Archive for the “Opera” Category
Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has been a great friend of new music, a great friend of S21, and a great friend of myself personally for about as long as I’ve been online. Justly (semi-) famous as the “Kalvos” half of the long-running institution that was Kalvos & Damian’s new Music Bazaar (now continued as Kalvos & Damian In the House!), Dennis has never let his rather remote Vermont location interfere with spreading the word about living composers and their music, whether through regular radio and online broadcasts, a steady stream of writings, and endless creative projects. At the same time, he’s also never let all these activities slow down his own personal composing schedule. Yet not every composition written has seen the full light of day, the most notable example being Dennis’ opera upon his indirect ancestor Erzsébet Báthory, the legendary Hungarian “Blood Countess”.
Recently Dennis has taken some steps to attempt to remedy that situation. He has a chance to see the work finally come to life, but the opera must be finished for premiere in the 2010-11 season of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. Basic funding for the ensemble’s regular season is already available, but support is needed for the singer, additional musicians, staging, costumes, lighting, and time to complete the remaining 40 minutes of the opera. So Dennis has turned to a newer online site, Kickstarter.com, to actively seek the financial support to make the performance a reality. We’re not talking the NEA or Ford Foundation here; we’re talking you and me, the little-guy music-lover with a few spare bucks in their pocket. I asked Dennis a few questions, just to get the whole fascinating (and often frustrating! ) backstory:
Steve Layton: Tell me about the whole long genesis of the idea and travails over the years?
Dennis Báthory-Kitsz: Yes, it is long! I’ll tell you everything. The genesis began shortly after Boston College professor Raymond McNally published “Dracula Was a Woman” in 1983. A state politician was doing an interview tour of Vermont entrepreneurs — I had founded a small computer company back then — and came to my home office. He knew my name, McNally was an old school buddy, he put the two together, and arrived with a copy of the book. I hadn’t paid much attention to the family history, but reading McNally’s book jogged something my grandfather Bathory had said — that the family had an evil female ancestor who killed people and fought with priests.
A few years later my company went under during the tech shakeup, and I started thinking about the Erzsébet Báthory story again as a distraction. Here was a countess rumored to be the world’s worst serial killer with some 600 servant victims — yet with normal kids, great intelligence, superior negotiating skills, and fluent in many languages. She was also supposedly bisexual and ended her life walled into her own torture tower. What a story! What opera!
Those were also the years of some pretty big works of mine, particularly “Mantra Canon” for orchestra, chorus, two pianos, six percussionists and descant soprano. By 1988 it had had two performances, so I was lit up with large-scale possibilities. The Bathory tale would make a fantastic production, maybe a huge opera of some kind.
In 1989, I wrote an overture in the form of a piano csárdás and about the same time heard that NPR poet Andrei Codrescu was writing a biography of Erzsébet. I got in touch and proposed the idea that he write the libretto. He thought it was a great idea — and he had supposedly seen her diaries, diaries that recounted the actual murders! Codrescu and I kept in touch, but things went sour. His book ended up being a novel. I hated it, and we had a falling out. After we patched things up a little, he was more famous and working on a film … meaning now the libretto would cost money I didn’t have.
I started sketching my own plots for three different-sized versions. It was still idle sketching with no real possibilities. But connections are funny. Back in the computer company days, I had become friends with Zoltan Radai, a tech entrepreneur in the “New Hungary” before the fall in 1989. When my family and I moved to Europe in 1991, I contacted him. He not only knew the Bathory story, he also knew how to find the castle and spoke Hungarian and Slovak. I remember that ride very well, in a rented Fiat Uno stuffed with five of us, going on torn-up roads from Budapest to Trencin.
The castle inspired me, a great hilltop ruin in a town nobody had ever heard of. This was before the great vampire craze really hit the marketplace, before European Union funds even put up decent road signs. I took photos and wriggled around the sunken castle arches and even squeezed into the “death tower”.
By the time we returned to Vermont in 1992, Codrescu’s “The Blood Countess” was out and vampires were interesting to legions of teenage girls. But I was broke and couldn’t consider an opera, even though another big orchestral piece called “Softening Cries” was performed that year. It was real cognitive dissonance for my compositional soul!
Then the web hit. I put up an “Erzsébet: The Opera” website in 1996. Microsoft’s old home page featured it and I had millions of hits in one week. Folks submitted articles, artwork and even novels for the site, and I put them all up along with buckets of my own research. Magazines wanted interviews; the first article on my opera work was published in “Requiem” in France in 1998.
