Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Some Enchanted Collaboration: Rodgers & Hammerstein & South Pacific

Their fourth original collaboration, following Oklahoma, Carousel, and Allegro, South Pacific was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on a contemporary story. Prefiguring later successes like The King and I and Flower Drum Song, it was their first show to deal with the “exotic,” and the “culture clash” between east and west. James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947) appeared while World War II was fresh in the country’s consciousness. Tales reads more like a succession of linked short stories than a through-composed narrative. The chapter which first caught the song-writing duo’s attention was the central story, “Fo’ Dolla’”, about the Tonkinese mother and daughter pair of Bloody Mary and Liat, focusing on the latter’s love affair with the young Marine Lieutenant, Joe Cable. Not insignificantly, R & H found this story too closely related to Madama Butterfly, and decided one of the supporting tales “had to be the main story.” “Our Heroine” depicts the relationship of Ensign Nellie Forbush and the French plantation owner, Emile De Becque. R & H retained the love story of Liat and Cable, which allowed for parallel resonances in the libretto and the score. Another brilliant dramatic move was including the buffo character, Luther Billis (who appears in separate stories from those aforementioned) to pair with Bloody Mary.

In the heyday of the “integrated” or “book” musical – where, like its progenitor, opera, the elements of narrative, lyrics, music, staging and scenery are unified to form a “total work of art” – South Pacific was hailed upon its opening “as one of the finest musical plays in the history of American theatre.” Hallmarks of the Rodgers and Hammerstein style are apparent from the striking opening scene, which features no fewer than four memorable numbers: “Dites-moi,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” The lengthy first act is followed by a swiftly-moving closing act, which favors aptly placed reprises of themes over new material. As in the greatest operas, the contributions of Hammerstein and his co-author, Joshua Logan (also the show’s director) are overshadowed by the beauty and efficacy of the composer’s music. Hammerstein himself bowed to his younger colleague's gifts, astutely observing that Rodgers “writes music to depict story and character and is, therefore, himself a dramatist.” In a 1960 article for Opera News magazine, Rodgers wrote about the integrated musicals of his day and made the case that they should be considered “American Operas.” The casting of the Metropolitan Opera basso, Ezio Pinza as De Becque supports this claim. The greatest evidence, however, is found in the scores of Rodgers and his colleagues like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Leonard Bernstein. These “Broadway Operas” feature a signature marriage of European operatic idioms with a distinctly American musical style. That these “golden age” musicals are now the purview of regional opera companies as much as they are a part of the theatre repertoire is a tribute to their staying power, and the creative genius which brought them to life.

South Pacific came to life on Broadway, April 7, 1949, and ran for over five years and 1,925 performances. It was only the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With its frank depiction of racial and cultural issues within a contemporary setting, it was ahead of its time. While audiences today may wince at the apparent “political incorrectness” of its language – “there is nothing like a dame” and “help us lick the Japs” stand out – Rodgers’ biographer, Geoffrey Block, leaves the analytical ivory tower of academia to make a cogent point at the conclusion of his comprehensive essay, “World War II, The Musical”:

Musical comedies depict life, not necessarily as it is, but as we wish it. The more we see ourselves, or prefer to see ourselves, as having grown beyond the prejudices, sexism, materialism, or the dramatic or musical style of a previous era, the more difficult it may be to accept that a work, frozen in time, actually seizes a moment and reflects that moment honestly. As we become further removed from a show’s time and place, a musical that captures its moment can become a slave to that moment, despite its universality.

While “Some Enchanted Evening” may be the romantic heart of this beloved musical, “You’ve got to be carefully taught” is it’s soul.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate - / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

As Cable confronts the dissonance of his own prejudice, he holds up the mirror of art to illuminate universal issues which show no signs of aging into obsolescence. To be sure, South Pacific is a musical comedy. But this poignant drama of love, lost and regained - with all its inherent human virtues and failings - make it much more than the sum of its many entertaining parts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Verdi's "poor sinner" returns: Opera Roanoke presents La Traviata

I had the pleasure of talking about our production of La Traviata early today on the WDBJ7 Mornin' Show with Neesey Payne. Here's a link to the first of our three segments.

