Archive for the “Opera” Category
Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass
If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.
At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.
The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.
Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.
Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.
This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).
This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.
Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.
The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Chris Becker in Composers, Contemporary Classical, New York, Opera, Performers, Premieres, Women composers, tags: Andrea Liberovici, Apollo Theater, Helga Davis, Jeffrey Zeigler, Mephisto's Songs, multimedia, paola prestini, Robert Wilson, Salon Series
This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).
Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.
Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Conductors, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Interviews, Opera, Premieres, tags: Bangkok Opera, Buddha, Houston, India, Opera, Opera Vista, Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand, The Vista Competition, Viswa Subbaraman
It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.
Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.
After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:
What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?
The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.
Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.
The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?
The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.
From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?
This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.
Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’s What Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.
The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.
I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.
The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,
800 Bagby St.,
Finally, it’s almost here, after over a year of waiting, the east coast premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s new opera A House in Bali.
Our friends in Boston get to check it out first this weekend: Friday and Saturday, October 8th and 9th, at the Cutler Majestic Theater (219 Tremont Street). The good folks at Bang on a Can have even made a special offer available for these two shows – just click here for the offer.
Then, the next weekend, the whole production is coming down to NYC for performances at BAM, October 14-16th, as part of the 2010 Next Wave Festival.
While I know that I have been waiting a year to see this, I realize that people may not know what A House in Bali is all about.
A House in Bali (featuring a rare U.S. appearance by the 16-member Balinese gamelan orchestra Salukat intertwined with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, western opera, live video feeds, and traditional Balinese dance) tells the “East meets West” story of composer Colin McPhee and his immersion in Balinese music and culture. The trailblazing work directed by Jay Scheib with libretto by Paul Schick follows the course of McPhee’s sojourn to Bali, his encounters with anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies, and their ultimately tragic relationship with dancer I Sampih, a Balinese youth whom McPhee mentors after the boy saves his life. In addition to Gamelan Salukat and Bang on a Can All-Stars, featured performers include Dewa Ketut Alit, recognized worldwide as one of the top Indonesian composer-performers of his generation, renowned American tenor Peter Tantsits as Colin McPhee, mesmerizing dancers Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi, celebrated Balinese masked dancer I Nyoman Catra, tenor Timur Bekbosunov, soprano Anne Harley, and Nyoman Triyana Usadhi.
Over the past couple years I have been able to sit down and talk with most of the members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who will all be performing in these Boston and New York productions. None of the interviews are about A House in Bali specifically, but they are all about these musicians’ experience working with composers. Click on a name to go straight to the audio: Evan Ziporyn, Vicky Chow, Robert Black, Ashley Bathgate, and Derek Johnson (subbing for Mark Stewart).
And, if any of you can’t seem to get enough of Evan, he also has this show at Carnegie on October 30th… if you aren’t already going to this or this.
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Poul Ruders has composed an opera based on Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. The work will be premiered by the Royal Danish Opera next week (on 9/5). You can check out a teaser video below.
Dancer in the Dark is one of several recent operas based on films; but there are countless films yet to be adapted for the operatic stage. Which films would you like to see re-imagined as an opera?
If you’re an aspiring Wagnerian, this probably won’t interest you much but the nice folks at Hartford Opera Theater (HOT) are looking for scores for five short operas that will be learned, staged, rehearsed, and performed in the span of 48 hours, beginning on November 12 and culminating in a final performance on Sunday, November 14.
Composers are asked to submit opera scores written for 2-3 singers, with at least one part written for a soprano or mezzo-soprano. HOT advises that scores with more opportunities for women will be more likely to be chosen for this event. The operas may be no longer than 10 minutes in length, English only, and written for piano or a piano reduction. Material for librettos should be original, in the public domain, or if copyrighted permission must be submitted with the score. Each opera should require minimal sets and costumes.
If you happen to one of those chosen to participate in the event–called “New in November” (not to be confused with New York’s own ongoing “So, New?” festival)–are welcome to attend the rehearsal if you’re open to minor revisions and changes. You get paid nothing and no travel expenses and it would be very rude of you to ask if the singers, piano player or director are getting paid.
