‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

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odd duck ‘Ariadne’ is oddly satisfying at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com reviewAriadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 28, 2014
Alice Busch Opera Theater; Cooperstown, NY
4-stars

 

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

To put it plainly, Ariadne in Naxos is an odd show. It’s a mashup of German slapstick that is not nearly as funny to Americans as Germans think it is and obscure if not obsolete homage to Greco-Roman mythology. So, why not do something completely unexpected and set the show smack in the middle of the Great State of New York? On a farm. Did I mention in a barn…with live goats and chickens?

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Glimmerglass Festival’s new production of ‘Ariadne’ (music by Richard Strauss) employed an English adaptation of von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto by Kelly Rourke for most of the show–the second half “real” opera scenes were sung in German. Again, another interesting twist that worked.

The premise is silly. Two different classes of performers have been invited to this New York farmstead to perform both an opera and a burlesque. After arguing over which portion of the entertainment will go first, at the last-minute they are told that they have to combine both styles in one show, which comprises the second act.

Director Francesca Zambello made other signature choices that stamped this new production as hers besides the barnyard setting and English/German libretto: the diva played by Christine Goerke was riotously comic as the Prima Donna in the first act, mugging unabashedly for the audience:

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The burlesque troupe was attired and comported themselves like a hip hop gang:

L to R: Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The temperamental Composer sung by Catherine Martin was in trousers, but it was no trouser role. Nor did she play it “straight” since she winds up in a girl-on-girl relationship with Zerbinetta played by Rachele Gilmore.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was also the most sexualized version of  ‘Ariadne’ I’ve ever seen, with the burlesque troupe doing more twerking than you’ll likely find in a Rihanna video and Zerbinetta strutting her stuff in skin-tight leggings held up by  a garter belt, while fanning herself with black ostrich feathers.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

All distinctive choices that, strangely enough, all made this show succeed in a unique way.

The production values were to be savored. A  charming, original, and functional set by Troy Hourie, inspired costumes by Erik Teague, atmospheric lighting by Mark McCullough, fun and funny hair & makeup by Anne Ford-Coates, and comedic choreography by Eric Sean Fogel all combined seamlessly to carry out Zambello’s distinctive vision for the production.

Of course, what would classic opera be without voices of exceptional character? It would be nothing, which is why opera is so very challenging, perhaps the most challenging of all art forms to pull off.

The singers in ‘Ariadne’ were all extraordinary. Christine Goerke exhibited tremendous vocal power and control. Her comic timing as the Prima Donna was so glorious that I missed her Divine-Miss-M spark in the second act while singing the character Ariadne in the legit opera. Jen Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacqueline Echols were a sheer delight as the vocal trio Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, showcasing some of Strauss’s most beautiful and soaring composition abilities in Act II.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Despite their twerking or perhaps because of it, the Back-Street-Boys-Meets-Sweeney-Todd comedy troupe of Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio, and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella were sheerly delightful and outrageously costumed. All happened to be talented singers and actors and captured focus every time they appeared on stage.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

But this show really belonged to Zerbinetta. And it is supposed to the way it is written, despite its being titled Ariadne in Naxos. It is Zerbinetta who has the biggest transformation amidst an 18-minute aria in Act II. Yes, an 18-minute aria, which Rachele Gilmore sung as if she was born to do it. I was stunned to read other critics’ reviews of this show that lacked significant mention of Ms. Gilmore because she makes this show at Glimmerglass. Yes, she is very shapely and attractive and works every single feminine wile God has endowed her with, which, by the way, does not diminish her talent, not one iota. She also has tremendous operatic chops and deserves highest praise for her performance. So, why such stingy reviews for this performer, compadres?

Conductor Kathleen Kelly has a graceful, fluid conducting form on the podium. While ‘Ariadne’ did not constitute the most ideal balance between orchestra and performers that I’ve encountered at Glimmerglass, the singers were overall capably supported. I did notice a few times that singers were struggling to be heard. Some such as Catherine Martin even lost notes, and the conductor needs to be mindful not to overpower the performers and leave them “stranded” during difficult passages.

Several break-out performances and super-solid production values make this an ‘Ariadne’ worth seeing. And I can almost assuredly guarantee, you’ve never seen an Ariadne like this one. Ariadne in Naxos continues through August 23.

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Opera Phila’s ‘Coffin’ a living dream

Operatoonity.com review: A Coffin in Egypt, an East Coast Premiere presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
5.0 stars

five stars

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

A triumph. A tour de force. A masterpiece.

