Friday, November 13, 2020

Tenors Brownlee and Spyres are “Friends” Forever

CD REVIEW: Lawrence Brownlee & Michael Spyres

Erato Label, New York


Celebrating Rossini is always a good idea. In their brand-new Erato CD, Amici e Rivali (“Friends and Rivals”), two of today’s shining stars in the tenor firmament, Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee, exult in the bel canto master’s works. From the familiar comedy Il Barbiere di Siviglia to more serious offerings from the lesser known Otello, Armida, La donna del Lago, Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Le Siège de Corinthe, and the rarely performed Ricciardo e Zoraide, the two tenors take on the roles of sparring tenors who clearly get along musically and, by all accounts, personally as well.

In the recording, produced at Teatro Ristori in Verona, Brownlee and Spyres obtain assistance from two outstanding young singers, Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga. Corrado Rovaris, Principal Conductor of I Virtuosi Italiani and a veteran of the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s birthplace of Pesaro, conducts the works on the program with great sensitivity, each one of which originated at the San Carlo opera house in Naples. The sequence of numbers on the program was created to suggest a sequential evolution depicting Rossini’s musical development.

Despite the contentious aspect of the CD’s title, the two artists have great admiration for each other’s abilities. They decided to collaborate after their first such effort at the Concertgebouw in 2018, to call attention to “this special time in the history of opera when two tenors would duel on stage for the hearts of the music-goers,” according to Spyres.

“Our voices complement each other because they have similar qualities to the voices that Rossini wrote for,” says Brownlee. Adds Spyres, “The duets that Rossini wrote for very different tenors precisely highlight our vocal strengths.”

That each of these singers motivates the other to aspire to the greatest possible vocal heights is evident in every one of the challenging excerpts, starting with the duet “All’ idea di quel metallo” from Act I of Barbiere. Within the first few measures, one hears a lushness of voice and tasteful, well-integrated ornamentation that would have brought smiles of approval from the composer. The baritenore aspect of Figaro’s share of the piece fits perfectly in Spyres’s full, supple voice (he actually started out as a baritone), and Brownlee’s leggiero tenor, a seamless combination of lyricism and brightness, is ideal for Almaviva’s part. His voice has not a speck of anything but perfection in its tone production and virtuosity. 

In the first number from Ricciardo e Zoraide, “S’ Ella mi è ognor fedele”, Brownlee displays his legendary legato from the very beginning; always a pleasure to listen to. A seemingly effortless High “C” anticipates the spectacular melismas in the cabaletta, creating an altogether satisfying experience. Everyone loves a Spanish tenor, and Anduaga shows that he can produce impressively in sound and technique, holding his own in the punishing but impressive “Qual sara mai la gioia”, while Spyres and Brownlee meld their sounds and techniques handsomely in “Donala a questo core” and anticipate the excitement of the much later William Tell in the heroic “Teco or Sara.”

Erraught’s splendid voice joins those of both tenors for “Nume! Se a’mei sospiri” and “Qual pena in me già” from La donna del lago. Their voices all are well suited to each other’s and blend consistently and equally. In this number the “Rivali” competitiveness between the two tenors—in full display, one high note after another—takes the breath away.

The melodious Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, perhaps the most Mozartean of the operas represented here, merits more frequent listening, and not only for the lively “Deh! Scusa i trasporti”. This duet, an equal opportunity piece for both tenors, shows that two voices singing in thirds can sound as one, in the best sense of the phrase.

The same holds true for “Non m'inganno: al mio rivale… Ah! vieni” from Otello. Here, Spyres and Anduaga conspire vengeance with rapid-fire coloratura and bravura and a furor that is positively Verdian, ending on an earth-shattering unison. “Che fiero punto è questo” again adds Erraught’s lovely vocal qualities to the mix, confirming the reasons for Rossini’s love for the coloratura mezzo-soprano fach which, after all, he invented.

Brownlee demonstrates that his awe-inspiring voice fits perfectly with the French language in “Grand Dieu, faut-il qu'un peuple” from Le Siège de Corinthe. Many singers have opined that French is the most difficult language to sing, but Brownlee’s performance here belies that view. The delicacy with which he negotiates the difficult high passages is astounding. “Cher Cléomène” commingles his voice with Erraught’s in a poignant duet that goes straight to the heart.

One can hardly imagine a more fitting finale for this spectacular display of vocal beauty and technique than Armida’s “In quale aspetto imbelle”. Spyres proves he can negotiate the entire range, from the extreme heights to the most profound low notes. Brownlee adds his crystal-clear tones to those of Spyres in a photo finish: a fit of vocal splendor and glory worthy of delight from any Rossini aficionado. In a word, breathtaking. If, as Spyres says of Rossini, “much of his writing for tenor set the boundaries for what the male voice could achieve,” then this sensational album is living proof. 


Photo credits: Shervin Lainez
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, November 2, 2020

David Gately: Directing Opera in the Time of Covid

Courtesy of the Artist

INTERVIEW: David Gately
Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall

Opera aficionados who were disappointed not to see Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love on the mainstage, will be able to see the frolicking romantic comedy in Seattle Opera’s semi-staged online video stream, available to season ticket holders from November 13–December 4, 2020. Recorded on the McCaw Hall stage at Seattle Center Studios, the cast features Madison Leonard, Michael Adams, Patrick Carfizzi, and Tess Altiveros. Carlo Montanaro conducts pianists and musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in a staging by David Gately designed especially for online streaming.

Seattle native Gately is a Seattle Opera veteran and has shared his unique talents over the last several decades with opera companies all over the US, Canada and in the UK and France.

Erica Miner: I liked your San Diego “Wild West” Don Pasquale a few years ago. 

