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People next to me and behind me took photographs and videos of the opera, heedless of the sounds their devices made.
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The adolescent girl (who was there with her little brother and their mother) in front of me in Row H of the Orchestra level, had a seat for her purse that was full of cellular phones and a big bouquet. She took many selfies as we waited for the performance to begin.
The children behind me ate candy doled out in plastic bags during the entire performance. This was evidently to bribe them to stay occupied and silent as their mother sang. It was effective except that the bags rustled at times but I must be getting more tolerant or nicer or something, because it didn't really bother me that much, if at all.
* Notes *
West Edge Opera opened its 2016 festival with The Cunning Little Vixen last night at the abandoned 16th Street train station last night in Oakland. While the orchestra could have been crisper under Maestro Jonathan Khuner, the beauty of Janacek's score comes through. Pat Diamond's production has a ton of charm and the singers did well.
In a time when there's so much awful news, it's easy to want to find an escape, whether it is the latest iteration of a blockbuster movie franchise or Pokémon GO. But what West Edge Opera has achieved here with Janacek's lightest opera represents more than mere distraction from the headlines, a refuge of sorts. The piece is a beautiful meditation on the cyclical nature of life, and though certainly sad, is also celebratory.
The reduced score by Jonathan Dove was played by a tiny orchestra of only 16 that made an impressively huge sound, sometimes overpowering the singers. There were intonation issues, but lots of spirit. Volti Chorus and Piedmont Children's Chorus looked and sounded great as well. The children are ridiculously cute.
The storybook set (pictured above) is also teeny-tiny, with an attractive forest motive that could be projected on with images of ferns, bark, brick, and even a deer head. The lighting, especially the shadows, looked quite evocative of a forest near an urban space with the gorgeous decaying train station walls. The staging is lively, and no one seemed constricted by the lack of space. The costumes are cute and not slavishly descriptive, the chickens wear yellow tutus, nary a feather in sight, but it is completely clear who and what they are.
The one misstep was perhaps the Dragonfly, a dancer in ribboned dress who flitted around between songs. Though her choreography was fine, and she managed to navigate the small space without running into anything or anyone, the dancing did not add much to the performance and seemed gratuitous.
Baritone Philip Skinner sang the Forester with warmth and humanity. Amy Foote is a piquant Vixen, her icy voice is nice and light but pierces through the orchestration. She has a lovely control of her instrument. Nikola Printz (Fox) sang with power and also has a slight strident quality that works for the role.
Joseph Meyers (The Schoolmaster), Nikolas Nackley (The Parson), and Carl King (Harasta) contributed fine performances, rounding out a strong cast.
* Tattling *
The couple behind me talked at full volume for the beginning of the first and third acts.
* Notes *
West Edge Opera's 2016 festival continued at the Oakland 16th Street train station Sunday afternoon with Powder Her Face. Maestra Mary Chun conducted Thomas Adès' chamber opera with precision. The production from Elkhanah Pulitzer is characteristically racy but somehow does show a little compassion for these very unlikable characters as well.
The music by Adès is a study in extremes, lots of highs and lows in the vocal lines. It seems very punishing and complicated. At times I found it pretty harsh, but the four singers were massively impressive, and all sounded and looked great. No one was drowned out by the orchestration, even though the musicians were loud, perhaps because we were on the same level as the orchestra and the acoustic of the station is not particularly suited to opera.
Before the performance it was announced that baritone Hadleigh Adams had a tickle in his throat, but it was hard to tell, his singing was strong. He had lots and lots of very low notes and rather high ones, and somehow reached them all with seeming ease. Soprano Emma McNairy also sang with power and nonchalance, hitting all sorts of notes in her upper register without simply sounding like a squeak toy.
Soprano Laura Bohn was a fine Duchess, terribly heartless in the beginning and startlingly vulnerable in the end. I was not expecting to feel sorry for her, but somehow the music and production came together nicely here.
Pulitzer's staging involves nudity, pink lighting, and wigs changed on stage, all elements we saw in her Lulu last year. She even wore Emma McNairy's platinum bob during the curtain call. But it all fit, and it is even clear that the composer himself was influenced by Berg, so it did make a certain sense. The set is simply a hotel room (Number 69, no less) with a sandbank on one side of the floor next to the bed. At one point sand falls onto the stage, the sands of time, doubtless, and the Duchess grasps at it helplessly, certainly the most striking image in the production.
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I was surrounded by opera lovers that were all fairly quiet, though the man to my left might have fallen asleep for a few minutes during the middle of the first act.
* Notes *
Conrad Susa's Transformations was performed by the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. Neal Goren conducted the jazz and pop influenced score with aplomb, the music sounded idiomatic. The production from Roy Rallo was very consistent with his style.
