Category Archives: opera challenges

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

Singer Sunday with Jonathan Estabrooks, vlogging virtuoso

Baritone Jonathan Estabrooks

The official line on baritone Jonathan Estabrooks is that he is an emerging, classically trained artist based in NYC, originally from Ottawa, Canada.

Unofficially, he is a captivating singer/entertainer across disciplines, a compelling host, a gifted actor, a director, and visionary who speaks both English and French, and whose joie de vivre is, well, infectious.

He is also an avid opera vlogger, make that a vlogging virtuoso, of his show “A Singer’s Life”– a delightful series. Each episode is a pastiche of mini-interviews, backstage banter, and rehearsal and performance clips from numerous locations edited and underscored for maximum impact.

While his vlogs showcase all the artists around him, they also reveal a multi-talented, versatile artist who is as much a keen observer of his environment as he is an entertainer.

Here’s a show he filmed at the International Vocal Arts Institute Final Concert Gala in Virginia that *I’m certain* you will enjoy watching:

YouTube Preview Image

If a behind-the-scenes world of a performer trained in the classical arts interests you,   there are many, many other wonderful episodes of “A Singer’s Life” on Jonathan’s YouTube channel.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood? How did you grow up and how did it affect your decision to sing opera?
I guess I could say that my childhood was pretty normal, aside from how busy I was. Both my brother and I were very active  both in terms of activities (gymnastics, skiing, track and field, swimming) but even more so in the arts. From the age of 8, I was a member of a local boys choir affiliated with Opera Lyra Ottawa, and soon joined a thriving musical theatre company called the Company of Musical Theatre. We also spend hundreds of hours each year performing at various charity and fundraising events known then as the Estabrooks Brothers. I learnt so much about collaboration but more importantly, how to interact and communicate with an audience. Through simply doing, I that realized what it took to step out in front of any audience, large or small and communicate a message through music. I guess it was sort of a natural progression to study music, and classical voice seems like the strongest base to allow for healthy singing in any genre.

A map, in case, like me, you're wondering where is Ottawa anyway?

When did you decide to relocate to New York and why?
After completing my Bachelor of music at the University of Toronto, I applied to a number of schools not knowing where I would be accepted. I was open to a new city and a new adventure. When I was accepted into Juilliard, I took the leap and moved to the Big Apple.

What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
It’s hard to choose just one thrill because if I wasn’t constantly thrilled and challenged, I would find another career. I would say that there have been a few. Singing for then President Bill Clinton (1999) was certainly one, and my debut with The National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. Then there are the less showy moments like having the chance to touch someone through music. Perhaps thrilling is too big a word, but bringing meaning to a special moment for even one audience member has to be up there. We are privileged with the ability to share great art and with that comes great responsibility. Not to sound cliche, but without a doubt, it remains a thrill and an honor to connect with and touch someone even for a moment.

The challenges are ever present from the constant turning wheel of auditioning, performing, learning new music and PR, but there is never a dull moment that’s for sure. Sometimes the traveling can be tough, but then I think about how blessed I am to work with such incredible artists and travel the world. It sure beats the 9-5; for me at least.

Jonathan in performance | The Elixir of Love

Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Baritone role(s)? Venue?
I would say that among my favorites are Rossini and Mozart roles (Figaro, Papageno The Count, Guglielmo), though Pelleas was also a thrilling role to perform, because of its high tessitura and the fact that for once, the baritone was the romantic lead! I will be making my Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium debut in November, so I am extremely excited to perform in that venue.

Do you miss Ottawa? Any desire or need to go abroad to sing?
I do miss Ottawa but surprisingly, I have returned quite a bit in the last few years to perform so I get my fix. My parents live outside of the city, so I enjoy seeing them, but most of my friends are in Toronto, Montreal, New York or abroad. It is a global world we live in, but thanks to Facebook and the Internet, it makes staying in touch a whole lot easier.