Last weekend, our friend at the Roanoke Times, Mike Allen wrote this feature about our production, and the personal story behind it.

If you're interested in reading more about my thoughts on the opera and our production, here are the program notes from our upcoming playbill.

…that poor sinner: Verdi’s La Traviata

In more than one letter to colleagues following its infamous 1853 premiere at Venice’s La Fenice, Verdi wrote: “La Traviata was a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers? Time alone will tell.” Time indeed did tell, upon a new Venetian production at the San Benedetto theater in 1854. Verdi wrote, “Then it was a fiasco; now it has created a furore.” La Traviata capped one of the most remarkable 18-month periods in operatic history, following on the heels of the successful premieres of both Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.

La Traviata is based on the novel-cum-memoir by Alexander Dumas fils, La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias, often called "Camille" in English). The son of the more famous author of The Count of Montecristo, Dumas fils was one of several prominent artists – others included Théophile Gautier and Franz Liszt – Marie Duplessis counted as lovers. “The Real Traviata” (to borrow the title of a new biography about Duplessis) was transformed from a poor peasant girl who endured the tragically common abuse of being prostituted by her father into “the queen of Parisian courtesans.” She learned to play the piano, became a connoisseur of opera, and collected a library which included the great authors of Europe. She died from consumption in 1847, two weeks after her 23rd birthday. Her grave in Montmartre quickly became a site of pilgrimage.

Dumas’ story owes much to an earlier French romance of a “fallen woman,” the Abbé Prevost’s famous Manon Lescaut, itself the inspiration for operas by Massenet and Puccini. Verdi found the tale of the famous courtesan and her tempestuous affair with a young artist compelling, “a subject for our time,” and entitled his original version Amore e morte (Love and Death). The story of the love affair, considered “bold and contemporary” for its frankness, and the tragedy of the heroine’s early death have the makings of myth. The “intensely human and yet heroic” title character elicited some of the greatest music for the stage by one of the genre’s giants. Verdi’s humanism, his identification with heroic and independent outsiders and rebels is everywhere apparent in his musical portrait of Violetta. An excerpt from a letter to a hopeful producer from Naples following its disastrous premiere unites these concerns:
So you like my Traviata? That poor sinner who was so unfortunate in Venice. One day I’m going to make the world do her honor. But not in Naples, where your priests would be terrified of seeing on the stage the things they do at night in the quiet.

Our new production attempts to do her honor by heeding Verdi’s wishes that Traviata be performed in a contemporary setting. The Venetian censors insisted on the title change of the opera, and out of deference to them, the producers – against Verdi’s protestations – insisted on a 17th century “period” setting, replete with powdered wigs and aristocratic costumes. This tradition continued in Italy well into the 20th century. While not setting our Traviata in the present day, we believe moving it to the art deco- and Coco Chanel-inspired world of the 1920’s & 30’s brings Verdi’s drama into even sharper focus, while maintaining a true sense of style and historicity. Regardless of its setting, Verdi’s music insures La Traviata will live as long as we human beings continue to find in musical theatre the heightened experience of emotion, vicarious feelings of passion, and that catharsis which is a sui generis virtue of grand opera.

Following the success of La Traviata, Dumas fils would write about the resting place of his “Lady of the Camellias”, in a later version of his book: “That grave now has its legend. Art is divine: it creates and it resurrects.”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fall Opera Season is Full of Action!

Our 40th Anniversary season really takes off this October, and this coming weekend alone is packed with operatic action. Saturday, October 17th, Virginia Western Community College hosts the Met "Live in HD" broadcast of Verdi's great Otello. Click here to see a clip from the Met's acclaimed new production. The curtain goes up at 12:55, but come to the Whitman Auditorium at 12:30 for my "opera insights" introduction to Otello, the new production, the Met HD season AND Opera Roanoke's "Ruby" Anniversary.

