World’s best tenors top most-read posts on Operatoonity in 2015!

Each year, WordPress sends me an annual report for Operatoonity.com, and it’s always fascinating to view this blog’s outreach in summary, like this form provides. Thank you, everyone, who has stopped in on this blog. Here’s to a bigger, better Operatoonity.com in 2o16. Enjoy viewing the results you all helped create:

Wordpress analysis of Operatoonity.com is always an interesting report.

WordPress analysis of Operatoonity.com is always an interesting report.Operatoonity’s Annual Report 2015

This next piece of data was the most surprising stat in the report:

I was very surprised to learn that my post about male singers was more popular than female singers. Sea change?

My post about male singers was more popular than female singers. A sea change, for sure. Is Anna Nebtreko’s star power waning?

Is 2016 the year I update these lists? I created them because I couldn’t find the compendia I was seeking. As you can see,  these lists will be nearly five years old in 2016, and a lot can happen in the operasphere in five years. New singers have come into prominence and others are fading from view. With your input, I will pledge to update some of these lists in 2016:

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I am very grateful for those outlets who continue to refer readers to operatoonity.com: Here is a big mmmwwwwaaahhhh to you all!

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And of course it never gets old seeing how far Operatoonity.com reaches globally:

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Here’s to a happy and healthy 2016 for all. To see the complete report, simply visit Annual Report 2015.

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Viva, Verdi! Viva, Violetta!

Operatoonity.com review: La traviata presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, October 4, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Giuseppi Verdi
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

Opera Phila's La Traviata

Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) sings the Brindisi in Act I of Verdi’s La traviata |Photos by Kelly & Massa

While La traviata is consistently one of the most performed operas in the world, it is also universally ranked as one of the greatest operas ever written. The story may be sheer melodrama, but the clarity of the storyline compared to other Verdi operas is refreshingly linear. The music is refined and elegant throughout. Opera Philadelphia deserves an ovation for offering a refreshing production of La traviata with a level of refinement and elegance to complement the virtues of Verdi’s beloved score.

Credit must go to Director Paul Curran for the show’s winning sensibility. He chose to set the opera in Paris during the 1950s, a thoughtful choice that he and his team executed with class and precision, from the glorious set featuring a sweeping staircase to the beautiful costuming and technical direction. In a Q&A, Curran says that the moral climate of the 1950s, when sex scandals actually mattered, hearkens back to the era in which La traviata premiered. Curran’s resetting worked so well and was so meticulously rendered that even traditionalists hoping to see a recreation of the 18th century could not have objected. The 1950s were characterized by a preoccupation with propriety regarding appearance and appearances that it was common to be disingenuous at one’s core. For instance, even the tuxedos couldn’t mask the proclivities which drew these well-clad Parisian men to a party in the home of a high-class prostitute.

Doctor Grenville (Andrew Bogard), the Marchese (Jarrett Ott) and Flora (Katherine Pracht) in the Act I party scene from Verdi’s La traviata

Doctor Grenville (Andrew Bogard), the Marchese (Jarrett Ott) and Flora (Katherine Pracht) in the Act I party scene from Verdi’s La traviata

However, even a La traviata, however lovely, can’t succeed without the ideal Violetta.

Seeing La traviata with the perfect Violetta has not been a common experience for me. Viva, Opera Philadelphia, for casting American soprano Lisette Oropesa to portray the most renowned fallen woman in the contemporary opera repertoire. What a triumph she was! Oropesa was as refined and elegant as the opera she was tasked to sing. Violetta is, after all, a courtesan–not a vestal virgin. So the sensuality Oropesa brought to “The Brindisi” and to the character throughout Act I was spot on. Alfredo falls in love with her at first sight, so Violetta must be lovely but also a little wild, not merely coquettish.

Lisette Oropesa was a tour de force as Violetta

Lisette Oropesa was a tour de force as Violetta

Yet, she can’t just be a fine actress. She must be a coloratura soprano whose vocal gifts can effortlessly push the limits of any soprano’s range. Oropesa took a well-deserved solo bow for a tour de force performance at the conclusion of the opera that brought the audience to its feet. Viva, Violetta.