David Gately: Yes, it was quite a few years ago [Laughs].

EM: You live in Seattle? 

DG: My home is here. I split my time between my teaching position at TCU, Texas Christian University, and Fort Worth Opera. I run the opera studio there and help integrate our opera program into their local opera scene, but I spend about half my year here in Seattle. It’s a bit of a jaunt to Texas, 4 hours even on a direct flight, but I can come and go pretty easily.

EM: Even these days?

DG: Not exactly. All our summer work was canceled, so I spent the entire summer at home. When I left Fort Worth in May, I drove all the way to Seattle, spent the whole summer here and then drove back in August. I enjoyed the drive. I did fly back here for this show. Flying is very different now, though I felt pretty safe on Delta. They really do an excellent job keeping people as safe as they can.

EM: I’m dying to know about this staging of SO’s Elixir of Love, designed especially for streaming. It must have been a real challenge, in this age of pandemic-driven performances, to mount such a production.

Philip Newton
DG: We have this huge list of health protocols that we have to follow, that come from the city, the state and from our union. They’re very stringent, even the rehearsal process itself. Only the people involved in the production are allowed to be around. Everyone else has to be on a Zoom meeting or watching on Zoom. People wore masks the entire rehearsal process until we actually got onstage. Some of the strictures were, you couldn’t come within 6 feet of anybody if you were not singing, but if you were singing right at someone it had to be a 20-foot distance away. If you were singing out the front, it wasn’t as important to be so far away. Props couldn’t be handed off. A prop had to be put in its place by a gloved prop person. So, if Dulcamara wants to give the bottle of elixir to Nemorino they can’t actually do it from hand to hand. It has to be set down, then sanitized and picked up again. It got quite complicated. However, because we were doing it for recording, we didn’t have to do it in order. We could, for instance, get to a certain point, stop, replace the prop, start rolling again. It looked like the same prop. We’d just do a cut and we’re right back in the action. We found some tricks that helped observe all of these protocols. Yet throughout, the audience won’t know we’re doing them. Initially the idea of this was some sort of concert version, but none of us were terribly interested in that. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

EM: As I’ve heard.

DG: We figured out a way to do a whole production—sets, lighting, costumes, props, everything—as a pretty regular production that is then captured and edited almost like a film—although we don’t have the time to do it like a film, since we only had about 3 days of recording. But it’s going to be edited and then streamed. That’s how it all came about.

EM: That sounds even wilder than the Wild West.

DG: [Laughs] The thing was, everybody was so excited to be working. In these times, nobody’s got a job. Everybody was just gung-ho to do whatever it was we had to do to ensure we could continue this project. Very rigid protocols. Everybody had to be Covid tested every 3 or 4 days. EM: Really? DG: The reason is, they found that if you are infected even 1 minute after your test, it still takes 3-4 days before you start shedding particles that can be infectious. If they test you every 3 days, you can really be on top of things if anybody became positive for Covid. We’re not really a bubble, where you only see the people you’re actually working with. Most of us are isolating ourselves, not doing anything outside except going home or to our hotel rooms, so we’re taking the process incredibly seriously. The protocols just to get into McCaw Hall are quite stringent. Everybody here is masked all the time unless they’re onstage performing. We all felt very safe about it because everyone took it so seriously.

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: With everything possible is being done, you come out of it with a performance that people can see and enjoy and appreciate, which these days is pretty rare.

DG: This one has its own special qualities, too. I was watching a rough cut yesterday. The cast is young, charming and fun, all wonderful actors. They don’t ever look like they’re performing onstage and just captured with a camera. They really look a bit like they’re in a movie. It’s really fun to watch. I think it’s going to be fun for people to see.

EM: How has it been to work with a very small cast and just a few musicians?

DG: There are 2 grand pianos, actually onstage right in the middle of the action, always playing, which gives it an almost Brechtian feel [Laughs]. Then there are 3 little specialty things that happen. At the beginning of Dulcamara’s aria, introduced with a trumpet fanfare, we have a trumpet player come onstage to be almost part of the action. Then Nemorino’s aria, the very famous Una furtiva lagrima, is accompanied by harp and bassoon, onstage with him. They’re surrounded by all this music making as they perform. But generally, it’s accompanied by 2 pianos.

Andrew Stenson; Philip Newton

EM: The musicians are pretty minimal in number.

DG: That’s correct. I think Christina (Scheppelmann, General Director) is trying to figure out how to involve the orchestra in the next production—Don Giovanni, which I’m not doing. But this is our first foray into this (format) and we want to be really careful, so the logical thing seemed to do it with 2 pianos. The Maestro (Carlo Montanaro) conducts the whole show, so it has a continuity and unity. These are very lively musicians, so the music is fun and exciting to listen to.

Carlo Montanaro
Philip Newton

EM: Sounds like Experimental Theatre.

DG: [Laughs.]

EM: With everything so new, being done for the first time, it must be a huge challenge to make it work. 

DG: It is. I can’t say this new Elixir is going to break new ground as far as concept goes. We’ve kept it pretty straightforward, updated it, set in the 50s, but no chorus, only the 5 principals. I set it in rural Italy because it lends itself to the naïveté of the rural folk. The experimentation and excitement are for the performers to be absolutely natural onstage, not like performing for the big house. They relate to each other as characters and tell the story in a slightly different way. If somebody is looking to see some off-the-wall, groundbreaking Elixir, this isn’t the one. We had our hands full just figuring out how we were going to do it in this manner. But in and of itself I think it’s innovative in a whole lot of different ways. 

Tess Altiveros, Andrew Stenson
Philip Newton

EM: I would call it groundbreaking in that this is your first foray, you’ve never done it this way before, and it’s setting a very good precedent, allowing people to perform and others to get their opera fix.

