Brian Thorsett

Brian Thorsett Interview

In+Performance+Long+HSTenor Brian Thorsett (pictured left), well known to Bay Area opera fans, got a tenure track assistant professor position at Virginia Tech last year and subsequently moved to across the country. He is, however, still performing in here quite a bit, and will sing in the next Curious Flights concert on May 28 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer in the Bay Area?
The Bay Area has a tremendous classical music scene, with lots of opportunities, tons of opera companies, and great instrumentalists. San Francisco audiences are very supportive and you can do opera in weird places. There were lots of times when I couldn't believe we were allowed to do certain things.

The challenges are the expense of living here and the traffic. I would perform 40 weekend a year (which is nuts), do outreach with San Francisco Opera, and teach, but still got priced out of the Bay Area. Also the traffic here is terrible, I was so happy to sell my car when I moved to Virginia. I was sad to leave the Bay Area, but thankfully there are airplanes, so I can come back to perform.

You have degrees in mathematics and piano, it's easy to see how the latter relates to singing, but does math relate at all to being a singer?
It sure does. For one thing, I really know how to count.

Seriously though, there is a sense of creativity to finding proofs in math that is not unlike being a singer. You can take 3 or 4 different paths getting to the answer. Just as when you have to come to an understanding about characterizing a certain role or even dealing with a technical issue in your voice, there is more than one way to go about it.

Math definitely broadened my horizons and fostered both an intellectual curiosity in me and an appreciation for the interconnectedness of things.

Your repertory is quite varied, spanning Monteverdi to David Lang. Do you have a favorite composer?
I don't think you can be a classical musician and not love Bach. The St. Matthew Passion is the pinnacle of Western art music, without a doubt.

I do also love working with living composers because there is a special kind of collaboration that happens. Recently I sang a Scott Gendel song cycle on love and I'm performing "American Death Ballads" by David Conte in July. So those two composers are my favorites at the moment too.

Tell me about the pieces you are performing with Curious Flights.
Well, the main piece is the Blitzstein, The Airborne Symphony, which is somewhere between unabashedly Romantic and Coplandesque. It is a fun narrative about the history of flight but goes beyond that. It is about striving, failing, but eventually being able to do something great. And it shows the downsides of this success too.

I'm also singing three Korngold songs, two from Give Us This Night and one from The Constant Nymph. Give Us This Night starred the mezzo Gladys Swarthout and the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, it has a stunningly ridiculous plot. Weirdly enough the lyrics are by Hammerstein, so it was a Korngold and Hammerstein musical.

I don't know a single musician that isn't blown away by Korngold, but of course, he isn't performed that much. Part of it is because his music is out of print, and you have to hunt down songs if you want them. I had to call around, contacted Paramount and got someone to send me some PDFs. I did the piano reduction of the scores myself!

PBO and SF Opera Adlers

Adler_Fellows_Opera_Steps* Notes * 
A number of San Francisco Opera Center's Adler Fellows (pictured left) performed with conductor Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last night at the SFJazz Center. The evening was a delight from beginning to end. The first half of the program featured four instrumental pieces interspersed with four vocal pieces, all by Mozart. The Overture in D major, K. 106 was played with grace, while Contredanse No. 1 in D major, K. 106 sounded rather cheery. I enjoyed the emphatic playing of the repeated notes in Contredanse No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 106.

Soprano Julie Adams sang "Nehmt meinen Dank" with clarity. Her voice has much strength and not a trace of strain. Baritone Edward Nelson was terribly charming in "Con un vezzo all'italiana" from La finta giardiniera. The quartet "Dite almeno, in che mancai" with Adams, Nelson, tenor Brian Thorsett, and bass Anthony Reed was brilliant as well.

The second half of the show was devoted to Rossini's first produced opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract). The piece is concise and quite amusing. The orchestra played with verve and McGegan looked pleased throughout as he conducted. Some of the Baroque instruments seemed less well-suited to Rossini than others, but the enthusiasm of all those involved never waned.

The singing was wonderful. Mezzo-soprano Nian Wang sang Clarina's aria ("An'chio son giovine") with conviction. Bass Matthew Stump makes for a wonderful, blustering Tobia Mill. Baritone Efraín Solís is hilarious as Slook. Tenor Brian Thorsett sings Edoardo Milfort with effortlessness. Soprano Jacqueline Piccolino is a dulcet-toned Fannì. Her sings with a certain subtlety that is appealing for this role.