After catching the first act of Otello, I'll be dashing over to the Taubman Museum of Art for the first of this season's "Listening to Paintings" programs, where I pair music and poetry with some of the art on exhibit in the Taubman's galleries.

We're in the middle of Sweeney Todd rehearsals for our super cool new production.

Our new production of Sweeney Todd originated at Theatre Zone in Naples, FL. Our long-time lighting designer, Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann told me about this production and its director, Mark Danni. The concept of having a minimalist set and creatively using a few props immediately appealed to me. The main prop is a coffin, which first appears in the guise of a boat, carrying Sweeney Todd and Anthony up the Thames to London. It also serves as the Judge's podium, as Mrs Lovett's kitchen table, and Sweeney's platform. The production is further stylized by the elimination of mimed deaths, fake blood, etc. One of our ensemble members will act as an "angel of death" and appear with a red scarf to give to each of Todd's victims. I wanted to further stylize this production by having Tlaloc create projections which will appear on the upstage wall of the set, adding atmosphere to what is already a moody show. The "goth / steam-punk" look Mark has chosen for the costumes and make-up is a great fit for the pared-down production. The look will also "read" very well for our Halloween weekend performances of Sondheim's great "musical thriller." I couldn't be more excited about bringing this production to our audiences. In addition to being a little spooked, I know they'll be entertained and ultimately moved by the tragic tale and its effect on Sondheim's characters.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Progress of the Rake - Stravinsky triumphs at the MET

4.V.15 | NYC – Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress at the Met
Levine: Appleby, Claire, Finley, Blythe, Sherratt, Lattimore, Stevenson, Corona

Monday night's performance of The Rake’s Progress may well have been the best the 65-year-old work has ever had. Having heard both incarnations of the Met’s previous outings (which account for the majority of the opera’s two-dozen some performances there), this surpassed its predecessors musically and dramatically at every turn. The two male principals, Rakewell and Shadow in particular, were as perfect a pair of singing actors as you could wish for the title character and his Mephistophelian foil. Paul Appleby and Gerald Finley defined their roles and set a new standard in the process. Layla Claire was a beautiful Anne: I have never been so moved to tears by this opera I count among my favorites; its emotional depths were plumbed with gorgeous tone and affecting color in each of her scenes. Stephanie Blythe, who sang Baba in the Met’s most recent remount in 2003 was even better, like a super Tuscan that’s deepened without mellowing but has, instead, sharpened its focus. Maggie Lattimore made one wish Mother Goose had more to her cameo appearance; she earned her droigte de Madame in her pivotal scene as Nick’s accomplice. When do you leave this opera wishing Father Trulove had an aria? I know I'm not the only one who wants to hear more of Brindley Sherratt "this side the pond."

If the work has had a finer chorus and auctioneer than the Met and Tony Stevenson, I’d be dumbfounded to hear them. The chorus – is there a better opera chorus in the world these days? – under Donald Polumbo has made considerable gains where details of tone color, articulation, and balance are concerned, without losing any of the visceral force for which it is known. It takes a sophisticated and versatile technique, and an incomparable level of professionalism to accomplish what these musicians do from day to day, throughout the 40-some weeks of the Met’s season. In this, they are equaled only by the Met orchestra, which under James Levine, has become not only the best opera orchestra on the planet, but one of the great orchestras, period. And Maestro Levine was in top form last night. Sitting with my BFF, Steven White, Levine’s assistant conductor for this show, I was aware of the pivotal role he played in preparing for this run, leading staging rehearsals, and jumping into orchestra rehearsals as needed. Having sung under Maestro Levine (in the Verbier festival chorus), it was not hard to imagine the details clarified during the orchestra in the 3 reads they had prior to last Friday’s opening night (this was the 2nd or 3 performances this season). The emotional depth surrounding Anne’s music owed as much to the orchestra and its conductor as to its exceptional young soprano. I’ve never heard Stravinsky’s opera, nor a comparable 20th century companion, played with such range of color. The performance was fleet and incisive, had weight and depth of texture and timbre, but never lacked a chamber music transparency when necessary. Levine let the score breathe in between episodes of great dramatic impetus and momentum. One heard its connection to not only 18th-century baroque and classical models, but also to the grandeur of 19th century tragedy. It was elegant without ever being pompous, moving but never maudlin.