A Coffin in Egypt presented by Opera Philadelphia merits all of these accolades and more. This chamber opera is a five-star production that constitutes the very future of opera and demands to be seen. More than melodrama. More than one style of music. More than great score and greater singing. Both visual and vocal, humorous and tragic, vivid and visionary, A Coffin in Egypt is an original contemporary opera based on the masterful play by Horton Foote that must be experienced. Because it is an operatic experience.

Opera Philadelphia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing the show to Philadelphia audiences. Of late, they have made the intimate Perelman Theater a showcase for some of the most important new works in opera: Dark Sisters, Powder Her Face, and now, A Coffin in Egypt.

This show is a gleaming amalgam comprising a great book by Leonard Foglia, who directed this production and the original Foote play; a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon; and a vehicle for a world-class talent, Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

In Coffin in Egypt, 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, who has outlived her husband, her children, and other close relatives, looks back on her life, and relives all her hurts, regrets, and sorrows–coping with a philandering husband, losing her coveted looks, and settling for a secluded life on the lonely Texas prairie. Like many significantly old people, she repeats herself. Watching this opera is like putting a puzzle together. Pieces and themes introduced earlier drop in during remembered scenes in her life, which are played out for the audience.

This show was written as a vehicle for Frederica von Stade, and within moments of her first appearance on stage, it is apparent why. She creates a sensitive, soul-searing portrait of a nonagenarian who traded love and adulation for duty and permanence. And the audience is enraptured as von Stade splays open Myrtle’s soul, sharing why she feels cheated, betrayed, and full of remorse for the choices she made, when she might have been a great actress or someone’s treasured soul mate. While exiting the theater, another audience member commented on what a great actress von Stade was. She is better than great. She is a transcendent performer, with vocal gifts so pliant that she scales emotional heights and depths in song and words for which many reputable stage actors have only words.

And she is exquisitely directed by Foglia, who pushes her to the edge of melodrama, then shoves her off the cliff to obtain an authentic portrait of a flawed, Southern woman who keeps on living only to recount torturous memories.

One of the most evocative elements in the show are the gospel hymns sung by a quartet of “Negroes,” as Myrtle Bledsoe calls them, dressed in church attire, juxtaposed against Myrtle’s reflections.  The composer’s production notes explain that the show was to be a one-woman vehicle originally and that the gospel music was only going to be recorded and overlaid with sounds of the prairie. It was a stroke of genius to add the gospel-singing churchgoers singing live in the onstage production. The gospel tunes, idyllically harmonized by Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell, added a rich and highly original texture to the show. Their singing started out as sheerly beautiful music but evolved to become Myrtle’s tormenter as she recounted the story of her husband’s emotional abandonment when he fell for a mixed-race woman.

016 A COFFIN IN EGYPT

All of the elements that should work in tandem in a production did just that. A symbolic yet powerful and often luminous set by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Brain Nason, and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Timothy Myers were critical success factors in the artistic quality and production values this show offered.

There are two more performances of A Coffin in Egypt, on June 13 and 15. I implore you to go. Or die trying.

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Jessye Norman’s ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing!’ {book review}

Operatoonity.com book review: Stand Up Straight and Sing!
A memoir by Soprano Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
316 pages with index
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Stand up Straight and Sing
Author Event/National Author Tour: The Free Library of Philadelphia
; Tuesday, May 27; 7:30 pm

From the publisher: Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, a descendant of many generations of hardworking slave and free ancestors, she grew up amid the challenges of Jim Crow racism with the civil rights movement just beginning to awaken. Nurtured by a close family and tight-knit community centered on the local church, Jessye sang songs and spirituals constantly, never dreaming that it might lead to a career. Only when she watched a documentary about the legendary Marian Anderson did she first realize that singing could be a profession. Decades later, after a meteoric rise at the Berlin Opera, a long-delayed debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and forays into spirituals, blues, jazz, and other roots music, she has become one of America’s cultural treasures. Stand Up Straight and Sing! is an inspiring woman’s account of an astonishing life.

My review:
If human beings can be born to greatness, then Jessye Norman was, without a doubt, born to be a great person. Despite growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s, when African Americans were judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, Norman would not allow racial prejudice (or any other type of discrimination) deter her from her ambition to let her God-given gifts carry her as far as they would take her.