At Flora’s ball, Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) is back on the arm of the Baron (Daniel Mobbs)

At Flora’s ball, Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) is back on the arm of the Baron (Daniel Mobbs)

Vocally, Oropesa was a star but not the only star. As Germont, Pennsylvania baritone Stephen Powell was, in a word, extraordinary. He, too, received a wildly enthusiastic ovation at curtain call. Germont might be easy to dislike because he destroys the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta, but Powell’s Di Provenza il mar was heartfelt and beautiful.

Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Stephen Powell) pleads with Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) to end her relationship with Alfredo for the good of his family.

Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Stephen Powell) pleads with Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) to end her relationship with Alfredo for the good of his family.

We nearly forgot the hypocrisy Germont displays showing up as a guest Flora’s “raunchy” ball. Only a gifted performer can convince the audience that Germont is genuinely remorseful for separating Violetta from his son after learning Violetta is dying. Powell is that consummate performer.

Regrettably, tenor Alex Shrader’s Alfredo was overshadowed by these two supernovas. Though he did a servicable job with role, he didn’t have much stage presence compared to Oropesa and Powell. His voice seemed taxed and muddy. He even cracked a few times rather than reaching the rafters.

Alek Shrader stars as Alfredo Germont in Opera Philadelphia new production of Verdi’s La traviata

Alek Shrader stars as Alfredo Germont in Opera Philadelphia new production of Verdi’s La traviata

The Philadephia Opera Orchestra conducted by Corrado Rovaris and the Chorus under chorus master Elizabeth Braden sounded the best I’ve ever heard them in the last several years. Rovaris clearly loved the score and conveyed that adoration to his musicians. And though the Philadelphia Opera Chorus didn’t take a bow because the set contracted as Violetta’s world became smaller and there was simply no room to accommodate more than the principals for curtain call, they deserved a bow.

Alfredo (Alek Shrader) returns to the bedside of Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) as she is dying of consumption

Alfredo (Alek Shrader) returns to the bedside of Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) as she is dying of consumption

This reviewer never thought she would be grateful to Opera Philadelphia for staging (yet) another production of La Traviata.  I stand corrected. Never say never.

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@OperaPhila with the Fringe goes pop!

Operatoonity.com review: Andy: A Popera, an Opera Philadelphia Showcase presented by Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe
Live performance: Saturday, September 20, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
Fringe Festival, 1526 North American Street, Philadelphia
Music: Heath Allen & Dan Visconti
Libretto: John Jarboe in development with Sean Lally & ensemble
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

Andrei portrayed by Mary Tuomanen becomes Andy Warhol | photograph Dominic M. Mercier

Andrei portrayed by Mary Tuomanen becomes Andy Warhol | photograph Dominic M. Mercier

Who knew a great yoga class could do more than increase your strength and flexibility? Apparently, a particularly bone-crushing class inspired an artistic partnership between senior managers at Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe. The end result? Andy: A Popera–an original and provocative exploration into the life of the godfather of pop art offered up for the 2015 Philly Fringe Festival.

The evening began in an art gallery adjacent to the warehouse performance space called Bahdeebahdu. Preshow festivities included dressing up as a Campbell’s Soup can (#iamasoupcan), enjoying the Bearded Ladies’ refreshing party punch, and eyeing hulking chandeliers crafted from found materials. The preshow was a window into what was to come–a hedonistic and provocative night of popera, full of surprises.

At the preshow, bohemian guests mingled with other audience members. These bohemians eventually became characters in the popera, which was totally fitting. Even as audience members, they possessed an I’m-extra-special quality that would  have attracted someone like Andy Warhol, who developed a love affair with celebrity culture.

The band wore boxes on their heads as the audience entered the warehouse littered with boxes. Young Andy crawled out of box to start the show, a box symbolizing his extreme introversion and his being sheltered due to a rare childhood disease called chorea.

Mary Tuomanen as Andrei and his over protective Slovakian mother Julia played by Malgorzata Kasprzycka

Mary Tuomanen as Andrei and his over protective Slovakian mother Julia played by Malgorzata Kasprzycka | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

On page 11 of the program, the audience is explicitly warned about interactive nature of the show, that by the act of attending, one consents to being filmed and photographed. Several people in the audience got their 15 minutes of fame as the result of being filmed and broadcast on the large overhead screen or pulled onto stage.

While the popera unfurled itself in a warehouse converted to a theatre for the occasion, we were simultaneously introduced to many other Andy’s sung by the well-trained Opera Phila chorus members as well as the flamboyant “stars” of Warhol’s famous “Factory” productions.

