Category Archives: Collaborative opera

The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review

Operatoonity.com review: Oscar presented by Opera Philadelphia; a co-commission and co-production with The Sante Fe Opera
Live performance: Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Theodore Morrison
Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison
Photos: Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

4.0 stars

And the Oscar goes to . . . Opera Philadelphia!

It may be Oscar Weekend across the globe, but for the last two weekends, Opera Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love’s preeminent opera company, deserves an Oscar for offering the East Coast premiere of a new American opera of the same name, co-commissioned and co-produced with The Sante Fe Opera.

Oscar’s production values were exquisite. Philadelphia audiences were treated to a world-class performance by arguably the world’s most outstanding and in-demand countertenor David Daniels. But most importantly, a new American production was ushered into the repertoire–one with heft, musical beauty, and promise for a fresh new future for opera, one that isn’t reliant on tasteless regietheatre-style regurgitations of classic operas or endless reproductions of La Traviata.

Countertenor David Daniels played the title role of Oscar Wilde in a role written for him. Photo | Opera Philadelphia.

As a new production, as new productions are wont to be, the show itself had some imperfections, which is why I gave it four stars. While it was a noble choice to paint Wilde as a tragic hero, the parts of Wilde’s life highlighted in Oscar combine to recreate a sort of grim limbo.  From time immemorial, “new” productions have been refined or reworked based on audience and or critics’ reactions. While Theodore Morrison’s music was resonantly and refreshingly melodic, the overall tone of the show itself needed a little polishing and more seamless integration, as if Morrison and Cox couldn’t decide what kind of show it was supposed to be. Oscar is alternately a despairing commentary on insufferably rigid Victorian mores and occasionally broadly satirical while very rarely bright. Agreed, dehumanization and imprisonment of human beings because of their sexual preferences aren’t the stuff of uplifting subject matter.

While Oscar effectively showcased the stain of intolerance on humanity, it rarely conveyed Wilde’s bright and often biting wit. Wilde himself used humor to lampoon societal values during Queen Victoria’s time. Yet, there are only glimmers of his comedic genius in the libretto, lines such as, “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” The broad satire of Wilde’s trial to close Act I was nothing short of a tour de force:

The satirical representation of Wilde’s trial for indecency was a stellar scene in Oscar but also sadly creepy. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

However, irony might have also served this production. Generations of theatregoers derived intense pleasure and entertainment from a beloved playwright’s public genius but reveled in the condemnation of the same man’s private proclivities.  With such an unrelentingly dark treatment, more brightness would have made the dark scenes that more impactful. One broadly satirical scene does not an eye-popping production make.

Baritone Dwayne Croft sings the role of the ghost of Walt Whitman. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

One of the show’s welcome devices was making a narrator out of the ghost of American poet Walt Whitman, who sets the scene for the drama. Whitman met Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour but had passed away by the time Wilde reached the height of his fame. This from-the-grave commentary intrigued. Whitman ellipses the time between the premiere of  Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and his prosecution for “gross indecency.” Again, a bit more of Wilde’s life as the toast of London would have made his fall from grace that more deeply felt.

Baritone Dwayne Croft was perfect in the role of Whitman, which required an immortal grace, and he was equal to the task in voice and presence.

Without equivocation, the writers drove home Wilde’s obsession with his young lover Bosie. Making Oscar Wilde’s young lover a non-speaking balletic role was an inspired device, lending the production a welcome elegance and beauty.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau, a dancer from Western Australia, made a stunning Opera Philadelphia debut. Seán Curran’s choreography fit Luplau like a kid glove as Luplau dipped and glided into Wilde’s reverie, evoking the Irish-born playwright’s tortured longing for a sheerly lovely young man, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was committed to Wilde’s downfall. 

Australian dancer Reed Luplau as “Bosie” was the essence of sensual elegance. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

The roles of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris were expertly sung by soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden, a standout from last season’s Silent Night. Both performers valiantly endeavored to make their mark but were unfortunately burdened (pun wholly intended) by three very slow-moving scenes. While it is a time-honored operatic technique to comment on action that has occurred earlier, such as Frank’s infamous luncheon parties in the old days or Whitman’s devolution into poverty at his end, it’s not necessarily the most dramatically punchy technique.

Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden sang the roles of Wilde’s loyal friends. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

So, the show overall is flawed, but Opera Philadelphia’s execution was just about flawless. One can’t underestimate the value of their partnership with The Sante Fe Opera on this endeavor. These co-productions turn out to be much greater than the sum of their resources. Ingenious sets; world-class performances; inspired direction, lighting, and costumes are just a few values that one can expect when companies cooperate rather than compete. A very capable Opera Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Evan Rogister in his Opera Philadelphia debut showcased the compelling musical voices Morrison has created to tell the story, without overwhelming the singers.

The privations of jail led to Wilde’s deteriorating health and early death. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is taking on important work and more than a little risk with works like Oscar. They are informing and shaping the landscape of new American opera and will continue to do so with this season’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and next season with another East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer.  And the entire opera firmament is better and stronger for their daring to reach beyond what is known and comfortable.

 

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Voices carry Phila’s ‘Carmelites’

Dialogues of the Carmelites Opera Phila

Opertoonity.com ReviewDialogues of the Carmelites
Live Performance
March 9, 2014
Presented by Curtis Opera Theatre, in association with Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia

3-stars-out-of-5

 

Voices carry, the saying goes. But can they carry an entire production?

Several of the young voices representing the Curtis Opera Theatre program tasked to sing The Dialogues of the Carmelites at Philadelphia’s famed Kimmel Center were nothing of short of extraordinary. But expecting them to carry a show when the staging and other production elements lacked cohesiveness was asking too much.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Corrado Rovaris played Francis Poulenc’s capstone opera heroically. Alas, even supremely talented musicians couldn’t rescue a flawed show.

That’s because theater is part of opera. It’s even in the company’s name—Curtis Opera Theatre. If staging, lights, sets, and costumes aren’t as strong as the voices and the orchestra, the whole production suffers.  Theatrical elements shouldn’t supersede the voices (and we’ve all seen those operas), but they must inform and lift up the integrity of the whole work.

Carmelites Curtis Opera Theater

There aren’t many choral numbers in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but this hymn by the sisters was transcendent | photo by Cory Weaver

The selection of Carmelites as the next offering at the Perelman Theater held all the promise for a stunning production. It was the right size show for the space—a 650-seat venue with a modern affect. Curtis Opera Theatre had august partners in Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents. However, the devil is certainly in the details for a nuanced masterwork like Carmelites. Critical artistic choices on which the success of the show hinged handicapped this production.

The show lacked artistic coherence. The stage was annoyingly dark most of the time. To open the show, there were three large avant garde looking set pieces layered on the stage, which left little room for natural movement. Despite the modern design introduced, the first costumes seen were completely in period. Between acts, the big trendy set pieces were removed, leaving only one by the end of the show. In the middle of Act II, folding tables like those used at a flea market were hauled out for the scene featuring all the nuns working and singing, and turquoise-colored fiberglass chairs were set out, like those you might see in a local junior high school classroom. In the middle of this act, French soldiers stormed the convent to terrorize the sisters, but the soldiers wore modern dress, wielding hand guns, looking like a street gang from a rough Philly neighborhood. Why this choice was made—to mash up 18th Century French Revolution with 21st Century Street Gang—was hardly evident to this reviewer.

By casually slipping into the modern period midway through the second act, many in the audience were robbed of the power of story at its core: during the Reign of Terror, the Catholic Church was denounced as an enemy of the Revolution. The Church’s properties were confiscated to fill Revolutionary coffers, and women and men religious were branded as traitors. This included an order of devout Carmelite nuns who refused to renounce their faith and are guillotined in a breathtaking scene at the end of the opera.  A modern opera set during a brutal and tumultuous period in history past hardly needs updating to remain meaningful.

