Category Archives: memoir

The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review 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.



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

Jessye Norman’s ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing!’ {book review} book review: Stand Up Straight and Sing!
A memoir by Soprano Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
316 pages with index
4.5 stars

four and a half stars



Stand up Straight and Sing
Author Event/National Author Tour: The Free Library of Philadelphia
; Tuesday, May 27; 7:30 pm

From the publisher: Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, a descendant of many generations of hardworking slave and free ancestors, she grew up amid the challenges of Jim Crow racism with the civil rights movement just beginning to awaken. Nurtured by a close family and tight-knit community centered on the local church, Jessye sang songs and spirituals constantly, never dreaming that it might lead to a career. Only when she watched a documentary about the legendary Marian Anderson did she first realize that singing could be a profession. Decades later, after a meteoric rise at the Berlin Opera, a long-delayed debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and forays into spirituals, blues, jazz, and other roots music, she has become one of America’s cultural treasures. Stand Up Straight and Sing! is an inspiring woman’s account of an astonishing life.

My review:
If human beings can be born to greatness, then Jessye Norman was, without a doubt, born to be a great person. Despite growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s, when African Americans were judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, Norman would not allow racial prejudice (or any other type of discrimination) deter her from her ambition to let her God-given gifts carry her as far as they would take her.

She grew up in a loving, well-ordered family with parents who were neither too strict nor indulgent. They were devoted servants to their church and their community, and Norman witnessed the example of selfless service the entire time she was growing up, which undoubtedly informs the person she is today. The name of her memoir is taken from her mother’s admonition to “Stand Up Straight” whenever she performed in public, and because Norman knew she wanted to make more out of her life, even from a very early age, she seized every chance she could to let her light shine.

If you have seen Jessye Norman perform on stage, you might expect that her writing would be grand and gracious, and it is. She writes with elegance and care, whether she is describing being cheated out of a deserving wage as a young woman performing in Europe or being discriminated against in a Bavarian Radio International Music Competition, presumably because she was a black woman trying to make her mark in a field during a time where the performers were predominantly white.

She tells a few tales out of school, like when she was insulted by a hotel security guard only a few years ago, who saw her swimming in the hotel pool and demanded to know if she was a registered guest. That tale is from a chapter aptly entitled “Racism as It Lives and Breathes.”

But this is no gritty expose of the hardships and injustices she *surely* suffered en route to a glittering career as an international opera star.  But make no mistake, she has suffered almost as much as she has been feted. For instance, perhaps because of her heritage, she has been asked to sing “Amazing Grace,” many times and at some very high profile events, even though, she explains, the song was written by a British man who made his fortune in the slave trade, who might even have lifted the tune from the African slaves packed into the hull of his ship.

Stand Up Straight and Sing! is equal parts reflection and inspiration, as if to say, I have made something of myself in a world replete with flaws but also one that is laden with opportunity, and surely you can, too. Besides, how many of us will be fortunate enough to have an introduction written by Metropolitan Opera conductor of renown James Levine, who is so full of praise and adoration for Norman that he uses more exclamation points than most family holiday letters do.

Throughout the book, Norman does drop a number of names. She’s sung at Jackie Onassis’s funeral, and also at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s. Yet, she’s earned that privilege. She endured oppression as a person of color and another level of discrimination which she herself realized she’d been forced to suffer again as a woman striving for independence.

Sexism is still very much a part of our culture, to say nothing of sexual and domestic violence against women and the current backlash against long-fought-for and hard-won civil liberties for women. Oh, yes, a great deal has been accomplished, but much work remains.” –Jessye Norman, Stand Up Straight and Sing!

As a rule, I am not a great fan of memoir because it’s remarkably difficult to strip your life bare and be completely candid as the one chronicling your own story.  While Norman’s life experiences and talents have accorded her some fantastic experiences, this memoir suffers a bit from the overarching feeling that everything is just a bit too rosy all the time. Perhaps I have misinterpreted her uncanny ability to detach herself from some very painful episodes or perhaps it is that selfsame ability to detach that has enabled her to endure and persevere in a demanding profession.

Also, organization is a challenge in memoir too. Though the organization is somewhat chronological, it is not purely so. While that may be realistic, i.e., while you are remembering your childhood, your mind drifts to a performance at one of the world’s greatest and most prestigious venues, it does contribute to a less than seamless quality to the writing.

Jessye Norman need not have written her memoir in order to take her rightful place in the pantheon of opera greats. Just listen to her singing “Ave Maria,” in German, a language she also speaks (because she doesn’t sing in any language she can’t speak):

YouTube Preview Image

And yet, she somehow looms even greater for writing and daring to share her own story. You can almost hear her parents saying, ” Well, Jessye, if you can write this book, then you should write it. Do everything you are able to do.”

Brave, Jessye Norman. You are a marvelous writer, a remarkable singer, and a truly great human being.