She grew up in a loving, well-ordered family with parents who were neither too strict nor indulgent. They were devoted servants to their church and their community, and Norman witnessed the example of selfless service the entire time she was growing up, which undoubtedly informs the person she is today. The name of her memoir is taken from her mother’s admonition to “Stand Up Straight” whenever she performed in public, and because Norman knew she wanted to make more out of her life, even from a very early age, she seized every chance she could to let her light shine.

If you have seen Jessye Norman perform on stage, you might expect that her writing would be grand and gracious, and it is. She writes with elegance and care, whether she is describing being cheated out of a deserving wage as a young woman performing in Europe or being discriminated against in a Bavarian Radio International Music Competition, presumably because she was a black woman trying to make her mark in a field during a time where the performers were predominantly white.

She tells a few tales out of school, like when she was insulted by a hotel security guard only a few years ago, who saw her swimming in the hotel pool and demanded to know if she was a registered guest. That tale is from a chapter aptly entitled “Racism as It Lives and Breathes.”

But this is no gritty expose of the hardships and injustices she *surely* suffered en route to a glittering career as an international opera star.  But make no mistake, she has suffered almost as much as she has been feted. For instance, perhaps because of her heritage, she has been asked to sing “Amazing Grace,” many times and at some very high profile events, even though, she explains, the song was written by a British man who made his fortune in the slave trade, who might even have lifted the tune from the African slaves packed into the hull of his ship.

Stand Up Straight and Sing! is equal parts reflection and inspiration, as if to say, I have made something of myself in a world replete with flaws but also one that is laden with opportunity, and surely you can, too. Besides, how many of us will be fortunate enough to have an introduction written by Metropolitan Opera conductor of renown James Levine, who is so full of praise and adoration for Norman that he uses more exclamation points than most family holiday letters do.

Throughout the book, Norman does drop a number of names. She’s sung at Jackie Onassis’s funeral, and also at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s. Yet, she’s earned that privilege. She endured oppression as a person of color and another level of discrimination which she herself realized she’d been forced to suffer again as a woman striving for independence.

Sexism is still very much a part of our culture, to say nothing of sexual and domestic violence against women and the current backlash against long-fought-for and hard-won civil liberties for women. Oh, yes, a great deal has been accomplished, but much work remains.” –Jessye Norman, Stand Up Straight and Sing!

As a rule, I am not a great fan of memoir because it’s remarkably difficult to strip your life bare and be completely candid as the one chronicling your own story.  While Norman’s life experiences and talents have accorded her some fantastic experiences, this memoir suffers a bit from the overarching feeling that everything is just a bit too rosy all the time. Perhaps I have misinterpreted her uncanny ability to detach herself from some very painful episodes or perhaps it is that selfsame ability to detach that has enabled her to endure and persevere in a demanding profession.

Also, organization is a challenge in memoir too. Though the organization is somewhat chronological, it is not purely so. While that may be realistic, i.e., while you are remembering your childhood, your mind drifts to a performance at one of the world’s greatest and most prestigious venues, it does contribute to a less than seamless quality to the writing.

Jessye Norman need not have written her memoir in order to take her rightful place in the pantheon of opera greats. Just listen to her singing “Ave Maria,” in German, a language she also speaks (because she doesn’t sing in any language she can’t speak):

YouTube Preview Image

And yet, she somehow looms even greater for writing and daring to share her own story. You can almost hear her parents saying, ” Well, Jessye, if you can write this book, then you should write it. Do everything you are able to do.”

Brave, Jessye Norman. You are a marvelous writer, a remarkable singer, and a truly great human being.

Editor’s note: A copy of this memoir was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Filed under memoir, Performers, Reviews, Singer Sunday, sopranos

Glimmerglass Festival offers greenery, melody—magic

Glimmerglass Festival

The 2014 Glimmerglass Festival Season kicks off on July 11 with my favorite opera Madame Butterfly

Tucked into the rolling hills of Central New York State, edged into the western tip of Lake Otsego, lies an opera experience—the Glimmerglass Festival—pairing artistry and aspiration, elegance and enterprise, greenery and gravitas.

Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot

Nathan Gunn sang Sir Lancelot in last season’s “Camelot”

Like swallows to Capistrano, happy patrons return to Glimmerglass season after season to enjoy professional opera, informative talks and lectures, and a growing roster of programs both educational and entertaining in relaxed, comfortable surroundings.