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Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) creates several replicas of himself, known as Andy | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Composers Allen and Visconti created a vehicle which effectively showcased the cabaret voices of The Bearded Ladies as well as the glorious operatic tones of Opera Philadelphia singers. Part exploration, part clever homage, part burlesque, Andy: A Popera reminded me of the sensational contemporary opera Anna Nicole, which is also a biopic of a highly dysfunctional American blonde freak of nature. (Hint: Would LOVE to see Anna Nicole come to Philly, too.)

Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) and Andy (Mary Tuomanen)

Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) and Andy (Mary Tuomanen) | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Actor/playwright Mary Tuomanen was extraordinary as Andrei and later Andy. She conveyed a naturalness portraying and singing Andy that seemed to suggest Andy was born for the life he led–an authentic artist whose individuality couldn’t be dimmed by societal strictures. Tuomanen and Kristen Bailey as Superstar Edie had a superstar turn atop a hightop cardboard  box in Act 1.

Another highlight of Act I was the scene Marilyn’s Baptism by Paint, devoted to Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych of 50 photos showing Marilyn Monroe as not just sex symbol but as a person.

Warhol's Marilyn Diptych

Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych

While critics might claim that anyone can create pop art like the Marilyn Diptych, the point Andy: A Popera makes is that only one person did, and Warhol changed the landscape of art as a result. An homage to the work featured a musical rainbow of Marilyns singing and prancing about on the stage.

 Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith)

Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith) | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Actor Sean Lally had his fifteen minutes of fame as Joseph the ecdysiast, who is outfitted with a banana costume as part of Andy’s entourage before he peels it all off. (And I do mean all.) While his physique and performance certainly inspired, he is also deserving of praise for his meaningful work as co-librettist with John Jarboe. What a richly textured and deeply-layered work from which one emerges with new or renewed understanding of Andy Warhol and the pop art revolution!

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Joe (Sean Lally) is a Warhol Superstar who dresses as a banana | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Top performance honors must be awarded to Scott McPheeters portraying the drag queen Candy. Sometimes Candy sang her own numbers and sometimes she was voiced by Opera Phila sopranos. Every moment McPheeters was on stage was electrified by his presence.

Candy (Scott McPheeters) performs her big Death Scene

Candy (Scott McPheeters) performs her big Death Scene | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Candy’s Death Scene was a tour de force. Bravo, McPheeters. Brava, Candy.

One of the opera’s most grating characters was Valerie Solanas played by Kate Raines. Valerie was a radical feminist who published the SCUM MANIFESTO, and who shot and nearly killed Andy for misplacing one of the scripts in 1968. Raines played her as a paranoid schizophrenic without apology, which resulted in the audience growing tired of her, as perhaps Warhol and his entourage did. No song stylist, her numbers were difficult to listen to, becoming more strident as her paranoia increased. Her second act departure was welcomed.

Val (Kate Raines) hijacks the Popera to perform her own opera

Val (Kate Raines) hijacks the Popera to perform her own opera | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Sadly even Andy’s mother Julia Warhola eventually demands her fifteen minutes of fame in Act II, while Andy recovers from the shooting, a la Mama Rose in Gypsy.

The popera ellipsed Andy’s career a bit too aggressively in the 70s, quickly advancing to his death in the 80s. The program notes that the two companies collaborated on the show for two years, releasing it in bits and pieces. While the show ran long, the second act was underdeveloped compared to the first. Perhaps more Act II and less Act I would give the show more dramatic balance.

Andy: A Popera forced Opera Phila and The Bearded Ladies to create art together in a new way. The Philly Fringe and the arts landscape is richer for this spirited collaboration. While social media, it seems, can cough up 15 minutes of fame for almost anyone, this show reminds us that Andy Warhol did it a time well before our current intoxication with celebrity culture.

I raise a Dixie cup of vodka, cranberry juice, and Tang to Andy: A Popera. It’s not every day that the audience gets to wear a soup can, process through a giant vagina, or witness full frontal nudity in the name of opera. Bring on Anna Nicole.

