The 1944 opera Shasenem and Garib opened in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan last Friday. This is the first opera to be staged in the country since Saparmurat Niyazov imposed a ban in 2001. Current President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov lifted the ban on opera and circuses earlier this year.
* Notes *
The last performance of Das Rheingold at San Francisco Opera this summer was yesterday. The orchestra sounded better, the brass section was clearly more in tune. The Rheinmaidens sounded even prettier last night than they had earlier in the run. Tamara Wapinsky (Freia) still had a few high notes that wavered so much they were not in tune. The same goes for Jill Grove (Erda), though it wasn't so much the high E that was giving her difficulty, as in previous performances. Grove would have to repeat the same note, but sometimes her vibrato got in the way of this. However, Grove definitely showed improvement. Jennifer Larmore (Fricka) sounded nice, though still a tad quiet and thin.
Jason Collins (Froh) and Charles Taylor (Donner) both had the obnoxious swagger necessary for their parts, and they both had good volume. Taylor did especially well at the end when Donner summons a storm. Andrea Silvestrelli played the lovelorn Fasolt well, and Günther Groissböck was a fine foil as Fafner. David Cangelosi was perfectly sniveling as Mime, his voice is bright and seems to have enough volume. Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) gave a nuanced, beautifully colored performance. Stefan Margita stole the show, as Loge often does. Margita's voice is simply gorgeous and Loge's craftiness came through in his voice. After five performances, Mark Delavan sounded, understandably, more comfortable in the role of Wotan. I look forward to hearing him in 2010 when San Francisco Opera presents Die Walküre.
* Tattling (Or Why Sartre Was Right) *
I told myself that I was not going to get angry if the audience was ill-behaved, I was just going to read the score and concentrate my attention there. Unfortunately, standing room on the balcony level was completely full. There were no less than three conversations around me, and I had to hush them, as it was getting in the way of being able to read the score. The worst was between two girls, one of them had parked herself next to me and was leafing through her planner and playing with her cell phone. When I told them to be quiet, they acted as if I was insane for asking them to not speak during an opera. Perhaps they do not know what a score looks like, and assumed I was reading a coloring book and stretching to Das Rheingold for my health. They spoke for a good 15-20 minutes of the opera. I don't understand why one would bother going to the opera just to converse. Every time there was an explosion on stage or laughter, the one girl next to me would hop up and try to see what was going on, but by that time she had missed most of the action.
Also, a tip for you, dear readers. If you ever happen to have a pregnant wife (or friend for that matter), please don't drag her to the opera and expect her to stand for 2 hours and 35 minutes in the second row of standing room, with nothing to lean on.
Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is staging Così Fan Tutte at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. The opera opens July 4th and closes July 19th.
The Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi 2008 opened last night with Sanjay Leela Bhansali's production of Padmâvatî, recently at Théâtre du Chatelet. There will be one more performance tomorrow, and the festival runs through July 13th.
You started piano at 6, oboe at 10, and now you are an opera singer. Did you come from a musical family?
No, there aren't any professional musicians in my family. My mother had me take piano lessons, and I'm very glad she did, but at the time it wasn't exciting, practicing and all that. It's a funny story about how I got started with oboe. In junior high my older brother was in band, and I started off on clarinet. At one point an oboe became available because the oboist graduated, and I thought I'd take it up. Since there was only one, I knew I would be first chair. It is a great instrument, but you spend a lot of time making reeds, more time doing that than actually practicing. It makes oboists a little crazy, not that opera singers are exactly sane.
So how did you move from playing oboe professionally at 15 to studying voice?
I loved opera from when I was 10 or 11, but only started singing in choir in high school. The choir director pulled me aside to say I might have something there as far as my voice was concerned. So I took voice lessons at the end of high school and studied voice at Temple University.
Your San Francisco Opera debut was as Lodovico in Otello in 2002, and I remember that as being a crazy production because Ben Heppner withdrew. How was that experience?
It was very exciting! We practically played guess the tenor each night, since there were four different singers as Otello in that run. Pat Racette was a trooper, she barely rehearsed with some of them!
I did not realize you were even in Ariodante, because I was blinded by the prospect of Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Ewa Podleś. When I did notice my first thought was General Leslie Groves (from Doctor Atomic) is singing Handel? The music is so different. But obviously from the panel discussion and from your singing you love Handel. You were able to name Carestini as the castrato that first sang Ariodante and Gustavus Waltz as the first person to sing your role, the King of Scotland, so you did your research. How do you sing such different music? It's easier to research for newer operas, because many of the characters are historical, such as Leslie Groves, and there are tons of documents to look at, in English. That's much simpler than trying to find out information on operas based on older texts, you might look at a source text that isn't exactly in modern French for example, and perhaps that’s more difficult.
