Posts Tagged “opera”

Raymond Bisha: Naxos Director of Media Relations, North America

Last week I went to see a rare production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera “A Quiet Place.”   This run of six performances at City Opera is the first time “A Quiet Place” has ever been performed in New York, which surprised me. As a non-native New Yorker, I naively assumed that everything Bernstein ever wrote must have already been performed in New York at one time or another.

After seeing the opera performed, I began to understand why it has been rarely performed. Not because it isn’t good – quite the contrary – but because 1983 audiences may not have been ready for the story that Leonard Bernstein and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth put before them. Stories, or even operas about dysfunctional families are nothing new, nor are theatrical works that begin with someone’s death. But challenges mount in an opera that begins with the mother’s death, then looks, in a series of flashbacks, at a dysfunctional family that includes a son who is both gay and mentally disturbed. Add to that, the stylistic and technical challenges of Bernstein’s music. Bernstein throws at them – singers and orchestra alike – music that is  lyric, angular, almost tonal, dissonant, sweet, angry, ironic, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes all at once.

Louis Otey (Sam, the father) and Patricia Risley (Dinah, the mother)

Bernstein and Wadsworth were not trying to provoke any particular kind of reaction in the audience. In an essay by Daniel Felsenfeld in the opera’s program booklet, Stephen Wadsworth says “We (he and Bernstein) tried to tell the truth about the way one American family does and does not communicate, and what happens as a result. We were both working on loss and grief and justification and seemed to share a kind of acerbic, flared-nostril humor.”

In the end these issues of family communication are surely something that anyone in a family can understand. So why was last week’s audience cheering for an opera that got such a cool reception in 1983? The fact the City Opera did a terrific production of course helps.

Joshua Hopkins (Junior)

But I would like to think that almost 30 years after it was first performed, we can now see a character like Junior, who is gay and mentally disturbed, first and foremost as a person. If you can do that, the story of this opera is deeply affecting. It also makes the final aria incredibly powerful, as Junior and his father finally connect for perhaps the first time. When I talked with baritone Joshua Hopkins, who played the character of Junior, he described the ending as “optimistic, the beginning of what was now possible.” A beautiful description of a reconciliation that is set to some of Leonard Bernstein’s most ravishing music.

It helped that the orchestra under conductor Jayce Ogren dealt with the huge stylistic range of the score with ease, and the cast to a person had both the voices and the acting chops to make this piece work. The music and the story often walk a fine line between irony and parody – get that balance wrong and you undermine the entire story. There are also some screamingly funny moments in the opera that were allowed to be hysterical, without ever undermining the other emotions at play.

Patricia Risley (Dinah), Judith Christin (Susie), and Victoria Livengood (Mrs. Doc)

In the end, this production did for me what really good theatre should  – it is sticking with me. The sad parts. The funny parts. The images and music for sure. But most of all, the story.

Here’s to hoping that other audiences won’t have to wait decades to have their chance to experience “A Quiet Place.”

What are your impressions of the opera “A Quiet Place” upon seeing or hearing it?

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As many Sequenza21 readers know, Opus Arte (distributed by Naxos of America in the U.S. and in Canada) is releasing a DVD performance of John Adams Doctor Atomic on September 30 (OA0998D).

Needless to say, everyone is very excited about this release and my inbox has been flooded with requests. For all of us who have been following the press and productions since the opera’s premiere in San Francisco in 2005, this DVD performance is a must-have.

This particular production is from the Het Musietheater in Amsterdam in June 2007 and is directed for television by its librettist/director and Erasmus Prize-winner Peter Sellars. The cast features the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who created the role and has made it his signature. Soprano Jessica Rivera–who is superb–performs the role of Kitty Oppenheimer, a part originally conceived for the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As most of you know, John Adams rewrote the role for soprano for the Chicago Lyric production, adding additional music. Other cast members include Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, and Ellen Rabiner.

With the MET mounting a new production of the Adams opera, (which opens on Tuesday, October 13, 2008), this release is particularly timely. Additionally, there are performances of Doctor Atomic scheduled for the Atlanta Symphony in November.

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Little did I know that I had the makings of an Opera Fanatic — well, I’ve discovered that I do. I found myself watching the DVD version of The Opera Fanatic (the VHS version of this film has been available on Zucker’s Bel Canto Society website for some time; the DVD version is being released on Arthaus Musik at the end of May) with absolute fascination (twice now, probably a third time by the time I’ve finished this blog entry), despite the fact that Stefan Zucker (purportedly the highest tenor according to the Guinness World Book of Records and generally an annoying enfant terrible) is thoroughly outrageous and, in some cases, shockingly rude to an absolutely extraordinary grouping of true Divas. The chutzpah (not to mention bad taste) of asking legendary mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri about the sexual proclivities of mezzos boggles the mind, but then again, she offered-or threatened-to spank him for his naughty question. (Maybe there IS some truth to this rumor she so passionately denied?)

