There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.
Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.
Embedded takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.
Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).
As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.
Tanglewood capped this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music with the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. After an initial brief hiccough (Mr Benjamin forgot his baton when he first came on stage), the orchestra negotiated the technically complex score with no apparent difficulty and, though very large, never overwhelmed the vocalists. This was aided by the light and inventive orchestration; with the exception of a few well-placed monstrous tuttis, most of the time there were only a handful of instruments sounding. The Medieval setting also allowed for occasional light Early Music references: senza vibrato, perfect intervals, and the inclusion of a pair of Mandolins, a Verrophone, and a solo Gamba.
Evan Hughes gave a superlative performance as the Protector, convincingly portraying both domineering patriarch and devastated betrayed husband. Lauren Snouffer was excellent as the Protector’s wife Agnès, particularly during her character’s more dramatic moments, although I found myself occasionally glancing at the title screens to catch the text. Tammy Coil and Augustin Mercante were both superb in their double roles as Angels and as Agnès’ sister and brother-in-law. Isaiah Bell was fine in his double role as the Boy and the third Angel, but again I found myself reading more than I would have liked. All received a well-deserved extended standing ovation.
Staging was minimal – this was a concert performance – but effective; the music alone was quite descriptive, particularly the purely instrumental murder scene (no death aria here!). The front of the stage was divided into three areas: to the left, under yellow lighting, were the Angels; in the center, under red lighting, was the main home; to the right, under blue lighting, were all other locations. The orchestra was so large that the vocalists were forced to pass between the conductor and the orchestra in order to move from the center area to the right. Here’s hoping an American opera company will present a staged version soon – it is certainly deserving.
Alex Ross’s next book, “Wagner–Art in the Shadow of Music” is still very much a work in progress but his keynote lecture at Wagner WorldWide 2013 at the University of South Carolina (now up on YouTube) demonstrates that he is on the trail of some fascinating, and little known, aspects of his subject’s world.
(Houston, TX) Houston-based soprano, writer, and impresario Misha Penton (pictured above) is back with another genre blending evening (two actually) of music for classical voice. Accompanied by pianist Kyle Evans, cellist Patrick Moore, and dancers Meg Brooker and Yelena Konetchy, Penton will present a specially staged concert of composer Elliot Cole’sSelkie, a sea tale with lyrics by Penton. Cole, a graduate of Rice University and now Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, will be in attendance for Saturday’s performance. The concerts are timed to celebrate the release of a CD recording on Selkie, a sea tale. CDs and download cards will be available for sale at the performances.
As artistic director of Divergence Vocal Theater, Penton has produced and sung in several creatively staged and intensely collaborative concert events featuring light and film projections, puppetry, stage acting, and modern dance and music from composers including Cole, George Heathco, and Dominick DiOrio. The 2010 Houston premier of Selkie featured an elaborate media and lighting design within a theatrical installation. The multimedia elements for Friday and Saturday’s performances include new choreography by Brooker and Konetchy and the screening of a video for the song “Softly Over Sounding Waves” directed by Penton.
Penton writes: “Selkies are ephemeral half-human, half-seal beings. They are transformative creatures that inhabit liminal spaces; exist at the edge of dusk and dawn; in the between-time of solstice and equinox; and where root meets earth and sea washes sand. When the moon swells to its fullest, selkies shed their seal skins, reveal their human form, and dance on our northernmost beaches, their skins ready for the taking. Selkie, a sea tale’s poetry is a dreamscape of human fragility, longing and loss, written from a sailor’s wife to her selkie love and culminates in her willingness to release him back to the sea.”
In addition to singing and mastering some truly challenging music for the voice, Penton has a gift for instilling each of her live events with a seductive, highly stylized vibe that embraces both the contemporary and the archetype. Symbols and references to fairy tales, Greek mythology, and gothic literature are all a part of her creative palette, giving each Divergence Vocal Theater event an air of magic and ritual. Penton also possesses a wicked sense of humor that compliments her very serious passion for making great collaborative art. Making magic takes a lot of work! So if you’re in Houston, don’t sleep on this unique spin on the genre of contemporary chamber opera.