But no money. No grants, prizes, investors, nothing came out of it. The huge bandwidth costs for the website were out-of-pocket. In 2001 a team from The Travel Channel found the website and sent me back to Cactice in Slovakia for a show called “World’s Bloodiest Dungeons”. The Discovery Channel asked to do a segment in 2004, again sending me to Slovakia — but this time I asked if I could write an opera scene specifically for the show. The Australian producer Chris Thorburn was actually enthused, and he and the production team came to David Gunn‘s home here in Vermont where a group of us performed it — singer Lisa Jablow as Erzsébet and a small ensemble including David on percussion and Marco Oppedisano on guitar. A clip showed up on “Deadly Women”, which airs worldwide at least twice a year.
More authors were riding the vampire wave, Hollywood was churning out crappy knockoffs, yet my inability to market just about anything kept me from funding the opera. People wanted to work on it. Prague sculptor Pavel Kraus wanted to do set design. Atlanta graphic artist Bob Hobbs wanted to recreate the castle for a virtual or video version. Singers and musicians across Europe and the States were interested. Many site visitors offered help. Juraj Jakubisko‘s studio in Slovakia even contacted me about his film “Bathory” — though they wanted marketing help, not a composer.
So despite cheerleaders, it looked like it was never going to happen. I thought the project was history and decided to move on.
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Thursday, April 15 marked the New York premiere of Louis Andriessen’s latest opera, La Commedia at Carnegie Hall. I was lucky enough to make it up to New York for this event.
– Full disclosure: part of my trip to New York was to meet with Andriessen to discuss my plans for performing his 1984-88 opera, De Materie in Washington, D.C. this coming October. I’ll be blogging a lot about that process in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. Frankly, I am as addicted to Andriessen’s music as the composer is to garlic (which I found out over bread and some very strong garlic dipping sauce over lunch) so I was glad to live within easily-traveled distance of New York and be able to attend this performance. Anyway, this is all by way of a caveat that what follows may not be the most impartial review; I hope you’ll forgive me.
Andriessen’s work can be divided, somewhat, into periods based on one or two large works which define his compositional interests over the span of a decade or so. De Staat, the work that brought him to international prominence in the 1970’s, provides a framework for the politically radical works that drove him in the decade of ca. 1968-1978/79. De Materie frames his work of the 1980’s within the context of metaphysics and the spiritual world that culminates in 1996-97’s Trilogy of the Last Day, which overlaps with (and is unfortunately—at least in the U.S.—overshadowed by) Andriessen’s operatic collaboration with Peter Greenaway in Rosa (1994) and Writing to Vermeer (1997-98). La Commedia, likewise, reflects Andriessen’s principal interests in the first decade of the 21st century and, in a way, bridges the Trilogy’s preoccupation with death with the theatricality of the Greenaway operas.
La Commedia is a “film opera” based, loosely, on Dante’s Divina Commedia. Its production is by the American film director Hal Hartley, with whom Andriessen collaborated on other theatrically hybrid projects like The New Maths (2000), Passeggiata in tram in america e ritorno (1998), and the opera Inana (2003). Due to budgetary constraints it was presented without the film in a “semi-staged” concert version on Thursday night. While this is unfortunate in depriving the New York (and, earlier in the week, Los Angeles) audience(s) of an important aspect of the work, the abstractness of Andriessen’s treatment of his subject may very well be enhanced by the concert presentation, for this is not traditional opera by any stretch of the imagination and stretches the definition of the genre beyond the composer’s earlier work with Peter Greenaway (in fact, it has more in common with the earlier De Materie in terms of formal presentation than it does with Writing to Vermeer or the surreal romp, Rosa).
In La Commedia, only two of the four lead vocal parts retain a specific role. Claron McFadden, in the role of Béatrice, was a revelation. Her voice truly heavenly in the role with each of her disappointingly few moments on stage highlight some of the most beautiful music Andriessen has ever written. Perhaps the most beautifully magical moment in all of La Commedia, however, belongs to Marcel Beekman in the tiny, surprising role of Casella. Casella, a friend of Dante’s youth who died, unexpectedly at a relatively young age and who was himself a musician and composer who’d set, according to Purgatorio, canto 2, a love poem from Dante’s earlier work, “Convivio”. As Dante arrives in Purgatory he hears his friend singing this familiar song and Andriessen’s setting of this moment manages to capture the ethereal beauty of that moment early on in Dante’s poem. Beekman’s voice, emerging Thursday night from within the audience (surprising those sitting next to him), possesses a sweetness rare among tenors and his aria, joined briefly at the end by Jeroen Willems’ (at the moment) Dante, was, for me, a highlight of the evening.
