna È Mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Barbera sang with a full, rich tone, flirtatiously playing up both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the Duke’s character. The audience ate it up and left satiated, yet hungry for more of Barbera’s exceptional artistry. 

Accompanist Cheryl Cellon Lindquist ably performed the enormous variety of repertoire and stuck to Barbera like glue - not an easy accomplishment with such a spirited performer. 

A distinguished opera aficionado once told me his criterion for judging the merit of an opera singer was whether he wished the artist to keep singing. With last night’s shining accomplishment as an example, this writer without hesitation would counsel René Barbera to keep singing.

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