SF Opera's Fidelio


_DSC0704* Notes * 

A brand-new production of Fidelio (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night, a year late and with a splendid cast. Maestra Eun Sun Kim kept the orchestra lively and balanced.

Matthew Ozawa's contemporary production features a startlingly spare set that spins to reveal cages full of people or solitary dungeons as the opera requires. I found the brutality of the layered bars weirdly compelling, especially since the set was also used for the drive-in Barber of Seville up in Marin earlier in the year. It was so different, completely transformed in the space of the War Memorial stage. The set used some creepy projections, mostly of Elza van den Heever's face (though the back of her head is projected before the opera begins), but did not simply rely on video to set the scene.

The orchestra was not always perfectly together, the first note from the brass section was sour, but Maestra Kim draws interesting textures out of the musicians and there were exquisite moments to be sure. John Pearson did a fine job playing the offstage trumpet in Act II. The ensembles were also particularly lovely, and the principal singers are beautifully cast. The chorus sounded strong and cohesive.

Soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh is a sweet and chirpy Marzelline, her pretty tones very distinct from our lead soprano in the title role. Likewise bass James Creswell (Rocco) sounded so different from bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Don Pizarro). Creswell is endearing, his voice warm and so human. Grimsley in contrast has less prettiness, which suits his role as villian.

_DSC3680Tenor Russell Thomas seemed ideal as Florestan, his voice is so expressive. No less riveting is soprano Elza van den Heever, and her duet with Thomas (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), "O namenlose Freude!" was moving. Van den Heever has a lot of power and an icy clarity that somehow is not harsh. Her Act I aria "Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern" got a huge response from the audience, and for good reason.

* Tattling * 
I brought my good friend Axel Feldheim to this performance, apparently I haven't seen him in person for 586 days. He noted it was very odd to be seated next to me in this house, since we usually are in standing room.

The new seats are more obvious on the Orchestra Level, they have staggered the seats better, though there was no one seated in front of us in Row T.

Audience members around us were very good about keeping their masks on as requested. I did hear a phone alert of some kind as Rocco was singing in Act I.


SF Opera's Homecoming Concert

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The 99th season of San Francisco Opera opened with a spirited concert last night featuring conductor Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton.

The evening started with the very jaunty overture from Leichte Kavallerie by Franz von Suppé. The brass was clear and the woodwinds lovely. This was followed by Willis-Sørensen singing "È strano … Sempre libera" from La Traviata. Her voice is incredible and well-supported, without any strain or hint of shrillness. Then came Barton with "O mon Fernand" from Donizetti's La Favorite, sounding very rich and full. She has a huge sound, so it was odd when she seemed to push it a bit in "O don fatale" from Don Carlo, the textures evoked by her voice were disquieting. We got to hear both singers just before intermission in a duet from Anna Bolena, Barton was quite plaintive as Giovanna Seymour.

The second half revisited Rusalka, which introduced us to Maestra Kim and Willis-Sørensen back in 2019. It was moving to hear the Polonaise from Act II again, the orchestra sounded sweeping and lush. Willis-Sørensen's "Song to the Moon" is no less stunning, her bright, icy high notes and opulent lower register are impressive.

2320-opera-210910Barton was a passionate Dalila in "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," as the orchestra shimmered beneath her. I'd like to hear her sing the full opera, and likewise, when she and Willis-Sørensen sang "Mira, o Norma," it made me very much want to hear Norma with both these singers as well and with Kim (all pictured, Drew Altizer Photography) conducting.

I believe the encore was Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Climb Every Mountain" sandwiched in their "You'll Never Walk Alone." It reminded me of being a little kid, watching Sound of Music and Carousel on television.

* Tattling * 
There was much of the normal opening night trappings to the performance: a huge vase of roses, the flower garlands on the boxes, speeches from the stage, and even the National Anthem. I saw nearly half a dozen regular patrons of the back balcony and it was so nice to catch up with everyone after so long.

They printed some programs this time, but most people used their phones instead. Unfortunately this makes some use their devices during the performance, so I did see the person in J 3 repeatedly look at his screen throughout. The women in front of him in H 1 and 3 were not great at keeping their masks on, they came in late, and just before the intermission ended, dashed to the drinking fountain to grab glasses of water, which they drank during the second half. Cell phone man and his companion decided to move after about 30 seconds of this, so it was easier for me to ignore his bright screen.