As for preparation, I'm lucky to have a strong foundation for my technique from my voice teacher, and I don't go about preparing for a role much differently even though the styles are very different.
In looking at your repertoire, I see you have performed some Handel, starting with Achilla in Giulio Cesare. What other Handel operas have you sung in besides this and Ariodante?
I've sung in Hercules (Hercules) and Jeptha (Zebul). Most of my career has been in the United States, and the Handel-craze is mostly in Europe. I'm not a singer people necessarily associate with Handel, not like David Daniels or Joyce Di Donato. Some singers specialize, but I couldn't do that, it would drive me crazy to sing, say, Rossini, all year long.
I read the score with last night's performance of Ariodante, and I have to say, I have an immense respect for all the singers and musicians involved. I could barely keep up and I was just reading along, I can't imagine having to play or sing that quickly.
Last night I had a moment when I just looked around and there I was, Ruth Ann's dad on stage, and it all sort of sank in and we don't always take time to appreciate how amazing it is.
I believe they cut one of your arias in Ariodante, is that right? It's a rather long opera, even with the cuts it is the longest opera at SF Opera this summer.
Yes, they had to make some cuts to keep it manageable, like you said, it is long. So they've cut some arias, part of a duet, and the ballets. I think they ended up cutting 30-40 minutes of music.
How was creating the role of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic? Did you know you have the best line in all of opera?
"Three pieces of chocolate cake, 300 calories."
It was great working with John Adams and Peter Sellars. When I sing the line about the cake, it is like having a therapy session in front of a few thousand people, since I'm not exactly a small guy. Groves didn't get to be the top military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project by being nice, but that part is meant to humanize him, and I think it does.
You just had your Lyric Opera of Chicago debut with this role, and you will be singing Leslie Groves at the Met this October. Is it your Met premiere? Are you excited about being in a simulcast?
Yes, that will be my Met premiere. It's all very exciting, especially since it is a totally new production. I am also singing Sarastro at the Met in December.
Is it the production with all the puppets in it?
Right, it's the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute.
Could you talk a little about your experience in Grendel? I know it had some issues, it was supposed to have a world premiere at LA Opera on May 27, 2006, but it had to be pushed back to June 8, 2006. Do you think you'll sing it again?
Grendel really changed the trajectory of my career. You know, I usually end up playing the father or the king, and I don't think people knew I could sing something like Grendel, where I'm on stage for nearly 3 hours. It was a great experience.
The production had a lot of computers and motors, and they weren't talking to one another by the time we were supposed to premiere. That part was frustrating, so much time was taken up by tech that we didn't have all the time we needed to rehearse all the way through.
I know Julie Taymor wants Grendel to be performed again, and I hope they do it in the next 10 years, while I can still sing it.
The reviews were very good, Alex Ross wrote some really nice things about you in The New Yorker.
That was so great! I was a cartoon in The New Yorker. I think the only thing that could be better is being on Sesame Street. That would be so cool.
Christopher Hahn, who once worked at San Francisco Opera and for the Merola Program, is now the General Director of Pittsburgh Opera.
Barrie Kosky has been appointed General Director and Intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin. Kosky takes over for the 2012-2013 season with the departure of Andreas Homoki.
The General Director and Intendant of Komische Oper Berlin, Andreas Homoki, is leaving in 2012 to take up the position of General Manager at Opernhaus Zürich.
* Notes *
The Merola Opera Program's Auditions for the General Director were yesterday evening, and this was a first opportunity to hear all the 2008 Merolini in a single go. Before the auditions began I found my opera mentors, the Ryans, and B. Ryan told us we should put ourselves in David Gockley's shoes and that we must have an eye (or ear, really) to casting Die Walküre. T. Ryan said she found the idea of putting herself in Gockley's shoes rather difficult. In any case the auditions were educational, it made me realize I really should study up on Massenet and Berlioz. There was a lot of fine singing, actually, everyone was clearly talented. The most hilarious performance was from Carlos Monzón, who acted out the Catalogue aria in a somewhat lewd manner as he sang. Tyler Nelson also impressed me with "Konstanze, Konstanze...O wie ängstlich."
