SF Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro Review

_37A0260* Notes *
Le Nozze di Figaro opened at San Francisco Opera yesterday in a fresh new production, the first in decades. The performance marks the start of revamps for all three Mozart/Da Ponte operas from director Michael Cavanagh and set designer Erhard Rom, each set in the same American estate over the course of 300 years.

"Well, I hope it doesn't have screen savers" was my spouse's comment as we drove over to the War Memorial, after I mentioned this. As the overture played a few hours later, we looked at each other and silently laughed, the graph paper scrim showed architectural drawings that bounced around during the music.

Thankfully, that was it for animated projections, and the set (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is easily and quietly maneuvered. The scene between Marcellina and Susanna in Act I ("Via resti servita, madama brillante") was moved into and out of a kitchen and was particularly deft. Placing the action in the Mid-Atlantic states but still in the late 18th century works perfectly well, Contance Hoffman's costumes are eye-catching, I loved the bright pink with Prussian blue accents that Cherubino initially wears, and enjoyed Barbarina's complimentary bodice in a similar pink with blue stripes and polka dots. You could tell at a glance who she was even though she stood with the chorus.

_T8A0382Maestro Henrik Nánási, who had such a memorable debut in Elektra a few seasons ago, conducted a rapid and transparent orchestra. Bryndon Hassman's fortepiano continuo was very amusing, wittily commenting on the comedy unfolding on stage.

The opera is cast well, suiting each role quite convincingly. From Natalie Image as a cute-as a-button Barbarina (her "L'ho perduta, me meschina" was utterly lovely) to dependable Bojan Knežević as her drunken father Antonio, everyone looked and sounded pretty fantastic. Mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi is an adorable Cherubino, I loved hearing her legato sound in "Non so più cosa son" and "Voi che sapete che cosa è amor."

Soprano Nicole Heaston is a stately presence as Countess Almaviva, while baritone Levente Molnár very much embodied a blustering and jealous Count.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique (pictured with Michael Sumuel, photograph by Cory Weaver) is a perfectly sweet and bubbly Susanna, and though her stature is not unlike Ms. Heaston's, her voice is a complete contrast, which made the Act IV shenanigans all the more realistic. Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel's beautifully burnished sound occasionally got lost in the orchestration, but is very pleasant. He is charming in the title role, and his Act IV aria "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" was one of the best of the evening.

* Tattling *
There were a lot of people in attendance for the opening performance of this new production, but there was noticeable attrition at the intermission. Box X was reduced by one third by the last act, which I didn't mind at all since one person that left rustled paper more than once during Act II.


SF Opera's Billy Budd

_37A9295* Notes *
A new to San Francisco Opera production of Billy Budd opened last night. The performance was dramatically satisfying and had absolutely solid cast.

The Michael Grandage's production comes to us from Glyndebourne and is directed here by Ian Rutherford. The set (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Christopher Oram, is tiered and suggests both a ship and a prison. The seven scenes are handled well, the set changes happen without ever lowering a curtain, though of course it is much easier in this case since all the action happens on the HMS Indomitable.

The male chorus sounded solid and very cohesive. All the singing and acting was strong. From bass-baritone Philip Skinner's gruff but tender Dansker to tenor Matthew O'Neill's bright-voiced Squeak, even the smaller roles are finely cast.

_37A9117Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn made for an excellent villain as John Claggart, and managed to even be almost sympathetic at times in his aria at the end of Act I. Baritone John Chest makes an ideal Billy Budd, he looks and sounds the part, completely embodying the goodness and haplessness of the title role.

Best of all is tenor William Burden (pictured with Christian Van Horn, photograph by Cory Weaver). His wonderfully sweet voice is always consistent, and his Captain Vere is heartbreaking.

* Tattling *
I am not a big fan of Benjamin Britten, but I seem to like this opera, especially Act II's "Don't like the French!" It always makes me chuckle, and I like that there is humor in this otherwise very serious piece.

Sadly, the balcony had rows of empty seats. Nevertheless, the audience members that were there managed to be quite annoying anyway. There was a man in the last row who talked a bunch, and one of companions rustled a plastic packet for what seemed like minutes while Billy Budd sings his last lines in Act II, Scene 3.


