Oakland Opera Theater

Stravinsky at Oakland Opera Theater

Renard-oakland-opera  * Notes * 
Last night's press opening of L'Histoire du Soldat and Renard at Oakland Opera Theater was highly entertaining. Both pieces are based on Russian folk tales but were translated into English for this production. This works well, especially for L'Histoire du Soldat, which does not include any singing. Reset to the present day by Rebecca Lenkewicz, the work is meant to be "lue, jouée et dansée," and it certainly was. Some of the text did sound slightly ridiculous, there was much rhyming that seemed forced and somewhat ungainly. Also, the updating is inexact, one doubts very much, for instance, that the General could really offer up his daughter in marriage as a reward in 2008. However, the players did well with it, Kirya Traber displayed her acting talents as the Narrator, speaking the words of many of the characters. Her enunciation was strong, though I wish she had been a bit more down stage whilst the orchestra played as the brass instruments did make her difficult to hear. Mattias Bossi was suitably unctous as the Devil, and provided fine comic relief. Ben Jones gave a perfectly good performance as the titular Soldier, his dancing with Abigail Munn (Princess) was impressive. Munn's movements were all very clear, and she was the best of the dancers. The dancing in the finale was remarkably unsexy, perhaps the heels worn by the dancers were to blame. The orchestra sounded jaunty under the direction of Deidre McClure, and the violin solos were quite beautiful.

The orchestra was perfectly together during the second half of the evening as well, though there was much competition for attention. Soprano Kimarie Torre sang Stravinsky's "Pastorale" (1907) before Renard, her voice is cold but pleasant, not at all shrill. Renard, Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée was utterly delightful, including both burlesque dancing and all manner of circus arts. The singers sat with the orchestra, up stage, but for the most part they were audible. Tenor Ben Jones has a warm, clear voice with good volume, while tenor Darron Flagg has perhaps a prettier voice but was less loud. They were quite distinct, in any case. Igor Vieira's baritone is quite rich, and the percussiveness of his singing was apparent. Bass Richard Mix seemed a bit quiet at first, but his volume improved during the course of the piece.

The dancing was very cute, and the costumes were completely adorable. David Hunt juggled knives, walked a slack rope, and spun hoops around his limbs with aplomb as the Rooster. Erin Schrader (Cat) did well with the hula hoop and the aerial hoop. Breonna Noack acted well as Renard, her contortions showed her incredible flexibility and her work on aerial silks was certainly fun to watch.

* Tattling * 
There was a little whispering during the music, but no electronic noise whatsoever. The house looked entirely full, and the seats are set close together and tied for fire code purposes, so it was not terribly comfortable. The person to my left did elbow me in the arm several times. He also managed to kick me in the shin, though he did apologize aloud for this. As marvelous as circus arts are at the opera, it was annoying that the audience applauded for the juggling during the music.

Queenie Pie at Oakland Opera Theater

Queeniepie  * Notes *
Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie closes this afternoon at Oakland Opera Theater. The unfinished work was arranged and orchestrated by Marc Bolin and the libretto completed by Tommy Shepherd. The opera was extremely charming, especially the first half, which takes place in Harlem. The sets looked great, especially the city scene back drops. The costumes were comely, and included many fancy hats, gloves, and belts. Queen Pie's platinum blond wig was not convincing, but was not terribly distracting. The dancing was strong, and Tania Johnson was particularly fabulous in this regard, as the Lady Reporter. Kathleen Antonia was perfect as Queenie Pie's rival, Café Olay, completely committed to the choreography and quite self-possessed. Her voice started off slightly shaky but was entirely lovely. Amanda King's voice was also beautiful, rich and pleasant. For the most part, her acting as Queenie Pie was good, though a few words were jumbled in Act II. The rest of the cast was less even, though all the singing was pretty, some were a bit quiet when not right up at one of the many microphones.

