[Ed. note: Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival's sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan's just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]
Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.) In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.
With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.
Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano
“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.
Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónistaJP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.
At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.
Experiments in Opera, the new collective founded by composers Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch, presents its Spring Series on May 10 + 11 (Thursday and Friday) at Roulette in Brooklyn. Four new operas will be heard in workshop performances over the two evenings.
The May 10 program features a complete semi-staged, multi-media performance of Cady’s Happiness is the Problem, plus a semi-staged, work-in-progess presentation of To Scale by the creative trio known as Cough Button, and a concert excerpt from Siegel’s Brother Brother. May 11 will be devoted to a semi-staged production of Welch’s Borges and The Other, heard in its premiere as a complete work. Both shows begin at 8 pm.
While highly divergent in style and tone, all four works engage in a provocative dialog with the fundamental assumptions of the operatic form. Laugh tracks, graphic novels, localized radio transmitters, characters that are (literally) two-dimensional, two pairs of singers portraying a single historical figure: all of these elements figure in EiO’s experiments. Yet their creators remain devoted to craftsmanship and the expressive power of music to tell a story, no matter how non-linear.
Cady, Siegel, and Welch, who met at Wesleyan University, describe Experiments in Opera as:
“…a composer- and performer-driven initiative, featuring recent and new works with unorthodox answers to the traditional questions about how to connect words, story and music. Our activities emerge from a pronounced need to nurture composers drawn towards extending their work beyond the standard concert experience and into the hybrid space of the theater, performance, installation, dance and storytelling arts.”
Thursday, MAY 10
Cady’s Happiness Is The Problem is a two-act opera buffa about idealism and disillusionment. It presents three young women who sell an elixir of happiness derived from the secretions of slugs which they market as “Euphoressence.” The Problem of Happiness, which has perplexed philosophers since Plato, is explored in lighthearted yet penetrating fashion. Cady’s musical idiom melds postmodernism and pop, with occasional interjections from a very canned laugh track. The script by Cady and Nadia Berenstein takes the form of a comic book drawn by Berenstein, which is projected as sopranos Christie Finn and Megan Schubert and mezzo-soprano Lisa Komara perform to pre-recorded tracks.
“It’s a 2-act opera, semi-staged and directed by Jeremy Bloom,” explains Cady. “We did the first act at Le Poisson Rouge, but this will be the full two-act performance.”.
Aaron Siegel speaks about the work on his piece Brother Brother:
“For the concert last January, I shared 2 selections that were for percussion instruments, and this coming week, I’ll be sharing 2 of the choral excerpts. This is a piece that is still in progress, and I’ve done a little bit of recording on these works just to be able to share them. This is the first time these pieces are to be performed live, and we’re not doing it with the full ensemble this time, just with piano reduction. So there will be about 20 mins. worth of music. I’m super excited to do a work that has some choral elements in it. It just adds a whole other dimension of possibilities when you’re doing a bigger work like this.”.
Cough Button‘s To Scale is a work-in-progress that details the relationship between an architect and his “scalies”–the two-dimensional characters who populate architectural models. Co-written by Cough Button members Lynn Levy, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons, To Scale explores the gap between creator and created. The piece will also play with novel techniques to bridge the gap between singer and listener, including the use of localized transmitters, picked up by radios in the audience. The cast includes Paul Pinto, Brian Rady, Lainie Fefferman, Dylan Widjiono, and Aliza Simons, accompanied by instrumentalists Karen Waltuch (viola), Vasu Panicker (keyboards), Lea Bertucci (bass clarinet), and Dave Ruder (electronics).
Friday, MAY 11
Matthew Welch’s Borges and The Other is based on the iconic writer’s life and work. It’s scored for two mezzos, tenor, and baritone, backed by Welch’s ensemble Blarvuster, which serves up a potent brew of Celtic sounds, raga, minimalism, and progressive rock. Says Welch, “In 2007, the ﬁrst of [my] Borges mini-operas featured two mezzo-sopranos portraying an older and younger Borges meeting in a dream space. For a second act written for tenor and baritone, two additional Borges of differing ages meet yet again in a separate encounter of dreaming each other. In both acts, each Borges views his other in disbelief, hashing out self-loathing critique, whilst verifying biographical information.” Mezzo-sopranos Lisa Komara and Amirtha Kidambi, tenor James Rogers, baritone Jeff Gavett, and The EiO Chorus all portray Borges. Blarvuster consists of Leah Paul (flutes), Karen Waltuch (viola), Emily Manzo (piano), Taylor Levine and Matthew Hough (electric guitars), Ian Riggs (bass guitar), Joe Bergen (vibraphone), and Mike Pride (drums). Matthew Welch conducts.
This has got to be a first. Luis Andrei Cobo is offering his services to compose a grand opera to the highest Ebay bidder. For $150,000 you can buy a grand opera over 2 hours in length.