SF Opera's Roméo et Juliette

_T8A0455* Notes *
The curtain came up on the latest season of San Francisco Opera with Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) yesterday evening. The youthful cast sounded great, but the production was simply clunky.

From the very first moment there were familiar faces on stage, there are a lot of former Adlers and Merolini throughout the cast, and a lot of other singers that are here regularly. Tenor Daniel Montenegro is well cast as Tybalt, his voice has darkened in the years since he's been here last, and he is a good foil for Roméo. Baritone Timothy Mix is a powerful Capulet and baritone Lucas Meachem a robust Mercutio.

_37A0214Soprano Nadine Sierra is an appealing Juliette. Her clean, bright voice seems tailor-made for the role and her Act I "Je veux vivre dans le rêve" (Juliet's Waltz) was lovely. Tenor Pene Pati, who took over this role from Bryan Hymel, sounded secure. His Act II "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" seemed effortless.

Unfortunately, director Jean-Louis Grinda did not make the best of the fresh-faced cast, and the results are scattershot and incoherent. Carola Volles' costumes are pretty enough, but the hues she chose for Juliette were clearly for fair, pinkish skin and were unflattering on our soprano, even from way back in the balcony. The set, designed by Eric Chevalier, is basically a shallow cube with a raked top surface. It isn't unattractive, but from the balcony, the scenes are not distinct as the upstage scenery isn't visible. The biggest problem is how long the scenes took to set up, the scrim was brought down at least four times and the wait really brought down the focus of the drama.

The sprightly orchestra, conducted by Yves Abel, sounded florid and somewhat fuzzy at first, particularly in the brass. The musicians sounded better as the night wore on, the woodwinds had some beautiful soli.

* Tattling *
Opera standees were not allowed into the auditorium until 7:30pm, and had to wait in ticket number order just outside the orchestra level.

As General Director Matthew Shilvock gave his opening remarks to start the season, a couple of protestors in the balcony started yelling "Impeach Trump now!" and throwing leaflets at the audience. Nancy Pelosi did not seem to be in attendance this year, so I am not sure who this was directed at exactly.

There was a lot of talking during the music, as is normal for the opening night crowd. A cell phone rang during Act II, as Juliette is singing to Roméo about blushing in the dark.


Gregory Taboloff Interview

Gregory-taboloff2019With Michael Tilson Thomas' last season at San Francisco Symphony opening on Wednesday and a full schedule at the San Francisco Opera including Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Britten's Billy Budd, and Opera in the Park, the galas are upon us. For those looking for something more intimate (and with a better-behaved audience), pianist and composer Gregory Taboloff (pictured left) is performing his piano concerto at Herbst Theatre on Sunday afternoon with David Ramadanoff conducting a 45-member orchestra.

How did you start playing piano?
I started playing because we were supposed to, there was a teacher across the street. My older sister went first, then me, then my younger brother. They both lost interest, but I stuck with it, I always came back to music. In junior high I started viola and then played with two youth orchestras, one in Berkeley and other other in Oakland.

You were also a violist! There are secret violists everywhere.
Yes, everyone wanted to play violin, of course, but viola gives you an appreciation for all the different voices in a symphony. We get to play a lot of "oompha oompha."

Is this how you came to composing?
Yes, my first composition was a trio for piano, viola, and clarinet that I wrote for myself and my best friends, who were accomplished musicians. A lot of composers were violists!

Your music has been compared a lot to Russian Romantics. What is it about that type of music that you are drawn to?
My music is neo-romantic, and tends to the passionate and expressive. As a music major, I definitely studied Webern, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen, and I don't want to denigrate atonal or twelve-tone music, it is very interesting and mathematical. I don’t, however, feel like it communicates with my soul.

Tell me about the pieces on the program.
My piano concerto is inspired by Walt Whitman's The Mystic Trumpeter and a painting by my wife, Ann Marie, also entitled The Mystic. The concert starts with the overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute, which fits nicely because it also deals with the spiritual, with all of its Freemasonry themes. We are also playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, which clearly shows a lot of influence from Mozart.

