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February 2019

Opera Parallèle's Today It Rains

Tir9079 * Notes * 
Opera Parallèle is presenting the world premiere of Laura Kaminsky's Today It Rains this weekend at Z Space. This chamber opera based on Georgia O'Keefe's first trip to Santa Fe is contemplative and features some beautiful singing and stagecraft.

Conductor Nicole Paiement had the 11 orchestra members well in hand. Kaminsky's music can be disquieting, there's quite a lot of instruments shared by the two percussionists including a rain stick, cocktail shakers, and vibraphone. There were times that I had visceral reactions to the brittle, jarring sounds of wine glasses and bottles being used as percussion.

Kaminsky seems to like low strings, there were some beautiful lines for cello, though the solo for violin in Scene 5 when O'Keefe is dreaming is particularly lively and memorable as well. The clarinet solo in Scene 10, when porter Aubrey Wells is practicing on the caboose platform (pictured, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) is lovely too.

The libretto, by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, stays out of Kaminsky's way, and manages to be humorous without being embarrassing or stilted, even the lines about penetration and genitalia in Scene 3 as O'Keefe and fellow painter Rebecca "Beck" Salsbury Strand sneak drink and play cards.

This piece is the third new opera I've seen in less than six months at includes a role specifically for an African American; angel Clara Odbody in Jake Heggie's It's A Wonderful Life and Leonard Bast in Allen Shearer's Howards End, America both are recast from the original works. Here we have a clarinet-playing porter Aubrey Wells, who worries about lynching in Kansas, and perhaps plays on the trope of "Magical Negro," helping O'Keefe see that she should go to Santa Fe despite her doubts. On the other hand, it encouraging to see people of color get chances to be in contemporary work. In this case, tenor Nathan Granner as Aubrey Wells was a stand out, his voice is smooth, clear, and vivid. He also moves with intention, his choreography crisp and precise.

Tir8912The singing all around was fine. The four ensemble members had a ton to do moving the set for the eleven scenes, but still managed to sound great, especially when they sang the words of art critics in Scene 3 and even in the nightmare scene as rowdy partiers at Lake George (Scene 7). Soprano Marnie Breckenridge (pictured, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) is amusing as Beck, her piercing quality very much a contrast to the throaty tones of mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert as Georgia O'Keefe. Gaissert's voice seemed bottomless, her deep low notes betrayed no effort.

The production is immersive, Kimberly Reed's evocative projections of water and paint on glass are effective and Brian Staufenbiel's production design kept everything moving without the slightest awkwardness. I loved how O'Keefe and Beck got on their train seats and were pushed into place by the other characters, and all the artful transformations of the set design such as the train windows turning into frames for a gallery exhibition.

* Tattling * 
The seats at Z Space can create a lot of noise if people shift just so, the squeaks are alarming at times. There also seemed to be a problems with people dropping things in the audience, and a smattering of chatter once in awhile during last night's performance.


Today It Rains Preview

TodayItRainsShoot5243Tons of new operas are being performed everyday, the most successful perhaps are Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (recently at Opera San José) and Mason Bates’ Grammy-winning The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Closer to home, Howards End, America by Allen Shearer had a world premiere only last month in San Francisco.

Opera Parallèle, devoted to contemporary works with social relevance, is presenting a world premiere about Georgia O'Keefe called Today It Rains (Blythe Gaissert as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marnie Breckenridge as Beck, pictured) next week at Z Space in San Francisco. The music is written by Laura Kaminsky, who is fast becoming one of the most prominent composers today. Her first opera, As One (2014), about a transgender woman, has been produced dozens of times, everywhere from Honolulu to Berlin, including in Oakland by West Edge Opera in 2015. She's also working on an opera about an ICE raid in Postville which will premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2020.

It is interesting that though so many popular operas are centered around female characters - La Traviata, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly - nearly all are written by men. Here in the progressive Bay Area, San Francisco Opera has only presented three operas by women in its 96 year history. Notably none of these were mainstage performances at the War Memorial.