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Spring has definitely sprung down here in Houston; everything that looked dead just a few weeks ago is sprouting all kinds of new growth. And that goes for opera as well, seeing that this year’s iteration of Opera Vista begins this Saturday, March 20th, and runs through March 27th.
Opera Vista focuses on bringing contemporary opera to Houston and the Vista Competition is an international search for ground-breaking new works by modern composers.
“The Vista Competition is unique in that it gives composers the opportunity to have their works performed by professional singers and instrumentalists,” says Viswa Subbaraman, OV‘s Artistic Director. “They have a wonderful opportunity to interact with many well-known people from the world of opera and classical music, but I think more importantly, they get an insight into how their work is perceived by the audience.”
In October, six semi-finalists (Lembit Beecher, Katarzyna Brochocka, Alberto García Demestres, Joseph Eidson, Jonathan N. Kupper, Catherine Reid) from three countries were selected, ranging from adaptations of a Japanese folk tale to a horror opera. Excerpts from each work will be performed on March 24th & 26th at the Czech Center Museum Houston (4920 San Jacinto, at Wichita), each night beginning at 7:30pm. A panel of judges, including world-renowned composer Daron Hagen (There will be an evening of chamber music composed by Hagen at 7:30pm on March 25th at the Czech Center) and Leslie Dunner of the Joffrey Ballet, will critique each excerpt, and the audience will vote to select which operas will advance. In the final round the winning excerpts will be performed again with a longer critique from the judges, but then the audience will get to directly question the composers. The audience then votes to determine the winner of the competition, which will be announced March 27th at the festival’s closing performance. The winner receives $1,500 and a full production of their opera at the next festival.
This year’s festival will also include the world premiere of the winning opera from the 2009 Opera Vista Festival, Anorexia Sacra by Line Tjørnhøj. Line couples the plight of a young woman suffering from anorexia with the writings of the 13th century nun Claire of Assisi. Anorexia Sacra will be performed at 7:30pm on March 20th and 27th at the Live Oak Friends Meetinghouse (1318 West 26th Street).
There’s also a bit of meet-and-greet with all the composers on March 23rd, 6-8pm, at Momentum Audi (2315 Richmond Avenue).
Whew! Tickets and more information can be found at the OV website, which also contains sketches of each of the composers, operas and judges.
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Big news in the orchestra world. Starting next season (2010-’11), George Manahan will become the American Composers Orchestra’s Music Director. He will continue as Music Director at the New York City Opera.
In my view, this is good news indeed. Manahan is a superlative musician; he’s conducted some excellent performances of contemporary fare at NYCO. One hopes that his name will entice new audience members to check out the ACO.
Kudos as well to outgoing director Steven Sloane, who’s done an admirable job with the ensemble since 2002.
Thoughts on the shakeup? The comments section is open below!
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Many people are still talking about the New York production of John Adams’ latest opera, Dr. Atomic. But Adams wasn’t through with the material after its stage presentation.
Nonesuch recently released a symphonic version of music from Dr. Atomic; Dr. Atomic Symphony is paired with Guide to Strange Places on the CD.
There’s also a DVD release of the opera, in its Netherlands production, available on Opus Arte.
Sequenza 21 readers: How do you prefer Dr. Atomic, in its operatic or symphonic incarnation? The comments section is open for feedback.
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Philip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, “I’m a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject.” Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass’s focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His two-act 155 minute intermission-less new opera Kepler is yet another example of Glass’s wandering, yet disciplined, mind. Premiered at the Linz Opera by American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz on September 20 2009 as part of that city’s celebrations as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Kepler made the trip to Brooklyn smoothly, carrying a bit of history. Kepler lived in Linz, Mozart’s Symphony #36 was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there — and two of the Nazis’ death camps — Mauthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia, were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is rarely far from light.
And darkness, as distinct, or in contrast/opposition to — light –is the motor that drives Glass’s Kepler, but not in a Manichean way. Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table. Instead, being a practical and practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous “Middle Way” which means seeing “things as they are” and in Kepler’s case this is war, strife, and people who dared question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all-round provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and of course, the first decade or so of The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which began more or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people.