At least everyone was quiet, I didn't hear any beeps during the music, and no one was really around me. This was very unusual for an opening night, presumably there were more people at the free simulcast at Oracle Park. I was still anxious about being inside with so many people, and kept my two masks on the whole time. There was champagne in the lobby for everyone, but I ran away as swiftly as I could and kept well away from the crowd.


Merola's Back Home: Through the Stage Door

Merola-stage-door-2021 * Notes *
Last month the Merola Opera Program filmed a series of pieces featuring the 2021 participants in the Herbst Theatre under the title Back Home: Through the Stage Door. Directed by David Paul, the 17 vignettes established a lovely warmth and intimacy.

The banter between bass-baritone Andrew Dwan (Presto) and tenor Gabriel Hernandez (Lacouf) in "Avec vous, vieux Lacouf" from Les mamelles de Tirésias was truly charming, they sang around pianist Anna Smigelskaya and had great chemistry.

I have a soft spot for local mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and was so glad to hear them sing Sesto in "Son nata a lagrimar" from Giulio Cesare with fellow mezzo Jesse Mashburn as Cornelia. Printz also sang in two Mozart pieces "Ah, perdona al primo affetto" from La clemenza di Tito and "Pria di partir, oh Dio!" from Idomeneo, basically all my favorite repertoire.

Other highlights for me were soprano Catherine Goode being super creepy as the Lady with a Hand Mirror in Argento's Postcard from Morocco and soprano Celeste Morales singing Florence B. Price's "Hold fast to dreams." The latter gave me goosebumps, Morales has a beautiful, clear tone.

The finale of "Contessa perdono... Questo giorno di tormenti" from Le nozze di Figaro (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) was rousing. Baritone Laureano Quant is a fine Count, and soprano Mikayla Sager a very sympathetic Countess.

Tattling * 
My spouse caught me watching the end of this video on our television and noted that I even do standing room at home.


SF Opera's Tosca

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Live performance returned to the War Memorial stage with San Francisco Opera's Tosca (Act I with Ailyn Pérez as Tosca and Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi pictured left; photograph by Cory Weaver) last weekend, and I managed to get to the second outing yesterday night. The cast is vivid and strong, as is the orchestra, and our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim brought out a lot of dramatic colors from everyone.

This revival of Shawna Lucey's production from 2018 felt even more immediate than the last time. The violence felt very real, from Soloman Howard (Angelotti) limping in Act I to the firing squad in Act III. Again, Scarpia's cruelty and maliciousness against Tosca in Act II turned my stomach, though Alfred Walker has an absolutely lovely voice, so very smooth and flexible. The pretty, detailed sets and costumes are also an interesting contrast to the ugliness of this brutality.

The singing was great all around. Tenor Michael Fabiano is a dashing Cavaradossi with a big, bright voice. His "Vittoria! Vittoria!" in Act II was moving, and his "E lucevan le stelle" had deservedly the longest ovation of the evening. Soprano Ailyn Pérez is quite the coquette in the title role, her voice is warm and full. Her "Vissi d'arte" of Act II was simply beautiful.

Maestra Kim conducted a buoyant and brilliant orchestra. The chaotic scene before Scarpia's entrance was really very much so, and the music did seem to roil along nicely.

* Tattling * 
Everyone 12 and over had to have proof of vaccination, and the process of checking vaccine records and identification was simple.

There was barely any wait at the front entrance. Mask compliance was high where I was in the back of the balcony, I only saw one person slip their mask off for a moment to sip wine, and I was many feet away from everyone in the back row on the aisle. I was pretty uncomfortable being inside with so many people for so long, even masked, vaccinated people. I wore my two masks for the entire time.

During the second intermission someone loudly scolded a young man about his feet being on the back of the chair in front of him. The seats are new, and I guess they are more plush than the ones before, but I'd still rather stand.


Merola Grand Finale 2021

Merola-grand-finale-2021 * Notes *
The Merola Grand Finale took place in person on July 31, with a filmed version released to donors on August 20. Directed by Merola Stage Director Audrey Chait, the performance at the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park looked and sounded delightful.