(Here is a fun little clip all about Jonathan produced by a TV show in  Ottawa prior to his opening in Pagliacci:)

YouTube Preview Image

Why and when did you start vlogging?
I have always had an interest in video production and how the camera can capture moments, whether performances or short films. There is something very intriguing about the power of the editor to share and shape how a  viewer experiences an event. This lead to a hobby in video making at a young age and has remained with me. It seemed like a natural move to use my interest and skill with video to share my life as a singer and the many intriguing people I continue to work with. ‘A Singer’s Life” on YouTube has certainly been a labor of love.

sitting by the Hudson River with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background

What do you think of the increasing numbers of big-screen Simulcast operas around the world produced by the Met and others?
You know the discussion of Opera in movie theaters has come up a great deal in recent years and even weeks. It is a two-edged sword. I think there is no denying that these broadcasts are bringing a new audience to the art form and hopefully peaking their curiosity enough to attend a live performance, but I worry that when they do see a live performance that there will be a let down because they don’t have the luxury of a close up, a wide shot and a sweeping camera crane shot at that most dramatic musical moment. My hope is that they will attend the live performance and continue coming.

The other challenge is on the performers because singing and acting for the stage vs camera are very different. It is certainly a balancing act but certainly more positive than negative.

Where would you like to be in five years? In ten years?
In 5 years I would like to be booked 3 years in advance performing world wide in a variety of traditional Opera roles, new works, concerts, pops concerts and even film/music collaborations. I am open to interdisciplinary art, making and breaking down the boundaries between genres. It is so hard to plan so I say bring it on! I am excited to see where my artistic life will take me!

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
Well, like most singers, I love food and cooking when I get the chance. My favorites are my mom’s recipes often involving some sort of comfort food, be it Shepherd’s Pie or her signature-ish honey/dijon/curry chicken and rice. And how can I forget apple pie! All this talk of food. I think I need a snack!

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Jonathan has some great upcoming gigs at Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of NY this November and with Toronto Symphony and pops conductor Steven Reineke in October. For more of his wonderful “A Singer’s Life” vlogs, visit his YouTube channel.  Though his website is currently under construction, you can like his Fan Page on Facebook. You can also follow him on Twitter @estarp.

 

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Filed under Baritones, Careers in opera, Interviews, Opera and food, Opera and humor, opera and technology, opera challenges, Opera vlogging, Performers, Q&A, Singer Sunday

an imagined cast list for Don Juan in Hankey, PA

Kimberly A. Bennett, poet

Editor’s note: This post is the fourth stop on the Eye-Popping, Jaw-Dropping, Gob-Smacking Blog Tour to launch my novel with an opera backdrop, DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA.

by Kimberly A. Bennett, guest blogger

I am going to start out a little serious here—but in no way is Don Juan in Hankey, PA meant to be a serious novel. It is populated with a madcap ensemble of characters looking for love, bent on bringing big-time opera to small-town, Hankey—it is bursting with outlandish plot snarls and tension-relieving plot twists—it is an entertaining ride.

However, I will be serious for a bit because I want to call attention to what might be overlooked—in fact, it took several days to pinpoint the element of Martin’s novel that had me wondering how she made me care what happened to each character.

Gale Martin’s skill with point of view reminded me of not another novelist, but the technique of another talented storyteller—Robert Altman, director of MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and more recently, Gosford Park. How so? Like Altman, Martin achieves what seems impossible—each character has his or her own starring role. While the narrative focuses on a character, while he or she is “on screen” I believe it is all about Deanna, or Richard, or his well-meaning phantom-wife, Mary. Martin’s dexterity with what critic David Jauss calls, “the locus of perception,” in his essay, “From Long Shots to X-rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction,” enters us into the minds and hearts of her characters, so that we believe it is his or her story.

Deanna Lundquist, guild chair, as envisioned by the author

Without Martin’s skill with showing, not telling (she opens each chapter with a cleverly subtitled summary) her point of view technique would fall flat. Page after page, I watched on the “movie screen of my mind’s eye” the unfolding of events—one of my favorites finds two male characters in the wrong place at the wrong time, “in the raw,” in bed, and in the dark of night! From beginning to end, Martin keeps readers enthralled with her flawed, but loveable opera zealots.