Things are changing. Kaminsky sees this as a faculty member of Purchase College/SUNY, where she is the head of the composition department. "The 15 to 18 composition students are not all male now, and the applications are pretty even" she says when I speak to her and her librettist, Mark Campbell, during an early rehearsal of Today It Rains. "We have to redefine opera" adds Campbell, "otherwise it won’t have a chance to survive."

14932552237_846ae0aef3_o1Kaminsky came up with the idea of an opera about O'Keefe and brought the idea to Campbell (also the co-librettist with Kimberly Reed for As One, pictured together: Reed left, Campbell middle, Kaminsky right) and Opera Parallèle, whose Anya17, an opera about sex trafficking, deeply moved her. "I want to tell the stories of strong women," explains the composer, "No losers."

This opera takes place in 1929, when O'Keefe takes a train from New York to Santa Fe, a defining moment for her as an artist. The title comes from the end of a letter O’Keefe wrote to her husband Alfred Stieglitz. "She still loves him but is finding herself. The name conveys the feeling of the opera, though really it could have been called O’Keefe on a Train or Georgia on my Mind," jokes Campbell.

Opera Parallèle, run by music director Nicole Paiement and creative director Brian Staufenbiel, of course, is no stranger to powerful women. Paiement is a rarity as a female conductor and a force of nature, who came to rehearsal straight from the airport after being at Seattle Opera where she was leading performances of  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. "It has been the best working with Nicole and Brian," says Kaminsky. "The visual component so important to Opera Parallèle," adds Campbell, which is essential in this piece about a painter and includes film work from Reed who has been given permission to use O’Keefe’s work, no small feat.

The chamber opera is only 80 minutes, scored for 11 musicians and 8 singers, without an intermission. "The music is meditative and reflective," says Paiement in a quick interview with me during a rehearsal break. "Laura’s music doesn’t shy away from being textural, she is almost European in sensibility. It is very detailed work."


LA Opera's Clemenza di Tito Review

Clemenza-di-tito-la-opera-2019* Notes * 
Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is nearly through a run at Los Angeles Opera. The singing is top-notch with strong support from the orchestra and a sumptuous staging.

The new production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, who also designed the scenery, is recalls the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Frederic Leighton. There are many projections, and this helps to move the scenes along without fuss or noise. It was all very nice to look at though not necessarily that engaging, but certainly the direction did not get in the way of the music.

Maestro James Conlon kept the orchestra going with a lot of energy and a fair amount of crispness. The overture was lively and the brass clear. The clarinet has a lot of beautiful soli and did very well with all his exposed music. The middle of Act II lost a bit of decisiveness, but everything got back in focus by the end.

The cast is very fine indeed. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven (Annio) has a fresh sound. Both of her duets (one with Sesto and another with Servilia) in Act I were balanced. As Servilia, soprano Janai Brugger is sweet, with an airy breathiness. Soprano Guanqun Yu has some acting chops, she plays the villainess Vitellia well, and her change of heart at the end (“Non piu di fiori” ) seems sincere. She has a warm sound, with only a few slight gasps at first.

In the title role, tenor Russell Thomas has a lovely delicacy with his pianissimo parts. Coupled with his authoritativeness, he seemed ideal for the merciful Tito. Best of all though is mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto. Her voice is incandescent, and she was utterly riveting in “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” in Act I. Her Act II aria “Deh, per questo istante solo” was also a highlight of the evening. I felt lucky to hear DeShong sing this gorgeous music right in front of me.

Tattling * 
I intentionally got a front row seat for this performance, as I find it easier to ignore the ill-behaved Los Angeles Opera audience when I can at least see the musicians and conductor without impediment. Of course, the woman in B 35 talked at full volume during the overture, and her husband dropped his phone toward the end of the act.

They also could not stop touching each other or themselves, for instance, the woman rubbed her tattooed arms for a long time at the beginning of Act II. Nonetheless, they were easy enough to ignore, as were the people behind me in Row C, who got into an amusing conversation about Chicago during intermission and may have whispered a bit during the performance.

My experience of this opera, which I have only heard once before, was enriched by having heard Cecilia Bartoli's Mozart Arias recording about a thousand times in the last three years because is my five-year old son's favorite CD.