The piece is based on ten poems by Anne Sexton, from her book also entitled Transformations. The work consists of re-tellings of Grimm fairy tales, which are already rather dark, and take on an even more sinister meaning here Sexton is wry and very disturbing. Susa's music spreads the lines between eight singers who sing up to thirteen characters a piece. There's a surprising amount of singing together, which is quite nice.
Rallo's production is not, as far as I could tell, in a psychiatric hospital, its normal setting. Act I used only the downstage, everything else hidden behind a white curtain, and looked to be someone's living room with white Rococo style couch and cabinet, with a pink kitchen area stage left. In Act II a cave of grey plastic is revealed, and the couch turned around. As in Rallo's 2011 Barbiere for Merola, there was a lot of tinsel used. Tinsel stands in for Rapunzel's hair and for Rumpelstiltskin's straw spun into gold. The direction had a fair amount of slap-stick to it, a whole apple held in the mouth of Snow White to signify the apple stuck in her throat (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) and straw thrown at the head of the miller's daughter.
The chamber format of the opera and its many parts makes it a good fit for Merola. Unfortunately lead soprano Shannon Jennings, who plays Anne Sexton, was ill. She did remarkably well in Act I, though sang with some strain. Her part was taken over in the pit by Mary Evelyn Hangley, but Jennings continued on stage, acting and mouthing the words.
Soprano Teresa Castillo was a game Princess and Gretel. Mezzo Chelsey Geeting as a plush, lovely sound as the Good Fairy and Witch. Tenor Boris Van Druff was very creepy as Rumpelstiltskin. Also impressive was baritone Andrew G. Manea as Iron Hans.
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The audience was fairly quiet. There was noticeable attrition after the intermission.
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This was my second visit to Alcatraz in two years, which was very funny to me since I had lived in the Bay Area so long before ever going.
Was pleased that I knew one of the singers involved in the filming and had someone to discuss the San Francisco Opera season with on the ferry.
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A very enthusiastic couple were in Row L Seats 13 and 15 of the orchestra level. At least one of them was crying during the performance and they were among the first to stand during the ovation. They screamed "bravo," "brava," and "bravi" at every opportune moment. Normally I hate hearing the audience during a performance, but something about their love of opera made it not bother me.
Girls of the Golden West, a new opera set during the 1850s California Gold Rush by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars (pictured left, photograph by Terrence McCarthy), will have a world premiere at San Francisco Opera in November of 2017. More details will be released next January as part of the Company's 2017–18 repertory season announcement.
* Notes *
The latest Don Carlo (Valentina Simi as Countess of Aremberg, Ana María Martínez as Elisabetta, Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli, René Pape as King Philip II, and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Act II Scene 2; photograph by Cory Weaver) that opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon is impeccably cast from top to bottom. Michael Fabiano is a brilliant Don Carlo, with powerful high notes. Ana María Martínez sings Elisabetta with icy purity and strength. Her formidable vibrato is controlled.
René Pape is completely believable as King Philip II, his rich tones sounded mature if not slightly weathered. Mariusz Kwiecień made for a warm, sympathetic Rodrigo, his famous duet with Fabiano in Act II Scene 1 ("Dio, che nell'alma infondere") was beautiful, as was his death scene aria "Io morrò, ma lieto in core." Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli) has a darkness and a hard edge that works well for the role. Her "O don fatale" in Act IV Scene 1 was surprisingly lovely.
Even the smallest roles had fine singing, including Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquistor, Pene Pati as Count Lerma, and Toni Marie Palmertree as a Heavenly Voice.
The orchestra members also acquitted themselves well under the direction of Maestro Nicola Luisotti. There were moments that were fuzzy, but for the most part the music flowed nicely and was phrased skillfully.
The sets are spare and costumes lavish. Everything was very pretty to look at but a bit dull. The scene changes require a lot of pauses and this dampens the dramatic import of the proceedings.
* Tattling *
I arrived 30 minutes late as I did not realize the curtain time was 1pm rather than the normal 2pm because of the length of this opera, so I missed the first scene. Terrible!
Sadly there was much misbehavior other than my own in balcony standing room. Lots of talking and fidgeting, and at least one cellular phone. Someone exclaimed very loudly to himself during Act IV when the Grand Inquisitor tells the King that God sacrificed His own son for mankind, so he can surely kill Don Carlo without a bad conscience.
The Metropolitan Opera announced today that Yannick Nézet-Séguin (pictured left) is the new Music Director starting with the 2020-21 season. He will become the Met's Music Director Designate during the 2017-18 season.