The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, September 1, 2010. Scores may be mailed to: Hartford Opera Theater, P.O. Box 270108
West Hartford, CT 06127-0108. Electronic submissions will also be accepted at this email address. More information can be found on the website.
The picture is from an earlier HOT production–Tom Sawyer: A Chamber Opera by Phillip Martin. You can watch a movie of the whole opera here.
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The last thing that Alan Gilbert or the New York Philharmonic needs is another affirmation that they have done something important and memorable by producing Le Grand Macabre in May. There were three (perhaps more?) New York Times articles over 11 days (May 18th, 23rd, 28th), an nice summary over on Anne Midgette’s Washington Post blog, and from just a few days ago there was this over at Newsweek. Of course our own site added to the frenzy of press/buzz here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – and with good reason! I’m quite happy to throw my hat in the camp who counts themselves lucky to be one of the few to see this amazing production. It was everything that I had hoped it would be, and I even got a fancy collectors-edition-style booklet of the libretto with the program.
Some time has gone by since the production (I’m late on my contribution to this, as per my usual), I think it’s enough for me to say that I thought it was great, and to move on to some questions.
After reading all of the press about the production, it seems that everyone who saw it easily and quickly deemed it a huge success. But I’d love to know if the Philharmonic thought it was a success! All three nights sold-out, but we know that a sold-out show doesn’t necessarily mean success. Le Grand Macabre was without question an unusual and elaborate production and must have come with a tremendous expense – just watch this video. All the extra marketing, and YouTube videos; all the lighting and projections and costumes; (presumably) all the extra rehearsals and percussion instruments; etc, etc, etc. I think the big question is: was this a successful enough event that the Philharmonic will continue these kinds of productions in the future? Was dealing with disgruntled subscribers worth it? Was the cost of the “spectacle” worth it? Was all the marketing and rogue videos worth it?
Of course I hope that the answer to all of these questions is yes. I would love to see the New York Philharmonic continue to support contemporary music the way it has since Mr. Gilbert has arrived. It’s clear that he feels very strongly about new music: he brought in Magnus Lindberg, started the Contact! series, and made this incredible Ligeti production happen. I want to know what else he has planned and what else the Philharmonic is willing and capable of doing. But, it seems that a lot of it depends on whether or not the Philharmonic thought Macabre was a success.
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In his 5/23 article for the NY Times, Daniel Wakin asked ,”A contemporary surrealist opera at the NY Philharmonic? About the end of the world? On Memorial Day weekend? What are they thinking over there at Avery Fisher Hall?” He then went on to report that “2/3 of the Philharmonic’s regular concert goers were having none of it… subscription sales averaged about 33 percent, the Philharmonic acknowledged…”
When I went to the Philharmonic website last night, I was greeted with message that the entire run is SOLD OUT!
Apparently, the NY Philharmonic was thinking that there might be other audience members interested in the first NY production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. As Mr. Gilbert says in the Times article,”“It’s about developing and expanding the audience.”
True, Mr. Wakin also wrote about NYPO’s marketing strategies for the show: the website, the videos with “Death and Alan,” and the little eye that’s become the NYPO’s email signature this week. But that was much later in the article, well “below the fold,” well after a snarky set-up.
It would be nice if the Times ate a bit of crow and published a follow up piece, one that reported that Mr. Gilbert’s “risky gambit” paid off. One hopes the information about Le Grand Macabre being a sold out run won’t be buried as an aside in their review of the event. Of course, that’s just one subscriber’s opinion … what do our Sequenza 21 readers think?
Le Grand Macabre premieres tonight at Avery Fisher Hall, with subsequent performances Friday and Saturday. The NY Philharmonic’s website noted that, while the event is sold out, those who want tickets should check back to see if any are returned for resale.
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For our friends in Southern California…
Soprano Susan Narucki (Professor of Music at UC San Diego) and her new ensemble, Kallisti, will debut this week with the West Coast premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s chamber opera To Be Sung (text by Gertrude Stein).
Check out To Be Sung on May 26, 27 and 28 at 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at the Conrad Prebys Music Center on the UC San Diego campus.
General tickets are $25, but get this: $1 student rush tickets available one hour before the concert. Did you see that? $1 student rush tickets!