* Tattling * 
The first five rows were removed to provide the orchestra with a pit.

MMDG's Dido and Aeneas

MMDG_Dido&Aeneas_08_Credit_BeatrizSchiller  * Notes * 
The Mark Morris Dance Group (pictured left, photograph by Beatriz Schiller) opened the new season at Cal Performances with Dido and Aeneas yesterday evening. The audience seemed completely rapt by the experience, and I have never attended a Baroque opera with so little fidgeting or noise. Morris fills all the music with choreography, so there is not a moment in which audience members feel comfortable speaking, especially since the work is only an hour long without an intermission. The dancing is unsentimental and not overly pretty. Limbs were thrown about at angles, and looked rather different on each of the 12 dancers. There were times when the choreography was much more like miming than dancing, and Morris is not shy of being crude. Humor was infused into many of the scenes, especially when dealing with witches or sailors. The dancers characterized their different roles clearly.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra started off less crisply than usual under Mark Morris himself, but did often sound lovely. There was a slight squeaky quality to the dance at the end of Scene 2. The chorus also sounded fine. Since all of the singing was from the pit, most of the soloists sounded a bit like they were singing from the bottom of a well. Soprano Yulia Van Doren (Belinda, First Witch) sang prettily, and soprano Céline Ricci (Second Woman, Second Witch) was distinct from her. Brian Thorsett sounded bright though not hefty as the Sailor. Philip Cutlip (Aeneas) sang with warmth and lightness. Stephanie Blythe gave a vivid performance as both Dido and the Sorceress. Her voice has both volume and gravity.

* Tattling * 
The audience members around me were almost completely silent and no electronic noise was noted.

Chora Nova performs Vivaldi, Galuppi, Pergolese

Paul-flight * Notes *
Berkeley's Chora Nova ended the 2010-2011 season with a performance of psalm settings from the Italian Baroque last Saturday. The evening began with Pergolese's Confitebor tibi and Galuppi's Nisi Dominus. The both pieces were played and sung at a pretty mezzo-forte under the direction of Paul Flight (pictured left). The two sopranos were distinct from one another. Michele Byrd's voice was bright, while Jennifer Paulino's was warmer. For Pergolese, Byrd sang a countertenor part in a duet with tenor Brian Thorsett. This did not quite work, they just did not seem to be singing together. The Galuppi had more fire to it, but unfortunately, one of the violins broke a string before the last soprano duet.

The second half of the program gave us Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus. Playing and singing were diffuse but pleasant. Thorsett had a beautiful solo, and the trumpet here clean except for an odd squawk at the end. Flight sang the countertenor part in this piece, turning from the orchestra to sing to the audience.

* Tattling *
Someone in the balcony saw fit to undo her wrist brace during the second piece, apologizing, but creating a great deal of noise unfastening her velcro straps.

PBO's Dido and Aeneas in Berkeley

Purcell-portrait * Notes * 
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra continued a run of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Berkeley last night, along with a full program of other works of this composer. The performance set up was different this time, with the orchestra on stage behind the singers. The acoustics are better in this venue, First Congregational Church, than in Herbst Theatre, and the principals were never overwhelmed. The overall effect was scintillating, the orchestra was clear and the chorale's timing was perfect. Cyndia Sieden (Belinda, First Witch) again sounded lovely, even though her voice is not as hefty Céline Ricci's. Ricci (Second Lady, Second Witch) reined in her acting. Brian Thorsett sang his two roles (Spirit in the likeness of Mercury, First Sailor) with vigor.

Jill Grove gave a consistent performance of the Sorceress, and was appropriately comic, though also a bit frightening. William Berger portrayed Aeneas with strength, his voice is warm and pretty. Of course, Susan Graham was magnificent as Dido. Her last aria, the famous "When I am laid in Earth," was tranfixing in both its beauty and sorrow.

* Tattling * 
There was quite a lot of flipping of pages in programs, whispering during the music, and noise from velcro, zippers, and wrappers. People even had to be hushed during Susan Graham's first notes.