At intermission I was, for fun of course, required to pick which singers I would like to hear again. I chose Joélle Harvey, Amanda Majeski, Nicole Birkland, James Benjamin Rodgers, and Benjamin LeClair. Joélle sang "Du gai soleil" from Werther and her bright voice has such effortlessness. Amanda's rendition of "Song of the Moon" from Rusalka was passionate without being too harsh. Nicole chose "The Empty Handed Traveler" from The Consul, which I'd never heard before. James sang Lensky's aria from Eugene Onegin with an appealing brightness and good volume. Benjamin had clear diction in "Tutto è disposto...Aprite un po'quegli occhi" and his warm round tones reminded me of John Relyea.
I believe Gockley called back my five picks, in addition to Ellen Wieser, Leah Crocetto, Renée Tatum, Nathaniel Peake, and David W. Pershall. David sang Papageno's "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" well, and I very much enjoyed Eileen Downey's accompaniment here. My favorite performance of the evening came from Joélle Harvey, who sang "Piangerò la sorte mia" from Giulio Cesare with Dennis Doubin playing the piano.
* Tattling *
We looked for David Gockley, as one must keep up, one year his predecessor did not appear at this event. He was in the orchestra section and he either thanked or complimented each person by name after they sang. The audience was extremely well behaved, they did not clap between pieces, just as they were asked. There were a few whispers, especially from Box C. The person in question was threatened but we were told we were too small to actually manage to throw him over the railing.
Oren Gradus and Zheng Cao were both spotted at intermission. I was introduced to the former, and I mentioned he must have made a big impression on me as Leporello last season, as I still thought of him during the Berlin performances of Don Giovanni that I recently attended. We also spoke about the Lucia di Lammermoor he is in at the moment, and it is clear that he has an immense respect for Natalie Dessay.
I may be wrong about some of the notes above, if you happen to have a correction for me, please speak up, I am grateful for any help.
This event occurred in the Opera Cafe after the performance on Sunday. The cheese disappeared quite rapidly and they ran out of plates, but otherwise there was plenty of fruit to be had. Donald Runnicles asked questions to the cast as they all stood around outside of the women's restroom. The best part was when Runnicles asked Andrea Silvestrelli how he felt about bel canto, Silvestrelli had to admit he found it boring, and then launched into a stereotypical bel canto tune, pretending to be the orchestra. Many people had to leave the cast party early to check into the Auditions for the General Director by 5:45pm.
* Notes *
The Inside Music talk for San Francisco Symphony's recent West Coast premiere of Lindberg's Seht die Sonne was a lecture by musicologist Ilkka Oramo, followed by a short interview of the composer. It was mentioned that Lindberg works like a scientist and his work is approaching tonal objects. The influences of Seht die Sonne are Mahler's 9th, Mexican funeral processions played on animal horns and shells, and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. The name of the piece, in fact, comes from the text that concludes the Gurrelieder. The orchestra for Lindberg was rather large, including more than a dozen percussion instruments played by three musicians. Conductor Sakari Oramo seemed have good control, the orchestra sounded fine. The brass section played particularly well, everyone very much in tune and together. There was a delightfully eerie part played by harps, piccolo, flute, and oboe, and then a bit where the harps violently alternated between two notes. The most hair-raising moment was the cello cadenza that begins the third part of the piece, it starts off very beautifully, becomes rather high-pitched, there is an outburst of pizzicato, a return to bowing, and then there is the relief of all the strings coming in. The end was striking, a melting into silence of strings and timpani.
They paired the Lindberg with Debussy's Chansons de jeunesse, sung by the conductor's wife, soprano Anu Komsi. Her voice is nice, it has a warm timbre but an icy precision as well. She did not seem to have a feel for how quietly she could sing and still be heard in Davies Hall, perhaps it is because these performances are her San Francisco Symphony debut. Some of her pianissimo was not audible, and generally it was difficult to follow her French. Her voice did blend well with the horn at the end of "Coquetterie posthume" and she sang "Au Clair de la lune" very prettily. Komsi was restrained in her approach, as was conductor Oramo, perhaps it was just too subtle for me. It all sounded pleasant but boring, devoid of true emotion, though the text is effusive.
The second half of the evening gave us Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92. Oramo had a straightforward take on the work, without huge risks. The contrast between dynamics was strong and the playing was spirited but rigorous.
* Tattling *
Sometimes going to Davies Hall is disheartening, as the audience can be quite terrible. When an opera audience is ill-behaved, one can put it down to the frivolity of opera, people get distracted by the spectacle of it, and this is understandable. Yesterday at the symphony, the people next to me talked at full volume during the first piece, saying such choice statements as "This is more noise than music." They obviously did not enjoy themselves at all, yet they clapped anyway, especially when Lindberg came out on the stage. They also spoke during the Debussy, though this music was quiet, and it was easy to hear the woman's comment about how she "just couldn't stand it," though I am not sure what she was referring to. During the last two songs there were four watch alarms marking the hour, all at different moments.