* Notes *
The second cast of San Francisco Opera's current Carmen (Adam Diegel as Don José and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen in Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) production was performed a day after the first. The production is consistent, and it was impressive to me seeing it this time from Row J of the orchestra level, how much of the staging read clearly from the very back of the house as I saw it the first night.
Ginger Costa-Jackson is a sexy Carmen, her acting is on point. Her ability to emote was completely clear: she was sultry, defiant, and terrified as her role warranted. Her voice doesn't have the most volume, her high notes can be shrill but her low ones are pleasant.
Adam Diegel could always be heard as Don José, his reedy, plaintive sound cut through the orchestra. There were moments of slight strain, but again, Diegel's acting was convincing and carried him through to the end, which was very moving.
Erika Grimaldi (Micaëla) was stunningly vital and had a promising SF Opera debut with this performance. I also loved Michael Sumuel as Escamillo, his robust, beautiful sound and fine acting served him well.
* Tattling *
It was fairly quiet, there was some light talking.
From the orchestra level I was able to recognize Jamielyn Duggan (Manuelita) as someone I took dance classes with many years ago.
* Notes *
Calixto Bieito's new production of Carmen (The chorus in Act IV pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) San Francisco Opera marked his US debut last night. Directed here by Joan Anton Rechi, the show was not nearly as shocking as some of Bieito's work. In fact, the staging was quite deft, and there was very little of anything that could be seen as gratuitous.
The spare set looks great from the balcony, and the space was filled skillfully, whether with people or props. The chorus didn't arbitrarily clump but got on and off stage what seemed to be a natural manner. The graceful spirals looked especially nice from above. The scene changes were particularly good, especially the heart-stopping one between Acts III and IV.
Irene Roberts (Carmen) has an interesting voice, her breaths are very noticeable and there is a strident quality to it. Yet she also has a resonance and heft that is a contrast to her tiny, doll-like frame. She looked so vulnerable next to the hulking Brian Jadge as Don José.
Jadge is very bright and strong. It's a good thing too, since he is scheduled for ten of the eleven performances right now, instead of the six he was supposed to sing when the 2015-16 season was announced. He was to share the role with Riccardo Massi, who withdrew and was replaced by Maxim Aksenov last November, who in turn also withdrew, leaving Jadge to replace him except for tonight, when Adam Diegel sings the role.
Ellie Dehn, also a replacement for previously announced Nadine Sierra as Micaëla, was likewise powerful. It isn't a role I like, but Dehn was appealing and never shrill. Zachary Nelson was perfectly fine as Escamillo, those low notes are just so hard, and he could always be heard.
The many current and former Adlers in the cast acquitted themselves well, they move nicely and it is important in a show that has so much raw physicality. They also all have such robust voices. Edward Nelson was especially good as Moralès, as were Renée Rapier (Mercédès) and Amina Edris (Frasquita). It was impressive to me that I knew who they were from the back of the house, and that their acting could read so clearly from so far away.
The weak link in the performance was the orchestra, which played at breakneck speed under Carlo Montanaro. There are many beautiful parts in the score for the woodwinds and the strings, but the musicians were going so fast it was hard to pick out even one particularly lovely solo. The rapid pace made for poor synchronization.
* Tattling *
There was a fair amount of talking in the balcony, but since it wasn't totally packed, I was able to shift myself away from in standing room.
A phone rang on the right side of the balcony during a quiet moment in the final act.
* Notes *
Pan Pan Theatre performed a frenetic mash-up version of The Seagull at the San Francisco International Arts Festival last night. Chekhov's dark play of overlapping love triangles, artistic failure, and suicide is not only interspersed with Bach and Tchaikovsky (complete with balletic dancing), but with scenes of cocaine binges and very self-reflexive commentary.
The 75 minute piece has all six performers dressed in leotards, tights, and in some cases tutus or ballet skirts. There is much physicality on view, everyone dances. Both Una McKevitt and Judith Roddy do impressive acrobatics pretty much levitating over Dick Walsh. It was weirdly awkward and showed much strength and skill.
It was a lively evening and there were many laughs. Many audience members were brought up on stage to participate, most funny was when McKevitt demanded ten handsome men, lined the up and had each say "I love you but I can't smile" to the person to his right, one by one.
I found a small segment of Roddy and Andrew Bennett pretending to be rappers rather tiresome, but for the most part it was a raucous, fun performance. It was especially fitting that the seagulls outside of Cowell Theater could be heard during the few quiet moments of the night.
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The panelists for "The Future of Theater Criticism" at the Magic Theatre had to hustle over to make it in time for curtain.
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In my mind I jokingly titled this piece "It Is All About Boobs and Butts and Dead Babies This Summer in SF." It wouldn't have done at all, especially because I did not include Jenufa in the preview.
Tenor 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!