Thursday, February 4, 2021

Beth Morrison “Doesn’t Take No for an Answer”


Michal Fattal

INTERVIEW: Beth Morrison



“Failure is not an option” 

One of the world’s foremost, most adventurous female producers of contemporary opera, and a tireless champion of diverse voices, opera-theatre producer Beth Morrison unequivocally embraces her seemingly limitless drive. As President and Creative Producer of Beth Morrison Projects, initiated in 2006, Morrison recently was named one of Musical America's four Artists of the Year/Agents of Change. Through her pioneering annual winter PROTOTYPE Festival, in collaboration with the HERE Arts Center, she has worked with prominent contemporary opera composers and other forward-looking operatic creators to conceive and produce multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning operas.

Having just completed its 9th run last month, the Festival was re-envisioned in response to COVID as a series of multi-disciplinary, cross-platform events, which included an innovative self-guided digital exploration of identity, fear and isolation by 13 composers, a multi-screen film and music installation in SoHo. The sonic experience brings to life Times Square, with three U.S. digital premieres of evening-length operatic works from Indonesia, Iceland, and Australia. Thus, the Festival remains both contemporary and adventurous. Morrison is a founding co-director along with Kristin Marting and co-director Jecca Barry.

Morrison’s original concept and mission began with the idea of being an “industry disruptor”.

“‘Industry disruptor’ wasn’t a term back then, but it’s in vogue now,” Morrison says. “I wanted to shake up the opera industry, to create a new type of opera product that spoke to a younger generation. Something more relevant to a contemporary audience that utilized all kinds of media to tell 21st century stories—stories of our time. It’s all about new music, with mostly younger, still living, composers.”

Seeking out and finding artists who worked at the cutting edge of each art form was Morrison’s operative mode. “It was about giving space for them to experiment, to create their work without worry over boundaries or failures,” explains Morrison. “So, they could have the opportunity to use their most creative selves, giving them the period of time necessary to create their best work.”

Composers under BMP’s aegis include emerging composers like Emma O’Halloran, as well as successful mid-career artists. “I have worked with Sarah Kirkland Snyder, Paola Prestini and Missy Mazzoli from when they were emerging, and produced their first operas.” Morrison adds, “Paola and I have produced many of her works together. She also runs National Sawdust.” Others nurtured by BMP include Pulitzer winners Du Yun and Ellen Reid, as well as Met Opera commissioned composers Nico Muhly. Morrison also works with veterans like Ricky Ian Gordon, David Lang, and Michael Gordon.

“Ricky is a different kind of composer. Not one of the younger ones, but at the height of his career and at the pinnacle of his field,” says Morrison. “He came to me with his project Ellen West. He wanted the freedom to create the work in the way he wanted to. I loved his work.”

With poetry by Frank Bidart and music directed by increasingly prominent conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, Ellen West is described as an “operatic poem” that delves into the psychological and physical struggles of a fictitious woman being treated by Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, who was a pioneer in the field of existential psychology.

“This was a beautiful piece, one to be proud of,” Morrison says of the work, which was commissioned and co-produced by BMP and Opera Saratoga, with a rolling premiere there and at the Prototype Festival in 2020.

Her collaboration with HERE is of utmost importance to Morrison, who always makes sure to emphasize and acknowledge that HERE co-founded PROTOTYPE with BMP and has an equal voice in the overall creative vision. The relationship between the two companies amounts to a super-close partnership, though they are two entirely separate entities.

“The two companies work completely together, co-produce the festival in every way. We work to fundraise, staff, and curate together. It’s a 50-50 share,” Morrison states. “PROTOTYPE is a presenting vehicle to showcase work, which is commissioned, produced and developed through BMP or HERE. We make the investment in the early careers of the emerging artists we work with, both short and long term,” she states. “We nurture the younger generation of composers through their first operas, hands on, show them what it is to collaborate with a creative team in a large theatrical form, take them through the steps of the creative process, helping them to understand it. We want them to know what the art form of opera is, in a deep way. So, we nurture them first, then turn them out into the field, when they’re scooped up by larger companies like Opera Philadelphia, or even the Met.”

The concept seems similar to those behind the American Opera Project or the Adler Fellows at San Francisco Opera, but with major differences.

“They’ve already gotten to a high level in their craft. We don’t work with them on the writing,” Morrison says. “We emphasize the actual production process, in part by holding multiple workshops to refine the writing.”

Morrison adds that PROTOTYPE has its challenges, not having its own board of directors or fiduciary structure. But both BMP and HERE complement each other in their individual and mutual strengths.

As to the festival itself, one would be hard pressed to find a similar initiative that features the multiple components that push the operatic envelope to such an adventurous degree.