The recital featured five singers accompanied by two of the apprentice coaches on piano. Each piece was introduced by Ms. Chait, who seems personable and looked very sprightly in a bright red suit. I liked her stage direction which employed simple props such as a parasol or broom, it wasn't clunky or too elaborate.

My favorite singers are definitely the mezzo-sopranos. Right away Gabrielle Beteag (Ino) and Jesse Mashburn (Athamas) had my attention with the duet "You've undone me" from Händel's Semele. Mashburn's voice has a rich sweetness, and Beteag's is a touch darker but also wonderfully warm. Chait had them get uncomfortably close to each other at points, which was dramatically effective.

Mashburn was also great with bass-baritone Andrew Dwan (pictured with pianist Shiyu Tan, photograph by Kristen Loken) in "Ai capricci della sorte" from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri. Dwan is a good actor with a clear presence and good facial expressions.

Tenor Victor Cardamone may have been less charismatic, but his voice is beautiful, very strong and clear when singing "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles with Dwan. I was less keen on the soprano, Catherine Goode, whose "Glitter and Be Gay" started off with an incisive shrillness but grew more bird-like as she continued. I did like her as Frasquita in "Mêlons! Coupons!" with the two mezzos.

The last piece of the recital was "Ah, sweet mystery of life" from Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta, an operetta from 1910 that was made into a film in 1935. It brought me to tears for some reason, all the singers participated as pianist Anna Smigelskaya played, even pianist Shiyu Tan joined in the singing at the very end. Somehow it was unexpected but also apt, and I enjoyed the scattering of dark red rose petals that occurred three times throughout the song.

Tattling * 
Since this performance occurred outdoors, the singers all had discreet microphones attached to their heads.


What the Heart Desires Recital

Heart-desires-merola-2021* Notes *
Merola, San Francisco Opera's summer training program, had a first in-person performance (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) on July 3, with a filmed version released to donors on July 16. Curated by African American mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller and Asian American tenor Nicholas Phan, the program -- titled "What the Heart Desires" -- features works by women and composers of color.

The recital consisted of six singers accompanied by the apprentice coaches on piano. Nearly all the songs were in English. The new crop of Merolini all have very powerful, clean voices.

Especially impressive is tenor Edward Graves, his soaring notes in Henry Thacker Burleigh's "Among the Fuchsias" were imposing and his rendition of Undine Smith Moore's "I want to die while you love me" was stirring. I also liked hearing baritone Laureano Quant again, he was in the program two years ago, and was the only low voice of the group here. He sang a piece he wrote himself, "Ahora hablo de gaitas," Mohammed Fairouz's "After The Revels," and Viet Cuong's O Do Not Love Too Long."

Mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag had much appeal in Ian Cusson's "Where There's A Wall," and pianist Shiyu Tan did will with all the percussive effects the piece requires. Soprano Celeste Morales both opened and closed the performance with vigor, beginning with Robert Owens' "Havana Dreams" and ending the afternoon with Maria Grever's "Jurame."

Tattling * 
It was great to hear so many different composers that don't normally get programed. That said, a few of the pieces did not do it for me, the text of Chen Yi's "Bright Moonlight" sounded like a word salad while Stacy Garrop's "What Can One Woman Do?" whose text is from Eleanor Roosevelt was rather declamatory as opposed to lyrical.


Colleen Quen Interview

Colleen-quen-ncco-1-2021Couturière Colleen Quen (pictured left with her work, photograph by David Law) has collaborated with New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) on a multimedia piece that debuts on Thursday, May 27 at 12pm.

The work opens NCCO's new film venture entitled the Resonance Series, which explores Bay Area artists from different disciplines alongside particular chamber music pieces.

Quen created a mixed media sculpture inspired by a performance of Debussy's Danse sacrée et Danse profane for harp and strings. Meredith Clark is the harp soloist and the ensemble includes violinists Iris Stone and Karen Shinozaki Sor; violist Elizabeth Prior; cellist Michelle Djokic; and bassist Anthony Manzo.

The delightful and effusive Quen spoke to me on the phone last week from her atelier in San Francisco.

How did you get involved with this project with New Century Chamber Orchestra?
They reached out to me to ask if I was interested in collaborating with the orchestra. One of the violinists, Iris Stone, has been a client of mine. I like to keep unfolding as an artist, so this was a perfect opportunity.

