Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao died of cancer yesterday at age 46 in San Francisco. Cao was a participant of the Merola Opera Program in 1994 and was an Adler from 1995 to 1996. Cao was seen in 16 productions at San Francisco Opera including roles in The Bonesetter's Daughter (pictured left as Ruth Young Kamen, photograph by Terrence McCarthy), Madama Butterfly, The Mother of Us All, The Rake's Progress, Parsifal, Idomeneo, Le Nozze di Figaro, Elektra, Salome, Rusalka, and Faust.
Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao's most recent PET scan revealed that she has multiple sites of cancer progression in her bones. She recently sang in Vancouver Opera's Nixon in China and Madama Butterfly.
Remarkably, mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao seems to be recovering from her Stage IV cancer.
* Notes *
A performance of recent songs by Jake Heggie closed Music at Meyer's 2009 Season on Monday. Emily Albrink began the evening by singing Rise and Fall, four songs set to texts by Gene Scheer, accompanied by Heggie himself on piano. Albrink's soprano is cold and bell-like, she was particularly good in the last song, "The Shaman," which was rather jazzy. Brian Leerhuber sang 2 pieces from For a Look or a Touch. I find Leerhuber a very solid singer, but not striking. Cellist Emil Miland played a third piece from the work, "Silence," and this was possibly the most beautiful moment of the program. Next came tenor Nicholas Phan singing 4 songs based on the life of Poulenc, Friendly Persuasions. His voice is sweet and appealing, and his accompaniment of Julie McKenzie (flute), Carey Bell (clarinet), and Emile Miland (cello) was impressive.
After the intermission, the darling bass-baritone John Lindstrom sang a song set to Robert Browning's "Grow Old Along with Me!" Kristin Clayton and Frederica von Stade sang Facing Forward/Looking Back, 4 songs about mothers and daughters. Clayton had a few gasps, but her voice blended very nicely with von Stade's. This was the first time I have gotten an inkling into why von Stade is held in such high regard, her voice can be scintillating, and in those close quarters this was apparent. Catherine Cook held her own singing Statuesque with an ensemble of flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and cello. Her voice is distinct, she had good volume for this space, and she is hilariously funny. She did crack or wheeze a little, but it was hardly distracting. The work itself did have a Broadway or jazz sensibility, and was fun.
* Tattling *
The performance was dedicated to the ailing Zheng Cao, who is friends with Heggie, von Stade, & co. The audience was fairly well-behaved, no cellular phones rang, no watch alarms sounded, and there was only a bit of whispering. During intermission, the coffee line was rather chaotic, and I noticed that the marketing director of San Francisco Opera cut in front of us. A moot point given that there was only decaf, so we did not actually get any coffee in the end.
* Notes *
The opening performance of The Bonesetter's Daughter proved to be a rather maudlin and self-indulgent affair. The beginning was promising, the call of the suona players from the Grand Tier was regal and imposing, and the aerial acrobatics combined with projections of water and fire during the overture were impressive. The first trio of Ruth (Zheng Cao), LuLing (Ning Liang), and Precious Auntie (Qian Yi) was also pretty. It is too bad that the set makes such a loud squeaky sound as it moves forward during that scene, it was completely audible from the back of the orchestra level last night, as it was from the boxes during the dress rehearsal. It was also obvious that amplification was used for Qian Yi.
Unfortunately, the music lost focus from there, and seemed very much in the background compared to the elaborate plot, which seems to have as much to do with Greek tragedy as it does the book The Bonesetter's Daughter. Reading Amy Tan's book only confused me, as the characters and story line have been compressed nearly beyond recognition. The players here have been reduced to mere caricature, whether it is the meanness of the Kamen family, the madness of LuLing, or the evil embodied by Chang. I found it extremely difficult to relate to any of the people on stage because all of the personalities were so flat and the music did nothing to illuminate them. As over the top as scenes of urination, threats of vomiting, suicide, attempted incestuous rape, and castration are, all this in 2 hours and 40 minutes is simply too much and is not dramatically effective.