Are you composing anything else?
I am working on an opera based on Dante's La Vita Nuova, which deals with medieval courtly love. It is prose and verse, and is supernatural. Dante stops writing after his beloved Beatrice's death, and has a mystical experience in his study in which a bright red light appears along with Beatrice herself.


Merola Grand Finale 2019

Merola-monroe-2019*Notes*
Last night's Merola Grand Finale showcased a variety of strong voices from the set of San Francisco Opera's upcoming Billy Budd. The stage direction certainly had a ton of ideas and I especially enjoyed hearing the singers cast in the contemporary opera this summer sing more standard repertoire.

Apprentice stage director Greg Eldridge started the evening with different singers as the opening chorus of Shakespeare's Henry V. He did a lot to connect one aria or ensemble to another by having singers enter before their scene or linger afterward. The most successful example of this was having baritone Edward Laurenson in drag come out with the Merola ladies for Dialogues des Carmélites (Esther Tonea, Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine, Patricia Westley, and Amber R. Monroe pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). Laurenson hides in the back, and when the women exit, he launches into Don Alfonso's "Non son cattivo comico" from Così fan tutte.

Soprano Esther Tonea returns shortly after to sing "L'abito di Ferrando" and her clear, clean sound was gorgeous. I really liked hearing her sing Diana in Jake Heggie's If I Were You, and it was nice to hear that she can sing Mozart so well also. The same goes for her Ferrando, tenor Michael Day, who was Fabian in the opening night cast of the Heggie. Their duet, "Fra gli amplessi," was lovely and very consistent.

Merola-porto-lehnea-atti-2019Another strong moment of the evening followed directly after, a scene from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). Soprano Chelsea Lehnea gave a regal and bloodthirsty portrayal of Elisabetta in "E pensi? e tardi" and tenor Salvatore Atti gave an impassioned, plaintive performance as Conte di Leicester while bass-baritone Rafael Porto was deliciously evil as Lord Cecil. Lehnea certainly has some great high notes.

The second half of the program started with a charming scene from La fille du régiment, bass-baritone Andrew Dwan as a funny Sulpice with the very aptly named soprano Elisa Sunshine as a bright, sparkly Marie.

It was amusing to hear "In einen Wäschkorb?...Wie freu' ich mich" from Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Laurenson (Fluth) and Porto (Falstaff) were cute and their German diction was easy to understand.

Merola-murray-chung-2019One of the best performances of the evening came from mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) as Gertrude in Thomas' Hamlet. Her voice is simply vivid and I loved hearing her sing "Hamlet, ma douleur est immense." Baritone Tim Murray held up well as Hamlet, their interaction seemed genuine.

Before the finale from Verdi's Falstaff, which ended the evening, Shakespeare reared his head again, this time Puck's closing lines of Midsummer Night's Dream.

* Tattling *
We sat in Row E of the orchestra level, which is rather close to the stage. Most of the audience members were quiet, though I did hear a cellular phone directly behind me, during Verdi's La traviata, right before intermission and an alarm at a quiet moment of Hamlet.

I was also challenged to a duel by a classical music critic, who asked "Swords or pistols?" after I expressed my love of Gounod's Faust.


SF Opera Cancels Plácido Domingo Concert

Domingo-2019San Francisco Opera has canceled the sold-out Plácido Domingo concert scheduled for October 6, 2019. Domingo has been accused of multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

The world-renowned singer is the head of Los Angeles Opera, which has engaged outside counsel to investigate these claims.

San Francisco Opera Press Release | Initial Associated Press Article About Allegations | LA Opera Statement


West Edge Opera's The Threepenny Opera

Weo-threepenny-stage-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera performed an English language version of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera for a second time yesterday afternoon. The darkly funny piece features much bawdy humor with some fine singing, though somewhat marred by the location of the theater.

