Category Archives: opera and irony

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


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 Cash Bar available at Ruba Club, and Halloween after-party included every night.

For more information, please contact
Alexandra Fees, Artistic Director
(256) 682-9912





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Filed under 21st Century Opera, North American Opera, opera and irony, Opera and social media, opera and technology

New York Opera Exchange gets Così with technology

By setting Così fan tutte in contemporary society, the New York Opera Exchange revitalizes the universal themes of love and fidelity in Mozart’s popular 1790 opera with the frothy story line and the lush music.

Guest Director Cameron J. Marcotte

Their production directed by Cameron J. Marcotte explores how modern technological innovations and current events affect relationships with others.

Four evening performances in collaboration with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra are slated for April 26 through the 29th at the Church of the Covenant on 310 E 42ndSt. between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.

Why contemporize the show? In today’s age of innovation in media, technology colors love.  In a world so fundamentally driven by opinion and social class, opposites attract now more than ever. In this new version of Così fan tutte, the characters live in a complex world where a Facebook relationship status carries as much weight as an eighteenth century marriage contract and where an executive in the one-percent may fall in love with an Occupy Wall Street protestor.

“Our goal is to hold up a mirror to our contemporary audience and reveal, with comical overtones, that this farcical world may not be so different from our own.” — New York Opera Exchange

Soprano Rachel Ann Hippert is sharing the role of Fiordiligi . . .

NY Opera Exchange aims to create performance opportunities with orchestra for young emerging artists on the cusp of professional breakthrough.  They strive to make opera accessible for the diverse New York population, creating a supportive environment for both the musicians and audience. There will be supertitles for the sung Italian and an original English text for the recitative.

The production features two casts:


Fiordiligi: Rachel Anne Hippert
Dorabella: Abi Levis
Despina: Amanda Chmela
Ferrando: Justin Werner
Guglielmo: Joe Beckwith
Don Alfonso: Brad Baron

. . . with soprano Rebecca Shorstein


Fiordiligi: Rebecca Shorstein
Dorabella: Kate Wiswell
Despina: Becca Conviser
Ferrando: Jeffrey Taveras
Guglielmo: Bob Balonek
Don Alfonso: Jason Cox

Tickets are $25 each ($15 student rush) and are available at the door or in advance at

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, North American Opera, Opera and humor, opera and irony, opera and technology

all about Opera Manhattan per a ‘bel canto bear’

Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre (OMRT), a young opera company that puts the new in New York (compared to the 132-year-old Met), is offering some ironic Valentine’s weekend fare, with particular appeal to those who can’t abide Cupid’s favorite holiday. (Take that, Hallmark.)

Called Women on the Verge, the project includes Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and two monodramas by Thomas Pasatieri, Lady Macbeth, based on speeches from the play that OMRT representatives dare not name, and Before Breakfast, based on a Eugene O’Neill monodrama. The production features a wonderful cast of young, rising singers.

Women on the Verge poster

Joining us to talk about their upcoming Women on the Verge and the Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre is David Browning, a self-described “bel canto bear in a verismo world,” and OMRT principal.

Welcome, David.

So, according to a 2009 New York Times article, OMRT is turning three years old. Is that correct?

Actually, Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre grew out of a single performance project put together by a group of friends in the summer of 2008.  Before the first performance was over, the group had decided to create an opera company.  OMRT was incorporated in the state of NY in April of 2009.  So we’re coming up on the group’s fourth birthday this summer, if I count correctly.

David Browning, OMRT General Manager

Have you been involved with them since the inception?

Not at all.  I met Bryce (VW) Smith, OMRT’s Executive Director and co-founder, at a church choir gig.  We started together in the fall of 2009

at a great little Lutheran church on Long Island.  I hadn’t even seen an OMRT show before he asked me to help out with OMRT’s production of Dido and Aeneas in early 2010–the chorus was down to a single tenor.  It was so late in the process there wasn’t even time for me to memorize the chorus music and learn the staging–I sang it all off stage.  After that I helped out occasionally in other ways, like working box office and doing some occasional writing.  I did chorus in OMRT’s La Boheme in November, 2010, and wound up singing Parpignol for all the performances.

Some of the original organizers left the group last spring, and I became more involved in an official capacity at that point, having a PR/Communications title with the organization. Bryce remained as Executive Director, but his own performing activities began to take off and I became more involved in the day-to-day running of the company.  And here I am, General Director!