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Opera Phila tells poignant tale of jazz in one word: Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

The cast of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird presented by Opera Phila

Operatoonity.com review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a world premiere co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia with Gotham Chamber Opera
Live performance: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia
Music: Daniel Schnyder
Libretto: Bridgette A. Wimberly
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee singing the title role Charlie Parker’s Yardbird | Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

It is a rich and thrilling time in which to live when the world of opera boldly embraces the world of jazz. Virtuosos from one musical realm inspire virtuosity from another, specifically bebop or the style of jazz invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that employed lightning fast riffs and sophisticated chord structures.

Opera Philadelphia presented a moving homage to the legacy of Charlie Parker with a world premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. The premise intrigues. On the day of Parker’s death, March 12, 1955, he arrives at Birdland to write his final masterpiece. There he encounters significant figures from his past including his mother, his past wives, his heroin dealer, and even Dizzy Gillespie until his body is identified, and he passes over into the next realm.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this work represents where modern opera needs to go: embracing current and timely myths and legends rather than those tales that have been done and overdone by classical composers.

Though robust, Daniel Schnyder’s musical score didn’t embrace as many dimensions as Charlie Parker’s did. Yes, Parker defined bebop together with Dizzy Gillespie, but he also played standards better than any saxophonist of his generation. I was hoping for more diversity of sound, a bit more convention and less aberration, more light and dark throughout. However, Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto was poignant and honest–a stunning treatment.

In the scene called ” Calvary,” Parker’s mother Addie and first wife Rebecca sing a tender duet of loss, each echoing the other’s words:

Ain’t easy, it ain’t easy to be a mother, a wife to a strong black man
This land ain’t no place for a jazz bird, for a jazz bird
For a jazz bird like my man got dreams

yardbird_004

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee was ideally voiced for the role. Vocally, he’s a monster, to borrow a term from jazz referring to a musician with chops that simply don’t quit. While Charlie Parker became addicted to heroin through no fault of his own–he was recovering from a debilitating accident–he became a drug addict nonetheless. Brownlee is, well, somewhat of a boy scout. Or at least that’s how he comes off onstage. Perhaps he is wild and raucous offstage–who knows? Regardless, a heroin addict is a theatrical challenge for the wholesome-looking Brownlee to portray convincingly.

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Soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Charlie’s first wife Rebecca and soprano Angela Brown as Charlie’s mother Addie.

The women in this show were a tour de force. Malleable, versatile, and adaptive, they were more than believable in their roles as discarded women, ex-wives, and illicit lovers. Angela Brown was the loving, long-suffering mother, Addie Parker whose son’s downward spiral evoked audience empathy since that she tells him he has become mean, either from the drugs or the success. She knows she has a prodigy in Charlie and can only wring her hands at his self-destructive choices. She sang with beauty and despair at his wanton choices and was warmly rewarded for her performance at curtain call.

AVA grad Chrystal Williams has been delightful in every role I’ve been lucky enough to catch her in at AVA and Glimmerglass. She can take on any role with sensitivity and believability. She has a clear, powerful soprano voice and tremendous stage presence, and I can’t wait to see her in her next role.

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Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Parker’s third wife Doris.

All of Parker’s wives evidenced incomprehensible devotion to him, despite his rejection and infidelity. Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker and Rachel Sterrenberg as his fourth wife Chan brightened the stage with each appearance. Each had soaring voices and loads of presence on stage. While they each must have loved Charlie for the same reasons, it was hard to believe he could have cheated on either of these desirable women if he’d been of sound mind.

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Bird dies in the hotel suite of wealthy jazz patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter or “Nica,” who endures life-shattering censure and scorn because a black man died in her segregated hotel suite. This lovely heiress, sung by Tamara Mumford with elegance and compassion, helped the audience better appreciate how much sheer appeal and charisma that Charlie Bird Parker possessed.

Tamara Mumford as Bird's patroness Nica.

Tamara Mumford as Bird’s patroness Nica.

From “Powder Her Nose” to “Silent Night” to “Dark Sisters,” it is vitally important to have a company with Opera Philadelphia’s resources and polish introducing contemporary works to today’s operagoers. Someone I greatly respect once said that if today’s opera could combine the melody of the classic works with the relevance of contemporary story, they’d have the ideal marriage of qualities to move opera forward to new audiences in the 21st century. Keep the new work and the chamber operas coming, Opera Phila. You are doing a tremendous service to the art form. Operagoers are indebted to you for your willingness to take chances and advance opera in the new millennium.