Misha Penton and Divergence Vocal Theater present Elliot Cole’s Selkie, a sea tale, music by Elliot Cole, lyrics by Misha Penton, March 29 & 30 at 8:00 p.m. at 4411 Montrose Gallery, with Misha Penton (soprano), Kyle Evans (piano), Patrick Moore (cello), and Meg Brooker and Yelena Konetchy (dance). Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. CD and digital download for Selkie, a sea tale available April 1.
[Ed. note: Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival's sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan's just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]
Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.) In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.
With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.
Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano
“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.
Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónistaJP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.
At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.
After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’sDog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.
Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?
I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background. It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC. On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit. I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day. I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.
Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall. I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues. This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.
After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense. It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light. It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it. It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with. (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!) We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started. (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller. If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)
What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?
We added a whole lot! The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria ”Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009. But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations. Also, a number of the voice types changed. I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop. We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming. For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone. So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music. Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process. We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard. This aria was written maybe eight months ago.
The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly. In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man. That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now! Read the rest of this entry »
In Fall 2012, composer/conductor Victoria Bond’s opera Mrs. Presidentpremieres at Anchorage Opera in Alaska. Its “out of town” tryout is on Monday July 9th … in New York at Symphony Space.
The opera’s subject is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. Woodhull’s campaign in 1872 predates women’s suffrage. It was mired in controversy and scandal which, as we all know, makes it ideal material for an opera!
I was particularly pleased to learn that dramatic soprano Valerie Bernhardt is playing Woodhull. Val and I both sang at the Chatauqua Institute back in 1992. Her voice was already a mighty and beautiful instrument then and has only grown more impressive in the ensuing years.
Soprano Valerie Bernhardt
Need more inducement? Okay. Those in town seeking relief from the heat wave, remember: Symphony Space has lovely central AC and quite a nice bar to boot!
There has been plenty of eulogizing and assessment of Maurice Sendak’s remarkable career, most of it focused (rightly so) on his wonderful books. While Sendak’s work in opera and ballet has been praised, I don’t feel that enough attention has been paid to the two operas he worked on with Oliver Knussen. The first, Where the Wild Things Are, is the best children’s opera of our time; the second, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is one of the best late 20th-century operas of any type. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale with great appeal to children, yet the surreal story of a selfish dog’s quest for happiness is laden with potent symbolism that speaks deeply to adults.
The efficiency of Sendak’s librettos to both works, and the ways he created new dialogue for Where the Wild Things Are, and distilled the text for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, reveal the handiwork of a shrewd man with a gift for the stage. Knussen’s music–impressionistic in Wild Things, parodic and post-modern in Higglety Pigglety Pop! is colorful and contemporary, yet highly accessible. I hope that more companies consider mounting a production of one or both operas.
I’ve posted my review of the 1990 LA Opera production of both works on my blog, and I hope it will give you a sense of the magic that Sendak and Knussen conjured for an audience full of children and adults. You can read the review here.
Two American premieres of important new works by Louis Andriessen at the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert tomorrow evening (Feb. 28), 8 pm. Get there at 7 pm for the preconcert talk with Andriessen and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
This has got to be a first. Luis Andrei Cobo is offering his services to compose a grand opera to the highest Ebay bidder. For $150,000 you can buy a grand opera over 2 hours in length.
Cobo estimates that he’ll need 2 years of full-time work to complete the project, so $75K/year will enable him to maintain the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed as a software programmer.
Don’t have $150K? That’s OK, he’s open to other offers. For as little as $32,000 he will write a half-hour long chamber opera for 3 to 5 singers.
The winning bidder will get to suggest subject matter for the opera, be able to produce the work royalty-free, and upon the composer’s death, the highest bidder or the heir(s) of the bidder will inherit the work.
Sounds like a deal. Then again, obtaining an actual staging of the finished work….
Complete information on this ebay item can be found here. Good luck on your bid!