Nicole Paiement

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."


Opera Parallèle's The Little Prince

Lp_dress1_3895* Notes * 
Opera Parallèle revived last year's production of The Little Prince this weekend at the Marines' Memorial Theatre. The opera is perfectly charming and the feminist twist of having mostly female principals worked well.

I had a better appreciation for Nicholas Wright's libretto this time around -- it is concise -- condensing some 90 pages of text into showing us the story rather than telling it to us. Composer Rachel Portman is instrumental in all of this, naturally, and the music is both lovely and engaging. 

It is always a joy to hear conductor Nicole Paiement, even if the ensemble only had a pianist and percussionist, it never felt anything less than lithe and completely together.

The members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as stars and birds sounded otherworldly, as did our title role Little Prince, Erin Enriquez (pictured with Christabel Nunoo as the Snake, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo). Enriquez has a bell-like sweetness that was only occasionally marred by staticky feedback from her microphone. In contrast, it is not surprising at all to see that mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti (The Pilot) is singing Siegrune in Die Walküre at The Met this spring, she has a fabulously dramatic voice.

Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich is a delight as The Fox, her warm, supple sound suits the role. Soprano Sabrina Romero-Wilson sang the vain, silly but lovable Rose with clarity, while soprano Maggie Finnegan was quite haunting as The Water. Soprano Christabel Nunoo sang The Snake with both beauty and menace.

Of the quartet of male singers, all of whom sang various grownups found on neighboring asteroids 325 to 330, tenor J. Raymond Meyers is most memorable, partially because he plays a catchy kazoo tune, and partially because he is dressed as Elvis. Baritone Zachary Lenox is funny as The Businessman counting his stars, as is bass-baritone Philip Skinner as a King who doesn't have much power at all. Tenor Samuel Faustine is endearing as The Drunkard and the hapless Lamplighter who suggests Earth to the Little Prince.

Hats off to director Brian Staufenbiel for a very attractive production that doesn't try to slavishly mimic Saint-Exupéry's illustrations. The visuals are courtesy of Matt Kish (best known for his Moby-Dick monograph) and David Murakami, the look is much more urban and contemporary than the original book.

* Tattling * 
This was my four year old son's first full opera performance excluding those he was present for in utero. He is a nervous little boy with sensory processing sensitivity (in fact, he hid during a rendition of "Happy Birthday" earlier that day) so we did a lot of preparation, including reading the book and watching the opera beforehand on YouTube. He seemed to like the experience and was very quiet and still for the full 95 minutes.

A couple near the front and middle of the orchestra level brought their toddler and baby, but got to the performance late and had to leave early, as the baby was crying during Act II.


Opera Parallèle's Heart of Darkness

Heart-of-darkness-opera-parallele* Notes *
Opera Parallèle is holding the first North American performances of Tarik O'Regan's Heart of Darkness at Z Space in San Francisco this weekend. The challenge of taking a well-known text must be great. Tom Philips condensed Conrad's novella into a spare libretto. The ninety minute work is relentless, there is no intermission, but in the end it dissolves into silence. The scene about wanting rivets was amusing. The most famous lines of the book were handled gracefully.

Opera Parallèle made a compelling case for this chamber opera. Maestra Nicole Paiement conducted the fourteen musicians of the orchestra with verve.

The cast is uniformly strong. It was striking to hear soprano Shawnette Sulker sing the River Woman. She can sound sweet and bird-like, but here she showed grit and passion. Tenor Thomas Glenn was a vivid Harlequin. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov's low notes as the Doctor and the Boilermaker were forceful yet humorous. Tenor Michael Belle sounded warm as the Chief Accountant and the Helmsman. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner seemed rumbling and ancient as Kurtz, clearly conveying illness and madness. Tenor Isaiah Bell was a youthful Marlow, his voice is bright and he sings with ease.

Director Brian Staufenbiel uses the compact space to fine effect. Audience members surrounding the stage wore light-colored ponchos and held tusks created by Jon Altemus. Illustrations by Matt Kish were projected in the background and on the floor. The ink on watercolor paper images are bold, animating them could be dizzying, though this worked nicely when the action took place on the river.

* Tattling * 
One watch alarm was noted at 3pm during Saturday's matinée. One person whispered loudly during the instrumental threnody.