Look at Gale Martin’s character photos to see how she envisions her cast, otherwise maybe you will agree with my imagined casting call using Gale Martin’s “cast of characters” with slight age alterations:

Julianne Moore as Deanna Lundquist

  • Deanna Lundquist, A Community Organizer and Socialite, Recently Divorced: Julianne Moore
  • Dr. Richard Rohrer, A Retired Physician and Widower: Jeremy Northam
  • Vivian Frantz Pirelli, The Heiress to the Frantz Ketchup Fortune, Famously Divorced: Naomi Watts
  • Oriane Longenecker, Hankey Native and Amateur Opera Singer: Emily Browning
  • Carter Knoblauch, Impresario born in Cincinnati: Bradley Cooper
  • Donato Bianco, Aging Professional Baritone Whose Star Has Lately Dimmed: Colin Farrell
  • Leandro Vasquez, A Dashing Professional Opera Singer of Dissolute Habits: Ben Stiller
  • Ben Stiller as Argentine baritone Leandro Vasquez

    Mary Rohrer, Richard’s Late Wife, A Ghost of Saintly Demeanor: Ellen Greene

  • Arnaud Marceau, Local Balloon Entrepreneur and Clairaudient Medium: Sam Rockwell
  • Maestro Schantzenbach, Diminutive Conductor of the Hankey Opera Company and Lover of Dachshunds: Gary Oldman
  • Paylor Frantz, Vivian’s Mother, a Lonely Widow: Bette White
  • Jeannie Jacobs, A Wealthy Widow, Originally from Hankey: Melanie Griffith
  • Donny of Donny’s Catering, A Metrosexual Caterer: Fred Armisen

 

Kim Bennett's book

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About today’s guest bogger, Kimberly Bennett: Kim is a poet and author of a poetic sequence, Soiled Doves, a series of historical poems set in a Seattle working-class brothel, c. 1910, now available on Amazon

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Filed under Guest post, opera and fiction, Opera and humor, opera challenges, Opera fiction

supporting characters are opera’s unsung heroes

I recently saw a wonderful production of Carmen by Opera Company of Philadelphia, their 2011-12 season opener.

When one goes to see Carmen, one expects the character Carmen to be the vocal and emotional centerpiece of the show. Philly’s Carmen, portrayed by internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, was Carmen–vocally, physically, emotionally. Expectations exceeded.

We all agree that a heavy burden to “deliver” is placed on any singer playing a title role in opera.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen flanked by Tammy Coil (left) as Mercédès and Greta Ball (right) as Frasquita / OCP 2011 / Kelly & Massa Photography

After enjoying the first half of Act I, knowing I could completely trust Shaham in the title role, I settled into the “rest” of the characters–the supporting players– specifically, all of Carmen’s gypsy friends.

It is important for Carmen to have “friends” since she can be perceived as more rogue than *Sarah Palin* if that’s possible.  She dances with Mercédès and Frasquita, she reads cards with them (sort of). These characters help the audience to realize Carmen can play in the sandbox, too, if not always nicely, and provide comic relief, especially Frasquita.

Vocally, however, it’s critically important to have Mercédès and Frasquita, who lend richness to the texture of the show. The gypsy quintet with smugglers Le Dancaïro and Le Remendado are showpieces that demand talented supporting players. By the end of the show, I have fallen harder for Carmen’s gypsy band than I have for the fiery gypsy, if portrayed well–and they were.

Last spring, during the Met’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the nymphs made the show for me. The direction, staging, and costuming mined the full potential of these supporting players. Of course there were other wonderful performances in that production, but I’ll never forget the nymphs as portrayed.

Anne-Carolyn Bird, Tamara Mumford and Erin Morley as the nymphs in the Met's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'

Could you have a Rigoletto without a stunning Sparafucile? Or Un ballo in maschera without the notorious Ulrica, the fortune teller. (Yes, Verdi definitely mined the dramatic and vocal potential of the supporting player).

Who are some of your favorite supporting players in opera?