Act II was slightly less focused than Act I, when Queenie goes off to some unnamed island in search of a
magical amulet. The quartet of sailors sang some cute drinking songs and the three moon trees sounded wonderfully ethereal. Queenie ends up shipwrecked on a tropical isle with a distinctly tiki bar aesthetic, complete with grass skirts and exotic drinks. Seaon Bristol was utterly hilarious as the Crown Prince, and was a good foil for the rather more serious King, William Tull. The ending was darkly humorous.

* Tattling *
The house was entirely full, and the audience was enthusiastic, though they talked a bit too much during the music. The seats at are still pretty uncomfortable at Oakland Opera Theater, but at least they have real restrooms now. Though all very attractive, some of the costumes were not the most flattering, a bit of upper arm cellulite was on view. Some of the dresses also looked like they could use a once over with a garment steamer. However, it was a fine performance with a lot of heart, and I only wish I could have gone earlier in the run, so that I could catch it again.

Plethora of Opera in the East Bay this Month

April 25- June 8 2008: Figaro (Inspired by Mozart and Beaumarchais) at Berkeley Rep
May 2-11 2008: San Francisco Opera's The Little Prince at UC Berkeley
May 3-11 2008: Bluebeard's Castle and L'enfant et les sortilèges at Berkeley Opera
May 9-25 2008: Queenie Pie at Oakland Opera

Also, Sacramento Opera's Tosca closes tonight. This weekend, instead of going to see any of these performances, I'll probably head off to Seattle to hear I Puritani. To add to the hilarity, please note who will be performing at the War Memorial Opera House this Saturday.

Opera Intake for Fall 2007

CeilingLast June I went to San Francisco Opera sixteen times (seventeen if one counts the rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalier I went to), and while that is excessive, one should note that there were only three productions, and only twenty-one performances. I only missed one performance of Don Giovanni because one of my best friends was getting her PhD that weekend, but I saw every performance of Iphigénie en Tauride.

When this season started, I told myself I was not allowed to go to the opera four times a week. I tried my best to monitor my opera intake, and I have improved. Here is the break-down, from September 4 to December 9, 2007:

Samson et Dalila: 3 of 8, plus 1 rehearsal
Tannhäuser: 5 of 7
Appomattox: 2 of 7, plus 1 rehearsal
Die Zauberflöte: 3 of 9
La Rondine: 3 of 7
Macbeth: 4 of 7, plus 1 rehearsal
The Rake's Progress: 5 of 6
Madama Butterfly: 3 of 5

Total: 28 of 56 performances, plus 3 rehearsals

I also went to see The Turn of the Screw at Oakland Opera Theater and Iphigénie en Tauride at Seattle Opera. Counting all performances and rehearsals, I went to the opera only about twice a week.

The Turn of the Screw at OOT

Turnofthescrew * Notes *
Late in September, Oakland Opera Theater was forced to move from their location on Broadway at 2nd Street to 3rd Street at Martin Luther King Junior Way. Nonetheless, the company presented Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954) from October 5 to 14. The production was set in Louisiana instead of England, which was lost on me until I read the description later. I had wondered why Mama Grouse had pronounced the voiced dental fricative /ð/ as plosive [d]. Had I read Henry James' novella, I would have noted that this character is called Mrs. Grose in the text.

The singing was solid. Anja Strauss turned out a fine performance as the Governess, though I was afraid her eyes might pop out of her head by the end, her voice is clear and pretty. Her diction in English was nearly perfect, only her way of saying "of" with a voiceless rather than a voiced fricative, betrayed her origins. It was a bit difficult to tell how exactly Gerald Seminatore and Marta Johansen were as the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel, as they sang from offstage, but they seemed good though not terribly distinctive. Seminatore's voice cracked slightly as the Prologue. Lori Willis was convincing as Mama Grouse, though she must be rather young, she was able to pull off playing the old housekeeper well. Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej were a creepy pair as the children Miles and Flora, Fisher's voice is lovely but quiet, Matej seemed slightly off key at a few points, but her volume was good.