Glass dramatizes these stresses in a direct and indirect way. And Glass’s German and Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler’s theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the 79 member BOL was partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere’s costumes for its seven soloists — bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only specified character with Soprano 1 — Sadie Rosales who substituted for the indisposed Cassandra McConnell — Soprano 2 (Cheryl Lichter), Mezzo (Katherina Hebelkova), Tenor (Pedro Velazquez Diaz), Baritone (Seho Chang), and Bass (Florian Spiess) — who functioned as aspects of Kepler’s often beleaguered psyche. The 40 member Linz chorus moved incrementally through the work.
I’d have to agree with my “plus 1″ friend that the first 20 or so minutes (after a wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings) was pretty tough going. But things began to pick up when Kepler outlines his theories and his conflicts – the notion that heaven’s not a place inhabited by “divine beings” but a “clockwork” – which, of course, suits Glass’s formal processes perfectly. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices — the choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary landmarks — and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the “Vanitas! Vanitas!” , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the orchestra seated behind. And wouldn’t you know it, my cell rang — being a neophyte in all things cell –which was the only sound in the house as the audience was completely spellbound — and how could they not be — by this arresting passage. I promise to learn how to turn the damned thing off. Read the rest of this entry »
…I hope not! They’re the last thing you need for this nine-part quest.
If you’re coming from a previous clue, you know just what’s up; if you’re clueless, heading here might make things a bit more clear. Either way, good luck! Now my friend, question the third:
Handel’s famous aria “Ombra mai fù” from his opera Serse was written for which of Porpora’s famous students?
And so on to four, just past this door…
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Old age isn’t for sissies or the timid and I think the same thing can be said about writing for the stage, especially if it’s the operatic one. It took Verdi years before he produced something that worked on the boards. Evan Ziporyn’s no stranger to the stage–he’s written and performed Shadowbang–and his new two-act 140 minute amplified opera A House in Bali has much to recommend it. The story is drawn from gay Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s (1901-1964) 1946 memoir, with ancillary material drawn from the words of the two other main Western characters–anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. A piece about a composer seems an odd choice for anyone but another composer, though McPhee’s success at combining Balinese gamelan sonorities and rhythms into a western orchestral idiom impacted Ziporyn’s work bigtime, The problem is there was little real dramatic juice in the piece, which is a shame because Ziporyn’s music for New York’s 6-piece Bang On A Can All-Stars and Bali’s 16-member Gamelan Salukat is striking, even arresting.
Drama means “action” and even interior action has to be explicit — we can’t take it on faith. But Ziporyn and his librettist Paul Schick have created a script that mostly tells rather than shows. The words have an “intellectual ” rather than emotional rhythm, and sometimes no discernible rhythm at all. And what is anyone, much less French tenor Marc Molomot, who sings the part of McPhee, to make of lines like ” But here / I feel suddenly shut in, / and I can hardly wait / for the end of the concert. ” It’s not as bad as ” the only saviors are the ham sandwiches and the hot coffee ‘ in Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ self-important dud Dr. Atomic, but that’s not saying much. The book for a purportedly avant garde show like this should be as solidly built and serviceable as any for the Broadway stage where we’re rarely in the dark about who does what and why. Jay Scheib’s direction didn’t clarify what was going on either, and any well-directed piece — no matter how complex it looks (say the party scene in La Boheme) should make its points simply and directly. But Scheib wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. Instead he did things that may have looked good on paper as “concepts” but simply didn’t work on the stage. Like having the gamelan players build McPhee’s house (the scenic designer was Sara Brown) as an angled well-lit room parked stage left which we could hardly see into, save through the lens of a videographer stationed inside. And there was never a sense of constriction when McPhee was supposed to be falling apart. How could there be on Zellerbach’s huge open non-proscenium stage which easily accomodated Ziporyn’s band in the center and Gamelan Salukat to its left.