The Opera Fanatic is partly about Zucker’s quest for the answers to a question which cannot really be answered or quantified: what makes a singer thrilling and a performance moving? But it also is, in part, a memorial of his late mother, a soprano named Rosina Wolf, whose memory he evokes several times during the film. Most of all, however, it is about a group of great singers, many of whom have been forgotten (a few probably don’t even hit the radar for some younger opera-goers), and some whose careers were eclipsed by La Callas and Renata Tebaldi. However, one thing these larger-than-life women have in common can be put very simply: Star Power.

And that Star Power is wonderfully present in this film. Years after her career had ended, soprano Leyla Gencer still could demand that she be interviewed at La Scala (they acquiesced); Marcella Pobbe, a wonderful soprano from the 1950s, was suspiciously difficult to pin down for an interview time; yet another Diva was concerned that her maid would need to come twice (before and after the interview).

And some of the meetings went less than swimmingly. Poor Madame Pobbe, when the interview finally took place, fumed at Zucker’s questions (she called him “stupid”). He prodded her with queries like “What was the highest note you ever sang?” Her disdain was palpable, but not for reasons one might think. She wanted Zucker to properly introduce her and to explain her place in opera history first (DIVA). She did, eventually, answer the question about the note (in case anyone cares, it was a high “D” in Carmina Burana, with Zubin Mehta conducting). She was equally ticked off when questioned about canceling her 1959 MET engagement to sing Elisabetta. The cancellation was due to a quarrel with her then lover the great tenor Nicolai Gedda. She blamed Rudolf Bing for the incident. Heard that story before”¦

But despite occasional fits of pique due to scheduling mishaps and other issues, many of these singers offered fascinating insights into opera, character, and the art of singing. The luminous mezzo-soprano Guilietta Simionato, known for her riveting vocal portrayals of characters like Carmen, Azucena, and Eboli, among many others, spoke almost poetically about proper breath control: “… the cavity [mask] projects upwards or sound doesn’t rise. With the breath you have to make a circle. It’s not that the high note is a point of arrival. The breath has to raise it up and then bring it down again, that way the notes come down like pearls.” A clip from a 1961 Cavalleria Rusticana showed her in absolutely gorgeous voice. But perhaps the most telling moment from her interview was her confession when asked what she would have done differently with her career: she said, almost without hesitation, that she would not have become a singer. She suffered greatly, and it took almost two decades for her to get her due as an artist. I, for one, am glad she was not given that opportunity.

Another legendary soprano Magda Olivero commented that “you must find the character inside. Every word, every note has to rise from the inside and go forward to the audience.” She clearly understood what that meant, as evidenced by a superb 1960 Tosca excerpt. She also talked about the difficulties for sopranos in Act II of Tosca, which she described as a soprano-killer.

Anita Cerquetti (a personal favorite) — who is a longtime cult figure among vocal folks for her astonishing voice, very short career, and yes, the funniest record covers in just about all opera history (except for the late British Wagnerian Rita Hunter) — had some interesting comments about opera performance: ” A singer cannot be compared to an actor. The singer has to sing. He has to stay motionless. When he sings a romance, he cannot walk up and down the stage, otherwise the voice shifts. A singer has to be an actor through his gestures, through his face, through his arms and hands, through his voice.” Now, I won’t mince words here, Anita is and was a very large lady (NO comments here, she was) and probably didn’t or couldn’t take a lot of stage direction (just a guess). Motionless is a bit, well, odd even for me. And, let’s face it, much has changed in opera productions since these women graced the stage. There is far more emphasis on physical acting now for example. But some of what she says makes sense: a singer is not an actor in the traditional sense. If anyone watched the MET broadcast of Il Trittico last season, the most moving aspect of Barbara Frittoli’s performance was her portrayal of the character of Suor Angelica, which she achieved almost entirely through her facial expressions and simple physical gestures. In my opinion, her singing was nothing special. And had I been in the opera house instead of at the movies, where I could really see what she was doing with the role, I’m not so sure I would have been so moved.

For me, there is something special about this entire era of singing which quite frankly, harkens back to a time when the voice reigned supreme and when singing conveyed such emotion that even on a bad day, it had, well, “soul.” (Just to clarify: there are many, many current singers I absolutely adore and couldn’t do without. But I must confess to a certain love of singers from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.)

In addition to the great singers of the 1950s and 1960s, the film also goes a further back into opera history and devotes some time to the great Gina Cigna, who actually was French and born in Paris in 1900 (she died in 2001). Cigna came from a much earlier era than the other singers portrayed in the film and was 96 when Zucker went to visit her. She said, “If you don’t know how to breathe, you don’t know how to sing….Opera has lost spontaneity, beauty and freedom.” Her interview was very short as she was so very frail, but just her presence and the excerpts of her glorious voice were enough for me

I’ve left off quite a few singers profiled in the film, for which I apologize. But if my word count is correct, I’m over 1000 words. Watch the film instead. It is really a film about soul, something which these Divas all have in abundance. (The Opera Fanatic, a film by Jan Schmidt-Garre, Arthaus Musik, 101813.)

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