DG: That’s absolutely true. In reality we’re going to have to do this for a while longer. People are already canceling next year’s season, Broadway is not going to open now until, who knows, January 2022. People ask me when I think this is going to be over and we’ll go back to whatever normal is. My answer is whenever 2,000 people feel comfortable sitting in a room breathing each other’s air, then we’ll be able to go back to performing live. Until that happens, we’re going to have to find other ways. I agree that this is groundbreaking. I give Christina Scheppelmann credit for that. She was the one who conceived of doing this and said no, we’re not just going to do stage concert versions, we’re going to do a production. She was the person who spurred us all on to create this thing. Hopefully it will be a guide for other companies to follow suit.

EM: Brava to Christina. I interviewed her when she first came here and found her ingenious, creative and full of great ideas. I’m not surprised that she came up with this concept. She probably has lots of others. The times are forcing people to be really creative.

DG: She’s totally a force of nature, not just going to sit around and wait. She’ll keep this company relevant. She has so much energy, she’ll make things happen. I feel very encouraged.

Patrick Carfizzi
Philip Newton

EM: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a long list of opera companies and educational institutions as in your CV, David. How have you managed to work with so many?

DG: Well, I’m old [Laughs]. I’ve been in the business for a long time. In the late 70s I was on staff with Houston Grand Opera, mostly as assistant director. I went out on my own around 1979, with little companies in the US, and started working my way up. I was fortunate to have a lot of people supporting me when I was getting started. Companies made me a regular, which helped me stay in the business and have a regular income. I started with a lot of comedy. Comedy is so much harder. You can only do so much and not get burned out. So, I’d say, yeah, I’ll do your Barber, but I really want to your Bohème too [Laughs]. And they would go, okay. Then I started to branch out into everything. Thanks to Darren Woods, of Fort Worth Opera, I’m now doing tons of new opera. I’ve even done 2 world premieres at TCU. I did Falling and the Rising, a joint production with the Army band, and last year I did Yeltsin in Texas, a comedy by Evan Mack. Doing new works is incredibly exciting for me. The education aspect sort of crept up on me. I actually ran the Brevard training program for young singers for 5 years. And I didn’t have to give up my freelance career. I’ve been busy [Laughs].

EM: You must be one of the few people who can combine academia with performing.

DG: It isn’t easy. I have an incredibly supportive group of administrators over me who really understand that doing outside projects helps the TCU program get better known. My contract as Professor of Professional Practice allows me to go out and practice professionally. It all works to keep me out there in the business.

EM: What was it like to direct a concert version of the opera Angels in America by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös?

DG: He used Tony Kushner’s version of the play. His wife did the libretto, basically condensing the text so you could see both plays in one evening. Act 1 is the first part and Act 2 the second. I got a lot of mileage out of that. It got me to London with the BBC Orchestra and with the LA Philharmonic, fully staged concert versions. I was an interesting piece. I don’t think it was flawless, but it was exciting to work on that material, and to talk to Tony Kushner about the plays. He came to L.A. and just loved it. He said it was fun to see the play in such a stripped-down version on a concert stage without a lot of sex and stuff, that it made the characters even more vivid. It was really great to meet and talk to him because I have been such a fan for so many years. And he’s very generous of spirit. Some people are incredibly protective of their works. Edward Albee wouldn’t allow people to mess with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at all. Yet somebody called up Tony Kushner and said, “Do we make an opera of Angels in America?” And he said, “Yeah, cool, excellent!” [Laughs].

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: You also directed Matthew Peterson’s Voir Dire and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls. Were these two 21st century works very different?

DG: Both amazing. The score that Jorge wrote was so gorgeous orchestrally. In Miami they took this piece so much to heart even though it was about a rather controversial gay writer who was very anti-Castro, moved to New York and was hated by the right wing because he came out. An incredibly interesting story, and beautifully done. Voir Dire was another amazing piece, taken from courtroom transcripts from a small court in Wisconsin and translated into this wild, riveting, almost circus-like evening. At times hysterically funny, at times devastating, about people who went through the legal system. It was a wonderful experience. I love working on new pieces. They’re the most exciting to me. Matthew is a wonderful writer. He’s an American who lives in Sweden.

EM: Thank you, David, for your insightful responses. I look forward to seeing what is sure to be a unique Elixir.

Philip Newton


Photo credits:

Courtesy of the Artist; Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]  

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Stephen Powell Boldly Steps into American Song

Sue Reno

CD REVIEW: Stephen Powell

Philadelphia, Acis Recordings 

According to renowned baritone Stephen Powell, “to perform the work of living composers with the composers themselves playing their compositions” is “a singer’s dream.” That dream has come to fruition in Powell’s new CD, “American Composers at Play.”

Powell has called the venture a “modest effort to produce definitive interpretations.” The project is hardly modest; releasing a CD of vocal works entirely made up of 20th and 21st century composers is a brave and bold effort on his part.

Thoughtfully programmed and splendidly executed, the recording is worthy of the highest praise, starting with unconditional admiration for Powell’s baritone voice, which sounds as glorious as ever. He has proved himself superbly capable of singing the classics; now he demonstrates his versatility in an ambitious gathering of songs by four living American composers, three of whom were born after 1950. 

The program opens beautifully with Lori Laitman’s “The Wind Sighs,” Poet’s aria from Act 1 of Ludlow (2012). This lush, passionate composition reflects a poet’s musings about the arroyos of Colorado, which he remembers from his childhood, and expresses regrets about the loss of his youth and its familiar places. “The blue was cold…the red was blood…of the immigrants.” The vocal range drifts into baritenore territory; Powell negotiated the very high tessitura with ease and great beauty.