Confess the Flame her Tongue Denyes

Susan_Graham_Credit_Dario_Acosta * Notes * 
Yesterday in San Francisco, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performed the first of six performances celebrating Henry Purcell. The evening started with his "O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song," Chacony in G minor, "Hear My Prayer, O Lord," and the Suite from Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge. Conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan, the playing was buoyant. The Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, was also in fine form. Most of the soloists featured in the first half are members of the Chorale, with the exceptions of sopranos Cyndia Sieden and Céline Ricci. All sounded lovely, though Ricci did not clearly enunciate the words of "Lucinda is bewitching fair," in the Suite from Abdelazer.

The semi-staged Dido and Aeneas that came after the intermission was entirely gratifying. The orchestra was splendid and together, as was the chorale. Cyndia Sieden was sweet and bird-like as Belinda, and only had the slightest gasp during "Pursue thy Conquest, Love." Céline Ricci was a good vocal foil as the Second Woman, her voice being warmer but her coloratura more effortful. Ricci overacted and moved a great deal, even swaying her hips to the music. It was not very becoming, considering she had only a few lines by herself, but it was easy enough to ignore her. Sieden and Ricci were amusing as the two witches. Tenor Brian Thorsett also had two roles, as the Spirit in the likeness of Mercury at the end of Act II, and the First Sailor at the beginning of Act III. He was able to give very different characterizations for each.

Jill Grove was an imperious Sorceress, her low notes were rich, but there was some strain and lack of smoothness in her higher register. Baritone William Berger (Aeneas) has a pleasant sound, and he held his own against the incredible Susan Graham (Dido). Their exchange in the last act was heartrending. Graham sang with a facile beauty, yet with a stately grace in keeping with the music.

* Tattling * 
They seemed to skip the chorus near the end of Act II, though the text was printed in the program. The audience was well-behaved, though I did hear one watch alarm near the end of the performance.

Festival Opera's Faust

 * Notes * 
Festival Opera's production of Faust opened last Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. The orchestra, under Michael Morgan, sounded jaunty all evening long, though there were some issues with the horns. The chorus did not fare quite as well, at times they lacked confidence, particularly the men's chorus in "Déposons les armes."

The cast in the smaller roles were pretty good: Zachary Gordin (Wagner), Erin Neff (Siébel), and Patrice Houston (Marthe) were all perfectly appropriate vocally. Eugene Brancoveanu was incredible as Valentin, his presence commanded the stage and his voice is beautiful.

As for the main characters, Kirk Eichelberger was an interestingly vain Méphistophélès, his acting is perhaps stronger than his singing. Kristin Clayton did well as Marguerite, though her voice is not overly sweet, she does have a good heft and volume. On the other hand, Brian Thorsett (Faust) sounded very pretty and clear in the middle of his tessitura. He did have a terrible cracking cough on one of the notes just before the chorus is heard in Act I, and showed some signs of strain throughout the evening.

The production, designed by Matthew Antaky, was not a distraction. There were two screens suspended from the ceiling which seemed to have rather static photographs on them. They resembled the images that come with one's computer as choices for desktop background. However, there was a scene with a giant beach ball being tossed around upstage that was worth the price of admission.

* Tattling * 
There was some scattered talking, and one watch alarm was heard at 11pm.

Pocket Opera's Martha

Martha* Notes *
Pocket Opera's 30th season opened yesterday with Friedrich von Flotow's Martha. This company presents opera in English translation with a narrator, a small cast, and a refreshing unpretentiousness. Donald Pippin, the founder and artistic director of Pocket Opera, does all the translations, narrations, and plays piano accompaniment. For Martha, he lead the 8 others in the ensemble of strings and woodwinds.

There were only 13 singers, all of whom were competent. As the Florence Gould Theater is rather small, with only 316 seats, volume was not an issue. Marcelle Dronkers wasn't terribly impressive in the title role, but she did have her moments. Tenor Brian Thorsett sang Lionel sweetly, though his diction could be improved. His voice is lovely, but he doesn't seem grounded in his body somehow. Julia Ulehla made a pretty Nancy, and her voice was nice despite some of her unclear arpeggios.

Perhaps the weakest part of the production was Willa Anderson's costuming, especially in the very first scene. The dresses the ladies wore looked like random prom gowns from the 1980's. Also, the hairstyling could have been improved. Dronkers' bangs and side-ponytail were not becoming to the role.

* Tattling *
The photographer's camera was somewhat loud as he took pictures, but this was nothing compared to the cellular phone that rang at least 10 times during Act IV.