Category Archives: 21st Century Opera

Why co-productions? @OperaPhila exec explains

Following the success of Opera Philadelphia’s Turandot–a co-production with several other renowned companies– I thought it would be valuable to reach out to that company to better understand the co-production and why it has become a mainstay of their season.

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David Levy, Opera Philadelphia

Opera Phila’s Vice President of Communications Frank Luzi confirmed that much of what is offered these days at Opera Philadelphia is co-produced. Some shows like Turandot have gone to many cities over many years and other new works like Cold Mountain are co-produced with a few key cities in mind.

Luzi suggested I speak with David Levy, Senior Vice President of Artistic Operations at Opera Philadelphia. Levy oversees the production, music and artistic administration, and operations for the Opera. He has put together numerous co-producing deals during his career. Coincidentally, he was hired the same year David Devan was hired as General Director.

As a bit of background, Levy came to Opera Philadelphia as Director of Production in 2011, following five years in the same position with Kentucky Opera. From 2000 to 2006 he worked at Washington National Opera as Artistic Administration Manager. He received his M.F.A. in Stage Lighting Design from UCLA in 2000. Between 1994 and 1997 he held various stage management, production and design positions with Washington National Opera and his hometown company Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He received his B.A. in Theater Arts from Duke University in 1994.

Welcome to Operatoonity, Mr. Levy. 

The number of co-productions at Opera Phila has increased in the several years. Was this a strategic decision to move in this direction? The company wanted to strategically partner with other companies and look for other partnerships. Co-productions are partnerships. Opera Phila wanted to contribute new works and create new ways to present current work.

 

Can you contrast a co-production with a rental (or bus and truck show) for Operatoonity readers? There are a number of ways companies can produce opera. We can survey the landscape of productions and, for instance, simply rent a production to then populate with our orchestra, chorus, and regional director. Opera Phila is doing less and less of that. More frequently, we seek to enter into a consortium with another company, to be in from the ground floor.
There is s huge marketplace for presenters. Broadway in Philly is a presenter. Opera Phila is a producing organization. We help develop the production in part if not in whole. We gravitate towards new works that will allow us to have our imprint. We want to trust artists to do their work. There is never an instance when we don’t have input on what goes on our stage. If we are committed to a title, we’ll do it ourselves.

 

How do you select the titles that are ideal for new productions?  Dark Sisters was a co-commission with Gotham Chamber Opera, with whom we shared resources.  
Dark Sisters, a new chamber opera co-production by Opera Phila and Gotham Chamber Opera

Dark Sisters, a new chamber opera co-production by Opera Phila and Gotham Chamber Opera

Cold Mountain was a co-commission with Sante Fe Opera. By using commissioning partners, companies are able to create new works and get the music on the page.  We are continuing to create new works and search for partners.
Opera Phila's five-star production of "Cold Mountain"

Opera Phila’s five-star production of “Cold Mountain”

Turandot is not a new work, but it is not often produced compared to other Puccini operas. Could you outline the process for Turandot becoming a co-production? Turandot is a unique animal. David Devan goes back a long time with an idea to champion Turandot here. Some company has to do it first–initiate, build the show, manage the production. It was pitched in 2008 and then scrapped in 2008.  Eventually, it came around full circle, with Opera Philadelphia connecting with Minnesota Opera [and others]. Within that framework, this production had our imprint: our orchestra, our chorus, our casting, our people, and our conductor.

 

Have you seen the results that you anticipated from these increased co-productions measured by ticket sales, critical acclaim, enhanced artistic value, etc.?  We are seeing growth in a lot of areas. Turandot set a record in terms of single ticket sales revenue. It played to full houses. We learn a lot doing co-productions. They give creative teams a chance to revisit or bring nuance to the show, perhaps bring more to it the second time.

 

How do you find other companies who wish to co-produce? Perhaps this is easier than what one thinks in the digital age? Or is more contacts and networking? This is more about good old fashioned networking. We’ll travel to see something or meet the leadership team and talk about future projects. Opera American hosts an annual conference that serves our industry and is a good connection for networking. All the partners for Turandot came in through good old fashioned networking. As partners, we decided who the directing and design team should be as well as budgets and timelines for production.

 

What does the future hold for your company and co-productions? We hope to find more partners because the time is now. We love to reach out to artists to say let’s figure out a time and place for you to come here. We have basic artistic tenants–to energize artists and audiences, in that order. Christine Goerke wanted to sing Turandot. Missy Mazzoli (Breaking the Waves) wanted to compose.