What was clear right away was this is a play with songs rather than an opera. The opening number, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," looked very pretty. I enjoy Christine Crook's costume design, which has a vintage circus feel, lots of black and white stripes, red and pink accents, and lovely lacy details. The singing here ensemble members (pictured with Sarah Coit as Jenny and Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, photograph by Cory Weaver) lacked punch, perhaps because it was so hot at the Bridge Yard that the back of the stage was left open, as were some of the doors or windows at the entrance. Again, there was much noise from the highway and even a helicopter during the second half.

The staging is very much in keeping with what director Elkhannah Pulitzer has presented at West Edge before. There's lots of curtains used to hide the stage when scenes are being switched out, lots of attractive tableaux, and plenty of people in various states of undress. I am not sure the circus artists were used to the best effect, any acrobatics that appeared were pretty subtle. But the finale was quite fun and involved a tricycle rather than a horse and a confetti gun.

Weill's music was conducted by David Möschler, who also played the piano and harmonium with six other instrumentalists, all except the trumpeter used more than one instrument. There were times when the orchestra was ahead of the singers, but the charming music did come through and I liked hearing it even if it seemed less than primary.

All the acting was very strong. Tenor Derek Chester is winning as Macheath and has an impressive physicality, he spends much of his time on stage without a shirt on. He was hard to hear at times, especially when he descended into the orchestra pit at a certain point, which probably was only visible and fully audible from the first few rows of the theater. That said, Chester is very charismatic, and it was easy to see why all the young women in this work are crazy for the character.

Weo-threepenny-singers-2019Soprano Maya Kherani (pictured with Derek Chester, photograph by Cory Weaver) is an appealing Polly Peachum, very much in command of herself and at the same time a brooding adolescent on the couch in a hoodie at her parent's house. Some of her sibilants were harsh, especially when speaking, but her voice is brightly pleasant. Her fellow sopranos Sarah Coit (Jenny) and Erin O'Meally (Lucy) were both distinct, Coit was more measured and placid, while O'Meally was brasher.

Both baritone Jonathan Spencer as Peachum and bass-baritone Robert Stafford as Tiger Brown were funny, Spencer was a touch quiet while Stafford was more robust. The person who stole the show was definitely mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, she's great at physical comedy and her voice cuts through the orchestra with ease.

* Tattling * 
The performance was sold out and there was a lot more talking for this compared to the other two operas this season.

One of my friends was deeply disappointed the piece was not being done in the original German and he left during intermission.


West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves

Weo-breaking-waves-set-2019* Notes * 
Yesterday West Edge Opera gave the West Coast premiere of Missy Mazzoli's compelling Breaking the Waves. The bleak plot based on the film by Lars von Trier makes for good theater and the singing was powerful, especially from the lead, soprano Sara LeMesh.

Set in Scotland in the 1970s, the dark narrative concerns a young woman who marries a Norwegian from outside her Calvinist community. Mazzoli's music deftly weaves together sweeping vocal lines and many orchestral textures, including an electric guitar that nearly jarred me from my seat at first. I liked how she could use sounds that are referred to in the text or part of the setting without being trite, whether it is church bells or oil drills. She skillfully juggles different voices singing together, like the duet in Act I where Bess asks Jan to quit his job on the rig and stay with her that turns into a trio when her mother threatens to send her back to the hospital if she can't control her "moods."

The space, the Bridge Yard, was less of an issue for this opera for some reason. I don't know if it is because I'd never heard this music before, and had no expectations of how it should sound, or if these singers simply had voices that could cut through the orchestration better. In any case, soprano Sara LeMesh (pictured with chorus, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a piercing yet ethereal sound that works well for the girlish Bess. This character is central to the piece, and LeMesh is sympathetic. It could have easily gone the other way, Bess is co-dependent, depressed, and pathetic. She suffers relentlessly but perhaps because she is thinking of others rather than herself, she is engaging rather than annoying.