The Glimmerglass Festival has the humblest of origins. It began in 1975 as the Glimmerglass Opera Theater housed in a local high school auditorium. In the intervening years, it has amassed an impressive number of supporters and abundant resources—capital and artistic. Within one generation it transformed itself into a summertime destination where opera lovers can enjoy the most sophisticated of art forms in an atmosphere of pastoral beauty. In 1988, they added a Young Artists program providing performance experience and advanced training for dozens of emerging singers. That’s in addition to gainful employment for hundreds of professionals who make their living in the performing and classical arts.

Abby speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper forThe Music Man | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass’s Abby Rodd speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper for ‘The Music Man’ | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass is nestled into 26 acres of farmland. The grounds are dotted with a half dozen or more outbuildings including performance spaces, a scene shop, costume barn, wardrobe trailers, and an administrative pavilion. The physical layout of the campus all around you serves as a tangible reminder that it takes a village to produce opera, something we tend to forget whenever we filter our opera experience solely through selected principals’ performances, i.e., whether the tenor hits all his top C’s.

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass--an organizer's dream

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass–an organizer’s dream

The centerpiece of the Glimmerglass experience is the Alice Busch Opera Theater, towering stories over the landscape’s rolling hills, with barnlike lines and neutral colors complementing rather than clashing with the natural setting. Inside, however, is housed an acoustically engineered, state-of-the-art theater designed expressly for opera performance that rivals and (in some cases) betters big city venues. The 914-seat theater, which opened in 1987, is the first built specifically for opera performance since the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Lincoln Center was completed in 1966.

Despite the fact that the theater is one-quarter the size of the Met, you still might want to bring along opera glasses if you enjoy seeing close-ups of the performers. The audience seating is generously raked, providing great sightlines and ample legroom but ultimately more distance between the house and the stage. Also, the theater isn’t climate controlled. They use fans to cool things down and blankets to warm you up. It can get unseasonably cold and rainy in Central New York during any summer month, so you might want to bring a wrap or dress in layers.

Before performances and during intermission, festival concessions are available and include hearty salads and wraps (even vegan items), snacks, and ice cream, just outside the theater. Beverages include a range of wines and beers, including local brews and varietals worth sampling. New York State wines are often compared favorably to those grown in the German Rhine. Festival goers may enjoy picnicking on the grounds before evening shows and after matinees. And in the event you forgot your picnic basket, one local restaurant delivers. Whether you buy a meal there or bring it in, you can avail yourself of the plentiful spaces set aside for al fresco dining—from café tables to benches to picnic tables situated under a large canvas tent.

Last season's Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase--memorable and fun.

Last season’s Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase–memorable and fun.

If you are considering a trip to Glimmerglass, a name derived from James Fenimore Cooper’s description of Lake Otsego in Leatherstocking Tales, plan to spend several days in Central New York. You need at least three to four days to take in all the productions Glimmerglass offers in repertory (for exactly that purpose). Fleshing out this year’s mainstage schedule are a growing number of informative opera events and recitals including “Showtalks” on and around the festival grounds and a new “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series of special performances showcasing this year’s Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt as well as other guest artists. There’s also a world-class museum in nearby Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame (which includes the American history of cricket)—as well as boutiques, baseball-kitsch shopping, and café- and fine-dining in and around the museum.

If you favor lakeside lodging, hotels and motels line the shore of Lake Otsego, roughly nine miles long from tip to tip. Some lovely restaurants operate lakeside, too, affording scenic views of the lake while dining. Numerous B&B’s in the region are worth investigating. Many are an easy commute to the festival grounds while possessing more charm and actually costing less than more popular chain motels.

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Walking shoes are a must for Cooperstown where’s there’s limited parking within city limits but good public trolley service. You may also be more comfortable wearing your Keds  to the opera, too, especially if you’ve trekked to the middle of a shady grove for your pre-performance picnic. Since there’s no dress code at Glimmerglass, people don everything from walking shorts and sandals to shifts and high-heels. However, if you get caught in a midsummer cloudburst, it’s a hike from the parking areas across the front lawn to the theater entrance, so you might want to pack a pair of boots. For those who can’t make such a trek (elderly or handicapped patrons), they offer golf cart shuttle services between the theater and the parking areas.

From the moment you pull into one of the gravel parking lots until the last note the orchestra sounds, literally hundreds of people have worked long and hard, months before you arrive, to deliver the entertainment experience at Glimmerglass. Since they’re all professionals or devoted volunteers, you’re not likely to see them sweat. Unless, of course, you take the free backstage tour. You’ll be amazed at the hours of artistry, the pluck, the pure perspiration that must be invested for every second on stage.

 

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