What is your background briefly?
I went to a small liberal arts college in NC called Pfeiffer College (now Pfeiffer University).  When i started out I wanted to be high school music teacher, but I got the performing bug.  I started grad school at a big-name music school known around the world as an opera factory, but I wasn’t prepared for that at all, and left with my tail between my legs after a year and a half.  I complete grad school–well, almost–at the University of Miami, where I learned a lot more than I had at the big name school.  I also learned that I’d had a pretty darn good education in music history and theory at my tiny liberal arts college.

I came to NYC to pursue performing in the early 1990s, but again, I was very poorly prepared for it.  To briefly summarize 20 years, one day job led to another, so that I now make a reasonably comfortable living in financial printing technology while singing has been relegated to a sideline.  Along with arts administration and writing about opera.

As general director, are you responsible for selecting the season? For staging the works? Help us understood what you do at OMRT.
The repertoire is selected by the management as a group.  The core group currently includes Bryce, me, Communications Director Nathan Fuhrman, and Education Director Becky Hicks.

My duties have to do with the day-to-day running of the group–overseeing the administrative, financial, operations, and production functions.  Because we don’t have enough people to do everything, I also wind up producing and managing some of our shows and events, toting props around in my car, comforting distraught artists, and doing whatever else needs to be done.

Needless to say, the plan is see Opera Manhattan grow so that being OMRT’s General Director will be my full-time job.

Where do you find your talent? (Don’t reveal any state secrets if it would compromise your recruitment.)
We have general auditions every spring, and in fact there will be a public announcement soon about the auditions we plan for this spring.  No one is cast without being heard by more than one of our management and artistic team.  If we don’t have the right people for the repertoire we want to do from the auditions, we put out feelers to past artists, friends and contacts, and the general population of singers, but we still audition every singer we cast.

Are you looking for new performers?
Always.  We’re at a tricky professional level, one where our means are extremely modest but we still insist on professional-level talent.  Singers often pass through quickly on their way to bigger and better-paying gigs–especially men–but there are usually lots of singers arriving on the scene at that level.

Our  mission is to work with singers at just this stage, not only giving them performance opportunities, but also helping them gain the business and entrepreneurial skills they need to a build a career.  Conservatories are just beginning to teach this now, and so many young singers really need a lot of guidance in that area.

How did you decide on your melancholy Valentine-themed production?
We first decided we wanted to do “La Voix Humaine.”  Then we found the two Pasatieri monodramas, Before Breakfast and Lady Macbeth, to round out a program.  We decided on mid-February because it fit in with other plans for the season.  It was only then that we noticed the dates of the program were just before Valentines Day.  A friend suggested we make a big deal of that, and the fact that all the monodramas are about women and the men made them miserable.  (OK, Lady Macbeth is a stretch, but work with me here.)  We did a RocketHub fundraising project where some of the premiums included a voodoo doll made to look like the man who done you wrong, making sure a black cat crosses the path of the man who done you wrong, etc.  Some of our contributors had very interesting suggestions about how to treat the voodoo dolls.

Who discovered the Clown Prince of Opera? (The headline act for OMRT’s upcoming fundraiser.)
Actually, I met Michael Wills, who with his business partner Amber Spradlin manages Operation Adelmo, socially.  They had just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Operation Adelmo, and we wound up talking about how our two organizations could work together.  Michael, Amber, and Adelmo Guidarelli, the genius behind Operation Adelmo, very generously offered to donate a performance as a benefit for Opera Manhattan.  We’re very excited about this event–it’s Feb. 20 at Symphony Space.

And here is your lightning round of questions (five words or less, David): Five words?  Yeah, it’s good to have a dream.
Greatest success at OMRT:
  Hansel & Gretel 2011.  Or Erwartung/Bluebeard’s Castle (2010).
Greatest challenge:  Making our dreams fit our means.
Greatest risk:
  Losing money!
If only [this] would happen, life would be hunky-dory:
  A winning Lotto ticket?
Would most like to produce:
  Norma.  Or Dialogues.  Or Idomeneo.  Or The Rake’s Progress.  Or….
Would most like to direct (if different answer):
   I don’t direct.  I produce.
The greatest thing about your performance space:
  We adored Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row–the space was great, the staff at Theatre Row was great, and the location was amazing.  But we don’t have a permanent home yet.

What’s next:  Women on the Verge, Feb. 10, 11, 12

* * *

For more information about OMRT, visit their website. You can like OMRT on their Facebook fan page or follow them on Twitter @operamanhattan. You can also visit David’s blog “Taminophile,” because it’s a super cute blog and find him on Twitter at @taminophile.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Interviews, opera and irony, Q&A