Category Archives: Concerts

COT’s double-bill is ‘good to great’ Review“Two by Victor Herbert”
Live Performance
March 22, 2014
Presented by Concert Operetta Theater, Philadelphia, PA




Composer Victor Herbert is perhaps best known (and only known?) for his two-act operetta Naughty Marietta.  As the Concert Operetta Theater of Philadelphia (COT) demonstrated this past weekend, they are keenly aware of dozens of other Herbert’s works–operettas, revues, musical comedies, and songplay because they have been presenting these pieces for years, most recently with their 2012 program Thine Alone! The Music of Victor Herbert.

The cast of "Two by Victor Herbert"

The cast of “Two by Victor Herbert”

So faithful patrons gathered at the Academy of Vocal Arts in downtown Philadelphia were primed for Two by Victor Herbert, ready for lush melodies and intricate harmonies and, dare I say, toe tappers?

And they most likely were startled to hear the first piece on the bill–Madeleine, a lyric opera in one act that had a very limited run of six performances at the Metropolitan Opera when it premiered in 1914. Definitely not a toe tapper.

The storyline, based on a French play, is droll: it recounts the disappointment of Madeleine Fleury, an opera prima donna who can’t persuade anyone who cares about her to dine with her on New Year’s Day. Yes, that sums up the plot. And yes, it is hard to take her chagrin seriously. If the opera is so dated as to be hard to appreciate, why not let it wither on the vine? Why resurrect it at all?

If Artistic and Executive Director Daniel Pantano can assemble a cast of talented singers and musicians like he did, well, why not resurrect it? Yes, this Herbert opera was panned in its time and cast off as a thinly-veiled Strauss for the excited and fragmentary manner in which it was written. But poor-man’s Strauss is not such a bad thing, is it? Some of the orchestration was sheerly lovely.

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Also, Madeleine offered a splendid showcase for voices, particularly female voices. Soprano Jessica Lenick as Madeleine sang an inspired “O Perfect Day,” turning in a commendable performance overall, though she occasionally strained to hit some of the opera’s high notes. Soprano Christina Chenes was a delight from her first steps on the tiny stage. Chenes has a warm quality to her soprano that wraps around the listener like a velvet shawl. Jonas Hacker and Paul Corujo sang solidly as Francois Duc d’Esterre and Didier, respectively, earning accolades of their own.

But ultimately the show belongs to Madeleine and, at least in this performance, perhaps the musical director and pianist Tim Ribchester as well, who together with violinist Philip Kates, played the opera as if it had been lain across their hearts to render well. On the whole, Madeleine was a good effort.

Much more to my liking, and the rest of the audience’s apparently, was the second-half of the bill, a pocket opera called Cyrano de Bergerac, based, of course, on the famous French play by Rostand, never before performed in Philadelphia. When it premiered on Broadway in 1899, it was criticized as being nothing more than a burlesque of the original play, but 21st century audiences found it delightful. Here was the Victor Herbert we knew and loved for his lilting and stirring melodies bolstered by a clever new libretto by Alyce Mott of the Victor Herbert Source.

Number after number was delightful, from Roxanne’s lament “I Must Marry a Handsome Man” to Christian’s big number “The King’s Musketeer” to the utterly winning company number “Cyrano’s Nose.” The famous balcony scene when Cyrano feeds Christian with sweet nothings to woo Roxanne was so cleverly composed. And it wasn’t just novel composition on the page. It worked in performance, too.

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Mezzo-soprano Evelyn Rossow sang beautifully as the impetuous Roxanne, distant cousin to Cyrano. She had the uncanny talent of appearing sweet and sultry at the same time.

However, my favorites in this half of the bill were Brian Ming Chu as the homely Cyrano and Jonas Hacker as the handsome Christian.

Ming Chu, a baritone, was appropriately cheeky and debonair and sang with resonance and power. The operetta is not as broadly comic as other more contemporary versions of the story, and he brought just the right sensibility to the Cyrano needed in this production.

Hacker, a first-year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts, was simply a marvel. His strong tenor–a spinto–carried to the rafters. He has stage presence in spades.

All three leads blended to splendid effect throughout. Robert Finkenaur was appropriately oily as Comte de Guiche. Melissa Dunphy guided the audience through a great deal of exposition for a pocket opera with style and class.

COT’s interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac was a great effort, from the first notes of the overture played by a gifted quintet under the baton of Tim Ribchester to the curtain call that everyone clapped along to.

Philly is chock full of musical talent–vocalists and musicians, a magnet for seasoned professionals and exceptional students alike. How wonderful that Concert Operetta Theater provides another showcase to appreciate all their gifts.