The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay were an important part of Ricky Ian Gordon’s childhood, and “Souvenir” (2003) also speaks of remembrance. “Just a rainy day or two…And a bitter word…was all I had of you…” the poet sighs. The folksy, sentimental song, accompanied by a cello obbligato, is a world premiere recording. Powell expresses his yearning with achingly beautiful tones and touching sensitivity. 

In “Enough Rope,” based on texts by the ever-tongue-in-cheek Dorothy Parker, John Musto offers lively agitation (“Social Note”) coupled with social commentary reminiscent of Gershwin (“Résumé) and Britten-like evocative description in “The Sea.” The contrast between these three commentaries is deftly defined by Powell’s versatility and impeccable diction.

William Bolcom’s “Waitin” evokes a gospel song atmosphere. The range and legato phrasing are reminiscent of the traditional “Ol’ Man River.” Written in the middle of the most sumptuous range of Powell’s instrument, the brief but touching song shows off the most resplendent tones of Powell’s voice. 

Ken Yanagisawa

Each of the other songs of these exemplary American composers offers an aspect that is unique and intriguing. The clever lyrics in Laitman’s “Men with Small Heads” poke fun at human nature and add comic interest with the singer’s falsetto. Bolcom’s “Can’t Sleep” evokes a Lullaby atmosphere, with a hint of Gershwin channeling—and a bit of Kurt Weill-like sprechstimme—in his “Black Max.” (One would love to hear Powell sing some Gershwin.)

A large chunk of the repertoire portrays certain truths about American life, death and money. Laitman’s “Money” is the most operatic of the works, and Powell spins every note and word as if born to them; perhaps he was. Musto’s “The Brief Light” adds variety, with its Spanish rhythm and guitar accompaniment. Bolcom’s “Lady Death” is positively macabre.

“At every age, we should remain stubbornly dissatisfied, always pushing the frontiers of what we—and the music itself—can contribute to the world,” Powell asserts. “In sharing this lesson with me, these four giants have liberated my American voice.”

“American Composers at Play” occupies an important place among CDs that have appeared in the midst of these troubled times. We look forward to hearing more of Powell’s now-liberated voice as it continues to grow, mature, and give pleasure to discriminating listeners of all ages and nationalities. 

Sue Reno


Photo credits: Photo credits: Sue Reno; Ken Yanagisawa
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Stilwell, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a Savior

James Scholz

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Chicago Lyric Opera

EM: Besides the Argento and Pasatieri premieres, you also debuted Lidholm’s A Dream Play. Do you find performing new operas especially challenging, or enjoy singing something new

RS: Yes, challenging and exciting. A lot of repertoire you do over and over, while finding new things within those pieces, but something totally new is interesting. Certain contemporary operas are more challenging than others. Pasatieri’s Seagull and Lidholm’s Dream Play were quite tonal and great fun. I also did Pasatieri’s Ines de Castro with Baltimore Opera. I was a good friend of Tom’s and it was special having a piece written for you. He’d say, “Would you like a high ‘G’ here?” And I’d say, “Yeah, that’d be great.” [Laughs]

EM: Nothing like knowing the composer.

RS: Argento’s works, however, do present challenges. In addition to The Aspern Papers, which is more tonal, I also did his Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe at Chicago Lyric. That was a beast. Tough, quite atonal, but powerful, wonderful once learned. In that realm is the music of Unsuk Chin, a South Korean who’s mostly lived in Europe, Germany. She wrote an Alice in Wonderland, which I learned for Geneva Opera late in my career. She had been a student of Ligeti, which may give you a clue as to her style. Very atonal, spiky, difficult. But once learned it was an exciting production. The style worked for this bizarre “mind trip” of this familiar tale. I was the King of Hearts [Laughs]. But I loved working with Argento, a wonderful man. I visited him several times in his home in Minneapolis. Great guy.

EM: You’ve also done recordings. The Met Bohème, for example.

RS: Magic in the air. The cast all loved working with Franco Zeffirelli. We knew it would be recorded and telecast “Live via Satellite.” I adored working with Teresa Stratas, especially our 3rd act scene together. Such a terrific singer-actress. I remember seeing her in Mahagonny. I loved it. You really had to up your game when onstage with her. I think we fed off each other’s characters very well. I also loved Carreras, who had done Bohème with me at NYCO in 1972 when he first came to the States. We got to know each other then. Being a part of that longest continually running production in the Met’s history, that’s pretty special.

EM: I was in the orchestra when Zeffirelli created it. People will always come to see it.

RS: Then singing on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning Amadeus, another wonderful memory.

EM: Did you do Don Giovanni?

RS: Yes, and the Count in Figaro. [Sings] “Contessa, perdono.” The director, Miloš Forman, wanted me to actually be in the movie. But I would have had to cancel an important Met contract. I asked him through my agent how much time was involved. He said, “We really have no idea.” [Laughs] They ended up spending many months there in Prague. That was one regret that I couldn’t be in it, but it still was amazing to have been part of that soundtrack. The Falstaff film with Götz Friedrich was probably the hardest project I’d ever undertaken. We recorded the soundtrack first with the Vienna Phil under Solti, then moved to these vast film studios in West Berlin to record the video. The singers had to lip sync to the soundtrack while creating the visual. It was tough coordinating, tedious work shooting from different camera angles several times a shot, 12 to 14 hours every day 7 days a week for 5 weeks. The final product turned out very well, We were all totally exhausted by the finish. But it was memorable. Gabriel Bacquier did Falstaff, another one of my vocal heroes.

EM: And Leppard’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse?