Falling between the categories of “Contemporary Classical” and “Experimental”, created by a long list of “new generation” composers, the digital world premiere presentation MODULATION explores sub-topics of Isolation, Fear, and Identity, united by the theme of Breath. Morrison categorizes these as themes artists have been wrestling with during the course of the current pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. (Tickets are still available by visiting

TIMES3 (TIMES X TIMES X TIMES), a “World Premiere Sonic Experience”, is a sonic journey that can be experienced either in Times Square or digitally at home. Conceived by composer Pamela Z and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle, it is “a soundscape created…to experience the city”. It is still available to download on the website through the end of February, according to Morrison.

OCEAN BODY, composed and performed by Helga Davis & Shara Nova, directed and filmed by Mark DeChiazza, is filmed in and around Florida, with original footage of the Gulf Coast. The work shows the friendship between a black and a white woman and merges song, conversations, and new vocal compositions in a multi-sensory experience.

THE MURDER OF HALIT YOZGAT, composed by Ben Frost and Petter Ekmann, with libretto by Daniela Danza, is a film commissioned by Staatsoper Hannover in cooperation with Holland Festival. Produced by Frost and Trevor Tweeten, it is based on the true story of an immigrant assassinated in an internet café in Germany. The work sets to music themes of racism in the country’s immigrant communities.

Other presentations included THE PLANET—A LAMENT, an expression of grief for the earth in the seemingly unsurmountable grip of climate change, composed and performed by Septina Rosalina Layan and directed by Garin Nugroho.

Morrison describes WIDE SLUMBER FOR LEPIDOPTERISTS as “a strange meditation of the life of a butterfly, the human sleep cycle and insomnia…the two things come together in a gorgeous visual world. Minimalist meets Indie rock with projection imagery and a sonic score.”

As with most performing arts endeavors in these uniquely challenging times, this year’s PROTOTYPE Festival was different from its usual format. “It’s usually all over Manhattan and Brooklyn,” Morrison says. “This year it was digital because of Covid. But we’re proud of what we were able to do. We employed 150 artists, including commissions for16 composers, 14 of whom are BIPOC.”

And, because of the pandemic, it certainly was not easy to retool what they had started with. “We had to scrap the original and start over in July. We formed teams. Every ‘pod’ was different from the others. The festival directors helped them think through the logistics. And there were heavy, heavy protocols for Covid.”

Morrison is not alone in her desire for BMP and PROTOTYPE to once again produce as they did before the virus turned everyone’s lives upside down.

“I can’t wait till it’s over,” she says. 


Photo credit: Michal Fattal
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Beth Levin’s Hammerklavier CD Celebrates Musical Giants


Tess Steinkolk

CD REVIEW: Hammerklavier Live

Aldilà Records, Alan Wonneberger, Recording Engineer


Beth Levin has become a household name among the most sophisticated aficionados as a dauntless performer of the most demanding piano repertoire, be it Romantic or contemporary. The Philadelphia native expresses her passion for chamber music as well as for solo piano works and is known for taking on challenges that push the envelope of her musical world. 

Levin’s latest CD, Hammerklavier Live, released in November 2020, was recorded at Festival Baltimore in Linehan Concert Hall in 2019. In this unique recording, Levin includes works of two of the greatest German masters, Beethoven and Händel, as well as contemporary Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. 

Erica Miner: Congratulations, Beth, on this huge achievement, the release of your CD, Hammerklavier Live, in Beethoven’s 250th Year. 

Beth Levin: Thank you so much, Erica!

EM: How significant is it for you to share a birthday with the composer’s baptismal day, December 17? 

BL: Mostly it takes me back to lessons with my first teacher, Marian Filar, whose birthday also fell on December 17th. When I walked into the room to audition, clutching my music, we chatted briefly and realized our common birth date and that of Beethoven's baptism. It certainly broke the ice. I was accepted as his student and in the lessons that followed, he introduced me to my first Beethoven sonatas and sets of Variations. I studied the Beethoven third concerto with Filar and went on to perform it with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

EM: Sounds like your history with Beethoven started at an early age! Tell us about your Hammerklavier CD being part of a best-of-the-year playlist, BEETHOVEN ESSENZIELL, in Vienna.

BL: I knew that the radio host in Vienna, Peter Kislinger, was a fan of the CD and loved the music of Anders Eliasson. Still, I was very surprised, not to mention honored and grateful, to be part of the special end-of-year playlist. It aired today and will be online for seven days.

EM: How has your background of having studied with iconic piano luminaries such as Rudolf Serkin prepared you for this recording?

BL: Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure were titans of the keyboard but more importantly great musicians who had Beethoven running through their veins. I think that I drank that in and was drawn to their sense of phrasing, long lines, structure and dynamics to name a few aspects of a performance. I was also affected by their sense of courage when making music and a searching quality that led them to unexpected places. The Hammerklavier requires a sense of adventure, an exploratory outlook rather than anything preconceived. Having had those powerful mentors was the right soil for me to grow as a musician and attempt something like the Hammerklavier sonata. Looking back, I'd say I was blessed with great teachers.  

Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki

EM: Describe the ways in which Handel relates to Beethoven, vis-à-vis your pairing the “Halle master’s” Suite No. 3 in d minor with the other works on this CD.