Colleen-quen-ncco-2-2021Tell me about your inspiration for the multimedia sculpture and how it came together.
(Executive Director) Richard Lonsdorf chose the Debussy for me. He just knew it was right for me, it is romantic and French, both of which I love. I create through paper first, and for this I put together the 90-piece sculptural couture creation in about 2 days. I went into the composer's world, cutting out shapes spontaneously. It was very meditative, translating the notes onto the dress form.

For the filming, I painted the paper pattern as the musicians played Danse sacrée et Danse profane. It felt like the musicians were wrapping their love around me and it was very healing. We've all been starved for togetherness in this pandemic, I feel.

How have you coped with the pandemic?
Covid has made an impact on me. I felt so suppressed as an artist, since my medium is human beings. I didn't design for about 6 months and all of my projects stopped, though I have continued teaching through Zoom. NCCO awakened me, the collaboration was a gift that I'm so grateful for.

I'm a fourth generation Chinese American from the Bay Area, so I was caught off-guard by the upsurge of hate crimes against Asians. Covid has made us so fearful of each other and all the more so for our Asian elders.

Based on your Instagram it looks like you've spent a lot of time hanging out with your super cute French bulldog Libai. Is he named after the poet?
Yes! My Frenchie has a Chinese name, it's true.


Washington National Opera's 2021-2022 Season

Washington-national-operaNovember 6–14 2021: Come Home: A Celebration of Return (concert)
March 5–25 2022: Written in Stone
March 12–26 2022: Così fan tutte
May 14–28 2022: Carmen

The 2021-2022 season at WNO was announced today. The season opens with a concert featuring sopranos Pretty Yende and Alexandria Shiner; mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard; tenors Lawrence Brownlee and David Butt Philip; and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Four world premieres open next March composed by Alicia Hall Moran, Huang Ruo, Kamala Sankaram, and Carlos Simon.

Press Release | Official Site


Seattle Opera's 2021-2020 Season

Dreaming-in-ColorOctober 16–30 2021: La bohème
January 12–30 2022: Orpheus and Eurydice
February 26- March 12 2022: Jeanine Tesori's Blue
May 7-21 2022: Le nozze di Figaro

Seattle Opera announced the 2021-2022 season today, which will mark a return to in person performances. Librettist Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori's Blue, an opera about police brutality against African Americans, will open at McCaw Hall next February. The piece features baritone Gordon Hawkins, bass Kenneth Kellogg, and mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter.

Official Site


Merola's 2021 Participants

Carrie-anne-2400x1200Sopranos
Emily Blair, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Catherine Goode, Friendswood, Texas
Magdalena Kuźma, New York, New York
Celeste Morales, San Antonio, Texas
Ashley Marie Robillard, Norton, Massachusetts
Mikayla Sager, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Johanna Will, Dresden, Germany

Mezzo-Sopranos
Gabrielle Barkidjija, River Forest, Illinois
Gabrielle Beteag, Atlanta, Georgia
Jesse Mashburn, Hartselle, Alabama
Nikola Printz, Novato, California

Tenors
Victor Cardamone, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Gabriel Hernandez, Tampa, Florida
Philippe L'Esperance, Grafton, Massachusetts
Tianchi Zhang, Huainan, Anhui, China

Baritones
Thomas Lynch, Lynbrook, New York
Samson McCrady, Tucson, Arizona
Laureano Quant, Barranquilla, Colombia

Bass-Baritones
Ben Brady, Denver, Colorado
Andrew Dwan, Mountain View, California

Apprentice Coaches
Erica Xiaoyan Guo, Tianjin, China
Yang Lin, Shanghai, China
Anna Smigelskaya, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Shiyu Tan, Changsha, Hunan, China
Marika Yasuda, Williamsburg, Virginia

Apprentice Stage Director
Audrey Chait, Menlo Park, California

The Merola Opera Program announced participants for 2021, most of whom were to be in the program last year. The program has a new artistic director, Carrie-Ann Matheson (pictured) and new general manager, Markus Beam.

The 2021 season includes three performances including a recital featuring black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and female composers on July 3, a digital format production from film director David Paul on July 30, and the Merola Grand Finale on July 31. Details for the locations of these performances is still to be determined.