Guy Gravett
RS: That was special. The cast had just done 10 performances at Glyndebourne, then we took the train to London to record. Dear Flicka was Penelope. I was one lucky baritone regarding this opera, one of my favorites. In ’73 I had made my debut at Glyndebourne singing Ulysses opposite Dame Janet Baker. From Baker to von Stade was a dream come true. Working with Peter Hall directing was just phenomenal. Music theatre at its best. I was even able to use my archery skills from when I was younger. There’s a scene where Ulysses kills off the suitors. I had archery practice a couple of times a week. The production won all sorts of awards in England. The recording was nominated for a best opera recording Grammy in 1981. Pretty special.

EM: You’ve done quite a long stint at Chicago Lyric Opera.

RS: I performed in more productions with Lyric than any other house, like 15 seasons. Some all-time favorites like Gluck’s Orfeo, a gorgeous production choreographed by the great George Balanchine. He actually choreographed me moving between the dancers—not dancing, mind you, that wouldn’t work—but rhythmic walking, very special. I did the Hal Prince Butterfly production. He was wonderful to work with. He didn’t do that many operas, but he created a wonderful production. I think it was shown on PBS’s Great Performances. A Faust with the superstar cast of Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Alfredo Kraus, also televised. The Argento Edgar Allen Poe was a highlight, as was Sir David McVicar’s Billy Budd, in which I sang Mr. Redburn. I did Ponnelle’s Don Giovanni. I’ve always loved Chicago, Kerry’s hometown. The teaching job at Chicago College of Performing Arts came from a phone call from my dear friend Judy Haddon, who still is teaching there. My singing career was slowly winding down. I decided to accept that part-time job, commuting between D.C. and Chicago. My in-laws lived nearby in Evanston. I stayed with them and assisted with their needs over the years. Payback for the generosity they had shown Kerry and me. Kerry’s mother Barbara was one of my favorite people in the world. I adored her enough to write an extended epic poem about her, “Ode to Barbara.” I recited it at her funeral. I was able to teach and be a family caregiver for 18 years. My colleagues were like family. David Holloway, Michael Best. Our Dean used to call the 4 of us his “Met Quartet.” Through the years were many other teaching colleagues: Cynthia Clarey, Alan Glassman.

EM: Small world, opera. Are there any roles you haven’t performed that you wish you had?

RS: Not many, in a career spanning almost 45 years, plus 18 years teaching. I was very fortunate. My other love is Broadway musicals. I did manage to squeeze in productions of South Pacific, Man of la Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet.

EM: Is that all?

RS: [Laughs] I would have loved doing Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the role of Fredrik. That would have been a lot of fun. I missed out singing Wolfram in Tannhäuser, the only Wagnerian role I might have, or should have, done. I was contracted for a Peter Sellars production at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The funding was lost for some reason and the project was canceled. I’ve sung that aria many times. I missed out performing Papageno at historic Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. At that time, 1973, when I had my contract, Perón regained power in Argentina and nationalized the theatre. I received notice just weeks before my departure for South America that my contract was void and invalid because it was signed under the old regime. Perhaps it was just as well. People were being killed every day on the streets. Not such a good time to be there. There was political stuff going in Milano when I was there. The Communists were marching one day, the Fascists the next. The early 70s were really—we think about today, but looking back, lots going on.

EM: Overall, though, it sounds like you’ve gotten to do dream work.

RS: I’ve been really fortunate. No regrets.

EM: We’ve been lucky to see and hear you.

RS: Thank you, I appreciate it.

EM: On a somewhat sobering note, could you talk about the effect that Covid-19 has had on you personally?

RS: Since I’ve been retired from the music world for a few years, Covid has not affected me musically. I’ve been quarantined with my wife, rarely venturing out. However, we have been frustrated in not being able to visit with our new 4 ½-month-old grandson, our one and only grandchild, who lives near San Francisco, to hold or cuddle him. Thankfully we can visit via FaceTime. That keeps us from going insane. 

EM: And its effects on the music world in general?

RS: I get very emotional hearing sad stories of many colleagues who have lost jobs, forced to pick up and move or downsize just to pay rent and mortgage. Everyone is frightened and suffering, especially as the virus remains unchecked in much of the country. Very few are working at all. Those few who’ve gotten European contracts are being locked out because America has failed with protocol procedures. It’s very grim, not only for opera but for all the arts. I do think things will turn around, but very slowly. We can only hope the damage will not be irreparable. We’ve suffered as a country the last 20 years but always rebounding. I used to do “Food for Thought” lectures and talked about the economic meltdown of 2009 and 9-11, about the importance of the arts at such times. What I said then applies to today’s pandemic. 

EM: Could you share that with us?

RS: It’s this: “The world is in a perilous state with war, famine, flood and disease. It seems we’re facing calamities of a Biblical nature. Our country is in crisis, which forces me once again to question the intrinsic worth of our simple endeavors to communicate a convincing message. What does it really matter how we relate a song and touch a heart? I honestly believe there is great worth in our efforts, even more so in perilous times…We strive to be artists creating pictures with our voices the way painters highlight and make shadows with their brushes. We strive to be poets with the text of a song, delivering a message which will touch the depths of the soul or create laughter, relieving tension brought on by such woes. We strive to be fine actors, creating space and time of another era. In that sense we become historical educators. Ultimately we render music to an audience of racial, cultural and ethnic differences, knowing the message we impart has none of these boundaries. In that sense we become ambassadors of the arts to all people.” So if we have to do it virtually for a while, so be it. We must improvise and perform in any way possible while still remaining safe.

EM: We’ve all had some bad moments, but personally it’s been music that’s saved me.

RS: Absolutely. I’m listening to music more now than in many years, rediscovering things that I’d forgotten. There are some upsides to this craziness. Music is a savior.