Opera Parallèle's Dead Man Walking

Opera-parallele-dead-man-walking-2015* Notes *
Opera Parallèle opened the 2015 season with a chamber version of Dead Man Walking at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last night. Opera Parallèle again makes a compelling case for contemporary works, and the appeal of Jake Heggie's first opera is obvious. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement conducted a lush and robust sounding small orchestra. Director Brian Staufenbiel's production is elegant and effective. The main props are a dozen floating rectangular screens, each segmented into smaller shapes made up of metal bars. The use of video projection in the background is tasteful, as is having two supernumeraries representing the murdered teenagers on stage for most of the opera.

The cast is impeccable. Catherine Cook did an amazing job singing Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the title character. Her appearance at the pardon board in Act I Scene 7 was one of the strongest moments of the performance. The following scene with the parents of the victims was also ravishing. Robert Orth (Owen Hart), Kristin Clayton (Kitty Hart), Joseph Meyers (Howard Boucher), and Michelle Rice (Jade Boucher) are convincing. Talise Trevigne is an outstanding Sister Rose, her voice is beautifully lucid. Michael Mayes has a pretty voice, but his physicality works well for Joseph De Rocher. Jennifer Rivera sounded pure and lovely as Sister Helen.

* Tattling * 
Everyone around me in the Center Orchestra section was absolutely quiet and attentive.


My Head is Full of Colors Premiere

MyheadisfullofcolorsOpera Parallèle presents the world premiere of My Head is Full of Colors, a children's opera composed by Chris Pratorius with libretto by Nicole Paiement. The free performance will be held during National Opera Week, on Saturday, November 1, at 11 am in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street. The production features 4th grade students from Creative Arts Charter School performing with soprano Carolyn Bacon and baritone Sergey Khalikulov. Laura Anderson is the stage director, costumes are designed by Elly Jessop; the singers and small instrumental ensemble will be conducted by OP Intern Conductor William Long.

Production Web Site | San Francisco Public Library


Opera Parallèle's Trouble in Tahiti

Trouble1772* Notes *
This weekend, Opera Parallèle is performing Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti (Lisa Chavez and Eugene Brancoveanu pictured right; photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) at Z Space in San Francisco. The performances open with Samuel Barber's ten-minute Hand of Bridge and simply flow into the Bernstein. Director Brian Staufenbiel's production makes the most of limited space by employing a quartered turn-table set and three screens for video projection. The scenes included a kitchen, an office, a theater, and a gym; each furnished beautifully. The images made a suitable backdrop, amusing rather than overwhelming.

For Friday's opening performance, Maestra Nicole Paiement held the small orchestra together, and the sound was clean. The singing was fine, the intimate venue made it easy to hear everyone. Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez, and Randall Bunnell sang as The Trio with much energy. Lisa Chavez (Dinah) has a distinctive mezzo-soprano, a bit steely and very strong. As Sam, Eugene Brancoveanu sang with his usual warmth and vim. The acting went smoothly, and taken together the performance certainly did delight.

* Tattling * 
The audience was ideal. No one spoke, there were no electronic devices heard, and there did not seem to be any latecomers.

In the lobby, after the performance, we were treated to a reprise of Hand of Bridge, the singers precariously perched above the patrons.


Opera Parallèle's Ainadamar Preview

Ainadamar-2013-opera-parallele* Notes *
A sneak preview of Opera Parallèle's next production, Ainadamar, was held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last month. Conductor Nicole Paiement took us through several musical examples with pianist Keisuke Nakogoshi and half a dozen singers. Lisa Chavez (pictured left as Federico García Lorca, photograph by Steve Di Bartolomeo), Marnie Breckenridge (Margarita Xirgu), and Maya Kherani (Nuria) sang various selections and a trio of singers from the women's chorus also participated. Osvaldo Golijov's music is textured and percussive.

Director Brian Staufenbiel discussed the set design, which sounds like Opera Parallèle's most ambitious to date and involves a stage divided into two layers. The staging includes the flamenca La Tania and her troupe, and they danced for us, accompanied by Nakogoshi. I, for one, am quite disappointed that I cannot make it to any of the three performances. Opera Parallele's Ainadamar will be presented starting Friday, February 15 until Sunday, February 17 at the Novellus Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.