Weo-breaking-waves-closeup-2019The rest of the cast supported LeMesh well, nearly all the characters have many different sides and get to portray a range of emotions. From baritone Robert Wesley Mason, whose Jan is heartbreaking, to tenor Alex Boyer who plays Dr. Richardson with convincing sensitivity. Bass-baritone Brandon Bell is much needed comic relief as Jan's friend Terry in Act I, and shows a gentler side in Acts II and III. Soprano Kristen Clayton is imposing as Bess' mother Mrs. McNeill, but her love for her daughter is clear in the end. Most impressive is mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich (pictured with Sara LeMesh, photograph by Cory Weaver) as sister-in-law Dodo McNeill. Her tender warmth and sturdy voice is persuasive.

* Tattling * 
I recognized quite a few people in the audience and even on the stage, it seemed like most of my Bay Area opera-going friends were in attendance. There was little to complain about as far as electronic noise, there was some rustling behind me in Act II.

My companions, like me, had not seen the film on which this opera is based and were somewhat confused about where it was set and why the vowels were so odd. There is a line of Scots Gaelic in Act I, but I guess not everyone is up on Celtic languages, and I don't know that the mostly North American singers were exactly on point with the Scottish accent either.


West Edge Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice

Weo-orfeo-dancers-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera presented Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice last night at yet another new venue. Unfortunately, the space, once a repair facility for rail cars, is not acoustically suited for unamplified music.

In the past decade, West Edge Opera has performed everywhere from a high school theater in El Cerrito to a Bart station in Berkeley. The decrepit Oakland train station used in 2015 and 2016 was by far the most cool location, while last year's performances at a former Ford plant in Richmond had breathtaking views but was difficult to get to from San Francisco.

This year's venue, the Bridge Yard, has a fantastic views of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and the Port of Oakland. The industrial building dates from 1938, and has an edgy charm. However, it deadens sound, something about the shape of the space takes away from the resonances of both instruments and singers. Part of the problem is certainly the lack of back to the building, it is simply open. Another issue is the proximity to the highway, the white noise of vehicles takes the bite out of sounds.

Director KJ Dahlaw, a non-binary dance artist whose pronouns are "they" and "them," utilizes half a dozen dancers (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in their production. The choreography reminded me of yoga combined with Graham technique. The dance costumes were beige unitards that could be festooned with tulle, ribbons, or sleeves and wig changes to switch characters from wedding celebrants to furies to blessed spirits. Mikoko Uesugi's minimal set is elegant, simply a few huge panels of transparent cloth that could be transformed with lighting.

Christine Brandes, best known as a soprano, took the helm of the orchestra. The proceedings were restrained and sedate, it is utterly beautiful music, but somehow the musicians seemed to lose momentum in Act II, and "Che farò senza Euridice" was particularly muddled. There were lovely moments, especially with the chorus, who stood in the pit and were able to unify the music.

Weo-orfeo-singers-2019All three principals (Maria Valdes, Shawnette Sulker, and Nikola Printz pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are well known to Bay Area audiences. Soprano Shawnette Sulker cuts a dramatic figure as Amore in an asymmetrical tulle collar and lace corset. Her bright bird-like voice cuts through the best of the trio, but even she was dampened by the venue.

As Euridice, soprano Maria Valdes looked like a sweet doll. The brilliance of her sound was not apparent, but she did give a tender performance. Her interactions with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz (Orfeo) were convincing. In this production Orfeo is non-binary, wearing both a gown with bow-tie and men's wear (a vest with pinstriped trousers) that plays up feminine curves. It isn't a stretch at all for opera, women play men all the time after all, and queering this story is perfectly reasonable and even anticlimactic. Printz has the stature for the role, being tall and athletic with a clear, strong voice. Some of her lower register was undercut by the challenging space, but I could always hear her.

* Tattling * 
There was light talking at the beginning of the opera, a watch alarm at 9pm, and titters at the super titles. Mostly the audience members were very good, though I did not appreciate a loud crash from something dropping house right in the middle of Act II.


Merola Opera Program's If I Were You

If-I-Were-You_Pearl-Cast_Kristen-Loken_14* Notes * 
Merola Opera Program's very first commission, If I Were You, premiered last night at Herbst Theatre. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's opera certainly shows off the young singers voices but most impressive was Maestra Nicole Paiement at the helm of the orchestra.