(One of William Hogarth's "Rake's" engravings; the musician to the left is thought to be a caricature of Handel)

In addition to appreciating the details of the score and simply enjoying the vocal excellence on display, the production resonated with me in a way it hadn’t before. To cite one instance, the 3rd and final scene in Act III features the chorus in the asylum with Tom. This choice has obvious musico-dramatic purposes, as it gives “Mad” Tom - who believes he’s Adonis, with Anne as his Venus - a Greek chorus to accompany the haunting, heart-breaking final scene. The Jonathan Miller production uses the same set for Bedlam it had for Mother Goose’s brothel. A central upstage corridor, which served as a hallway leading to several rooms of ill-repute in the Brothel – Mother Goose was leading Tom to one as the curtain came down on it – is now separated from the main room of the stage by prison bars, and the closed-door chambers are solitary confinement cells. By using the entire chorus, Stravinsky and his brilliant librettists, Auden and Kallman have added layers of musical and dramatic depth, while heightening our participation in this morality tale. The entire community is implicated in the wages of sin, otherwise known as the human condition. Like Don Giovanni, one of its primary precursors, the epilogue’s ebullient tone and 4th-wall-breaking function can’t ameliorate the tragedy we’ve experienced, however much its élan may tempt a leavening of the mood.

(Hogarth's "In the Madhouse" - the final image in his series)

To crown this "festival of May," I can’t recall ever experiencing an audience so enthusiastically responsive to a post-WWII-era opera. Bravi tutti! In the meantime, if you don't have tickets to the Saturday matinee, tune in to your local NPR station at 1 pm for the final radio broadcast of the season.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Triumph of Rossini

“So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that its amazing any of them succeed at all… Once their [composer's and librettist's] initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up… The list of pitfalls goes on… It’s endless, and daunting.” – Wendy Lesser (on opera in The Threepenny Review)

Wendy Lesser's observation on the "daunting" challenges of producing opera are, if I may be so bold to say, being met this month here in Roanoke. And like any overwhelming challenge, success is its own reward. That our audience turnout looks to be the highest since our production of The Pirates of Penzance two seasons ago only heightens our anticipation as we approach opening night.

Here's a preview of the program note I wrote for our production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) running this weekend.

Never before had music been known to bombard the listener with so rich, so glittering, so spontaneous, so original a succession of new and tantalizing sensations.

Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen-name, Stendhal) wrote his monograph, The Life of Rossini, in 1823, when the composer was at the height of his considerable fame, and it is full of florid accolades like the above epigram. Indeed, the craze for Italian opera across continental Europe was so great that the generation of Bel Canto composers (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) entirely over-shadowed efforts by German-language contemporaries as eminent as Beethoven, Weber and Schubert. While Beethoven’s Fidelio (OR, 2008) and Weber’s Die Freischütz hold their own in the repertoire, Schubert’s aspirations were so frustrated he was forced to live vicariously through his Lieder (Art-songs). They include a famous send-up of a bel canto “rage” aria, mocking one of Rossini’s most influential impresarios, Barbaja.