Opera Parallèle's 2012-2013 Season

Ainadamar-2013Ensemble Parallèle has formally changed its name to Opera Parallèle. The opera company presents the Bay Area premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar on February 15, 16 and 17, 2013 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Marnie Breckenridge will sing Margarita Xirgu and Lisa Chavez stars as Federico García Lorca (both pictured left, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo). On April 26, 27 and 28, Opera Parallèle presents a re-orchestration of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti in a double bill with Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge at ZSpace. The season closes on June 7, 2013 at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, when the company presents a public workshop reading of the newly commissioned Dante De Silva's Gesualdo, Prince of Madness.


Ensemble Parallèle's The Great Gatsby

Marco Pannucio, Susannah Biller, Julienne Walker, Jason Detwiler

* Notes *
A chamber version of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (Act II, Scene 3 with Marco Pannucio, Susannah Biller, Julienne Walker, Jason Detwiler, and Daniel Snyder pictured right; photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) from Ensemble Parallèle opened last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The ambitious reorchestration was undertaken by composer Jacques Desjardins, using 30 musicians instead of 80, and will be presented at the Aspen Music Festival this August. The opera has been cut down to 2 hours and 10 minutes, but does not seem rushed or undescriptive.

The music is rather difficult, and conductor Nicole Paiement had kept everyone together, at least for the most part. Director Brian Staufenbiel put forth a bold production, employing much videography and period dance. The many scene changes were smooth, and there were only a few odd moments, notably between Act I Scenes 1 and 2, and in Act II Scenes 5 and 6. One can appreciate how challenging it is to put forth this familiar story that has been visually represented in more than one film. Matthew Antaky's set is stylish, but at times the singers seemed rather far upstage, and this effected how well they could be heard.

The cast is strong, featuring those who can both act and sing. The diction was all perfectly comprehensible. Mark Robinson and Carrie Zhang had some of the simpler, lyrical music as Radio/Band and Tango Singers. Erin Neff and Bojan Knežević made fine contributions as Myrtle and George Wilson. Knežević was terrifying yet sympathetic when Myrtle is killed. Julienne Walker (Jordan Baker) was a good foil for Susannah Biller (Daisy Buchanan), physically and vocally. Jason Dewiler made for a likeable Nick Carraway, ever patient as he observed. Daniel Snyder (Tom Buchanan) sounded a bit choked in the first half of the opera, but seemed in better voice after the intermission. In the title role, Marco Pannucio gave a heartfelt, but somewhat strained, performance. Susannah Biller sparkled as Daisy Buchanan, her bright sound had a certain lovely ease to it.

* Tattling * 
The woman in Row E Seat 106 arrived only a few minutes before curtain, and had to step over us to leave the hall after the opera's second scene. She returned between Act I Scenes 3 and 4, squeezing by and speaking to her date during the orchestral interlude.

Some men behind Row J of the Orchestra Right section talked loudly during Gatsby's final aria, and someone had to ask them to be quiet.


Ensemble Parallèle's Great Gatsby Rehearsal

Great-gatsby-steve-di-bartolomeo

* Notes *
Ensemble Parallèle held an open rehearsal of The Great Gatsby (Marco Panuccio as Jay Gatsby and Susannah Biller as Daisy Buchanan pictured left, photograph by Steve di Bartolomeo) at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center in San Francisco yesterday. The opera opens next Friday, and though the rehearsal process is always chaotic, the cast and crew have made great progress thus far. We heard and watched Act II, Scene 4; Act I, Scene 4; Act I, Scene 3; and Act II, Scene 2. Keisuke Nakogoshi accompanied the singers on piano. The chorus and many of the principal singers were present. Director Brian Staufenbiel worked out the staging and Maestra Nicole Paiement made sure the singers were on beat. As Staufenbiel focused on certain specifics, Paiement would address us, revealing that one of her favorite parts of the opera is when Gatsby and Nick meet in Act I, Scene 3.