 

And because this is an Operatoonity interview, Mr. Levy, how about some lightning round questions:
Favorite opera: Salome in St. Louis
Favorite composer: Strauss
Favorite Italian composter: Puccini
Favorite Puccini opera: Act III of La bohème; last act of Otello
Favorite aria: Trio from Der Rosenkavalier
* * *
 Next up for Opera Philadelphia? Rossini’s Tancredi featuring celebrated mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.

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Haunting #TheCell Hits Philly for Nat’l Opera Week; Opera Upper West Not Phoning It In

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A special seasonal prediction from the all-knowing and all-seeing Mme. Operatoonity:

Listen to me, darlings. Your favorite haunts for Halloween weekend are going to be the Ruba Club in downtown Philly and the Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr because of a powerful double bill of immersive opera theatre, courtesy of Opera Upper West.

The New York based company announces three Philly-area performances of #TheCell, a contemporary pairing of Menotti’s The Telephone and Poulenc’s La voix humaine in celebration of National Opera Week.

Thematically, the work combines two amazingly complementary sides of dramatically different pieces featuring young lovers whose passions are obscured in the technology that binds them–the dreaded cell phone–in one clever and often haunting masterwork. Though both pieces revolve around a mobile device, I promise you that this talented and spirited young company is definitely not phoning it in.

The chamber opera runs Friday, October 28 at 8pm at the Ruba Club (416 Green Street, Philadelphia 19123) and on Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, October 30 at the Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre at Harcum College (750 Montgomery Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010).

The production stars Rachel Sigman as Elle, Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy, and Matthew Lulofs as Ben and is directed by Alexandra Fees, artistic director of Opera Upper West, who promises that operagoers will never hear their phones ring the same again after experiencing this work.

Rachel Sigman sings Elle in Poulenc's La voix humaine

Rachel Sigman sings Elle in Poulenc’s La voix humaine

The New York Times has lauded the work as a “A captivating experience…almost voyeuristic,” and by New York Classical Review as “beautifully crafted, and troubling to watch.”

Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy and Matthew Lulofs as Ben in Menotti's The Telephone

Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy and Matthew Lulofs as
Ben in Menotti’s The Telephone

I stopped in on a run-through yesterday at Harcum College. #TheCell augurs to be perfect Halloween weekend fare because its powerful themes, shared in such an intimate setting, will haunt you–that’s the trick part. The performances will delight you–and that’s the treat.

Alexandra Fees took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about #TheCell for Operatoonity readers.

How did you decide to combine these two pieces in a single bill?
The Telephone and La voix humaine feature strong female leads obsessively immersed in their phones to gain connections that have already been lost. The two operas of 30 minutes each are musically and dramatically opposite: The Telephone (Menotti) is a fresh and hilarious farce, revealing a snapshot of modern relationships as Ben tries to propose to Lucy who can’t stop texting. La voix humaine (Poulenc) is an exposed and sensual drama in which a woman is stuck in a murderous room on the phone with her ex-lover. Thematically, however, these two pieces intertwine as young lovers attempt to bypass the technology that isolates them.

As Isaac Mizrahi, honorary chairman of National Opera Week, said of social media: “The greatest parts of our civilization are being tested.” Our cell phones simultaneously connect and isolate us. Rachel Sigman, starring in La voix humaine, calls phones our “modern monsters”: Phones carry our secrets. Phones are with us at all times. Phones create intense anxiety at the thought of their death. Phones, as in #TheCell, create multiple levels of truth at any moment, separating the voice from the body — what is said from what is meant. A person can be anywhere and convince you they are somewhere else.

The compositions of Menotti and Poulenc, at one time dramatized, now seem eerily prophetic and on target in today’s world.  This work is especially appropriate at Halloween, where we come face-to-face with our monsters that are typically overlooked.

Where did this show premiere and when?
This show premiered this summer at Cafe Tallulah’s underground cocktail lounge for the inaugural NY Opera Fest hosted by NY Opera Alliance, a consortium of independent opera companies in New York.

How did you choose Philadelphia for a location for this production?
At the production’s conception, we were looking to give more opportunities to emerging singers, especially women, by performing the chamber opera with several different casts and observing how the show would change based upon the actors in each role.  The Philadelphia cast features Rachel Sigman as Elle, Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy, Matthew Lulofs as Ben, and is accompanied by Kat Bowman.

