Tag Archives: Academy of Vocal Arts

AVA’s L’italiana sails despite evening’s perfect storm of challenges

Operatoonity.com reviewL’italiana In Algeri presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Composer: Gioachino Rossini; libretto: Angelo Anelli based on his earlier text set by Luigi Mosca
Live performance: Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Goodhart Hall: Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA

The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), Philadelphia’s premiere opera training academy, routinely transports nearly every production to the Greater Philadelphia suburbs including the Centennial Hall at The Haverford School. This is a much heralded tradition that operagoers appreciate. It’s a lovely hall and very convenient for suburban opera lovers.

The AVA can’t be faulted that the day the company was scheduled to offer L’italiana In Algeri in Haverford was  frigidly cold for November in Pennsylvania–below freezing all day. They discovered their venue’s heating system was inoperable and had to quickly relocate nearby for that evening’s show.

The cast of L’italiana in Algeri, presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2014

Though the venue was toasty warm, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College had no orchestra pit, so the entire orchestra had to pile onto the stage for the performance, which left only the proscenium available for performers. Nor could the set from Centennial Hall be readily installed at Goodhart. Lastly, the facility could not accommodate supertitles, so none were offered, at least to those audience members sitting in the balcony, such as this reviewer.

Despite all these challenges, the performers were there to put on a show and perform they did. They seemed unfazed by the musicians behind them, the lack of set around them, and  in the absence of supertitles, every audience member laser-focused on their performances, trying to extract meaning from every note, every gesture, and every facial expression.

I suppose the company had a bit of fortune that all this occurred during a Rossini dramma giocoso. The storyline is a happy marriage of nefarious plotting against a pair of deserving and attractive lovers, which is foiled, of course, so the evening can be all wrapped up in a happy-ending bow.

The Turkish Bey Mustafà is bored with his harem, wants an Italian girl, and, lo and behold, a made-to-order beauty, Isabella, washes up on shore with a band of pirates:

Isabella and the band of shipwrecked pirates

As the much-admired L’italiana, mezzo-soprano Hanna Ludwig delivered a sturdy performance. The role was written for a contralto, and at times, it seemed the lowest notes required fell outside of this mezzo’s comfort range.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as Isabella

She did have a great sense of comic timing, especially with the band of shipwrecked pirates.

As the Italian slave Lindoro, Australian tenor Alasdair Kent had that all important Rossini tenor ping to his voice. His lovelorn affect was endearing. His voice cracked a few times throughout the night,  but his acting and onstage presence were solid.

Tenor Alasdair Kent sang the role of the lovesick Lindoro

Best performance of the evening honors must go to bass-bariton André Courville as the Turkish Bey Mustafà. His powerful voice and spot-on characterization never wavered. He was imperious and comical at the same time. As Mustafà, he appeared completely unfazed by the change of venue, lack of meaningful set, orchestra playing behind him, and clambered onto and off his makeshift throne with aplomb. His scenes with Michael Adams as Isabella’s would-be lover Taddeo were magical. Bravo, Mr. Courville.

From left to right: baritone Michael Adams as Taddeo and bass-baritone André Courville as Mustafà.

Because the ensemble exchanges roles throughout the run of the show–the principals are typically double-cast–the AVA chorus is perpetually excellent and a highlight of any AVA show. And even though the role was smaller, Anush Avetisyan as the discarded wife Elvira and her clear soprano with its bell-like timbre brightened the stage with each entrance.

Alasdair Kent as Lindoro and Anush Avetisyan as Elvira

Costumes by Val Starr were lush and lovely–a sparkling cut above. While the turquoise palette used to represent Algier was so appealing, the portable blocks which seemed to be configured and reconfigured incessantly and nonsensically became distracting. Credit director Dorothy Danner for instilling in her cast a “show-must-go-on” ethos, or perhaps that credit is shared with the AVA faculty.

I was expecting the AVA orchestra to overpower the singers–the number of pieces alone (31!) was foreboding–but was pleasantly surprised by the control that conductor Richard A. Raub exerted over his musicians–their contributions were balanced and beautiful.

Not every company could’ve salvaged a show following a perfect storm of trouble, but they all deserve credit for weathering the unexpected woes. The cast was richly rewarded with applause and cheers at curtain call.

And  should this ever happen again, to the behind-the-scenes folks who did a heroic job notifying subscribers regarding the change of venue, don’t forget that those reviewing the show need to know this information in a timely fashion, too.  No reviewer likes to get a parking ticket just because she tried to make curtain at a dark and unfamiliar venue.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Italian opera, music and humor, Opera and humor, Regional opera, Reviews

an opera academy training world-class singers in my backyard . . . practically

*This is an Operatoonity Encore Post which complements the North American opera theme this month.

The Academy of Vocal Arts

So, I have this delightful friend Barbara who owns a design agency. And she says, “Do you want to go to the opera with me?”

Do I want to go to the opera? Does it take opera singers ten minutes to die after being fatally stabbed on stage?