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Opera Phila’s ‘Don Carlo’ oddly satisfying

Operatoonity.com review: Don Carlo presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Giuseppi Verdi; text by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Live performance: Sunday, April 26, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

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Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo |photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

The afternoon’s performance began with an announcement that role of Princess Eboli would be sung by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubenova, who would warble from the wings while Michele DeYoung who suffered from bronchitis would act out the role only, lipsyncing throughout. One had to divide one’s attention three ways whenever Princess Eboli appeared–between the raked stage, the wings, and the supertitles.

The unveiling of an incomprehensible design concept followed–an octagonal backdrop that left me scratching my head because I didn’t understand how it related to story of the King of Spain marrying his son’s fiancée, a French princess, to end the war between France and Spain. The idea that one of the most powerful leaders of the Western world pined that the woman he stole from his son didn’t really love him may be a commonly romanticized Verdi sensibility but seemed ludicrous based on the actions of world leaders today.

Finally, at the beginning of the second half, an announcement was made that bass baritone Eric Owens, the show’s most luminous performer, was not feeling well and asked for the audience’s forbearance in the event his powerhouse aria wasn’t at its best.

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip II | courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

While none of those items individually are deal breakers, they did lend themselves to an unusual experience collectively. The human voice may be the frailest of instruments–we all know that. Nonetheless, the audience is disappointed when it fails the performers in the show they are so expectant to see.

Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

(L-r) Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

As the lovelorn Don Carlo, New York tenor Dimitri Pittas was simply a dream. He looked the role and sung with unrelenting power and fluid grace. Singing the role of his former fiancée Elisabeth was soprano Leah Crocetto, who sang sweetly and precisely but was not ideally suited for the role physically as Don Carlo’s lover, coveted by men.

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Ekaterina Gubanova

Ekaterina Gubanova

While no one would wish bronchitis on any performer, DeYoung’s illness did offer a first-time opportunitiy to hear Gubanova sing Princess Eboli. She recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera and was in top voice. She sings with temerity and a sultry black swan quality. I will certainly be looking for opportunities to see her perform in the near future. She was mesmerizing–merely singing opera in concert.

Baritone Troy Cook from Quakertown, Pennsylvania was ideally cast as the passionate Rodrigo who convinces Carlo to ask his father for governorship of Flanders, becomes King Philip’s pawn, and loses his life. He has a compelling presence on stage with a lyric baritone that is beautiful and powerful.

The biggest name on the bill was Metropolitan Opera star Eric Owens as King Philip. Despite the disclaimer that he wasn’t feeling well, his second-half aria where he laments that fact that Elisabeth never loved him was a showstopper. I have seen Owens perform several times, and if he could have sung that aria better than he did that afternoon, it would have been an operatic miracle. That being said, it does detract from one’s willing suspension of disbelief to be notified that he was ill. I was half expecting him to collapse on stage throughout because the aria is so physically and emotionally taxing.

As evil and selfish as he is, somehow King Philip doesn’t emerge from this story as the Numero Uno Baddie. That would be the The Grand Inquisitor sung with chilling menace by bass Morris Robinson.

Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

(L-r) Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

Yes, this opera does remind the audience that the reign of the Spanish Inquisition was one of the darkest periods in Western history. Not an easy feat. Consider all the other major contenders. However, did the production have to look so dark? The costumes varied from black to jet black, the set was dark and enigmatic throughout with dark atmospheric lighting, the storyline is relentlessly dark, and the overall effect was, well, oppressive. Sometimes dark becomes darker with the occasional infusion of light and lightness.

One such reprieve very early on was the Women’s Chorus singing as Elisabeth’s attendants. They were lovely to hear and see. Remarkable that the most oppressed sound and look light and airy in this opera and the oppressors dark and heavy.

Many elements made the show oddly satisfying, the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra notwithstanding. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, the orchestra delivered one of the most consistently striking and admirable performances of the show.

This was an ambitious show, even for Opera Philadelphia. Often in partnership with other companies, in this case WNO and Minnesota Opera, they continue to offer important and challenging works and not just those that commonly appear in the repertoire. They deserve kudos for performing complex operas that aren’t always easy to enjoy. They are making their mark in the opera firmament by being brave and often upstart, demonstrating there’s room for more than one premier company on the East Coast.

 

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