Category Archives: Interdisciplinary arts

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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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Interdisciplinary arts, Live opera performance, memoir, North American Opera, opera challenges, opera firsts, Reviews, Uncategorized

A mystery to delight opera lovers

Interrupted Aria, A Tito Amato Mystery

Interrupted Aria, A Tito Amato Mystery

I have a book to recommend to all you opera lovers who also happen to be readers of fiction.

I believe I found this lovely little gem on Bookbub, a free service that emails ebook deals to your preferred inbox daily.

When I saw the title Interrupted Aria (Poisoned Pen Press: 2012), it immediately piqued my attention. The demi-mask with blood dripping from a pair of gilded lips was also very compelling.

Here is the book blurb:

Venice, 1731. Opera is the popular entertainment of the day and the castrati are its reigning divas. Tito Amato, mutilated as a boy to preserve his enchanting soprano voice, returns to the city of his birth with his friend Felice, a castrato whose voice has failed. 

Disaster strikes Tito’s opera premier when the singer loses one beloved friend to poison and another to unjust accusation and arrest. Alarmed that the merchant-aristocrat who owns the theater is pressing the authorities to close the case, Tito races the executioner to find the real killer. The possible suspects could people the cast of one of his operas: a libertine nobleman and his spurned wife, a jealous soprano, an ambitious composer, and a patrician family bent on the theater’s ruin.

With carnival gaiety swirling around him and rousing Venetian passions to an ominous crescendo, Tito finds that the most astonishing secrets lurk behind the masks of his own family and friends.

But no matter what’s on the front, or how intriguing a book’s description, it is the text itself that matters, right?

Beverle Graves Myers’ novel is a delight. History lovers will appreciate the lush period details. Opera lovers will adore the references to opera’s earliest days and experiencing 18th century Venice from a castrato singer’s viewpoint.

Graves Myers is talented author. Her self-confessed love of early opera is readily evident in this richly detailed work.

Why not give it a try? No matter whether you love opera, period fiction, or strong writing, you’ll find something to love about this series.

Interrupted Aria is available in ebook, print, hardcover, and as an audio CD. You can learn more about the author at her website: www.beverlegravesmyers.com.

 

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Filed under Baroque Opera, Books, Interdisciplinary arts, Opera books

music via art . . . smart!

Wolf Trap Opera Company‘s Filene Young Artists program is partnering with The Phillips Collection, an internationally recognized museum of modern and contemporary art, to present “Vocal Colors,” for the second consecutive year. “Vocal Colors” dovetails the worlds of visual and performing arts: Wolf Trap’s Filene Young Artists respond to artworks from The Phillips Collection with a wide variety of musical selections. There are two more performances of Vocal Arts on July 22–one at Wolf Trap and a final one at The Phillips Collection.             

The singers in the Filene Young Artists program have selected works by classical and modern composers, such as Handel, Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell, inspired by masterpieces from the visual arts.             

What a wonderful idea! Boy, I wish I could attend. In lieu of being there in person, I thought it might be fun to create my own Vocal Arts spinoff. I have deep roots in musical theatre as a performer and a growing appreciation for the visual arts, so pairing music with art sounds like entertainment of the highest order!             

So, here goes. Feel free to play along in the comments section.             

The Dining Room in the Country by Pierre Bonnard

In response to several pieces by Pierre Bonnard who was known for his intense use of color, whose paintings reach deep into my soul each time I view them, I’d sing “Losing my Mind” by Stephen Sondheim. Perhaps it’s because his scenes loll you, even with the bright colors, because of the composition. I look at Bonnard’s settings and think, I wish I had someone to share this with. You know the lyrics to “Losing My Mind,” don’t you?             

The sun comes up – I think about you
The coffee cup – I think about you
I want you so, it’s like I’m losing my mind
The morning ends – I think about you
I talk to friends and think about you
And do they know it’s like
I’m losing my mind?

"Jeune Femme" by Pierre Bonnard

All afternoon doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left – not going right 

I dim the lights and think about you
Spend sleepless nights to think about you
You said you loved me, or were
you just being kind?
Or am I losing

Losing my mind?

For several of Thomas Cole’s paintings in The Voyage of Life series which depicts a visual allegory of the four stages of life, I’d choose “Old Man” by Neil Young. (Neil Young is at his best when philosophical.)            

Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.     
 

"The Voyage of Life--Youth"

Old man look at my life,
Twenty four
and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two.           
 

 Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don’t get lost.
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you.     
 

"Voyage of Life--Manhood"

Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that’s true.           
 

Lullabies, look in your eyes,
Run around the same old town.
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you.           
 

I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last.
Rolling home to you.           
 

“The Voyage of Life-Old Age”
Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that’s true.   
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.     
 

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Filed under Audience participation, Classical Composers, Interdisciplinary arts