The focus of Merola's performances is, of course, very much on the singers in the training program, and the orchestra often sounds less than perfect. Paiement had the musicians in the pit sounding formidable and together, and the shape of Heggie's sweeping lines were apparent.

The music is lyrical and showcased a great many beautiful voices, and the Faustian story fits the youth of the Merola participants (Cara Collins and Michael Day pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). The main character, Fabian, is a young writer who makes a deal with the demon Brittomara to be able to move from one body to another, taking over other people's memories and selves. It is quite convoluted, and the singers did a fine job embodying the characters. I did not much like the sound of Fabian taking over a new body, it is supposed to be the sound of an electric shock but I couldn't help thinking it was like a big bug zapper killing insects.

If-I-Were-You_Pearl-Cast_Frank-Wing_10From the very beginning mezzo-soprano Cara Collins is a charismatic Brittomara, her deep low notes and sparkling ones are ideal for a shape shifting spirit. Tenor Michael Day is a poignant Fabian, his voice has a lot of different hues and much strength as well.

We see Fabian inhabit six different bodies, from his boss Putnam, played by bass-baritone Rafael Porto to his love interest's best friend Selena, performed by soprano Patricia Westley. There were no weak links, these are all singing actors. It was particularly amusing to see baritone Timothy Murray as the brash, confident Paul. The contrast of "real" Paul with Fabian/Paul is very charming and funny.

Soprano Esther Tonea stood out as Diana. As Fabian's love interest, she starts off pretty mild, her voice has a lovely, pure sound. By Act II she has been through quite a lot, trying to piece together what is going on around her, and her performance is much more dramatic and powerful.

The production, directed by Keturah Stickann, effectively uses vertical space by having stage elements come up and down from the ceiling. The many scenes are seamless because of this and the projected video art that could put us in an auto body repair shop (pictured, photograph by Frank Wing) or book-filled apartment within seconds.

The opera has a second cast that performs tomorrow and August 6, and it is sure to be interesting to hear other singers in the principal roles. The opening cast returns on August 4.

* Tattling *
One of the people in Row F was convinced I was in his seat but his companion assured him that they needed to keep going.

There was light talking in the middle of Row G, at least one watch alarm marking 8pm, and the person next to me in Seat 108 checked the time on his phone right before the opera ended.


Schwabacher Summer Concert 2019

La-rondine_Kristen-Loken_1181* Notes * 
Last night the Merola Opera Program gave its first performance of the year with the Schwabacher Summer Concert at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The singing shows a lot of promise and there were many distinctive voices.

The evening started with Act I of La rondine (Chelsea Lehnea, Anna Dugan, Amber R. Monroe, and Alice Chung pictured; photograph by Kristen Loken). I was impressed how well matched the singers are. Sopranos Chelsea Lehnea (Yvette) and Anna Dugan (Bianca) along with mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Suzy) made a lovely trio. Tenor Victor Starsky is clear and warm as Prunier, though he struggled with his lowest note at the end of the act, he is charming with the very cute Hyeree Shin as Lisette. Shin's voice, though not perfectly controlled, is perfectly light and bird-like. Best of all was certainly our Magda, soprano Amber R. Monroe, whose voice is icily incisive without a hint of ugliness and warm resonances throughout her range.

Chelsea Lehnea showed that she's another very fine soprano in Act I, Scene 4 of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her voice is very pretty and flexible, and she sang beautifully with the plaintive tenor Salvatore Atti as Edgardo.

After intermission we heard Act II, Scenes 3 and 4 of Die schweigsame Frau, and soprano Hyeree Shin sparkled as Aminta while bass Stefan Egerstrom countered her with much gravity. The banter in German was easy to discern. We also heard Act IV, Scenes 5 through 8 of Faust. The orchestra, particularly the horns, sounded fuzzy here. Conducted by Craig Kier, was as last year, upstage behind the singers, and again there were synchronization issues, most obviously in the Gounod and Puccini. Bass-baritone Andrew Dwan is a very loud and powerful Méphistophélès, while baritone Laureano Quant made for a passionate Valentin.