We are thrilled to be hosted by two great venues: Ruba Club (Oct 28) is a historic Russian Club in downtown Philadelphia with a vintage cabaret space and cocktail bar. At Friday night’s kickoff, we will have an after party with drinks, dancing and billiards! The Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre (Oct 29-30) at Harcum College is an intimate space in the heart of Bryn Mawr. Holding a rich history of experimental theatre, the facility was recently restored in honor of Kevin D. Marlo, a passionate actor who was killed during the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center.

How was Opera Upper West founded?
Opera Upper West was founded by myself (Alexandra Fees) and Aine Hakamatsuka, two New York based singers, to explore immersive opera as authentic drama rooted in the human experience. The first season featured The Marriage of Figaro as a real-time wedding in which audience members were the guests, complete with champagne toast, wedding cake, and throwing of the bouquet.

Can you characterize Opera Upper West’s niche?
Opera Upper West draws people who are looking for unique entertainment and social experiences, who want to explore something new, and who are interested in experiencing music theatre (opera) for the first time. For those who are seasoned operaphiles, our events are an opportunity to breathe in the musical drama from up close.

What are your future plans for the company? Short-term? Long-term?
Opera Upper West invests in educating emerging singers in a new approach to acting in opera, beginning with understanding the human experience and applying that understanding to the roles we play onstage. In the future, we would love to set up sister-boutique companies throughout the United States so that Americans have the opportunity to feel ownership over the art form and can look forward to experiencing chamber opera theatre as a social event.

Is there a role for chamber opera (a more intimate opera experience) the way to attract more millennial operagoers?
Creating a social event within a chamber opera, especially one concerning technology and its ironic ability to break down lines of connection, is a riveting experience for anyone involved in these digital platforms. We guarantee that you will never hear your phone ring the same way again.

Anything else you want to tell me about this show or yourselves?
Tickets are $35 General Admission and $45 VIP Premium Seating and can be reserved at www.OperaUpperWest.Eventbrite.com. Cash Bar available at Ruba Club, and Halloween after-party included every night.

For more information, please contact
Alexandra Fees, Artistic Director
operaupperwest@gmail.com
(256) 682-9912

 

 

 

 

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Turandot a triumph for @OperaPhila

Operatoonity.com review: Turandot presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, October 2,  2016, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto:  Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

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Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Some say Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, unfinished when he died, is his tour de force. Puccini lovers including a number of Operatoonity.com readers cite its adventurous musical qualities. Lush orchestration with exotic Asian elements, both instrumental and compositional. Not to mention opera’s most famous tenor aria “Nessun Dorma.”

Puccini’s magnum opus may prove to be Opera Philadelphia’s tour de force this season. Their Turandot was nothing short of fearless and peerless spectacle, boldly embracing both the mystery and vibrancy of Asian culture on every level–sight, sound, movement, concept, staging, lighting, costume. It was the most mystical, moving mainstage production I’ve witnessed in five years.

 Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

However, not because of the title character, sung in this production by dramatic soprano Christine Goerke. The storyline builds up Turandot’s first entrance so unrelentingly and thoroughly that the audience’s anticipation of their first glimpse and hearing of the frosty princess is palpable. Perhaps only ghosts of opera greats Sutherland and Tebaldi could satisfy this pent-up expectation for an imperiously icy Turandot who sings in unforgettable form.

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) addresses Calaf, who has announced he will attempt to solve her deadly riddles. | ohotos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) addresses Calaf, who has announced he will attempt to solve her deadly riddles. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Goerke sung a serviceable Turandot but not a great one. She was stronger in her third act duets with Prince Calaf than in the second, when she first appears. She screeched a few high notes in “In questa reggia,” the aria during which she explains that the obscure riddles are intended to avenge her ancestress, killed when an evil warlord conquered her kingdom.

“An evening never recovers from a cracked high note. It is exactly like a bullfight. You are not allowed one mistake.”  — Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) 

Granted, this may be the most difficult soprano role Puccini ever wrote, requiring the talents of a legendary soprano like Birgit Nilsson. However, Goerke sang the role at the Met last season. If she is considered one of the best of her contemporaries, that is not the Goerke I heard that afternoon.

 Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her.

Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her.

By contrast, from the first note of her first aria, soprano Joyce El-Khoury sang a meltingly lovely Liù that compelled listeners to lean in to capture every note.  The show may be entitled Turandot, but in this production, El-Khoury’s Liù captured the devotion of the audience and the heart of this critic.

Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) declares he will put his life on the line to win Princess Turandot’s heart. Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) declares he will put his life on the line to win Princess Turandot’s heart. Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

As The Prince with No Name, tenor Marco Berti, faces a daunting professional challenge because “Nessun Dorma” is all but attached to the ubiquitous Pavarotti version. Berti’s take was beautiful and powerful, and the audience lauded him for his effort.  His overall performance was sturdy, if a little wooden, especially when Liù pours out her secret love for him. Based on his performance, the supertitle of his reaction to her heartfelt, heartbreaking confession should have been, “Meh.”

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Bass Morris Robinson’s performance as King Timur was pitch perfect in every way. His voice was in excellent form and his sympathetic characterization of an exiled, broken ruler authentically and deeply felt.

While the opera company did not furnish a production photo of Ping, Pong, and Pang to share with Operatoonity.com readers, much to my chagrin, this reviewer would be remiss not to fete them as a highlight of this production. Daniel Belcher as Ping, Joseph Gaines as Pong, and Julius Ahn as Pang were frighteningly entertaining, at times barbaric, and also, in one shining number, highly sympathetic, as they recounted their previously happy lives in peaceful hometowns before being summoned into service for the Princess of Death.

Now that’s range!

Perhaps Opera Phila didn’t want to fuel any more complaints of ethnic stereotyping by providing pictorial evidence of these portrayals. However, just like the fictional kingdom in which they serve, these characters were a brilliant mash-up of more world cultures than a Kia Soul commercial and no genuine cause for concern–at least in this production.

The entire opera chorus from the littlest priest to all the villagers living under Turandot’s tyranny (the show’s Greek chorus) to the lithest dancer deserves kudos. So does conductor Corrado Rovaris and his versatile opera orchestra, whether playing gongs, indigenous instruments, or Western ones merely tuned to sound like they are native to the Far East.

Riddle me this, Operatoonity.com. If the performances weren’t five stars with every turn (except for El-Koury and Robinson), why the five-star rating? The direction, the orchestra, the spectacle, the high concept were out of this world.

Director and Choreographer Renaud Doucet staged an arresting, layered production that must be experienced. The stunning lighting, staging, and choreography of this show have already premiered at companies with whom Opera Philadelphia is co-producing this show including Minnesota Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, and Seattle Opera, but (with any luck) not all.

A singularly original and richly satisfying opera. That’s what Opera Phila brought to the City of Brotherly Love. Turandot was a triumph. Simply put, Turandot is Opera Philadelphia.

 

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Opera Phila’s ‘Cold Mountain’ a Scorching Success

Operatoonity.com review: presented by Opera Philadelphia (the sixth opera in their American Repertoire Program)
Live performance: Sunday, February 14, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Jennifer Higdon
Libretto: Gene Scheer
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

Opera Phila's five-star production of "Cold Mountain"

Opera Phila’s five-star production of COLD MOUNTAIN

I am the luckiest reviewer in the world. I was privileged to experience an incredibly beautiful and poignant production of COLD MOUNTAIN, a new contemporary opera presented by Opera Philadelphia this past Valentine’s Day. How fitting. I left my heart in the Academy of Music that afternoon with tears staining my cheeks and my unabashed affection for this Pennsylvania company filling me with pride on my ride home to Lancaster.

Wait a minute. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? The more critical it is, the better the review, right? My mission with Opera Philadelphia is different from many reviewers’, as I see it. It’s not to show how learned and accomplished I am. It’s not to display my facility with language. My task here is to use this digital bully pulpit to share with the world, and I do mean the world thanks to the Internet, the extraordinary arts opportunities Opera Philadelphia is bringing to the East Coast of the United States.

Full disclosure: I adore Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. I’ve seen every production since they launched this initiative in 2011, beginning with DARK SISTERS, simply an excellent chamber opera. The American Repertoire Program points to the future of opera in America–contemporary, original operas not simply silly regietheater representations of classic operas that some companies trot out for audiences.

COLD MOUNTAIN was spectacular. And my expectations were sky-high. Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is my favorite contemporary book. I snuffled and wept through an entire box of tissues devouring it. When Opera Philadelphia announced this production, I almost couldn’t wait for February. And who among us looks forward to February? Opera Phila offered a singularly rewarding opera experience. So good that I had to find new five-star art to post for this show.

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Jarrett Ott as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada in COLD MOUNTAIN

The stage was set was fully visible upon entering the theatre–ramshackle boards in such disarray I immediately conjured media images of the World Trade Center after 9-11. Foreboding, devastation, and senseless loss crept into this  viewer’s soul before the orchestra has struck a single note of Jennifer Higdon’s extraordinary work.