The orchestra only requires an ensemble of thirteen, which suits the small scale of the Oakland Opera Theater. Deirdre McClure conducted, and everything seemed to go well. Because there was no pit, the orchestra was seated stage right. It made the balance between singers and orchestra off, but it was quite easy to hear the singers because of this.

The opera is about 2 hours long and is divided into a prologue and sixteen scenes. I found the music tiresomely unlyrical, and unlike Billy Budd, the libretto has no entertaining lines. I was taken with the use of nursery rhymes such as "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" and "Lavender's Blue." My favorite was the homonym aria "Malo, Malo" sung by Miles.

The production was of a higher quality than I have seen from Oakland Opera Theater in the past. The costumes did not look like they were leftover Halloween costumes, in fact, everyone looked pretty smart. The stage had a piece that rotated, so the many scenes could be easily changed. Most of the furniture looked appropriate, though some of the pictures on the walls looked a little shoddy. There were some simple aerial acrobatics done by the ghosts, but the singers were kept offstage and the acting left to the performance artists from The Starlings Trapeze Duo.

I found the insertion of the Mammy Caricature in the guise of Mama Grouse disquieting. One one hand, it is good to see non-whites on stage, particularly when they are as talented as Lori Willis. On the other hand, this ugly stereotype was not delved into, so the usage smacks of tokenism and cultural appropriation. 

Overall, I was mostly engaged by the spectacle aspect of the opera, rather than the music or the drama. It was difficult to feel sympathetic to the plight of the Governess, she is not fleshed out as a character, and even less still for the children, who are just frightening. I am not sure if this is because of the libretto, the music, the production, or my own ignorance. I was, however, impressed by Oakland Opera Theater's tenacity, and hope to see them thrive their new space.

* Tattling *
The house was not full last Thursday night, there were a few rows that had no one in them at all. Even still I was nearly falling out of my front aisle seat, as the narrow chairs were zip-tied together and someone chose to sit next to me. The performance started with the ringing of a telephone, which was not intended. Otherwise, people did whisper a little, but this was minor and not distracting.

La Belle et la Bête

The Oakland Opera Theater's production of Philip Glass' La Belle et la Bête was fully-staged instead of using Jean Cocteau film. Tom Dean & Garrett Lowe's set took inspiration from the film, but the staging also had a bit of a circus influence. There was stilt walking and contorting, which may have been my favorite part.

The staging had a few flaws that were inexplicable unless one has seen the film. The part of the white horse, Magnifique, is cut, and Belle goes through a mirror instead. But then how do Avenant and Ludovic find their way to the domain of the Bête? Also, the parts of the Bête and Avenant are played by different people, so the dialogue at the end makes very little sense.

Oakland Opera Theater performances always have a rumpled feel, of being not particularly polished, but honest, at least. The singers seemed to do well in their parts, but in a theater that only held 70 people, one didn't need to project much. Also, the orchestra was behind and above the stage, so one could always hear the singers just fine. I do find it terribly strange that in their two casts, one Belle is a soprano (Marguerite Krull), the other a mezzo (Jennifer Boesing).

Glass' music is rather repetitive and very suitable as a film score. As an opera, it doesn't quite cohere, one feels that the musical line never develops.


Oakland Opera Theater is just finishing a run of performances of Philip Glass' Akhnaten at the Oakland Metro. This was the West Coast premiere of this work which dates from 1984. Director Ellen Sebastian Chang did not have much to work with, yet she was able to pull it off somehow, setting the opera both in the contemporary and ancient. The singing was pretty good overall, but the music itself sounded like something fit for a movie score.

Akhnaten - Paul Flight, countertenor
Nefertiti - Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano
Queen Tye - Angela Dean-Baham, soprano
Horemhab - Martin Bell, baritone
Aye - John Minagro, bass
Amon - Alan Cochran, tenor
Amenhotep - Michael Mohammed, baritone