Merola certainly saved the best for last with an arresting finale of Il trovatore. The orchestra had lovely moments, especially in the strings. Soprano Anna Dugan (Leonora) has a delicate sound, a good contrast to the dastardly Il Conte di Luna of baritone Jeff Byrnes, whose volume is quite intense. Victor Starksy's tenor is bright and lucid, but the singer that really had me on edge and paying attention was mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, whose Azucena is strong and otherworldly.

* Tattling * 
The audience very attentive and quiet. We saw at least three former Merolini in the audience, including tenor Pene Pati and soprano Amina Edris.


Christina Major Interview

Christina-majorSoprano Christina Major (pictured left), known to Bay Area opera fans, especially in the South Bay, where she most recently appeared in West Bay Opera's I due Foscari. This week she is featured in four out of five concerts at the Midsummer Mozart Festival, which starts this Thursday in Berkeley and continues with performances in San Francisco, San Jose, Sonoma, and Cazadero.

You are from Texas, but have performed a lot in the Bay Area. Why is that?
You never work where you live. I got my professional debut at Opera San José when I was about 21, so I’ve built a lot of connections in the Bay Area. Lately I have been singing a lot at West Bay Opera, the general director his helping me build my resume with Verdi roles. Most recently I was Lucrezia in I due Foscari in February.

How did you become an opera singer?
I sang in the kid’s choir at church. I would also sing to the radio to the irritation of my older sister. She loves my singing now though! When I was 12 The Phantom of The Opera came out, and I was just blown away by it. I know it is a musical, but I had never heard that sort of singing before and I was immediately drawn to the sound. My church was charismatic, there was a lot of belting. So with The Phantom of the Opera, I would just try to recreating the sound and would sing all the parts, even the male ones. My parents would listen in and thought that I sounded pretty good doing that. They introduced me to a voice teacher who told us not to do anything with my voice until I was at least 15 and to come back for voice lessons then. That’s exactly what I did, getting voice lessons in high school. My voice is suited for opera. I can belt but I do not enjoy it at all.

You sing lots of Verdi and Mozart. What is it about these composers that suit your voice and your interests?
Mozart and I have always gotten along very well. I was with the right voice teacher for me from the start. I never had a bad experience in that regard and have been able to keep my voice healthy, which is great for Mozart. He knew the voice very well, he had an innate sense for what what sounds best and keeps the voice healthy and lined up. The music is very exposed, and so if you don’t have a healthy voice it shows right away.

Verdi is quite different, he is more explosive and less controlled. Mozart is written so perfectly and Verdi is more charged with unbridled emotion. I need to sing Verdi like I sing Mozart, to not be too heavy on the voice in order to keep it healthy. Mozart is like the trainer you go to to get into shape, if you can do that well, you will be fine.

Tell me more about what you are singing with the Midsummer Mozart Festival.
We are doing lots of varied repertoire, but I have sung most of the pieces many times, as with the two arias from Idomeneo (“Tutte nel cor vi sento” and “Idol mio, se ritroso”) and “Or sai chi lo “ from Don Giovanni. I haven’t done many of these since 2011 or 2012, as I have been moving to a rep for a bigger voice. So it is an exercise in what I just discussed with you.

It is a little harder now with a bigger instrument. I have to step back, reevaluate, and remember. The vocal memory is coming back but it is a challenge. As with “Et incarnatus est” from the C Minor Mass. It is for a lilter, lighter soprano. I love coloratura and the agility you need for Mozart.

You have a small daughter (I noticed she loves Peppa Pig just like my kids), what are the challenges of being a mom and being an opera singer?
The big word I’m looking for is balance. When I learned I was pregnant I was on the upswing as far as my career. The last concert I did with my daughter still in my belly was with George Cleve at the Midsummer Mozart Festival in 2015. I was about 21 or 22 weeks. It was wonderful. I was about to get on a plane to New York when my blood pressure dropped and I had to go to the hospital. My daughter was born at 24 weeks, and was one of these tiny one pound babies. So we were at the hospital for a long time with her in the NICU (neonatal intensive care). I didn’t sing for five months and canceled all my engagements including a Carnegie Hall debut.