But the biggest failure of the piece was portraying McPhee as just another alcoholic composer, which he was, and a repressed gay man which he most decidedly wasn’t. Yet Ziporyn would rather have it his way. ” I have no way of knowing,” he told interviewer Jonathan Leibovic, “whether he ( McPhee ) acted on these feelings ( for the young Balinese boy Sampih, played charmingly here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi). I don’t ever suggest that he did and in fact I’ve always presumed that he didn’t in this case.” That contradicts what McPhee said in a letter to his psychiatrist . ” Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual relationship that was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.” Which means that Ziporyn didn’t really do his homework regarding this important matter. But without this driving passion, or if you will, obsession, beautifully revealed in an ultra simple and very soft vocal line for Molomot, with transparent contributions from the All-Stars (the audience heaved a collective ” ah “), the piece had hardly any center, and hardly anywhere to go. It doesn’t have to be a male to male version of Butterfly but conflicts and/or misunderstandings between cultures have to be made in personal terms. But Ziporyn made his piece a tragic love story about two divergent cultures which got him off the hook of dealing directly with subject matter he’s obviously uncomfortable with.
But Ziporyn’s comfort level with the music is complete. And the sounds he devised for the All-Stars — hard driving or evocative, or the gamelan players with their gold hammers ever ready — clangorous, with complex layered rhythms and startling but perfectly logical shifts in timbre and dynamics, and a spectacular chorus for flutes — there even seemed to be some polytonal stretches in the score — held one’s attention when the words and stage action action didn’t. It was also strongly sung by the three Western principals and there was a startling passage, in falsetto for Molomot, who’s a counter tenor. Especially good was soprano Anne Harley ( Margaret Mead ) who had a highly ornamented passage — she does lots of Baroque music which makes similar demands — which she projected with refulgent warmth and charm. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov was also impressive and impressively tall as the confident, even arrogant Spies. All the other Balinese perfomers — Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Made Sarti Laksmi , I Nyoman Catra — made stong impressions, as did the choreography by Aryani and Catra. If only Ziporyn and company had built a house which was more than sum of its component parts.
[ed. note -- corrected the spelling of Mr. Ziporyn's last name.]
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The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this week. On the final festival night, Saturday, September 19th, the program will include a special all-electronic performance of the opera I, Norton, by San Francisco Bay Area composer Gino Robair.
I, Norton is based on the proclamations of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, who lived during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco. The concert begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets.
Gino Robair has created music for dance, theater, gamelan orchestra, radio, and television. His works have been performed throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. He was composer in residence with the California Shakespeare Festival for five years and served as music director for the CBS animated series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. His commercial work includes themes for the MTV and Comedy Central cable networks. Robair is also one of the “25 innovative percussionists” included in the book Percussion Profiles (SoundWorld, 2001). He has recorded with Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, John Butcher, Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald, Otomo Yoshihide, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and Eugene Chadbourne, among many others. He is a founding member of the Splatter Trio and the heavy metal band Pink Mountain. In addition, he runs Rastascan Records, a label devoted to creative music.
S21: His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, is an “only in San Francisco” kind of personage. What inspired you to make him into the central character of an opera?
GR: He’s the kind of complex character one needs for an opera. And I like the fact that he’s mythologized somewhat.
Although many people see him as this incoherent, homeless vagrant, I think the reality is that he was bright man who was determined to make a difference in a world that was hostile, confusing, and often out of control. We’re talking about the Old West, here!
Remember, he was a Jewish immigrant from South Africa. Try to imagine the culture shock he experienced arriving in mid-19th-century California during the Gold Rush. It makes total sense to me that he’d conclude that the only way to solve the problems in his new environment was to roll up his shirt sleeves and do the job himself.
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San Francisco-based composer, conductor, writer, educator, and filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky is a very busy man. This Wednesday night, September 9th at 7:30 p.m., he’ll take the stage along with the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble in San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery, located at 535 Powell Street, convenient to Powell Street BART. Next month, he has a new opera premiering. But fortunately, he wasn’t too busy to talk to me.
S21: How does it feel to be leading off the Meridian Gallery’s 11th season of Composers in Performance?
JCD: It’s an honor to be selected to be a part of the Meridian Gallery’s prestigious Composers in Performance series. Anne Brodzky, the gallery director, is wonderful. Tom Bickley is a brilliant series curator; the composer/performers he’s invited have been consistently cutting-edge, engaging, and talented. I also owe thanks to Adria Otte at Meridian who has been very helpful.
Innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, has released Earth Music, a compilation CD of music selected from the first ten years of the series. This CD has amazing solo performances on it. It shows the high level of quality and wide variety of music at the series as well as Meridian’s commitment to new music. Read the rest of this entry »
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