After the rehearsal Susannah Biller, Jason Detwiler (Nick Carraway), Marco Panuccio, Daniel Snyder (Tom Buchannan), Julienne Walker (Jordan Baker), Jacques Desjardins, Staufenbiel, and Paiement answered questions about working on this opera. The work is cut, runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, and Paiement takes speedy tempi for the dialogue. All the cuts had to be approved by the composer, John Harbison.

* Tattling *
Some members of the audience whispered throughout, and a few cellular phones were heard.


Ensemble Parallèle's Great Gatsby Preview

The-great-gatsby-ensemble-parallele

* Notes *
A sneak preview of Ensemble Parallèle's next production, The Great Gatsby, was held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last week. Conductor Nicole Paiement took us through several musical examples with pianist Keisuke Nakogoshi and six of the cast members. Susannah Biller (pictured above as Daisy Buchanan, photograph by Rapt), Jason Detwiler (Nick Carraway), Marco Panuccio (Jay Gatsby), Erin Neff (Myrtle Wilson), Daniel Snyder (Tom Buchannan), and Julienne Walker (Jordan Baker) looked and sounded utterly comfortable, despite the fact that rehearsals had only started the day before.

Jacques Desjardins, who has re-orchestrated John Harbison's work for chamber orchestra, was on hand to speak about the challenges of this undertaking. The number of musicians has been taken from 120 down to 30. The music is brass heavy, and Desjardins has had to use woodwinds to make up for this in the chamber version. The harp part also presented an interesting problem, as the sound of the instrument is so particular.

Director Brian Staufenbiel also gave us a glimpse of the set design and the concepts behind some of the stage elements. His style seems to be stylized rather than descriptive. One does look forward to seeing and hearing the piece. Three performances are presented between Friday, February 10 to Sunday, February 12 at the Novellus Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

* Tattling *
There was light talking and some electronic noise.


BluePrint: North and South

NicolePaiementRogerSteenBW* Notes *
The tenth season of the BluePrint project opened yesterday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The concert started with John Harbison's North and South, with mezzo-soprano Julienne Walker. The New Music Ensemble sounded clear and together under the expert direction of Maestra Nicole Paiement (pictured left, photograph by Roger Steen). Walker's voice is steely but flexible. The songs are jazzy and accessible. This was followed by Kurt Rohde's rather charming Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble (2010). The soloist, Axel Strauss, played nimbly with the ensemble. The piece is humorous, and the movements are all aptly named.

Erwin Schulhoff's Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, Opus 43 was most impressive, especially the soloist, Keisuke Nakagoshi. The Allegro alla Jazz was played with vibrancy, and it was wonderful to hear how much fun everyone was having. The concert ended with an excerpt from Harbison's The Great Gatsby, arranged for chamber orchestra by Jacques Desjardins. The singers, mezzo-soprano Erin Neff as Myrtle and baritone Bojan Knezevic as Wilson, are both strong performers with beautiful voices. The duet they sang was semi-staged in that Neff fell to the ground, which struck me as slightly strange. Knezevic's accent was noticeable in words like "pretty" and "worrying," but he and Neff were easy to understand without looking at the text provided in the program. There certainly is much to look forward to in Ensemble Parallèle's production of the opera, which is scheduled for February 2012.

* Tattling * 
The audience was rather silent, only a few whispers and rustles were heard. During the ovation for the Rohde piece, I realized we had been seated next to the composer, and could not stop laughing over this. Two loud beeps were heard during the Alla marcia maestoso of the Schulhoff.


Ensemble Parallèle's 4 Saints in 3 Acts

Four Saints-Maya Srinivasan+Eugene Brancoveanu+Brook Munoz * Notes *
Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts (Maya Srinivasan, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Brooke Muñoz pictured right, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) opened in a new production from Ensemble Parallèle last night in San Francisco. The performances are a collaboration between Ensemble Parallèle and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Maestra Nicole Paiement had her small orchestra, which included an accordion, under control. It seemed like it would be easy to lose one's place in the music, and the musicians held together well. Director Brian Staufenbiel put his own narrative atop Gertrude Stein's charming libretto. Staufenbiel certainly does not lack ambition or ideas, and in the end the structure probably helped keep some audience members awake and engaged. The scene changes were seamless, all the props were either on wires or wheels. Because the furniture could be spun around, this was done several times. This worked best when the saints enter for Act III on their chairs, a veritable chair ballet. The colors used for the costumes gave the production cohesion, lots of white, with pops of red, yellow, and to a lesser extent, blue. The choreography, from Michael Mohammed, was pleasing and often quite funny.

