Archive for the “Opera” Category

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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cb…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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baliOld 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 RobairGino 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Jack Curtis Dubowsky EnsembleSan 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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The 2009 Opera Vista Festival and competition just finished up down here in Houston. Line Tørnhøj of Aarhus, Denmark was voted by the audience as the winner with her opera Anorexia Sacra. Second place went to Camilo Santostefano of Buenos Aries, Argentina, and his opera El Fin de Narciso. Tørnhøj received a check for $1,500 and will have her opera fully staged at the 2010 Opera Vista Festival, while Santostefano received $1,000.

The festival also also featured performances of the two winning operas from the 2007 Vista Competition: Edalat Square by R. Timothy Brady and Soldier Songs by David T. Little.

And before you can even catch your breath, here comes the deadline for submitting that score you’ve been slaving away on night and day: July 5th is the date you need it in for next year’s fest. Obviously the cash prize is not going to let you retire to the Riviera; but it’s a chance for a real staging & performance with excellent musicians, with a good and enthusiastic crowd, and recognition for your next step down that road. Viswa Subbaraman and crew really work their butts off to put this on; kudos for providing so much encouragement to the new, amid all the grand fossilization paraded everywhere else. All the info on the who, what, where and why can be found at Opera Vista’s website. Get cracking! (you, that is, not the voice…)

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Robert AshleyInterpretations continues its twentieth season of provocative programming in New York City. Founded and curated by baritone Thomas Buckner in 1989, Interpretations focuses on the relationship between contemporary composers from both jazz and classical backgrounds and their interpreters, whether the composers themselves or performers who specialize in new music. To celebrate, Jerry Bowles has invited the artists involved in this season’s concerts to blog about their Interpretations experiences. Produced in tandem with La Mama ETC and Performing Artservices, the centerpiece of the series this year is a two-week, three opera, 10 performance, mini-retrospective of the recent works of Robert Ashley: Dust, Celestial Excursions, and Made out of Concrete.

Robert Ashley’s operas will be at La Mama ETC from 15-25 January 2009.
For more information:

S21 Calendar

Mr. Ashley has been kind enough to take some time from his busy rehearsing schedule to write about the ensemble he’s gathered over the past thirty years or so, as a sort of self-interview:


The ensemble now is (alphabetical order in singers / in slight order of importance in technical)


TOM HAMILTON does audio engineering in all stages of the opera, assists me in realizing the composition in the electronic studio prior to performance; he’s the mixing engineer and advisor in rehearsals; he does performance sound processing and mixing of the performance; he’s in charge of recording of the performance and mixing the sounds from the performance for the CD recording.

CAS BOUMANS is the performance sound designer (audience loudspeaker placement and sound monitor arrangements for the performers. Microphone placement.)

DAVID MOODEY does stage and light design.

MELANIE LIPKA is the production stage manager (off-stage timing of what goes into the performance.)

“BLUE” GENE TYRANNY is the synthesizer performer in Dust and Celestial Excursions

JOAN JONAS is the dancer/performance artist in Celestial Excursions

It’s various, but compared to the life of most ensembles I’ve been working with all of them for a long time, not only in their jobs now with the ensemble, but as musicians and designers.

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Eric OwensBaritone Eric Owens is busy this fall – his Met debut as General Leslie Groves in John Adams’ Dr. Atomic is just a start to his performances this season in New York, Atlanta, London and Los Angeles.
Today is the release of A Flowering Tree on Nonesuch Records with Owens as the storyteller, another role he created. I spoke with Eric Owens about this new recording, his Met debut and about working with composers.
MP3 file

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