Editor’s note: A copy of this memoir was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Filed under memoir, Performers, Reviews, Singer Sunday, sopranos

my nearly first exposure to opera . . . one blogger’s confession

I was accepted into AMDA in 1975

In the fall of 1976, I moved to Manhattan to study musical theater. Manhattan was a lonely place but everything was new and my life was busy, so I was distracted from my isolation. During my first semester at the American Musical Theater Academy, the program director assigned all the students to a voice teacher. That I was placed with Mrs. Florence Bower was providential. Mrs. Bower was the best teacher, and rumor had it, she  was always awarded the best singers.

I loved my singing lessons with my Julliard-trained teacher, who was precise and demanding but kind, always kind. I was less enthused by the pieces Mrs. Bower picked out for me to sing—everything was always high soprano. I thought I was a mezzo. Thanks to Mrs. Bower, I found a two-octave range I never knew I had.

To listen to Mrs. Bower speak, one might think she was British because she had an affected pronunciation reminding me of Katherine Hepburn—the well-bred American girl intonation. Maybe it was a lifetime of using open vowel sounds of classically trained singers. Or maybe she had grown up on Long Island.

“Gale, deah, I desperately need some help keeping my apartment clean. Morris is just fed up with all the cluttah,” Mrs. Bower said one day before my lesson started, because at seventy-three, she taught at the academy and gave private lessons at home and was too busy to clean her apartment herself. “I would need them every other Saturday, say elevenish, to two or three. Could you ahsk around, say something to your friends?”

“I could do it. I’d like to help you,” I said.

For the rest of the school year and into the next, I, an eighteen-year-old Broadway-actress-wannabe, was nurtured by Mrs. Bowers’  bi-weekly respite. Every other Saturday, our routine was the same. I dusted and tidied the front rooms, we had lunch together, then I cleaned the rooms in the back of the apartment. Mrs. Bower liked routine, so I could expect to finish up by three o’clock.

Typically, I would get in no more than thirty minutes of cleaning when Mrs. Bower’s well-supported vocal tones called me to the kitchen.

“Gale, deah, why don’t you take a break? Let’s have some lunch togethah?”

Mrs. Bower fixed us each a sandwich on fresh bread, a deli salad, always a Kosher pickle, and a Cadbury bar, usually with fruit and nuts.

“What are your challenges, my deah?” Mrs. Bower asked.

“I’d like to learn how to sing over the break in my register,” I explained, enjoying my sandwich. “This is good. What is it? Salami?”

“It’s tongue. Do you like it?”

Loaded question. I liked tongue but thought Mrs. Bower had no interest in discussing French kissing over her dinette set that afternoon.

It was more the idea of eating something of an animal’s that could eat you back that bothered me, much more than the taste of the tongue itself, which tasted pretty good. I would be polite and finish my sandwich. My dad had spent seventeen years making me eat things against my will—burnt pigeon stew, chicken-fried groundhog, puff mushroom steaks, liver and onions—so I was a pro. Because Mrs. Bower had been nice enough to make it for me, I would finish my plate.

“Between my chest voice and my head voice. There’s an obvious difference in vocal quality,” I explained.

“You are a stage singah,” Mrs. Bower would allow. “But you should sing everything in your head range. You could sing classically, if you really wanted to study.”

Saturday afternoon at the Met

On a bi-weekly basis, Mrs. Bower preached to me about the virtues of classical music and opera: Hadn’t Mrs. Bower and her daughter Bijou traveled the world thanks to opera? The proselytizing continued after lunch with “Saturday at the Met” which played from the clock radio in the bedroom every Saturday I cleaned for her.

Though I didn’t dare confess it, I had never wanted to be an opera singer, never taking to opera despite Mrs. Bower’s best efforts. Nevertheless, I did grow to love some of the music Mrs. Bower introduced me to, especially The Brandenberg Concerti and other works by Bach, Vivaldi, and Wagner.

Once in scene study, I was assigned a Tennessee Williams’ one-act that called for me to say the line, “Vivaldi is a very thin shadow of Bach.” I couldn’t wait to share that line with Mrs. Bower.

The next day, I raced up Central Park West. I looked out-of-place running along a residential street, weaving in and out of the strollers and walkers streaming from the park, chanting to myself. People usually ran in the park, not down the facing sidewalk in street clothes. But it was New York after all—strangeness was not only tolerated but expected. The Big Apple was a magnet for uncommon ejaculations: “Ooh,” passing Lincoln Center at night. “Ahh,” watching the laser show in the Museum of Natural History planetarium theater. “Oh,” waiting in the rain for a crosstown bus. “Eew,” stepping into something that squished on the sidewalk.

“So what does that line mean?”I asked Mrs. Bower. “‘Vivaldi is a very thin shadow of Bach.'”

“Uttah nonsense, my deah. I never heard such a ridiculous statement in all my life,” Mrs. Bower said.

That gave me an idea for the next practice. I would play that character on the foolish side, as a woman who forms strong opinions in ignorance without taking the time to be fully informed.

Now that I had heard both Vivaldi and Bach, I had my own views on the subject.

But the most wonderful thing about Mrs. Bower was that one person out of a million and a half people on the isle of Manhattan cared enough to have a Cadbury bar, usually with fruit and nuts, waiting for me every other week.

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