There was much beautiful singing. Commère Wendy Hillhouse and Compère John Bischoff had a good dynamic with each other. Hillhouse has exceptional diction, and Bischoff has a wonderful timbre. The saints all sang prettily. The duet between Maya Kherani (Saint Settlement) and J. Raymond Meyers (Saint Stephen) was oddly poignant. The parts with Saint Teresa I and Saint Teresa II were lovely, soprano Heidi Moss has a brilliant clarity and mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi a smooth warmth. Eugene Brancoveanu sang St. Ignatius with a full richness.

The evening began with a new piece by Luciano Chessa entitled A Heavenly Act. The piece uses words from Stein's libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts, as the version we were to hear later was cut significantly by Thomson. Chessa's work has interesting textures and the dance segment was jaunty. Some of the shrill pitches were challenging. The production featured Kalup Linzy, who sang with a microphone and created video projections involving angels and clouds.

* Tattling * 
The person in Row A Seat 104, only a few feet from the conductor, spoke freely during the first piece, and occasionally in the second. She spent a lot of time pointing and talked without regard to either playing or singing.

For some reason, ushers often assume I am in the wrong seat or the wrong section. Just before the performance one of the YBCA ushers tried to confront me about where I was, despite the fact that there was no one behind me, and that where the person she was seating was supposed to be.


Ensemble Parallèle's Orphée

Orphee5966 * Notes *
Philip Glass' Orphée was performed impressively by Ensemble Parallèle last night in San Francisco. The 14 musicians sounded lush but clean under Maestra Nicole Paiement. Brian Staufenbiel's production involved rather stunning circus art, including Roue Cyr, aerialism, and juggling. However, the video art, especially in the beginning, did not quite work, and people even laughed at the repetition in the introduction. It was used sparingly, and the pleasing retro circus feel was certainly attractive. The vision was carried through all the way from start to finish and the acting was convincing from all sides.

The singing was all very strong. Aglaonice, sung by Brooke Muñoz, sounded sweet. Austin Kness sounded robust in his two roles as a policeman and commissaire. Thomas Glenn was haunting particularly as Cégeste, also singing the role of the Reporter. Philip Skinner (Poet/Judge) was threatening, as was appropriate. Susannah Biller was a characteristically brilliant Euridice. John Duykers (Heurtebise) sang with tenderness, and Marnie Breckenridge (the Princess) was alluring. Breckenridge sounded icy and pure. In the title role, Eugene Brancoveanu was most awe-inspiring, his voice is hearty and sympathetic.

* Tattling * 
The audience was fairly well-behaved, but for some reason, the circus artists brought out the worst in them. The women in G 111 and 112 of the orchestra level could not stop talking during Act II, and one of them insisted on clapping and screaming for the aerealist despite the music.


BluePrint: Riding the Elevator into the Sky

Breckenridge * Notes *
The ninth season of the BluePrint series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music opened on Saturday night. The performance started with the West Coast premiere of Laura Schwendinger's Chiaroscuro Azzurro, which featured violinist Wei He. The New Music Ensemble sounded tightly together under conductor Nicole Paiement, whose every move seemed carefully noted by the musicians. Schwendinger's music ranged from ghostly to strident to meditative.

After intermission we got a bit of a preview of Ensemble Parallèle's forthcoming Orphée production, first in the form of the selections from the Orphée Suite, arranged for solo piano by Paul Barnes. Keisuke Nakogoshi played movements II, III, IV and VII. The playing was compelling, simply very beautiful. This was followed by the world premiere of David Conte's Sexton Songs, sung by soprano Marnie Breckenridge (pictured above, photograph by Michael Strickland) who is also singing in the aforementioned Orphée. Breckenridge was ill, and there may have been an ugly edge to her voice as a result, but she was arresting in these five poems by Anne Sexton set to music. Again the ensemble sounded clear and coherent.

* Tattling *
Since I sat next to John Marcher and behind SFMike, there is very little to tattle about as far as the audience. The audio system did misbehave and played during the Glass instead of just before the Conte.