At intermission I thought about the woman's comment, and wondered if she had some sort of neurological disorder, as she had a particular motor pattern of shaking and twitching. I felt a bit bad for her, though her program made the most awful sound as it scraped against the fabric of her trousers, not to mention how much she crumpled the paper in her hands. All sympathy was lost when she spoke aloud during the Allegretto (a mobile phone also rang during this, but it wasn't in the loge), I understand one cannot always control one's movement, but talking is voluntary. I shushed her, and she at least tried to whisper during the rest of the work. She fell asleep during the Presto, and her snore jolted me out of my seat, waking her. I have a feeling I would have been much less exhausted if I had just gone to Free Opera in the Ballpark.
San Francisco Opera is presenting a free simulcast of Lucia di Lammermoor at AT&T Park tonight, as one may know because of the billboard in Emeryville or the various banners in San Francisco. Kip Cranna will be receiving his San Francisco Opera Medal before the performance, which features Natalie Dessay in the title role. One may register in advance and print out tickets. Ticket holders are allowed in at 6:30pm at Lefty O'Doul Gate, and others may enter at 7pm at the Willie Mays Plaza Entrance. It should be amusing, when else are hot dogs, the outdoors, and opera combined? Unfortunately, I will miss this event, as Beethoven's 7th beats bel canto opera hands down in the world of the Opera Tattler.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's 2008 Performances: The Opera Tattler | The World of William | Intermezzo | SFist | Joshua Kosman's San Francisco Chronicle Review | John Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle | San Francisco Examiner | San Jose Mercury News | Not for Fun Only | AP | Out West Arts | echovar | The Reporter | Chloe Veltman | FT.com | Lynn Ruth Miller | Kinderkuchen for the FBI | Prima la musica, poi le parole | Opera Warhorses | The Reverberate Hills
* Notes *
Natalie Dessay had her long awaited debut at San Francisco Opera last night in the opening of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her voice has a marvelous incandescent quality, but also has a hard edge that borders on vulgar. Her movements are light and her acting is strong. She was completely convincing in her mad scene, and the use of glass harmonica rather than flute here certainly was effective.
Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti's debut was less impressive, though at least he looked fine paired with Dessay, as she is rather petite. His portrayal of Edgardo started off fairly well, his voice bright and reedy, though with a certain whining quality. The famous Act II sextet was his strongest moment, sounding particularly good with Gabriele Viviani (Enrico). However, he was nearly shrieking in Act III, "Fra poco a me ricovero" was not good. Viviani made for a threatening villain, his voice is not especially beautiful but is serviceable enough. Though his diction was precise, his intonation was not, which was clear in the duet "Se tradirmi tu potrai." Oren Gradus faired better as Raimondo, his light but warm tones were lovely.
As for the smaller roles, Cybele-Teresa Gouverneur (Alisa) did not distinguish herself. Her little shaky voice was hysterical at first, and inaudible in the sextet. Matthew O'Neill (Normanno) sounded fine, though he was a hair off from the orchestra at one point. Andrew Bidlack was a restrained and suitably stiff Arturo, and sang well in the sextet.
The chorus was excellent, though they were a bit fast near the end, or else the orchestra was somewhat slow. They were not, in any case, exactly together. The orchestra did sound crisp and in tune under debuting conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce.
Other production teams could really learn a thing or two from director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown. The set was gloriously quiet, and only made one cracking noise between the second and third scenes of the last act, and this was when there was no music to interrupt. Despite the silence of the set, the visual impact was utterly stunning. The gloomy elegance of the moving walls, the storm scene, and Lucia's entrance in the mad scene using a platform covered with heather (Calluna vulgaris) painted red were all gorgeous. Some of the effects with shadows were too much like caricature, they reminded me a bit of Kara Walker's work sans the incisive political commentary.
* Tattling *
The War Memorial looked quite full, and no rush tickets were available. Standing room was crowded, and is bound to become even more so. I'm sure this is the production that brings in so many people that there will be fainting in standing room, hopefully it will distract them so I can hear Ariodante in peace.
I only heard one mobile phone ring, and it sounded like it was coming from outside the hall, in the lobby. There were no watch alarms heard in the orchestra, and I didn't notice anyone talking.
Dr. Marcia Green's amusing pre-opera talk focused on the music of Lucia in film, of course bringing up The Fifth Element and the blue alien diva.