And she sends me a link. It’s being presented in Haverford, Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from my home. And I say, sure, because it’s La Bohème, which I have never seen in person.

Then Barbara tells me her firm is assisting the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), founded in 1934. And of course, I’m not surprised about Barbara lending her talented team to help a non-profit–she’s a wonderful, generous person. But I am surprised about the Academy of Vocal Arts dating back to 1934 because I’d never heard of it before.

According to their website, the mission of The Academy of Vocal Arts is to provide tuition-free vocal and opera training and financial support during training to talented and committed young singers who have the potential for the international opera circuit. The Academy of Vocal Arts gives their protégés a showcase  in professional performances accessible to the Philadelphia community and beyond. For instance, their production of La Bohème will appear in several venues throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. I will catch it at The Haverford School on May11.

What they are offering up-and-coming opera stars sounds like a fantastic service. If you’ve ever wondered how young artists learn how to be opera singers–I know I have–now you know that  organizations like the Academy of Vocal Arts exist to do just that.

In my book, DEVILED BY DON, I have a young Argentine singer, Leandro Vasquez, who receives this sort of specialized training, thanks to the generosity of a patron of the arts. The Academy of Vocal Arts sounds like a much better system for the continuation of the craft than a gifted opera singer who’s lucky enough to stumble onto a wealthy patron who takes a shine to him.

At the Academy of Vocal Arts, singers come from throughout the world to seek  guidance and training.  Admission is  by competitive annual auditions. The resident artists accepted into the program receive training equivalent to more than $70,000 per year.

Every year AVA resident artists are presented in four or five fully-staged opera productions accompanied by orchestra, playing leading roles they in all likelihood will continue to perform for the rest of their careers.

James Valenti, AVA alum

For instance, the 2010 Richard Tucker Award Winner, James Valenti, who just made his Met debut in La Traviata, studied at the AVA in Philadelphia. You can read more about James Valenti on the Richard Tucker Foundation website. BTW, isn’t he gorgeous?

Now that I know more about AVA and their mission, I am excited to see their production and can’t wait to report my observations on “opera-toonity.”

And thanks, Barb, for another connection to the opera-sphere.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, North American Opera, Performers

six opera events to celebrate in 2010

James Valenti Wins Richard Tucker Award (April 16)

The Richard Tucker Award has been called “the Heisman Trophy of Opera.” It’s a $30,000 prize recognizing an American singer on the cusp of an international opera career, and on April 16, 2010, James Valenti was named the winner. Why was this year’s award so exciting? James Valenti is an alumnus of the Academy of Vocal Arts, a premier opera training program for young artists located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, my home state. These  programs are so critical to preparing the next generation of opera performers. Besides grooming and showcasing up and coming talent, they also showcase new works, as in the case of Margaret Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter.       

Jake Heggie's Moby Dick/photo by Karen Almond


Moby Dick World Premiere (April 30)

Composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer       

Commissioned by the Dallas Opera in partnership with four other companies, Moby Dick premiered at the Winspear Opera House on April 30. Notable for its outstanding staging and performances, it’s also extremely heartening to see opera companies collaborating to bring new opera to the stage.       

#Operaplots 2010 (around May 3-7-entries submitted earlier)

Sam Neuman--Grand Prize #Operaplot Winner


 Miss Mussel orchestrated an enormous mini-contest celebrating not the masterplot but the microplot–only 140 characters allowed to summarize the plot of an opera. Oh, and the hashtag “#operaplot” had to be included! More than 900 entries representing 200+ different operas were read, sorted, alphabetized, and categorized, etc., at Tweetning-fast speed. Winners were announced the week of May 3. What a fabulous and most entertaining of display ingenius brevity!       

Met in the Park 2010

Met in the Park


The Metropolitan Opera performed six concerts in parks in the five boroughs of New York City from July 12-29, 2010. I was sitting in a bar in Soho two weekends ago, when a woman I just met told me how much she enjoyed the program that came to Crotona Park (Bronx) on Thursday, July 15 that featured Monica Yunus, soprano; Matthew Plenk, tenor; Donovan Singletary, bass-baritone; and Jonathan Kelly, pianist.       

Rigoletto a Mantova, September 4 & 5

Rigoletto a Mantova


The live simulcast of ‘Rigoletto’ a Mantova was a brave and beautiful project filmed on location in Mantua, lending the entire enterprise the scope and versimilitude of a major motion picture. It featured an all-star cast including Plácido Domingo, Julia Novikova, Vittorio Grigolo, and Ruggero Raimando.  The production values, the direction, the musical direction, the soloists, the orchestra, the conductor, the setting, the choral numbers, the cinematography, the costumes, the singing, the singing, the singing were all squisito.  With any luck, this production set the stage for more such live simulcasts.  Grazie, Plácido.    