The production is overwrought, one almost feels that director Chen Shi-Zheng doesn't trust composer Stewart Wallace to pull the opera off either. Every moment is filled with either choreography or video projection, if not both. Particularly ridiculous was Act II, Scene 1, when LuLing is in Hong Kong, writing letters for abandoned wives. Not only is she singing about this as she goes, she waves a brush against paper on stage with an apparent wife and her daughters. So far this is fine, but do we really need projections of letters folded into boats to get this message across? Or dancers depicting abandoned wives wandering around the stage?.
As for a few positives, first of all, Act I, Scene 1 has a birthday cake flying through the air, which is certainly unusual. It is brought in by an acrobat suspended by wires, and she does some flips after depositing the cake on the table. The music as we enter Immortal Heart in Act I, Scene 2 was an exuberant breath of fresh air. The suona and percussion were all played beautifully, though again, the singing was amplified. Generally, the singing and acting were very good. Hao Jiang Tian was quite the villain as Chang, and his voice is warm and resonant. Qian Yi was an ethereal Precious Auntie, her movements were perfect. The way she could just glide on stage as if she were on rollers did make her seem otherworldly, and her hand gestures were gorgeous. Ning Liang (LuLing) sounded fabulous in her lower range, though she did have a couple of shrill gasps. Zheng Cao (Ruth) had no such problems, her voice is simply beautiful. It was very nice to hear her in a substantial role, finally.
* Tattling *
The audience was respectful of this world premiere, there was very little talking, and I heard no electronic noise. There was some talking heard from backstage during a quiet scene in the second half of the opera, but this was not as distracting as loudness of the set in the first scene, so one cannot really complain. Near the very end of the opera, I heard a woman express aloud her confusion about what had just happened on stage. However, the work received a standing ovation.
* 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.
* Notes *
Yet another revival of Madama Butterfly opened today at San Francisco Opera. When I heard this opera was added to the season, I wondered if I would avoid it. I was pretty bored by it already the last time it was here in the summer of 2006, despite not having seen it for 9 years. Puccini generally is too mawkish for me, and Butterfly especially so. Additionally, I am indifferent to Patricia Racette, despite her personal beauty, fine acting, and strong voice. Nonetheless I found myself first in the standing room line this morning, for completeness sake, as a certain Prussian opera-goer I know would say.
The orchestra sounded quite fine, Runnicles took the tempi fast from the start. Racette was lovely, though at times her vibrato makes me feel uneasy. Her shoulders were slightly slumped, but otherwise her performance was splendid. Brandon Jovanovich had a promising debut as Pinkerton, he was suitably brash and vulgar in Act I, and remorse was certainly heard in Act II. Stephen Powell (Sharpless) played well off of Jovanovich, exuding avuncular kindness. I've never heard anyone besides Zheng Cao as Suzuki, and she was as I remembered, warm and sympathetic.
The opera talk was unusual, as Rose Theresa discussed the Japanese melodies used by Puccini, and even used some koto music as her first example.
* Tattling *
The house looked quite full, and there were at least 50 people in line for standing room when we filed in at 10:50 am. Before the performance began, I was admonished for taking up too much room and was told I could not stand with both my elbows on the railing. This was pantomimed for me by a woman who wanted to squeeze in with her husband next to another couple next to me. It was strangely combative, considering I was perfectly willing to move. It turns out it didn't matter, one of the people next to me got a seat.
At intermission an usher told me I must really like opera, because she sees me so often. She also informed me that my outfits are entertaining, and asked if I was a designer.
There was a fit of loud beeping from the back of the orchestra section during the humming chorus. There was much sniffling for Butterfly, though I cannot say I was among those so moved. At the end Racette received a standing ovation, and a few audience members mockingly booed Kate and Pinkerton.