I didn’t perform again until she was 7 months old. The love of singing hadn’t left but my body was pulling me toward my daughter. So the way we find balance is that we’ve built a village around her and us. My husband is fully supportive, as are my parents and in-laws. One hard part is that I can’t really sing in the house because my daughter has some sensory processing issues, though she’s getting a lot better with it, she can watch videos of my singing. But I have to find other places to practice.

You seem to like hockey. Are there affinities between opera and hockey?
I grew up an inline speed skater, I was on the national circuit around the same time as I first started singing. When I was 17 I had an injury, so that’s when I stopped. I missed skating so much though and 9 or 10 years ago I got invited to a hockey clinic, even though I didn’t skate on ice. But I decided to try it, and I got my legs under me in 5 or 10 minutes. I joined a hockey team and that’s how I met my husband. He was the goalie. These days, as my side hustle, I help run an adult ice hockey league. It doesn’t jive at all, I’m probably the only person who plays hockey and sings opera. But it works for me!


L'enfant et les sortilèges at SF Symphony

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(5)-copy* Notes * 
Last night's opening of L'enfant et les sortilèges at San Francisco Symphony shimmered and shone. James Bonas' semi-staged production (Anna Christie and Isabel Leonard pictured, photograph by Jean Pierre Maurin) made use of quirky animated projections. The nine soloists and three choruses all sang beautifully and the playing from the orchestra glittered.

Maestro Martyn Brabbins filled in for MTT, who is recovering from a heart surgery. Brabbins, the music director at English National Opera, is a charming presence, and the orchestra sparkled, only overwhelming the singers during the arithmetical section of the opera.

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(7)_1The opera has three sopranos and three mezzos (plus tenor, baritone, and bass), and it must be a casting challenge voices that are distinct from one another. In the lead role of L'enfant (The Child), mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is all petulance and brattiness at first, and the ethereal qualities of her instrument come out later.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa Jackson (A Herdsman, The Chinese Cup, The White Cat) has a darker tone and more sensuality. I found her jarring as both The Chinese Cup and The White Cat, the former because of the mocking nonsense words meant to be Chinese, the latter because of the palpable violent eroticism. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson-Cano (Mama, The Dragonfly, The Squirrel) is warmer and richer.

Soprano Anna Christy has a bird-like brilliance as The Fire, The Princess, and The Nightingale, while sopranos Nikki Einfeld (The Bat, A Country Lass) and Marnie Breckenridge (The Bergère, The Screech-owl) are more icily penetrating.

Tenor Ben Jones was very funny as The Little Old Man, he comes out on stilts and a pointy hat while numbers bounce around in waves behind him, he was only a touch quiet. As The Tree Frog and The Teapot I had no trouble hearing him. Baritone Kelly Markgraf  gave evocative performances as both The Comtoise Clock and The Black Cat. Bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson  was particularly poignant as The Tree, his mournful grievance against The Child is convincing.

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(3)The set is essentially an downstage scrim with drolly drawn projections that the singers interact with, sort of a live action and cartoon mashup. The effect is charming, I really loved the scene with The Fire (Anna Christie pictured, photograph by Jean Pierre Maurin) and the aforementioned one with arithmetical demons.

Tattling * 
There a lot of whispers. Someone with a child in Box D spoke quite a bit to her throughout the evening, though fairly quietly. The woman behind me in Row S had many audible reactions to the production at first, and I was glad she seemed so engaged with the performance.

The three young people in Row R Seats 17, 19, and 21 next to me chatted and looked at their phones, even taking photos during the performance. I think they must have been string players, they seemed more interested in the orchestra members than singers.

The boy next to me absolutely hated the pianist John Wilson who played pieces from Debussy's Children's Corner in the first half of the evening, which included several short French chamber music works from 1879 to 1915.  Wilson was restrained, his Serenade for the Doll had a delicacy to it to be sure. I just wish the person on my right hadn't talked so much during Ginger Costa-Jackson's rendition of "Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons" by Debussy. I was completely distracted already by Costa-Jackson's amazing biceps, and his comments about accompanist Peter Grunberg on the piano were not helpful for me.