Opera  in the Outfield (September 19) and Aida at the Ballpark (September 25)

Aida in Giants Park, San Francisco


Two major opera houses obtained corporate underwriting to offer free simulcasts of live opera in major ballparks in 2010. “Play Ballo!” was the motto of the Washington National Opera‘s third annual “Opera in the Outfield” event. Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” was broadcast from the Kennedy Center live in Nationals Park, to 11,000 fans. Aida in the Ballpark in the San Francisco Giants home park for approximately 50,000 fans.       

Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Random Act of Culture (October 30)

Six hundred singers filled Macy’s Department Store in Philadelphia and sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” What a beautiful celebration of spontaneous performance! It’s as much fun to see the crowd’s reaction to the live performance as it is to hear the singers.       

YouTube Preview Image

I’m certain there were many other wonderful things happening in the world of classical music during 2010. If I’ve not mentioned your favorite event, please mention it in the comments section. And here’s to more inspiring events in 2011.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Audience participation, Best of Operatoonity, Classic Opera, Live opera performance, News Roundup

Red-letter opera gets an “A”

AVA soprano Corinne Winters as Hester Prynne/AVA photo

American composer Margaret Garwood said that she was stirred to write operas about the victimization of women. Watching her latest opera The Scarlet Letter, playing to a packed house at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia yesterday, I felt as though I touched her passion and her purpose for writing this work. While staying textbook true to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale, Garwood made a powerful statement about tolerance—artistically and socially—through the medium of opera.        

It’s a tragic story—a relentlessly black tale about Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear the scarlet “A” on her breast for committing adultery, though her husband never makes it to the New World,  believed to have been lost at sea. The townsfolk are vengeful and vigilant antagonists, relentless in their need to punish Hester for her sin. They are like the tall sturdy trees which often filled the stage to haunting effect—never bending, never swaying, each one as indistinguishable as the next. Yet, Garwood found many shades of light in the dark dismal Puritan settlement that was seventeenth-century Boston. Amidst unconscionable censure, Hester’s essential goodness, devotion to duty, and her abiding loyalty to the Reverend Dimmesdale all found expression in Garwood’s music.        

Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter was a world premiere produced by the Academy of Vocal Arts, itself a premier training company for professional opera singers. Their production evidenced solid production values, buoyed first by the singing—the soloists and the ensemble. Corinne Winters’ portrayal of Hester was both powerful and nuanced. Her pitch-perfect soprano, like Hester’s forbearance, was a beacon, soaring above the nattering townsfolk who would rather Hester live than be hanged so they could see her suffer more. Zach Borichevsky’s portrayal of Rev. Dimmesdale became stronger and more compelling the further he slipped into the profound anguish that eventually claimed his life.        

The chorus numbers were deftly written and a true highlight of this production—all of the AVA students’ fine voices combining to, at times, chilling effect. The set design was clever—almost a character in itself, commenting on the narrative. Set pieces whirled effortlessly around the stage like dervishes, churning up Hester’s sin again and again—sometimes a church, then a gallows, then a prison and finally returning to the gallows. The most evocative, magical scene in the entire work was Hester’s dream sequence, in which all of the elements—music, set, stage movement, and lighting design worked together to near-perfect effect.        

My only criticism of the production was that the orchestra, though comprised of highly skilled players, was too loud too often, forcing the singers to compete with it to be heard. In opera, the audience is there to hear the singers above all else. The audience can still appreciate fine orchestration at a volume that doesn’t overpower the singers–something I wish the conductor would have acknowledged during the Sunday performance.        

At curtain call, the audience was full of brotherly love, generous in showing their appreciation for the opera students studying their profession and, most especially, for the talented composer who lived and worked in their city. It was a thrilling experience to see the composer of an opera take a bow with the cast and the conductor, and one I won’t soon forget.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, North American Opera, opera firsts, Premieres, Reviews

National Opera Week . . . an Operatoonity pick from PA

"The Scarlet Letter" by Margaret Garwood

The Philadelphia-based Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA),  www.avaopera.org, presents: 

  • Pre-Opera Lecture and Demonstration of The Scarlet Letter
    Ethical Society of Philadelphia
    1906 South Rittenhouse Square
    Philadelphia, PA 19103
    Thursday, November 4 at 5:30 p.m.

A very special Opera Preview of AVA’s upcoming world premiere of The Scarlet Letter. Composer Margaret Garwood and the opera’s cast and creative team will discuss the work and perform excerpts. This event is free and open to the public; no tickets are needed. For more information, visit www.avaopera.org

Read a prolife of composer Margaret Garwood. 

Hear excerpts from Margaret Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter:

1.  “If lost I must be”   Olivia Vote as Hester Prynne 

2.  “Hester, tell them his name”  Olivia Vote as Hester and Sean Arnold as Rev. Dimmesdale 

3.  “Heavenly Father, protect my innocent child”  Olivia Vote as Hester Prynne 

4.  “O God, how long must this suffering go on?”  Zach Borichevsky as Rev. Dimmesdale

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Best of Operatoonity, North American Opera, Premieres