Archive for the “Opera” Category

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.

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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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Ben Rosen, former Board Member of the Met, has a fascinating post at his blog about the Met’s turnaround under the leadership of Peter Gelb. (Thanks to Alex Ross for pointing it out.) The whole essay is worth reading if you have any interest in the future of the classical music business or in the fortunes of the Met, but I want to highlight one passage in particular, concerning the marketing of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha.” Apparently, prior to Gelb’s arrival the Met had no marketing team–marketing wasn’t seen as necessary with the number of sold-out performances they were playing. But in 2002, after years of steadily running at around 92% box office capacity, box office collapsed to 82% and began a steady decline to 77% in 2006. Rosen says that in the 90s the Met was selling out most nights, but in 2006 they sold out only 10% of performances.

As the 2007-08 season began, here’s what happened: Seven performances of Satyagraha was scheduled for the spring of 2008. Many subscribers who found Satyagraha included in their series decided to opt out of the Glass opera — they traded in their seats for other operas. And single-ticker buyers turned out to be equally cool to the prospect of watching a Sanskrit work. Normally, as a season progresses, single-ticket sales start out filling up the house. But a funny thing happened in this case. The forecasted box office of Satyagraha started declining, and at an alarming rate. The more time that passed, the worse the box office ahead looked. If this continued, there was a chance the opera would play to near-empty houses.

So a marketing task force was put together. For a modest budget, aided by contributions from a board member, the team was able to create dozens of different marketing initiatives designed to attract specialized audiences. New-age magazines yoga groups, anti-apartheid organizations, India groups, South African organizations, et al.

It worked. By the end of its run, Satyagraha had sold out its run. (By the way, it was a terrific production. I like to quip that Satyagraha is now my favorite Sanskrit opera.) Next year, the same team will have an opportunity to apply its narrow-focus marketing techniques to selling the John Adams opera, Doctor Atomic — a contemporary work about the creation of the atomic bomb.

Classical music organizations often fear that contemporary music scares away subscribers, and in this case it was true. The solution, usually, is either to program less new music or to essentially subsidise the new music performances with revenue (ticket sales and fundraising) from other more “audience-friendly” performances. But in this case all that was needed was an intelligent marketing campaign. Too few organizations do any real marketing efforts, and many of the ones that do focus on existing audiences. Note that the advertising strategy for Satyagraha wasn’t to push the opera harder to the existing audience base or to try to find an existing base of new-music fans–they targeted their advertising to people interested in the themes of the opera. Note also that the advertising matched a specific program with specific groups of people rather than trying to sell the organization or classical music in general to specific groups or to a general audience, or worrying about selling the specific program to a general audience. We don’t think of new age magazines or anti-apartheid groups as full of classical music lovers or potential classical music converts, and so we don’t advertise to them, but it turns out that when the program has direct relevance to their affinity advertising pays off handsomely. We shouldn’t be surprised–this is how modern marketing works–and yet I see very little of it in classical music.

My secondary point is that the success of the Satyagraha marketing campaign illustrates an important feature of industry trends. The subscription model of ticket sales is failing, and the main reason is simply that people have many options for entertainment and prefer to diversify. Attempts to salvage the subscription model may show short-term success (in fact, Met subscriptions are back up do to the fact that subscribers get first dibs on shows that are likely to sell out) but are doomed to failure over the long term. The solution, however, isn’t to appeal to the mythical “general audience,” it’s to use modern marketing strategies to pitch specific events to specific populations. I look forward to seeing how the marketing stratgy for “Doctor Atomic” plays out.

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Charles Wuorinen, who turns seventy today, has been commissioned by New York City Opera to compose an opera based on Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain. It is scheduled to be produced in 2013.

Happy Birthday CW!

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Human behavior’s funny. The more we try to change the more we don’t seem able to. Are we cursed to repeat the same mistakes in our private lives — with lovers, friends — as well as in our public ones? Are we genetically condemned to disjunction, discord, and war, like Sisyphus trying to keep that enormous rock from crushing him each day? Philip Glass’ SF Opera commission, APPOMATTOX, which world premiered 5 October, and which I caught 16 October, seems to accept these things as givens. Its ostensible subject is Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865, and its subsequent impact. But its central question seems to be how can we change history if we can’t even change ourselves?   

These are weighty questions, and Glass’ music addresses them with seriousness and point. The opening figure for double basses and wind mixtures is immediately affecting. Then Julia Dent Grant (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) emerges from a backlit alcove in Riccardo Hernandez’s umbrous metal set, her posture contained, “The spring campaign ___  In four short years I have grown to dread those words … “  She joins four other women — Mary Custis Lee (soprano Elza van den Heever), her daughter Julia Agnes (soprano Ji Young Yang), Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano Heidi Melton), and her black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo Kendall Gladen) — in an almost Baroque lament on the sorrows of war — ” never before has so much blood been drained … Let this be the last time.. ” The women who stand behind their men and keep it all together are, of course, the unsung heroines of any war, and Glass’ immediate focus on them, signals this piece’s unwavering depth.

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Okay, he stayed too long at the fair.  The idea of a 60-year-old, 400-pound man playing a starving artist failed to suspend disbelief.  The three tenors crap was execrable.  He probably inspired Andrea Bocelli.

But, once upon a time, there was this voice:

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Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Marcus Maroney, Charles T. Downey, Tim Mangan, Marc Geelhoed, Opera Chic

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From today’s Deutsche Welle:

Germany’s annual Bayreuth Festival of Wagner operas began on Wednesday with a highly anticipated, make-or-break production by the 29-year-old great-granddaughter of the composer Richard Wagner.

And while the applause after the first two acts of Wagner’s only “comic” opera was friendly, the audience — which included a smorgasbord of German political and social elite — was less amused by the third and final act, which featured a few minutes of full frontal nudity, a bizarre sight of Richard Wagner dancing in his underwear and a bunch of master singers horsing around the stage with oversized penises.

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