Official Site | Press Release


SF Opera Barber Drive-In Review

Barber_stefancohen_328* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera presented a delightful drive-in version of The Barber of Seville (pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at Marin Center starting last Friday. The new production from director Matthew Ozawa is bold and fun.

Maestro Roderick Cox made a fine debut conducting the 18 members of a mostly masked and socially-distanced orchestra from a tent behind the stage. Despite these challenges, the proceedings were lively and bright, only the horn sounded hesitant at the April 24 performance I attended. It made me really look forward to hearing all the musicians again back at the War Memorial, and hopefully Cox gets a chance in a proper orchestra pit with them.

The opera is presented as a rehearsal at our beloved opera house, and we hear Managing Director of Production Jennifer Good as the Stage Manager, threading together the arias and ensembles as they unfold in dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, and on the opera stage. The set was meant for the Fidelio production that was to have been performed last September, and is repurposed here with lots and lots of video projections of the San Francisco opera house. It is definitely busy, there are four screens that can be moved about, but it works. The images read well from afar and make the drive-in aspect of the production feasible.

It was so pleasing to see and hear so many beloved and familiar opera singers in this Barber, nearly the whole cast has been in the Merola Opera Program. I've heard mezzo Catherine Cook as Berta dozens of times, but she always brings verve to the role. Her sound is incisive and completely distinct from any of the Rosinas she's been cast with. Bass Kenneth Kellogg made the most of Don Basilio's "La calunnia," his deep, rich tones are impressive. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner is a very amusing Dr. Bartolo, his voice is reliable.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (Rosina) and tenor Alek Shrader (Almaviva) are adorable little lovebirds on and off stage, and their voices are both well-suited to Rossini. Mack is visibly pregnant, and I felt exhausted for her, but she sang with vivid lightness and warmth throughout. Baritone Lucas Meachem is also completely perfect in the title role, his personable Figaro has a lot of appeal. The diction throughout the performance was clear from everyone, and I did not have to read the supertitles at all.

* Tattling * 
It was 524 days since the last live performance I attended at San Francisco Opera and 419 since the last live performance I've heard, so I was very excited to be there, even if it was in my silly little Prius with a substandard sound system. There was static at times but this was much preferable to the filmed versions of operas I've watched in my car.

I do wish there were a couple of matinee performances of the production, though only 90 minutes long and performed without an intermission, the 8pm start time is too late for my small children, who would have loved the performance with all the sight-gags and color. But perhaps the projections would not have shown up well during daylight.

The Covid protocols were strict: no being outside unless going to the restroom, masks need to be on, and vehicles were physically distanced. There were a few cars whose lights turned on at times unexpectedly, but for the most part there were fewer distractions than from a normal opera audience. I really liked that they asked right away that people not honk their horns after numbers and gave everyone glow sticks to show their appreciation for the music.


Anything for Love and Honor Recital

Issachah-savage-2021* Notes *
The San Francisco Opera training program Merola successfully held a virtual recital last Sunday using Vimeo. Featuring tenor Issachah Savage (pictured), a Merola alum from 2013, the beautiful singing was entirely in German.

The recital was entitled "Anything for Love and Honor" and included arias and songs by Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Wagner. Savage and his piano accompanist Laurie Rogers started off strong with "Allmächt'ger Vater" from Wagner's Rienzi. Savage has a bright, focused tone and clear diction. Rogers gets a lot of colors out of the piano, and is an impressive stand-in for a whole orchestra.

Savage went on to sing three pieces by Strauss and three selections from Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch. His voice is powerful and open. I particularly liked the bouncy and dance-like "Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen." The two most memorable offerings were certainly at the end, both showstoppers from Wagner operas. His renditions of "Winterstürme" from Die Walküre and "Nur eine Waffe taugt" from Parsifal piqued my curiosity about hearing Savage sing a whole opera by Wagner. He's scheduled for LA Opera's Tannhäuser in October, and hopefully the Covid pandemic will be contained enough for us to be back at indoor performances by then.

Tattling * 
There were a few crackles and pops in the Vimeo live transmission of this performance, but it was nothing like the first attempt with this virtual venue back in February with Karen Slack's recital.

Savage wore some dapper blue shoes for his recital, and Rogers matched with a sparkly blue cardigan.