Higdon tackled a novel of depth and scope and successfully translated it into a contemporary opera. I was fortunate to receive a copy of the education program that Opera Phila shares with school students and reading it brought Higdon’s score alive anew. I was reminded of all the distinctive elements in her score to evoke time and place–fiddle music, knee-slapping percussionists, the sounds of twinkling stars made with knitting needles, and strains of mountain music throughout. The opera opens with the sinister leader of the Home Guard singing a folk tune from the era, and the effect was chilling.

Because I am such a fan of the novel, high expectations loomed for Gene Scheer’s libretto, too. The language Scheer put to the aria Metal Age will rip out your spleen:

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“Thousands and thousands in bright blue, shiny, factory made uniforms. We shot them and loaded. Shot them and loaded. For five hours, thousands and thousands of men…and there in the middle of it, a drummer boy crying, bleeding, dying…He shot me in the neck. The metal age has come.”
–Inman’s aria “The Metal Age.”

If you don’t know the story, it’s nearly a contemporary telling of Homer’s Odyssey with a little Les Miserables thrown in for more an extra heaping helping of pathos. W.P. Inman (Odysseus) is a Civil War deserter struggling to return home to Cold Mountain see Ada Monroe (Penelope), the remembrance of whom is the only thing keeping him alive despite severe privation and dogged persecution by Teague (Javert), the leader of the crew hunting down deserters like stray dogs.

As Inman, baritone Jarrett Ott, who stepped in for Nathan Gunn, effected the most thoroughly broken man without the affect of melodrama. Since I admit to having fangirled Gunn in previous reviews, I thought I’d  be disappointed with Ott, but was very happily surprised with his interpretation. He fully inhabited Inman’s character while singing the role with power and polish.

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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was luminous as Ada. She is the consummate performer–a star in every aspect. Beautiful to hear and see, she made her Opera Phila debut in this show. I predict Philadelphia was treated to a performance of one whose star will quickly rise even higher very soon. Brava, Miss Leonard.  You were grace, elegance, talent, and depth personified in this production. Would she have shone so brightly opposite Gunn? One hardly cared after a point.

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W.P. Inman ( Jarrett Ott) recalls a happier time with Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) before the Civil War.

Ruby Thewes, Ada’s friend and partner, is a delicious role in the novel but a difficult one to score and to sing. Ruby is as down-home and prickly as Ada is refined and noble. Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall did a serviceable job in the role. Ruby’s character can be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard. While grit makes for an interesting spoken role, it can be overwhelming for a performer to convey in song and for the audience to hear. By necessity, Ruby lost some of pluck going from the page to a musical score, which is the show’s only real shortcoming.

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Ruby (Cecelia Hall) encounters her estranged father Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette), who has also deserted the war

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ star power crackled as the evil leader of the Home Guard Teague, the Javert-inspired character. Yes, in this opera, the tenor is the bad guy, and the the baritone gets the girl. Hunter Morris was so masterfully evil, so convincing as the consummate Confederate baddie that he was soundly booed at curtain call. I smiled inwardly remembering this “baddie”performing a darling lullaby in cabaret at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Gentleman’s Night Out only a summer ago, accompanying himself on his guitar. He was the picture of haunting perfection in this production.

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Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) uses Javert-like tactics in hunting down Confederate deserters.

I am such a fan of bass Kevin Burdette, who is a chameleon of a performer and an extraordinary opera singer (and I don’t really like basses–truth be told.) I have seen him be hilarious and also gut-wrenchingly despicable, depending on the role. I wanted his part to be larger as Ruby’s father Stobrod. But the opera is the proper length at two and a half hours with one intermission, so that is merely self-indulgent desire on my part.

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Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette) and Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard)

This tale of Inman–a quiet, private hero who has witnessed a depth of brutality no decent person should ever experience, who is redeemed only by Ada’s love–was a heroic effort for which all involved deserve highest praise. The orchestra under Corrado Rovaris,  the sweeping direction of Leonard Foglia, the ingenious completely functional dysfunctional set design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Brian Nason, and, of course, all the talented performers in the Opera Philadelphia Chorus turning in stunning cameos also made this production the shimmering, albeit soul-scorching, production it was.

I am deeply grateful for your artistic endeavors, Opera Philadelphia. I tried to choke back my tears during curtain call but they would not stop. The City of Brotherly Love has a treasure in this company.

A special Operatoonity.com shout-out to my press contact Frank Luzi, always a pleasure to work with, whose children were darling in the show.

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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

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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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Filed under 21st Century Opera, chamber opera, Live opera performance, North American Opera, opera star power, Previews, Regional opera