Cobo estimates that he’ll need 2 years of full-time work to complete the project, so $75K/year will enable him to maintain the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed as a software programmer.
Don’t have $150K? That’s OK, he’s open to other offers. For as little as $32,000 he will write a half-hour long chamber opera for 3 to 5 singers.
The winning bidder will get to suggest subject matter for the opera, be able to produce the work royalty-free, and upon the composer’s death, the highest bidder or the heir(s) of the bidder will inherit the work.
Sounds like a deal. Then again, obtaining an actual staging of the finished work….
Complete information on this ebay item can be found here. Good luck on your bid!
It is a dangerous business to write new operas, but equally thrilling to produce them. Bernard Rands’s VINCENT, a work exploring the life and art of Vincent van Gogh, was premiered last Friday April 8 and 9 at the Musical Arts Center of Indiana University in Bloomington. Two other performances are scheduled for next April 15 and 16. The production was a major success for the university’s Jacobs School of Music, offering to the world something for which it is uniquely suited. A major center for musical performance and research, the Jacobs school has an unmatched capability for producing and testing new works with very high production values. Even though the School has not embraced this role in a regular manner, its trajectory has been distinguished by ambitious productions of new works and collegiate premieres. The list includes the famous microtonal operas of MacArthur-award winner John Eaton (Danton and Robespierre, The Cry of Clytemnestra, The Tempest); the collegiate premieres of John Corigliano’s TheGhosts of Versailles, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, and John Adams’s Nixon in China. (I still think that their airplane arrival in the first scene of Nixon is the best ever….). Besides the main stage productions in the Musical Arts Center, the School has presented collegiate premieres of Adams’s opera-oratorio El Niño, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, along with the premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s video-opera ¡Unicamente la verdad!.
The premiere of Vincent represented another kind of breakthrough for the Jacobs School Opera Theater. Known for the size of its stage and for lavish scenery built in its own workshops, this time the Jacobs School designed a new style of production for Vincent that focused on projections and digital images. After seeing two performances of Vincent with both casts, I had pre-scheduled to go to Chicago to see the last performance at the Harris Theater of Death and the Powers, the well-received opera by Tod Machover. This gave me an opportunity to gain yet another perspective on Vincent. I will not comment on Machover’s wonderful work here, except to say that it also featured original technological components in the form of musical robots and light sculptures expressing aspects of human thought and emotion. Clearly, digital technology is gaining ground as an expected expressive element in opera and other interdisciplinary genres. Soon it will need to be contemplated as a regular element in the training of musicians, especially since other musical genres beside opera are beginning to be treated in an interdisciplinary manner.
Bernard Rands’s Vincent will be judged unavoidably from diverse perspectives. As a conductor a new operas, I have been aware of the complexities of the reception of new operatic works, and I have concluded that success depends as much on a game of audience expectations as on the intrinsic structural characteristics of the composition. During the panels on the future of opera arranged around the world-premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s ¡Unicamente la verdad!, certain tensions became apparent. For some opera fans, opera is about a dramatic narrative with a continuous musical architecture that carries the listener to a point of climax and a denouement, and that (most importantly!) features singers in the central expressive role. This concept arguably peaked in the late 19th and early 20th century with the works of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini.
Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass
If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.
At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.
The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.
Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.
Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.
This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).
This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.
Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.
The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »
The music season has definitely kicked into gear all across the country. Sure, I will always love and find inspiration via New York City; I just received a great CD from a new friend in Brooklyn and the other night skyped for the first time with another NYC friend and collaborator who helped lead Burnt Sugar in a recent musical tribute to James Brown at the Apollo Theater (Salon Series at the Apollo is looking really, really cool. Miller Theatre, you have been warned…).
But I’m excited by the music new I’m reading from all the coasts (and Midwest). Here’s yet another great concert event taking place in my new home – Houston, Texas.
This Saturday, October 16th, Houston’s contemporary music group Musiqa launches its 9th season with the world premiere of composer Stewart Wallace’s chamber piece for She Told Me This composed for and performed by Mezzo Soprano Zheng Chao with a libretto by Amy Tan. Sara Jobin, Assistant Conductor of the San Francisco Opera, conducts. A native Houstonian, Wallace is best known for his opera Harvey Milk , which premiered in Houston in 1995. Zheng Chao’s recently diagnosed and current battle with lung cancer in part inspired Wallace to compose this piece especially for her. You can read more about Chao and her story here.
Saturday’s program also includes a world premiere dance performance by Dance of Asia America to works by Lei Liang and Lou Harrison as well as two pieces by composers Anthony Brandt and Todd Frazier commissioned for the recent anniversary of Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
It all takes place Saturday, October 16th, 2010, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. A pre-concert screening of a film about Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s collaboration takes place at 7:00 p.m. You can purchase tickets at www.musiqahouston.org
It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.
Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’sThe Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.
After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:
What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?
The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.
Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.
The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?
The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.
From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?
This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.
Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’sWhat Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.
The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.
I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.
The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St., Houston, TX.