Archive for the “Opera” Category

Congratulations to Joseph Rosenzweig, the first correct answerer to yesterday’s Ligeti question. Yes, Ligeti’s Poeme Symphonique is for 100 metronomes, and with that Mr. Rosenzweig & friend will be attending The New York Philharmonic’s May 27th production of Le Grand Macabre.

But there is still one more pair of tickets to give away, and one more question for some speedy answerer to, well, answer:

In 1986 Ligeti was an early winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. For what work was it given? 

Answers to: sequenza21@gmail.com

Will you be the first person e-mailing us the correct response? Will you be the lucky soul taking a friend for free to see this wonderful, riotous spectacle? Can there be any doubt it’s going to be you? — whoever you may be…

[Update:  And that "you" turned out to be Whitney Ashe, the correct answer being Ligeti's first book of piano Etudes. Congatulations Whitney, enjoy the show, and thanks to all you other readers for participating!]

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That was György Ligeti speaking about his opera Le Grand Macabre, in a 1978 interview with Herman Sabbe.  Almost sounds sweet, doesn’t it?  One little snag: to get to that end, you’re going to have to endure  — or better yet, revel in – the hellish, absurd and grotesque. But Ligeti leads you through all this with a gleam, wink and half-smile, and the end result is a hellishly good time.

Since its 1978 premiere Le Grand Macabre has had a wealth of performances all around the world; yet it’s only now that New York is getting its first full and fully-staged presentation. Three nights only, May 27 to May 29, at Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center, NYC). The New York Philharmonic has quite a page devoted to the whole event with information on the full cast, all kinds of  special information on the production, and plenty of preview sound clips. It’s also where you can buy tickets – except for a couple lucky couples…

That’s right, we here at S21 have been blessed with two pairs of tickets that we need to give away to some happy readers, for the Thursday May 27th performance . All you need to do is be the first person to email the correct answer to one of two questions, the second of which will come tomorrow, but the first of which is here right now:

There is a notorious piece by Ligeti, for 100 of the same ‘instrument.’  What is that instrument?

Answers to: sequenza21@gmail.com

If you miss out on this one, be watching for tommorrow’s post and your second question and chance. Good luck!

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Composer Oscar Bettison sent along this report about student opera performances in Baltimore, Maryland.

Opera Etudes at Peabody

Opera Etudes

Opera Etudes at Peabody

Every other year at Peabody, the month of May means one thing for the composition and opera departments: ‘Opera Etudes.’ This project, which has been running for twenty-five years under the guidance of the Director of Opera Programs Roger Brunyate, is a year-long collaboration between graduate composition students and the opera department. Starting in the fall, composers are paired with librettists and singers to work on the creation of short staged opera scenes. These are then fully staged in Friedberg Hall, the main concert hall at Peabody, as one of the final events of the academic year. Occasionally, time pressures take their toll and some collaborations fall apart before making it to the final stage, but this year all seven projects made it from inception to the stage at Friedberg. As could be expected they were a varied bunch, running the gamut from retelling of fairytales (Jake Runestad) to tense family drama (Emily Koh), from comic opera (Josh Bornstein, Jon Carter, Zhangyi Chen) to darker subjects involving infidelity and murder (Jeff Zeiders, Daniel Gil-Marca).

The purpose of this project is to teach composers how to work with others and to provide them with the tools to create healthy collaborations. So often composers get caught up in the nitty-gritty of pitches and rhythm, failing to see the ramifications of the decisions they make in the real world of performance. The Etudes project is set to address this and to perhaps set in motion new opera collaborations in the future. All of the composers seemed to gain a great deal of experience from the process. In the first place, how often do student composers get to have other musicians spend a year learning and memorizing their work? More fundamentally, in working with all these different elements – librettists, singers and directors – composers start to see how to think in different dimensions as well as how to collaborate; both of which should stand them in good stead for the future.

The commitment from the opera department is crucial. These are always fully committed performances. The singers have, of course memorized the music, but they approach this project in the same way as they would any opera in the repertory and this is fundamentally what is so satisfying about the exercise.  Finally, the environment in which the scenes are presented – a packed house in the main concert hall – really makes this feel like an event. I know from personal observation that many music schools round out the year with a big production: but how many do this featuring the music of their own students?

Ultimately all of this bodes well for the future. In years past some of the most successful projects have lead to bigger operas, again put on by the opera department. I wonder how many of this year’s works will lead to new opera productions both at Peabody and elsewhere?

Composer Oscar Bettison teaches at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. His music is published by Boosey and Hawkes.

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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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Jeroen Willems as Lucifer. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

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.

George Manahan

George Manahan

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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keplerPhilip 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 »

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