Friday, October 23, 2015

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

By Erica Miner

EM: Is there a plan to record Great Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: As I wrote in my interviews (first and second) with David, as soon as he came into the office the atmosphere became so light, like the stars all aligned and everything was right. We thank those stars everyday that things happened the way they did, and we’re absolutely thrilled that you’re going to be here and bring this wonderful piece to us. I can’t thank you enough. Thank you so much for spending time with me, and for bringing Great Scott to the SDO stage. I look forward to seeing you again, shaking your hand and congratulating you. JH: It was my pleasure, Erica. I appreciate your wanting to write about it. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Composer Jake Heggie Roots for the Home Team

By Erica Miner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: How would you describe your position there? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: No cut and paste. 

JH: No cut and paste. [Laughs] 

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

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

EM: That’s so true.

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

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

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

EM: I call her our “Opera Angel.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, Part 2: Opera Now and in the Future 

Photos used by permission of the Artist 

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, October 19, 2015

CD Review: Judith Clurman Conducts in the Holiday Spirit

By Erica Miner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo used by permission of: Frank Wang

Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Young Artists Symphony Orchestra “Resurrected” at Debut

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

Review by Rodney Punt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YASO cello section

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Craig A. Smith Channels John Crosby in Santa Fe

By Erica Miner

Craig A. Smith is an artistic luminary in the artistic community of Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the past 30 years, he has written about classical music locally and throughout the US and Canada. The Kansas City native went to the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory and earned his graduate degree in vocal music.

Smith’s much-praised biography of Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby, A Vision of Voices: John Crosby and the Santa Fe Opera, ( is not only filled with insightful biographical details, but is clearly written with great respect for Crosby’s accomplishments and the importance of his presence in that city.

EM: How long have you lived in Santa Fe?

CAS: Since 1983. It had me right away. I came here to sing in the first season of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, fell in love with New Mexico, and before I knew it had moved here. I did live in Chicago for two years in the late 1980s on an extended job assignment, but I don’t really regard to that as living away [Laughs] So in effect 30 years.

EM: Please describe your work as a professional musician, as a journalist, and with Performance Santa Fe.

CAS: I worked here as a musician, and wrote for the Santa Fe New Mexican for 20 years, eight as a freelancer and 12 on staff. Before that I did a lot of work with nonprofit organizations as a professional fundraiser. Performance Santa Fe was one of those organizations. After two and a half years there I decided I missed writing too much. I went back and became a freelance writer.

EM: Do you miss singing?

CAS: I stopped singing when I moved here to Santa Fe. There were no jobs for singers, not even church jobs. The trade-off of trying to maintain an audition cycle and trying to make a career was simply not working with what was available here. So I transitioned into music writing.

EM: And you’ve been writing up a storm.

CAS: I’ve always enjoyed being an arts writer. When the book began to develop I felt it was a wonderful direction to go.

EM: How and when did your love for opera begin to blossom?

CAS: I was one of those kids who came up through parochial school - the Catholic choirboy approach - so I was in love with music from grade school. In high school I was fortunate to have some really fine teachers, also in college, and my interests became more refined musically. I really began to discover opera in undergraduate school. I was absolutely thrilled by the whole idea of stories told in such a fascinating, powerful way. I began to devour every opera I could get my hands on. I was lucky because the little University in Kansas that I attended had a very large library of opera scores. I went through all the Puccini operas, playing them on the piano, very badly [Laughs] to learn them that way, plus I had done some operatic chorus work when I was a professional musician in Kansas City.

EM: Not many people get to approach opera that way.

CAS: It’s a wonderful art form, right at the top of my musical love. I do like musical comedy and jazz. But classical music and opera are at the top.

EM: Did you know John Crosby personally?

CAS: I met him once in 1986 and interviewed him when I was writing for a newspaper here in Santa Fe. I had heard he was a tiger, but he was very friendly, very quiet. He asked if I knew the Strauss opera they were doing that year and went to the piano and played it for me. Afterward I met a person in Santa Fe who used to work for him. I said, “Mr. Crosby was so friendly.” The gentleman said, “Did he have his glasses on?” I said, “No he didn’t.” He said, “Well, that’s why he was so friendly. He couldn’t see you.” I thought that was interesting. But that was the only time I met him.

EM: From reading the book, he does seem very erudite, extremely brilliant and also quite quirky in many ways.

CAS: That’s a good way to put it. He was brilliant at anything that had to do with running the company, planning, budgeting, hiring, overseeing everything that went on, but personally he was extremely quirky. As director Linda Brovsky from Denver told me, he was the oddest man. He was fun to work with, but walked through the weeds to avoid saying good morning. He would literally take a different path to avoid having to talk to people.

EM: Yet he was involved in one of the most collaborative art forms.

CAS: Exactly. I’ve often wondered how he managed to balance those things, although he did say several times, as I found from interviewing people, “When you hire someone to work on an opera you have to let them alone.” So he really did believe in bringing together a creative team and letting them do their work. One person told me that sometimes he would come into a dress rehearsal after not seeing anything on that production and letters would fly from his office to the director or designer about things he wanted changed or would suggest be changed. That caused some conflict.

EM: An interesting dichotomy. Letting people do their work, and micromanaging at the same time.

CAS: That’s true. He lived the opera and felt a personal pang when something did not go as planned. That happened very seldom. He ran an extremely tight operation. He would appear at different places on campus at different times during the day when you weren’t expecting it. That’s one way he kept tabs on things. He adored the orchestra - he called it “his” orchestra - and was friendly with many people in it. Yet he could treat them very badly in rehearsal with verbal abuse, and complain bitterly about things they were doing.