As the show progressed, clerics came onstage dressed conventionally and came back wearing modern street clothes. It was also never clear that Blanche returned home to find it ransacked, which informed her decision to choose martyrdom. The final pivotal scene in the opera– the execution of the sisters–was even diminished by its staging. The sisters were executed onstage while facing the audience while customary staging of this scene leaves something more to the imagination, yielding significantly greater dramatic impact.

Rachel Sterrenberg

Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche | photo by Cory Weaver

To sum up, director Jordan Fein  (and by association, all the other creatives on the bill) simply missed the mark with this one.

Absent an integrated artistic interpretation, the Curtis students left to bring off the show shone like the future stars they surely will be, very nearly succeeding. Tenor Roy Hage who sang the Chevalier for the closing performance was a magical talent on stage. As Chevalier, his stage time is limited, but his ovation at curtain call was not. In character, he has a luminescent quality about him. His lush lyric tenor enraptured the audience.

Also commendable was soprano Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche, Chevalier’s sister, who grows up in privilege but abandons it for a life of servitude with the Carmelites. She began a little stiffly in the first act. Once she shed the cumbersome period panniers for a simple nun’s habit, she warmed to her role, becoming a powerhouse by Act III.  This was despite some illogical staging that was highly distracting to audience members-yes, a fifth wall was introduced.

Show-stealing honors must go to soprano Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance.  Shafer is a gifted actress, and her voice was ideally suited to the role of the novitiate with a lighthearted, readily excitable manner.

Sarah Shafer

Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance | photo by Cory Weaver

As Mme. de Croissy, mezzo Shir Rozzen needed a bed for her death scene but was denied that simple set piece which would have helped tame her character who could only bust out all over the stage singing her dying aria.

Did the careless direction detract from Poulenc’s masterful score? Unfortunately it did, which might be the single worst shortcoming of this production, that it lacked a proper showcase for a seminal work.

Kudos to all the performers and musicians–you tried valiantly to carry this production. But in a perfect opera world, you shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

by Gale Martin

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, Reviews, young artists programs

ENO makes BIG splash with mini comp

If writing for opera sounds like something you’ve always wanted to try, but you never dreamed you’d have a chance to try it, you need to know about English National Opera’s (ENO) new Mini-Opera writing competition.

Somebody’s going to win BIG with something mini, and it might as well be you.

Who should enter this competition? The better question is who shouldn’t enter this competition. No one, that’s who. If you can write, compose, create with film, there are no barriers to trying your hand at writing opera.

But you better get on it–the script-writing portion is already underway.

See, the ENO is seeking the next generation of opera talent–librettists and writers, composers, and filmmakers–and has devised a brilliant way to engage up-and-coming artists.

And if you win the competition, you have a chance to be mentored for a year by some of the  most talented and successful creatives working in opera today: Jeremy Sams, Nico Muhly or Leo Warner.

ENO’s Mini-Operas has three parts:

  • Script Competition (March 26 to May 21)
  • Soundtrack Competition (June 4 to July 23)
  • Filmmaking  Competition (August 6 to September 24)

ENO has made the whole competition timeline available here.

Since every great opera starts with a libretto, that’s where this competition begins.

For starters, some wonderfully inspiring writers — Will Self, A.L. Kennedy and Neil Gaiman — have each generated seed stories. Those interested in entering the script competition must read the seed stories and pick one that inspires them to write a script for a 5-7 minute opera based on that story. In terms of inspiration, anything goes: a single word, title, a mood or even a character name, as the guidelines suggest. All scripts must be in English.

In May, ENO will pick 10 scripts going through to the next round.  Those scripts will become the seeds that people will compose soundtracks for in the next leg of the competition.  Remember that the script will be set to music by someone else and that words can take a lot longer to sing than to read, so “less is definitely more.”

Writers have until May 21 to write their scripts and enter them using ENO’s online form.

For those who might benefit from some extra coaching in the script-writing department, ENO’s  resident author Tamsin Collison has written examples for each story.  They plan to add more expert help to the site before the May 21 deadline, so do check back at the Mini-Operas site for more tips.