EM: When this is all over, think how glorious it will feel to see our wonderful artists get up onstage and share their talents in the noble cause of music, having been deprived of it for who knows how long.

RS: I’m tearing up, thinking about it. This world is made better by music and the people who make music. It will come back.

EM: We have to have hope. And on that note, thank you, Richard, for so generously sharing your experiences and philosophies with us.

RS: Thank you so much, Erica. 


Photo credits: James Scholz, Guy Gravett, Szabo
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Richard Stilwell: From Rock n' Roll to the Met

Jack Mitchell
Jack Mitchell

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Baritone Richard Stilwell is surely one of Saint Louis’s favorite sons. From his childhood growing up in the iconic midwestern city to his stint in the U.S. Army chorus and ultimately to the stages of the most prestigious opera houses on the planet, the exquisite voice, dramatic stage presence and winning personality of this Grammy-nominated artist have garnered kudos throughout the opera world and beyond. His singing, in a word: ravishing. 

Now retired, mention of the renowned singer’s name still evokes impressive respect and genuine admiration. I was fortunate enough to capture his attention for the following interview—and to be regaled with some of his singing.

Erica Miner: How would you describe your journey to the opera stage?

Richard Stilwell: Unlikely, considering my young years. I loved singing from a very early age, in church and high school. I had never been exposed to the world of opera, nor classical music, before late high school years. I grew up with Pop, Rock n’ Roll, Gospel and Country Music— everything but classical. My first taste of opera was hearing Mario Lanza on an LP from the soundtrack of the movie The Great Caruso in a record shop in St. Louis when I was about 17. I stood enthralled for a long time before asking the salesman what kind of music that was. I’d never heard anything like it. He said, “Italian opera,” and explained a little about it. I bought the LP, played it over and over, totally mesmerized by the power and passion of Lanza’s voice singing those arias. The door to opera had been opened and would never close again.

EM: What happened next?

RS: I attended a Liberal Arts college and had my first voice lessons—a total revelation. But this school was not my cup of tea. I dropped out, worked a year in a shoe warehouse and through a family friend learned of the St. Louis Opera Guild. I was getting the music bug, so I sang for the director, Dorothy Ziegler, and was hired to sing Silvio in Pagliacci and one of the Gypsies in Carmen. Dorothy set up a recital to introduce me to Mozart and others, and took me under her wing, like a mentor. When she accepted a position at Indiana University in Bloomington for the following school year, she suggested I audition for the Music School. I was accepted as a music major, was cast in several operas in the next 2 years, entered the Met National Council auditions and advanced to the finals (1965). Rudolph Bing’s assistant John Gutman, a judge in St. Louis, had advanced me to the finals. He gave me some great advice as to what rep I should sing. My studies were interrupted, though, by the Vietnam War and the “dreaded draft,” as we called it. My student deferment had run out and I was reclassified as “1A”, which meant I was about to be drafted! Time to push the Panic Button [Laughs]. Fortunately I had heard of the US Army chorus at Ft. Myers in Arlington, Va. I auditioned, was accepted and spent 3 years serving my country in this esteemed ensemble of top-notch voices. I was lucky to get in. Otherwise I would have been sent to Vietnam and probably ended up with my name on the Memorial Wall in Washington.

EM: Perish the thought!

RS: After that, in 1969, I moved to New York City and connected with Matthew Epstein at Columbia Artists Management. The next year I made my New York City Opera debut in their Pelléas. By luck, my lyric baritone was well suited to the role. I was with them until 1975, when I made my Met debut. That was how the journey unfolded.

Beth Bergman
EM: Right time, place, people.

RS: Oh yes.

EM: How important have Santa Fe Opera and Glyndebourne been in your career?

RS: Extremely important for my operatic growth. For several years I was hired by one or the other of these two summer festivals. Santa Fe Opera introduced me to Frederica von Stade, whom you know well [Laughs]. We did Pelléas and Mélisande in 1972, then collaborated on several concerts and productions. Other wonderful Santa Fe productions were Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Magic Flute, Butterfly, Fledermaus, Capriccio, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Eugene Onegin. During the “auspicious summer” of 1980, I met my wife-to-be there, Kerry McCarthy, an apprentice artist with the company. We were married 3 years later. Just last summer our younger son was married there on the opera grounds, right where I had first met Kerry. We obviously have fond memories of Santa Fe, one of my favorite places on earth. Glyndebourne was important for the quality of casting, musical preparation, and beauty of the location. They drew from the top tier of worldwide talent. It was magical, very special. I performed with Dame Janet Baker, Elisabeth Söderstrom, Flicka, and many other wonderful artists.

EM: Which operas did you perform?

RS: Return of Ulysses was my debut. Then Capriccio, directed by the wonderful John Cox, Figaro, and a wonderful production of Onegin, with directors like Peter Hall of the London Shakespeare Company. The owners of the manor house where the opera was located, Sir George and Lady Mary Christie, were superb hosts. We had become close friends. Top-notch conductors: Sir Andrew Davis, Raymond Leppard, Sir John Pritchard, Bernard Haitink. I remember many long walks in the fabulous English gardens. Nature at its finest. I was into bird photography and captured nesting mute swans with newly hatched cygnets. My Onegin director was Michael Hadgimischev, a Bulgarian whose father had been in the Russian court of Czar Nicholas. As a boy Michael been part of this royal milieu. Imagine!

EM: He must have had incredible stories.

RS: [Laughs] He spoke about 6 languages fluently and would go back and forth between German, Bulgarian, English, French, on a dime. He knew more about Pushkin’s Russia than just about anybody around at the time. What a connection to history and the arts, particularly this Tchaikovsky opera, something so well remembered from that festival.