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COT’s 2014 season continues next on May 17 & 18 with  My Vienna, the music of Emmerich Kálmán and Franz Lehár, sung in English and German. More information is available at 215-389-0648.


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Filed under Concert Opera, Concerts, North American Opera, opera firsts, opera milestones, operetta, Reviews, seldom heard works, Uncategorized

Julia Katherine Walsh is celebrated for celebrating song

Reading, Pennsylvania native Julia Katherine Walsh came home Memorial Day weekend to sing for a friendly gathering at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Reading, the perfect venue for an evening of intimate music performance.

Currently, she resides in New York and holds a master’s in music from Hunter College. However, since she was raised in Berks County and is an alumna of the Berks Classical Children’s Choir, in every respect Miss Walsh is the quintessential hometown girl-made-good. As such, her homecoming was celebrated robustly, on billboards around the county, on local television programs such as “Backstage” on and radio shows in advance of the concert, and in the many personalized ads appearing in the event program, one of which said, “Thank you, Julia Katherine Walsh, for sharing your angelic voice with Berks County.” (From her friends at Performance Toyota–and if she doesn’t drive a Toyota, I think she should think about it.)

Indeed, her recital called “A Celebration of Song,” was something to celebrate. Well planned, well performed, very warmly received.

As far as classical music goes, I prefer a program that stretches me as an audience member and doesn’t indulge all my musical whims. Sure, a recital can contain a potboiler or two, but how much richer will the concert experience be if it introduces you to a new piece of music or several? Miss Walsh’s selections included some accessible pieces such as “America the Beautiful”–it was Memorial Day weekend after all–and “Caro nome” from Rigoletto. However, it also included four lesser known Baroque pieces by Handel, four Lieder by Richard Strauss, and a piece totally unfamiliar to me as a musical work, James Agee’s  “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” set to music by Samuel Barber, which turned out to be my favorite selection in the concert because of Miss Walsh’s performance of it.

Her particular gifts for interpreting Mozart, German Lieder, and operas centered on American Realism were well showcased in this program. She sings with intelligence and sensitivity. She has a strong, agile voice with a crystal clear ring to it, pleasing like a shiny silver bell–a tone I happen to be partial to. Her voice seemed to suit her. She is petite and effervescent and somehow, a dark, dramatic timbre would not have been nearly as fitting a vocal quality based on her stature and personality.

In addition, she showcased her voice to its full potential, including skill with coloratura, and most impressively, a knack for selecting pieces well-suited to her particular blend of singing and acting talents.

Backstage at New York Lyric Opera's Artist in Residence concert

Her aria from The Tales of Hoffmann, “Les Oiseaux dans le charmille,”  was utterly charming, capturing the requisite comic nuances such as the doll being thoroughly entertained and pleased by her own exploits as well as running out of oomph and needing to be wound up again to go on. I was likewise impressed with her facility with the “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute, not listed in the program, performed almost as an encore.

Skillfully accompanied on piano by Rebecca Grass Butler, a professor of music at Albright College, the combined talents of Miss Walsh and Miss Butler, in addition to the pleasing venue on a comfortable just-summer evening, made  “A Celebration In Song”  a delightful event, which earned her a standing ovation. Her star is rising quickly, and the next time she comes to town, a recital by Julia Katherine Walsh may not be nearly as accessible or affordable.

I caught up with Miss Walsh via email after the concert, and she graciously agreed to answer some questions about her program.

How did you select the program (who selected the program)? I selected the program after considering these few parameters:

  1. What do I know that I can sing well, but still feel comfortable enough to perform in an intimate setting after a shortened rehearsal period;
  2. I wanted to sing some familiar pieces to the audience (hence why the Doll Song, “Queen of the Night,” and “Caro nome” made the list); and
  3. I wanted to have a good mix of different styles in the songs that weren’t familiar (which is why the Handel pieces were mostly Italian and simple harmonically, the Strauss were super-late in his compositional period and in German, and the Knoxville was a very authentic piece of musical ‘Americana’).

Did you translate what you were singing? Yes. It is absolutely imperative to translate what you sing as a singer, but I also want to say that the translations on the “Aria and Art Song Database” are sometimes 99.9% the same as my own translations, so I use those too, if I don’t have my own already typed up.

How long did you rehearse for this? Three months. I got back to the United States from my audition time in Germany on March 3rd, and practice for this began on March 5th.

Did you have a favorite piece that you performed? My favorite piece of the evening (talking about the whole piece, not just a section of it) was the third song of the Strauss set, “Saeusle, liebe Myrte.”  But, my favorite section of a piece from that evening was the line in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” where the text is “By some chance, here they are, all on this Earth.  And who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this Earth? Lying on quilts, on the grass in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.” I think that that is the best part of that piece, without a doubt.