EM: Writing his biography seems like a labor of love. What motivated you?

CAS: I had been looking for a project, a way to support myself over the next few years, and wanted to write something of significance for Santa Fe. There’s a woman in town, Nancy Zeckendorf, who was a dancer in the early seasons. She married New York real estate mogul William Zeckendorf, Jr., and was very active in New York society, especially the ballet scene. Later she became a board member, president, and chairman of Santa Fe Opera, and a close associate of John Crosby. I mentioned to her one day I’d thought a biography of Crosby was overdue. It turned out she had had that idea long before I did and our coming together coalesced it. Nancy realized there were many people alive who had worked with Mr. Crosby. Many were available, and if we didn’t get their recollections down soon we might not have them. She put together a consortium of people that had known him and were willing to fund the project. On the advice of a University of New Mexico retired theater and dance professor I sent the proposal to UNM press. They accepted on the strength of the outline. The Opera agreed to open all its files, thanks to general director Charles MacKay, who had worked with John a great deal in the early years from being a parking lot attendant to being business manager. He was also an offstage French horn player in the banda for Rosenkavalier. [Laughs] So he knew the area and knew Crosby as well. Things came together in a very lucky way to make the book happen.

EM: An idea whose time had come.

CAS: It’s hard to overstate how important the Opera opening its files was. They did give me absolute access to everything. No one tried to influence my conclusions in any way. I was very grateful for that because his correspondence, all the photographs and press information in the files, all the programs, really helped put together a picture of him along with the interviews I did.

EM: The concept first started taking shape in early 2012 and the book was completed in 2014?

CAS: Yes. The UNM Press production cycle took a year. They also decided not to release it until right before the 2015 Opera season. So the book was done a year and a half before it was released. It seemed awfully long to me.

EM: For publishing that’s pretty rapid in my experience.

CAS: That’s what I’m gathering now. [Laughs]

EM: Two years for all of your research and almost 100 interviews - how did you do all that in such a short time?

CAS: I was doing nothing else and felt obsessed. I began to want to know more about this man. The more information I could assemble the more I was able to try to find him. It was actually a great pleasure. The only part that was sometimes difficult was transcribing very lengthy interviews. I’m sure you can appreciate that. [Laughs]

EM: Oh my, yes. It always helps to be obsessed in these things.

CAS: I think so. Talking to people who had worked with him so closely and to Crosby’s brother (James) who is 90, and to both his nieces and his nephew. The family loaned me papers, photos and things of that nature. Plus I did a lot of online research. I found out what steamship his parents met on many years ago. I found the passenger manifest. Doing that kind of sleuthing always has interested me. You have to do a lot of it but it’s very exciting.

EM: There’s nothing better than having family members onboard and willing to help out.

CAS: I agree. Having that depth I began to understand him so much more as a boy, a child, a young man. Even in his opera correspondence there were instances where he recalled his childhood or his young manhood in New Mexico. It’s like taking a giant puzzle and beginning to put the pieces together. You don’t know what is a piece of sky and or a piece of ground. Then gradually they begin to fall into place.

EM: I’m filled with admiration at all this incredible work you’ve done. The book reads so beautifully, too.

CAS: Thank you, that’s very kind.

EM: Is there a lot of buzz right now about the Steve Jobs opera coming to Santa Fe in 2017?

CAS: Not yet. I think it’s going to be growing, and a lot of the excitement is going to come from outside Santa Fe because of the nature of the commission and of the composer and librettist that have been chosen. It’s a departure for Santa Fe, although they’ve done two works by Finnish composer Kaisa Saariaho, Tan Dun’s Tea: a Mirror of Soul, and things of that nature. I’m not sure if that will be terribly unusual for Santa Fe. They’ve always been on the cutting edge with that. But I’m not sure how people feel about such a recently deceased major person receiving an opera.

EM: Or a movie, for that matter. But we’re all involved with Steve Jobs every day of our lives. That should make it even more cutting edge than usual.

CAS: I think it’ll be very interesting, and probably from curiosity draw people who don’t know much about opera. A piece that shows the drama in one person’s life, the way it did with Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen two years ago, and Madame Mao by Bright Sheng. Maybe if people come to Steve Jobs, they’ll also stay to see whatever standard opera is on the boards.

EM: Wouldn’t that be wonderful. More power to Santa Fe for doing the piece. Steve Jobs was a totally American personage, and this is a totally American opera company. This will be entirely different from anything that’s ever been done.

CAS: I’m quite excited about it. I hope many others will be. After all, we do like contemporary stories about people who have accomplished great things.

EM: They’ve done that in previous centuries. Why not in the current century? It’s very forward looking.

CAS: I heard somebody say, “Ooh, will they have the orchestra play from iPads instead of paper?”

EM: How imaginative - who would ever think of that?

CAS: A number of artists-pianists I know use iPads now. As long as you’ve got the power supply, go for it. [Laughs]

EM: Absolutely. The meeting of the minds from right-brained people to those who live by computing is really exciting. It’s been so much fun talking to you, Craig.

CAS: Thanks very much. I’m most grateful.

Photo credits: Stephen Muller (head shot), Robert Godwin (Santa Fe Opera House), courtesy Santa Fe Opera (Verdienstkreuz, Elektra cast), courtesy University of New Mexico Press (book cover)

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, October 9, 2015

Seattle Opera Captures Exotic World of ‘Pearl Fishers’

By Erica Miner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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