Like Mozart, Rossini possessed an apparently inherent gift for felicitous melody. And like Mozart, Rossini was prodigious from an early age: he completed a dozen opera by his 21st year. (Cenerentola was the 20th of some 40). Yet the comparisons between the two geniuses were not all favorable. One of Rossini’s nicknames, Il Tedeschino (“the Little German”), was derogatively applied to his use of so-called “Germanic” harmony. To be fair, his Mediterranean contemporaries had already criticized Mozart for the same “obstruction” of melody with harmony too “rich and strange” for the stage. Audiences and academics alike have since corrected that misperception over the intervening centuries, as neither Mozart’s nor Rossini’s operas have ever fallen out of favor.

And Rossini’s fame has never been greater than it is today. While Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a perennial “Top Ten” on opera’s most-performed list, Rossini’s other masterworks have been slow to appear on certain stages. The Metropolitan Opera did not present La Cenerentola until 1997 (just two years before OR’s most recent production in 1999). The MET’s premiere production of La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) joined their repertory just last month; recent seasons have seen highly anticipated and acclaimed MET premieres of Armida and Le Comte Ory.

What accounts for Rossini’s enduring popularity? Along with an unerring sense of melody, Rossini’s gifts as a master of musical theatre include a harmonic language perfectly balanced to his characters and their dramatic situations. Like Mozart, Rossini excels at the musical ensemble – a form original to the operatic stage – and the brilliant deployment of various combinations expertly serve the theatrical pace. Rossini’s knack for form and musical architecture is especially apparent in La Cenerentola. As Stendhal puts it, in one of his colorful bon mots:
he knows how to husband his listener’s attention, shielding it lovingly against the danger of vain distractions, only to hurl it with greater impetus upon the traces of what is really essential.

Rossini’s overtures maintain a special place in the concert repertory of orchestras even outside the opera house, and La Cenerentola’s Sinfonia is an exemplary model. Adumbrating themes we will recognize within the drama, it contains the first of several notable instances of the so-called “Rossini crescendo.” Deceptively simple in appearance, both on the page and to the ear, this device involves a series of repetitions: each phrase builds momentum as it grows in dynamic range from the softest piano to a thrilling fortissimo. Like a force of nature, this irrepressible surge of energy is no less impressive for the predictability of its outcome. Examples abound in the score, with particularly effective episodes in the first act quintet and finale, and the second act sextet. While the vocal fireworks and buffo antics distinguish the individual characters’ solo arias, it is in the ensembles in which Rossini shows himself Mozart’s operatic successor. The duet between Dandini and Don Magnifico near the top of Act 2 is another unerring example of Rossini’s synthesis of musical comedy with dramatic verisimilitude.

What distinguishes Rossini’s Cinderella from the countless variations of the fairy tale is found in its subtitle: La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfa. Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant. Eschewing the supernatural elements of Fairy Godmother, transforming pumpkins, and the like, Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti have given us a masterpiece of humanity, with all its warts, foibles, and enduring virtues. Cinderella does not need to be “the fairest of them all,” because she has goodness in abundance. She sings her acts of mercy, and like a benevolent diva, maintains a spirit of humility. Through Rossini’s incomparable dramma giocoso, this “once upon a time / in a land far-away” story comes to life for us like no other version of the immortal tale can: through the power of its music.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mozart's Abduction: Program Notes

The most famous quotation attached to Mozart’s first opera for Vienna, allegedly from Emperor Joseph himself, “Far too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and far too many notes,” glosses over the fact this musical comedy was both instantly popular and remarkably inventive. Like its five great siblings, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, The Abduction from the Seraglio works within its particular genre while expanding its range and astonishing us with the variety of its forms. The two German operas Mozart wrote for Vienna, Abduction and Magic Flute, were each a Singspiel (literally “Singing play,” but better translated as “musical comedy”), intended for audiences of not just the court and aristocracy, but the military, the professional, and middles classes. Mozart’s Abduction was a hit from its opening night in the sweltering summer of 1782. By the time of the composer’s death less than a decade later, it had been performed in over 30 European cities. More than any of his previous works, it established Mozart as one of the leading composers of the era. Critics were so taken with Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius they gushed effusively, as his first biographer, Niemetschek observed:

"it was as if what had hitherto been taken for music was nothing of the kind. Everyone was enchanted, amazed at the novel harmonies, the new, unprecedented way the wind instruments were treated."