I really liked the Barber piece on you? Tell me more about how long you’ve been singing that piece and why it made the program. I actually began working on the Barber piece in 2007 for about 6 months, but at that point it was a bit too big of a sing for me (in terms of stamina vocally-speaking) so then I put it aside and didn’t work on it again until just at the beginning of March of this year.  It seems to have become much more of a fit for me; the diction and vocalism are much easier to get across to the audience clearly (which before were a problem because of the sometimes difficult words in awkward places in the vocal tessitura), and the message of the text (so superbly written by James Agee from his book A Death in the Family) means more to me now that I have lived longer in the world since I last sang this piece.  It made the program simply because I think it’s a wonderful piece which is written in English and not nearly performed as often as it should be.  Plus, it was a big challenge to the audience too, I think, because of its length and form.

a photo from her website

I am sure not many people that evening had heard something that is almost a mini-opera unto itself like that, and I wanted to stretch the listeners’ ears so that they will be open to hearing it again (hopefully with orchestra in the future!).

One thing I’d like to add is that I really appreciated everyone coming out on a Friday night before Memorial Day Weekend to listen to classical singing. That was  a wonderfully heartening show of support by the community not only of my singing, but also of classical music in general, and I really can’t thank everyone enough for attending such a meaningful and transformative art form.

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You can follow Julia on Twitter at @operadventuress and friend her on her Facebook page at Julia Katherine Walsh. You can find out more about her musical background here. For audio clips and other goodies, you can visit her website at Visit her blog “Opera Adventuress” at, especially if you want to read about how she chose her gowns for this recital. (You chose well, Miss Walsh!)


Filed under Classical Music, Concerts, Recitals, Reviews, sopranos

Mario Lanza tribute a showcase for Pennsylvania tenors

Tribute to Mario Lanza, April 10

The Wednesday Club of Harrisburg offered an afternoon of music Mario Lanza made famous on Sunday, April 10, featuring two sopranos, three tenors, and a baritone.  

In the opening remarks, the host and local soprano soloist Cheryl Crider mentioned that Lanza’s tessitura was so big that it required three vocal parts to cover his repertoire. Now, that’s a tessitura!  

Without a doubt the tenors made the program, and if you are going to do a Mario Lanza tribute, you darn well better have solid tenors. No offense to the other vocal parts, but the burden for this program rests with the tenors.  

In the opening remarks, Crider mentioned that the Wednesday Club, the sponsoring organization, had brought singers in from “New York. *ooh, ahh.* To my mind, the imported talent wasn’t necessary.  

Mario Lanza was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I live in Pennsylvania. I’ll try to be objective about the Pennsylvania singers in this program because their performances merited objectivity. But I thought the singers from Central Pennsylvania delivered the stronger, more nuanced and also more balanced performances, especially tenors Clifford Bechtel and Jonathan Kaufman — without going over the top.  

While the tenor from New York, Alejandro Olmedo sang powerfully, his performance was hardly nuanced. Rather than sing bel canto, Olmedo was all about can belto, and for me, he became very tiresome by his third solo.  

Crider, however, sang a lovely “Ave Maria.”  And the Bulgarian soprano, Anna Veleva, sang “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Puccini very well. As she sang it, I couldn’t help thinking, for pity’s sake, what opera standard didn’t Lanza sing?  

Kaufman’s and Bechtel’s solos were my favorite performances of the program. Kaufman’s aria “E Lucevan le Stelle” from Tosca was artfully rendered.  

Clifford Bechtel, soloist in the Mario Lanza tribute

Cliff Bechtel’s “Una Furtiva Lagrima” was simply magical. I really liked this piece on Cliff because he wasn’t merely concerned with delivering a certain vocal quality but also took care to act the performance. I had just seen The Elixir of Love in New York, so the entire scene was fresh in my mind, and Cliff met my expectations. He also sang the traditional tune “Danny Boy” with a  tender and plaintive quality that only a lyric tenor of Cliff’s caliber can deliver–it was a lovely number.  

I didn’t grow up in the era of Mario Lanza, so I was very moved by the program notes. Lanza died at 38– and that’s way too young for anyone to shuffle off their mortal coil, but especially someone with his gifts. Lanza seemed to be ground up and spit out by the Hollywood machine, which makes you stop and consider that life at the top of the arts and entertainment food chain is harder than any one of us can ever imagine. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a family to ground him, his wife dying of a drug overdose not long after he died.  

I would have liked the program to have been selected with more care and less popular appeal. But perhaps that what Mario Lanza was–an extraordinary talent shoehorned into an American pop star. Which makes me wonder whether Lanza had stayed in the world of opera, if he’d have had an enduring career like Plácido Domingo, for instance, instead of crashing and burning far too young.


Filed under Concerts, Reviews