What do have to lose? Your mini-opera could be a BIG winner!

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‘Werther’ live webcast with James Valenti on Sunday, February 5

James Valenti in Werther live webcast

Minnesota Opera together with collaborators SoundQue and Opera Music Broadcast.com invite you to tune in for the first  live webcast of 2012, Massanet’s Werther starring James Valenti and Roxana Constantinescu, airing February 5, at 2 PM CT (8 PM GMT).

The webcast will be offered worldwide free of charge, which means no barriers of price and/or location. The webcast will further the company’s efforts to expand accessibility to live opera performance and exposure to Minnesota Opera’s artistic quality.

“Last year we started live video webstreaming of opera — every performance we have broadcast has averaged about 60-80,000 viewers, from over 20 countries,” says Kelly Rinne, music director of Opera Music Broadcast, explained in a recent interview on Operatoonity. “My goal is to do for the regional companies what the HD broadcasts did for the Met — our station already has the built-in audience through our use of social media. We just need the opera companies to step up and look to build their audience beyond the physical confines of the opera house.”

The live webcast advances the technology currently offered by the Met and other houses who provide free audio to selected performances: tomorrow, you can see AND hear Werther.  Just visit Opera Music Broadcast’s website to enjoy. It’s that simple.

So, why not give yourself an early valentine and tune in?

For the last threWerther live webcast from Minnesota Opera starring James Valenti on Feb 5th 2012e years, Minnesota Opera has made new media a priority, working with those at the vanguard of the fast-changing field of digital distribution for opera. This project is an opportunity for Minnesota Opera to become the first major American opera company to webcast its works through this emerging distribution channel. Thanks to major funding provided by the St. Paul Cultural star Program, Minnesota Opera’s production of Werther has the potential to reach exponentially greater audience members than it could in its one-week engagement on the Ordway stage.

The Cast webcast only
Werther, a poet James Valenti
Charlotte Roxana Constantinescu
Albert, her betrothed Gabriel Preisser
Sophie, Charlotte’s sister Angela Mortellaro
Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father Joseph Beutel
Schmidt, his friend John Robert Lindsey
Johann, his friend Rodolfo Nieto
Brühlmann, a young man Mark Thomas
Käthchen, a young woman Alison Schardin

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, Collaborative opera, opera and technology, Opera broadcasts, opera webcasts

COC steps out with New York ‘Nightingale’

COC's THE NIGHTINGALE at the Brooklyn Academy of Music / Photograph © 2011 Jack Vartoogian

More than a year after premiering in November 2009, the Canadian Opera Company‘s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables made its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).  

The centerpiece of this visionary production is Igor Stravinsky’s inspired take on the curiously songful bird of the emperor from the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Nightingale. Canadian director Robert Lepage reimagines the opera as an aquatic fantasy, transforming the orchestra pit into a luminescent lagoon teeming with half-submerged singers, puppet-piloted boats, and lashing dragons.  

Apparently, the COC/BAM collaboration is making headlines faster than a New York minute:  

“The first half of the program employs nimble acrobats and the most affecting and intricate puppetry . . .  the effect more splendid than the Imperial Palace scene in the Met’s popular production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” a Zeffirelli extravaganza.”
The New York Times  

Lepage . . . has packed this ‘Nightingale’ with so many visual delights that it would be entertaining even with less than outstanding singers.”
– The Associated Press  

“When [the COC Chorus] members simultaneously opened up their Chinese robes to reveal hitherto hidden puppets, it was pure magic—and the show was full of these moments of childlike wonder.”
— The New York Post  

“This night of zesty, folk-inflected songs and one-act operas by Igor Stravinksy . . . is theatrical and operatic bliss.”
– Time Out New York  

The production opened at BAM on March 1, 2011, and continues its engagement at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House through to March 6, 2011.  

 Congratulations, COC and BAM, and here’s to more such partnerships between Canadian and New York houses.

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Filed under Collaborative opera, North American Opera, Premieres