Indeed, given our über-familiarity with Mozart’s style, his seemingly effortless grace and élan, the propulsive energy and vivacity of his music, it is helpful to be reminded just how novel this music was in the last decades of the 18th century. Building on the orchestral richness of his previous opera, Idomeneo, Mozart composed an unprecedented range of instrumental color into his score. This is most obvious from the “Turkish” music introduced right from the start of the overture. “I doubt if anyone could fall asleep during it, even if he hadn’t slept a wink the night before,” Mozart wrote. The “exotic” qualities of the music, en vogue across Europe at the time, are evoked by the augmented percussion section, the bright upper register of the piccolo, and the use of the Lydian scale (which has a raised 4th step: F-sharp in C major). Mozart’s genius is to integrate these elements into the score to serve the drama. Here are the 26-year old composer’s observations on one of the arias for the oafish bass:

"Osmin’s rage is made comic, as the Turkish music is brought in…and as his rage increases, just when you think the aria is ending – comes the Allegro assai [very fast],in a completely different tempo and key…For just as a man in such a towering rage oversteps all order, moderation and restraint and completely forgets himself, so the music must forget itself."

Belmonte’s aria, “O wie Ängstlich” [O how anxious], uses the orchestra to equal, albeit distinct, dramatic effect. Here the tenor’s “beating heart, full of love, is depicted by the violins in octaves.” That Mozart would, against his Father’s wishes, marry Constanze Weber in between performances of this opera whose heroine shares the namesake of his beloved is another example of art imitating life.

We have chosen to place our production in a “timeless modern” setting, and have updated the dialogue accordingly. The central theme which courses through Mozart’s incomparable musical dramas is the range and depth of the human heart. Whether set in a Turkish harem or a nameless American mansion, Mozart’s music lives through his characters. However they compare to the “types” we expect on the operatic stage – Romantic hero (tenor), tragic heroine or soubrette (soprano) – Mozart’s creations transcend their individual roles and speak to us through the universal language of human experience. This is but one of the reasons why his operas, more than 200 years on, are as popular and enduring as ever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Elegance and Romance from Virginia" tour of Japan

Amy and I just returned from a fabulous week in Japan, where we performed
with our good friends and colleagues, pianist Judy Clark, and the "Clasic Strings Duo"
of brothers Kevin and Bryan Matheson (violin and viola, respectively).

Here are some pictures from our rehearsals in Yamaha Hall - an acoustically
vibrant space we all found to be one of the nicest concert halls in which
we've performed.

Before our concert at Yamaha, we performed for appreciate guests at the Hotel Chinzan-so Tokyo. Performing for three nights in "Il Teatro" gave new meaning to "singing for your supper!" Our generous sponsor and patron (not to mention translator and guide extraordinaire!), Tomoko Gillespie, is between Judy and Amy below:

We performed a varied program of favorite operatic and musical theatre arias and duets from La Bohéme, Tosca, La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and among others, Brigadoon. We didn't know how well we'd be received by an audience we'd been told might be more reserved, less demonstrative and less familiar with opera than what we've come to expect. We prepared one encore, performed two, and could have offered a third! Here we are with the emcee of our concert, a Japanese soprano who translated for the audience.

Not only was mini-Beethoven-san a hit, but the Matheson brothers were swarmed by young violinists who wanted their music autographed!

Following the Yamaha Hall Recital on November 5, we sang another program at Christ Church in Yokohama. The expat and local community was again demonstratively supportive, and we were grateful and proud to represent our community in another vibrant center of the Land of the Rising Sun. We had one day off before our return yesterday (Nov 8), and we visited the fabled city of shrines, Kyoto.