Guy Gravett 
EM: How exciting was it to make your Met debut as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte? (1975)

RS: Very. As you can imagine from all your years in the Met Orchestra, a highlight of one’s career. One of Mozart’s most celebrated masterpieces on that stage was just mind-blowing for me, a dream come true. A long, long way from church solos and high school gigs.

EM: And Rock ‘n Roll?

RS: [Laughs] Yes.

EM: It must have been nerve-wracking.

RS: I wasn’t too nervous about it. I had spent 5 years at City Opera doing good work and felt I was up and rolling. Obviously a big deal, but more exciting than nervous making. My colleagues were all wonderful. Elizabeth Harwood, who unfortunately was taken from us much too soon, a beautiful lyric soprano. Anne Howells, mezzo, Ryland Davies, tenor from Yorkshire, Renato Capecchi, Colette Boky. Harwood, Howells and Davies I had known from Glyndebourne. We all made our Met debuts simultaneously. There was much to mutually celebrate—a family affair.

EM: Was that why you felt so comfortable, singing with people you felt close to?

RS: It was. An old, well-worn production. We had a good time with it.

EM: I’m sure that was a big contrast to Billy Budd. I was playing in the Met Orchestra when you sang the title role. That must have been a high-pressure premiere. (1978)

RS: For sure. [Laughs] A few years before, in 1971, near the beginning of my career, I’d actually made my debut at Hamburg Opera with this role, replacing another singer who had canceled because of a serious illness. I jumped in at the last moment and had a nice success. Back then such operas were done in German. I somehow learned it in 2 weeks, don’t ask how. When you’re young, such feats are possible. It certainly wouldn’t be possible today [Laughs]. That production was directed by John Dexter, who shortly after came to the Met as Production Director. He asked me to do the title role in a similar production. Having done it previously took some pressure off me. The Met’s use of hydraulic lifts to create those wonderful ship decks was new and exciting. Do you remember?

EM: Do I? I’d never seen such a gorgeous production.

RS: Nor have I. We were all on pins and needles, hoping these hydraulics always worked. Fortunately they did. I was in heaven with this cast and ensemble. Of course I got to perform with Sir Peter Pears as Captain Vere, creator of this role, a wonderful colleague. And Jim Morris as evil John Claggart, and the rest of the crew of the Indomitable. Preparing for this role I found a book on stuttering, Billy’s fatal flaw. I was fascinated how debilitating this could be in serious cases. I learned that some would almost experience a seizure trying to get words out, they would be so blocked. I tried to utilize this knowledge when breaking into Billy’s stammering. Raymond Leppard conducted wonderfully, as you no doubt remember.

EM: I do.

RS: I did finally have to learn the role in English, but with great joy. I’d also become a close friend of Theodore Uppman, the original Billy Budd with Benjamin Britten. We had a couple of sessions about the character, what Britten had told him in their work. That connection was wonderful.

EM: You brought something special to the role. You had this angelic aura around you. Such a striking figure. And your portrayal was so poignant. It made the whole opera.

RS: Thank you. I do appreciate that. I was excited to be on that stage. I loved clambering around those decks. I’m a ship aficionado, I always loved old sailing ships, even before Billy Budd, and collected a lot of ship memorabilia.

EM: So you were happy as a clam.

RS: I was, I loved that set.

EM: The year after that, you recorded Pelléas et Mélisande with Karajan. What was it like to work with such a conducting icon? (1979)

RS: That was something else. Pelléas was probably the most important of all my repertoire. My professional career began singing it at City Opera, directed by Frank Corsaro. He’d become an important mentor to me, attending his opera classes in New York, I fondly remember. He taught me so much about performing. After my audition, Julius Rudel asked me if I thought I could sing the role in the upcoming production. I was not at all familiar with the opera. I was taken into a rehearsal room with head coach Thomas Martin and sang through some of the score, and determined within a few minutes that I could sing it. I was hired to cover, with a guarantee of 1 performance that season. As luck would have it, Winthrop Sargeant of The New Yorker and Harold Schonberg of The New York Times were in the audience that night. They both gave me rave reviews. The role is often too high for many baritones and too low for tenors. Fortunately it fit my voice perfectly. Shortly thereafter I sang it in Santa Fe, Chicago, La Fenice, La Scala, Royal Opera, Paris Opera and finally recorded it under von Karajan, with Flicka. She and I were nervous going into these sessions. He sometimes had a reputation as being difficult. But he was a great joy to work with—the softer, gentler Karajan. Pelléas had been on his to-do list for some time. He was in a great mood, and oh my God, the Berlin Philharmonic, so superb. José van Dam as Golaud, had always been one of my vocal heroes. With my dear friend Flicka, that made it that much more special. We all had a grand, exciting time. Definitely one of the highlights of my entire career.

Courtesy of the Artist

EM: Did Karajan choose you?

RS: He did. The strangest audition ever, in Berlin. I’d prepared part of the “Tower” scene, which is the closest thing to an aria in the opera. But he sat down at the piano and said, “I want you to do this.” I thought, “Now what?” [Laughs] From the last meeting between Pelléas and Mélisande, I sang these lines (sings) “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” Apprehensive, mezzo piano. He says, “No, no, no, no, it’s much too loud. Softer.” So I sing, “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” “No, no, still too loud. Softer, softer.” Insisting. So I go (whispers), “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” He said, “Yes! That’s it. When I record my Pelléas, you will be my Pelléas.” EM: Oh my God. RS: And I thought, “What? I’m not holding my breath on this one.” But lo and behold, a year or so later I got the contract. Couldn’t have been nicer.

EM: Sounds like the closest thing to heaven. 