BL: Handel was Beethoven's role model. Beethoven had copied out Handel's Messiah the same way that a painter might copy an old master. I saw right away that the Suite in d minor was no polite form with a few dances. Handel was a virtuoso harpsichordist and had traveled widely. The Suite in his hands became very worldly and eventually grew to become Sonata form that propelled Beethoven to fame as a composer of piano music. The work is long, very bold with an improvised Fantasia-like quality. Generally speaking, it felt like a good opening because of its energy and panache.

EM: Indeed, the D minor suite sounds incredibly advanced and, with your adventurous and expansive approach and subtle rubati, very Beethovenian. Yet the precision of your trills sounds markedly Baroque. Aside from Beethoven and Händel, do you feel a special affinity for the “great German tradition” in your overall choice of repertoire?

BL: At the core I do but I'm also very happy when I receive a new work in the mail written yesterday. I think there is a link between playing and acting. We should be ready for any genre—Impressionism, Baroque, Classical—ready for any part to play. Often, we are portraying music—I'd say, expressing it to the audience—which requires a certain projection. Even when something is in the score, we need to express it so that it is alive. I really enjoy mixing the old and the new on programs, most recently Yehudi Wyner and Frank Brickle on a virtual recital with Beethoven and Chopin. The composer Andrew Rudin often jokes with me: “thanks for pairing me with the Schumann Symphonic Etudes!” But I think in the end a performance is by its nature “new” and the Hammerklavier is no exception.

EM: What for you are the special challenges of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier?

BL: Its length for one thing. At times I found myself talking to myself in a performance as in: “You're coming around the bend, don't give up now!” The fugue is a huge challenge because when Beethoven is so radical and bold in his vision, the pianist also has to let go of convention and forget about safety. I hate to think that things are technically difficult, but I had to at least admit to myself that a few spots were on the edge of stability. Also, it's the kind of work that haunts you when you are away from the piano and consumes your life. I remember turning down projects pleading “I can't right now, I'm learning the Hammerklavier sonata.” The scope of the piece is huge, and I think holding a movement together convincingly is difficult, not to mention the entire work. As with any project you should come to it with a sense of sacrifice and love. But in this case doubly so!

EM: How does contemporary Swedish composer Anders Eliasson’s final piano piece, his 2005 Carosello (Disegno per pianoforte No. 3), fit in with the Beethoven and Handel works you’ve chosen for this recording?

BL: I feel that the Handel and the Eliasson pave the way for the Hammerklavier on the program. The Eliasson is in 5/4 and has a feeling of floating and never being quite grounded.

EM: Yes, for me it brings to mind some of Scriabin’s more “otherworldly” works. You definitely mined that airy, ethereal quality in your interpretation.

BL: We also experience a timeless quality in Hammerklavier. Eliasson's sound world is utterly unique and "Carosello" exhibits in a compressed form some of the same qualities of Hammerklavier—building to a climax and then returning to start again. His music feels organic and natural to me, and Hammerklavier is a complete force of nature. On the one hand the Eliasson works as a contrast to the Beethoven, but in originality, harmonic color and emotion they match.

EM: What would you most like to convey to your listeners and fans with this particular recording project?  

Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki

BL: The Handel Suite introduces the CD warmly and with such vigor and sense of dance. Eliasson starts to move away from a tonal center and prepares us a bit for the unknown. A friend told me that he listened to the Hammerklavier while on a long car journey. That struck me as the perfect way to experience Op. 106.

EM: The Hammerklavier was undoubtedly the highlight of the CD. I especially admired, as I have in your previous recordings, the discreet contrasts between the more noble aspects of Beethoven’s writing (as in the initial fanfare of the first movement Allegro) and the arrestingly chromatic progressions that follow. 

BL: As a player I felt Beethoven was taking my hand and asking me to follow him not knowing exactly where we'd end up. I hope that listeners will experience the power of Op.106 but also the extreme tenderness and intimacy. I avoided the opening chords for a long time jumping straight to the singing line that follows the fanfare. I took a bit of a slower tempo in the first movement exactly because there is so much lyricism that I didn't want to gloss over in speed. A little less hammer and more klavier might have been my goal.

EM: And you achieved that goal throughout the rest of the piece. The lightness of the Scherzo; the profundity of the Adagio sostenuto, reminiscent of the composer’s late string quartet slow movements; and the unbridled passion of the final Largo – Allegro risoluto. It’s all there.

BL: I hope that my audience enjoys every minute!

EM: I have no doubt they will. I certainly did!

Hammerklavier Live can be purchased at: 

Recorded at Festival Baltimore, Linehan Concert Hall, University of Maryland, 29 June 2019 
Recording Engineer: Alan Wonneberger 
Recording Producer: Peter Karl 
Executive Producer: Christoph Schlüren 
 Design: Daily Dialogue (Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki) 
Aldilà Records ©2020 Aldilà Records (Gramola CD 98011) LC 28016 

Photo Credits: Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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]