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Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera, opera challenges, Supporting roles

have you taken the “30-Day Opera Challenge” on FB?

30-Day Opera Challenge on Facebook

As a regular user of Facebook and Twitter, I am amazed at how frequently and quickly they are maligned and/or underestimated. I’ve gotten value–not merely social kicks–but real educational value from each of those social media platforms and made some invaluable contacts.

For opera lovers on Facebook feeling the newly identified Facebook Fatigue, I have the perfect antidote: Try the “30-Day Opera Challenge” on FB.

It’s simple. All you need do is go to the page and “Like” it. Then check out the Info tab on the left-hand side and read through the instructions.  Like other “30-Day Challenges” on Facebook, you are required to post something every day that relates to something you like or should do.

Here’s are the posts you need to make on Facebook in 30 days:

day 01 – your favorite composer
day 02 – your favorite male aria
day 03 – your favorite female aria
day 04 – select one aria that you consider being very sad
day 05 – you favorite bel canto composer
day 06 – your favorite french composer
day 07 – aria that you hate
day 08 – composer you find overrated
day 09 – select aria or piece that you find one of the most recognizable ever
day 10 – best russian composer
day 11 – your favorite male operatic singer
day 12 – your favorite female operatic singer
day 13 – aria that you think is sexy
day 14 – most beautiful female operatic singer voice(quality,technique)
day 15 – most beautiful male operatic singer voice(quality,technique)
day 16 – a song or aria that you used to like but now you hate
day 17 – favorite italian composer
day 18 – best conductor ever
day 19 – your favorite opera of all time
day 20 – best duet
day 21 – perfect aria to describe angriness
day 22 – most famous choral part in your opinion in opera
day 23 – evil character you would like to play in some opera
day 24 – favorite operatic singer male/female with “huge” voice
day 25 – aria that you would never be able to sing
day 26 – best classical opera composer
day 27 – best lied composer
day 28 – good character you would like to play in some opera
day 29 – first aria you fell in love with
day 30 – not very famous opera that you find beautiful (read less)

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Okay, time consuming but which would a better way to deepen your opera knowhow and meet people–doing this or playing the umpteen millionth round of Angry Birds?

Paulo Montoya aka @Operarules

I first noticed the challenge when an opera lover on both Facebook and Twitter Paulo Montoya began participating. I am always interested in the content Paulo posts–I always learn something new or deepen my understanding about opera and was pleased to see him taking part. When I asked Paulo why he accepted the challenge, he had this to say:

It’s a great way to share recordings of your favourite operas and singers with all your FB friends. And you never know, some of your non-opera FB friends might listen to the Youtube clips and like them, and listen to some more opera! Also because if other friends of yours do it, you can learn more about their preferences and discover new recordings which you didn’t know existed. I think it’ll be lots of fun, and educational to a certain extent! The 30 days are personal, so whenever you starts, that’s your Day 1, and so on. There’s no fixed calendar for it.–Paulo

Just like Paulo said. One of the best things about “30-Day Opera Challenge” is reaping the benefits of your friends’ posts taking part until you’re ready to participate. And you can start any month you like–it’s an evergreen challenge.

Just today, two posters are on the day 6 challenge–favorite French composer. One said Berlioz and another said Massenet. I intend to give another listen to Berlioz since I listen to Massenet operas more frequently. Some like Bellini as their favorite bel canto composer. I would have chosen Rossini. So, until I’m ready to take the challenge I’ll soak up all the wisdom of opera lovers around the world.

In the Northern hemisphere of the United States, we are officially into our first week of summer. That means lawn and yard work and gardening for me. So, this isn’t the right month to start the “30-Day Opera Challenge” for me. In the meantime, I am enjoying the recommendations of other participants like Paulo and hope more of you opera lovers give this a shot.

Congrats to the creators of this page, whoever you are! It’s both fun and enriching. And for those of you who want to be trendy, this is your chance (besides reading this blog, of course) to learn a little about opera and impress your friends since opera-going is the “in” thing to do.

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Filed under Opera and social media, opera challenges