RS: No kidding. I couldn’t believe the way it happened. Everyone loved working with him. The atmosphere was conducive to camaraderie. He was lord and master of the orchestra, of course. If there was any rustle of noise he would lower his head till there was complete silence. Then he would go [Laughs]. I’ll never forget that. He was something else. Pretty amazing.

EM: How have yours and Flicka’s musical lives intersected over the years?

RS: Do you have a couple of hours? You know how special she is. She has been a godsend to my life, for all the operatic community. One of the most talented, giving, warm, loving people on earth. I’m fortunate to be her close friend for over 50 years now. Matthew Epstein managed both of us for much of our careers. From the beginning Pelléas in Santa Fe he saw the remarkable chemistry between us onstage. Whenever possible he would try to cast us together. That led to Così fan tutte as Guglielmo and Dorabella with San Francisco Opera, Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at NYCO, Washington D.C. and Glyndebourne. Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull, world premiere in Houston, Dominic Argento’s The Aspern Papers world premiere in Dallas. Later again in San Francisco, Così but as Alfonso and Despina. We went full circle. We’ve done recitals and concerts together, I’ve spoken in tribute to her on several occasions, some with the Met Guild, and for 2 of her Farewell Concerts. But wait, there’s more. Serendipitously, Flicka’s daughter Jenny lives with her husband and 2 daughters about 5 minutes from my house in Virginia. It’s just one of those things. So before Covd-19, Flicka would often be in town visiting the family and Kerry and I would meet up with her and her family and we’d talk about the old days. I love being around her granddaughters—one of them got a crush on me, such fun. In our senior years this has been a true blessing, the “icing on the cake” of our relationship. Fantastic.

EM: The way certain people connect in a certain way is just meant to be.

RS: I think so. Certainly the case with Flicka and me.

EM: You’re both such special people and extraordinary artists. 

 [Next, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a savior]


Photo credits: Jack Mitchell, Beth Bergman, Guy Gravett, Heffernan, Courtesy of the Artist
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

iPalpiti Festival 2020 Livestreaming

Trio Zadig play Tchaikovsky and Dvořák from Paris

Tchaikovsky in 1877.
As a title, “The Months” has hardly the turning-of-the-year resonance of “The Seasons,” but it would be a more accurate appellation for the 12 piano pieces commissioned late in 1875 from Tchaikovsky by the St. Petersburg editor Nikolai Bernard. These were for the following year’s editions of his monthly music magazine Nuvellist, and Bernard also chose subjects for each piece—e.g. January “by the fireside,” April the “snowdrop”, June a “barcarolle”, and so on—and all 12 editions (except, according to one source, September) opened with that month’s piece alongside a short poem and graphic illustration, also selected by Bernard. 

Though they share a simple ABA form, there’s plenty of variety in mood, texture, and pace across the dozen months in The Seasons Op. 37a, and so while they make a quite satisfactory whole, totaling 40-45 minutes, they also excerpt well. Trio Zadig, artists-in-residence at the Fondation Singer-Polignac in Paris, opened their contribution to this year’s (inevitably mostly virtual) iPalpiti Festival, with five selections in the arrangement for piano trio by the little-known Russian composer Alexander Goedicke (1877-1957). 

Alexander Goedicke.
Whatever the merits of Goedicke’s own music (n.b. to self: see what’s on YouTube), in these arrangements he seems not to put a foot wrong. Leaving Tchaikovsky’s piano original largely unaltered in those passages where the violin and cello are silent, elsewhere he skillfully allots melodic lines to either or both of the strings, with or without mutes as appropriate, and with much use of pizzicato coloring.

Trio Zadig’s selection cleverly moved through one month per season: the warmly confiding January by its fireside followed by the freshness of April’s snowdrop, in turn succeeded by the memorably wistful barcarole of June—the one indelibly knockout Tchaikovsky tune in the whole set, which has resulted in it being far more frequently performed as a standalone item than any of the others.

So far, so good, with the music spaciously and sensitively characterized in the clear acoustic of the Fondation’s recital room (the screen image of the two strings quite close together, well in front of the piano, emphasized that the latter was rather backwardly balanced), but to have inserted the vigorous and quite brief September “Hunt” between June and the even more soulful “Autumn Song” of October would have broken up 10+ minutes of rather unrelieved Slavic melancholy. No matter, concluding with December’s waltz—just as in the complete work—was exactly right: elegantly and unhurriedly swaying for the most part, with the Trio delivering perfectly Tchaikovsky’s subtle, throwaway end. 

Antonin Dvořák.
Cellist Marc Girard-Garcia took rather more notice of Dvořák’s Lento maestoso marking than the metronome quarter-note = 56 at the head of the first movement of the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor Op. 90 B. 166 “Dumky”, composed in 1891, and with his forward balance and sweeping phrasing, kicked the work off powerfully indeed, arguably a little too portentously for the high-spirited dance into which the movement devolves.

For me, this pattern of over-emphasizing contrasts of dynamic and pace, loading the slow music with weight it’s not quite up to carrying, and precipitating jolting charges into the fast sections, carried through the whole performance. But then, I am probably in a minority of one in finding the Dumky Trio as a whole a rather odd, unsatisfactory bird in Dvořák’s chamber music. But there’s no denying the sheer panache and professionalism of his piano trio writing per se, and M. Girard-Garcia and his colleagues Boris Borgolotto (violin) and Ian Barber (piano) certainly played throughout with great beauty, commitment, and unanimity.

Let’s hope we have the chance to hear them again live in Southern California when this craziness is finally over. Meanwhile you can enjoy these performances online by clicking either the image above or here


Photos: Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky Research; Goedicke: Bach Cantatas website; Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

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